30 April 2009

More on Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan

Global Guerrillas posted an article yesterday, which also concerns American counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan. Seems many people are using Colombia's recent counter-narcotics efforts as a model for effective counter-narcotic/counter-terror operations.

One of the responses in Global Guerrillas wondered why no one had thought about having NATO simply buy out all of the opium. I merely direct them to David Kilcullen's "Accidental Guerilla".

(Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Regarding the Metric System

When America was new, there was something about our character that made us decidedly anti-European. It probably stems from Americans embracing a democracy, and rejecting the monarchies that dominated that continent's politics until the not-so-recent past. But there's a difference between pride in one's country, and being fucking ridiculous.

My fellow Americans, we will not be goose-stepping if we adopt the metric system.

Recently, I was helping a Soldier study for his ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) exam, and was dismayed to discover that the exam placed great emphasis on converting fluid ounces to pints to quarts and then to gallons. The Soldier was thoroughly confused, as was I.

In the 70s, Americans attempted to adopt the metric system, and it failed miserably. To be fair, though, most countries had difficulties adopting the metric system. For example, France has had a particularly tumultuous experience in adopting the metric system, being the country that initially created it. The system was adopted once during the French Revolution, causing much outrage. This led Napoleon, after he came into power, to reject the metric system, and replace it with the much simpler system of 5280 feet to the mile and 16 1/2 feet to the rod. But despite the difficulties, France was able to adopt the metric system. So was every country in the world, save for the US, Burma and Liberia. Quite the company we keep.

I have great pride in the fact that the US is the only country which can send men to the moon, and little rovers to Mars. But we're also the only country in the world which can't seem to keep things in orbit over Mars because, well, we sometimes mix up our metric and Imperial units.

The insanity fully hit me when I did pre-flight yesterday morning. The aviation community is filled with contradictions over metric and imperial systems. Altitude? Measured in feet. Airspeed? Well, that's measured in knots, which are nautical miles per hour--roughly 1.15 miles. Distance to the next waypoint? That's usually measurede in kilometers--1.6 kilometers to the statute mile, and 1.85 km to the nautical mile. Need to set your altimeter in an American aircraft? Well, sea level is 29.92 inches of mercury (inHg), as opposed to 3013 millibars in a European aircraft.

Every pilot has to know the limitations for every single gauge in the aircraft, which are often a strange mix of metric and imperial. Temperatures? Those are always in celcius. Pressures--well, now you're looking at pounds per square inch. You will raise the collective one inch before starting the engines to prevent droop stop pounding, but you will use the cargo hook to pick up howitzers placed fifty meters apart. We talk about targets twenty-five meters away, but we run two miles for our physical fitness test.

Christ, no wonder American kids reportedly keep falling behind Europe and Asia in math...

29 April 2009

It's that time of the year...

It's beginning to look a lot like summer in Iraq. Temperatures are getting close to the high 30s C (in the 90s F), and you can definitely tell it in the aircraft. One of the little peculiarities of the Black Hawk (and most Army helicopters) is that there's no air conditioning in it. Seriously, they paid $8 million for the aircraft and it has no air conditioning.

With the sun beating through the top of the canopy, you get a bit of a magnifying lens effect which makes it that much hotter. It doesn't help either that the "window" is just a little fist-sized ram scoop on each cockpit door, which makes ventilation damn near impossible.

And let's not forget that once you hit the hotter temperatures, it's time to start remembering all those things you practiced in the simulator regarding pressure altitude. You are also reminded of everything you've been told about the fact that it takes more power to hover at hotter temperatures. Otherwise, you might have a little surprise like I did yesterday, when I saw just a little bit of yellow on the torque meter when I came up to a hover.

Flying over Iraq has plenty of boring moments. Not surprisingly, there's quite a bit of flat desert, and even following along on the map presents its difficulties, as most maps simply show vast expanses of varying shades of tan. There's also the occasional smart comment on the map which actually labels a point "sand and rocks". Well, at least if I'm on an evaluation flight, I'll never be lost. I can confidently point to the "sand and rocks" point on the map and claim that that is my true position, GPS be damned.

But not all of Iraq is like this. Indeed, there are a few areas--particularly near the Mesopotamia region of Iraq--where you will see green fields where farmers are growing crops. There had to be some fertile land in Iraq, otherwise people would not have been living here for thousands of years.

Being on a base in the middle of the desert, I miss trees and grass. Typical Army landscaping compounds the desert dilemma by covering the area with nothing but dust, gravel and pavement. Throw in shipping containers, hangars, concrete barriers and sandbags, maybe the occasional trailer or latrine, and you have a depressing sight.

People always wonder why I don't take more pictures of Iraq. Well, when you're on a base that's far from an urban area, you really don't have anything interesting to take pictures of, unless you find your local construction zone interesting.

But some bases actually have quite a few trees, a welcome sight, and one I stared at for more than a few minutes. I even marveled at the fact that there were areas where grass was growing, and the occasional flower was blooming. At one base, I could even see wheat growing on the ground. My base was so desolate that even weeds were rare. I almost cringed every time I saw a Soldier pull weeds and grass out of the ground during cleaning details.

So please, don't have Soldiers pull weeds--it's almost a morale booster to have weeds in the first place. Plus, according to the Iraqi nationals, some of the weeds are actually edible. Or, maybe they're playing an elaborate practical joke, who knows.

Afghanistan Update

A number of links today, courtesy of Abu Muqawama. The majority of these concern NATO's new offensive, attempting to cut the Taliban off from their opium, and thus, their funding.

We've talked about the difficulties of counter-narcotics missions in Third World countries--namely, that farmers are often not only intimidated into growing narcotics by terror networks (e.g., the FARC or the Taliban), and that farmers often resort to growing narcotics as it's the only viable cash crop that they can grow.

Abu Muqawama's readers weighed in on NATO's recent campaign. Fortunately, NATO is not waging an all-out eradication effort--similar efforts in Colombia have actually been counter-productive. When you attempt to burn something that reportedly makes up 60% of a country's GDP, you tend to alienate the population just a tad. Instead, NATO forces are attempting to root out Taliban forces (excellent NYT article) in the poppy fields and establish programs similiar to farm subsidies in the US. The local government will provide subsidies for farmers attempting to grow legitimate crops like wheat.

Another interesting Afghanistan update comes from Captain Carl Thompson, who wrote a piece entitled "Winning in Afghanistan". There's too much great stuff in this article to quote directly, but a lot of it deals with the corruption in the Afghan military and police. Some of it is outright laughable, until you realize that it's our tax money at work. Then again, it doesn't really surprise me that much.

(What that last link from Jason Sigger taught me is that if you lose one rifle, you and your entire battalion will play "hands across Fort Bragg", looking for the rifle for hours on end. You lose 100,000 rifles, eh, that's a statistic)

Curse You, Zenpundit!

This morning I posted an entry on blocked websites. I looked through my RSS Reader and noticed that Zenpundit published something almost the exact same thing three hours earlier. So, yeah, curse Zenpundit for thinking of something three hours earlier than I did. (Seriously, though, good post).

28 April 2009

Gentlemen, Start Your Proxy Servers!

William S. Lind, one of John Boyd's key acolytes, and one of the key architects of maneuver warfare theory and 4th generation warfare theory posted a recent article at Defense and the National Interest regarding the recent ban on viewing a number of milblogs from government computers.

Dr. Richards brings up an interesting story about the benefits of open-source intelligence:

At the height of the Cold War, a U.S. army corps commander in Europe asked for information on his Soviet opposite, the commander of the corps facing him across the inter-German border. All the U.S. intelligence agencies, working with classified material, came up with very little. He then took his question to Chris Donnelly, who had a small Soviet military research institute at Sandhurst. That institute worked solely from open source, i.e. unclassified material. It sent the American general a stack of reports six inches high, with articles by his Soviet counterpart, articles about him, descriptions of exercises he had played in, etc.

What was true during the Cold War is even more true now, in the face of Fourth Generation war. As we have witnessed in the hunt for Osama, our satellite-photo-addicted intel shops can’t tell us much. But there is a vast amount of 4GW material available open-source: websites by and about our opponents, works by civilian academics, material from think-tanks, reports from businessmen who travel in areas we are interested in - the pile is almost bottomless. Every American soldier with access to a computer can find almost anything he needs. Much of it is both more accurate and more useful than what filters down through the military intelligence chain.

Or at least he could. In recent months, more and more American officers have told me that when they attempt to access the websites they need, they find access is blocked on DOD computers.

I encounter the dreaded "You've been caught" screen dozens of times each day. I'm surprised I haven't been shut down by this point, to be perfectly honest. The ban on websites obviously has some practical application--I doubt the military could handle the bandwidth of thousands of Soldiers surfing Youtube all day, and obviously, you need to block out the kiddie porn and whatnot.

But there's many legitimate sites the military blocks: The Captain's Journal, Zenpundit, Sic Semper Tyrannis, Armchair Generalist, War is Boring, Icanhascheezburger. Want to translate an Arabic language newspaper into English? Hope you're not used to using Google Translator, as that will get you shut down in no time flat. Even some of the US State Department's official blogs are blocked, simply because they use the word "blog" in the URL. And I probably won't be able to read General Ray Odierno's interesting comments on the Iraq War on Facebook while on a government computer, either.

Many of these sites provide not only good open-source intelligence, but they also provide interesting analysis of military and defense policy, as well as key news stories and analysis that I sometimes get before the military reports on it.

While I have to admit, the Army has come a long way in acknowledging the New Media as a source for professional discussion, information sharing, and news updates, there are many who still continue to fear it, and I believe that it's largely out of ignorance. I've literally heard an instructor at a professional military course claim that posting a picture of yourself in uniform on "The Myspace" was going to lose the war in Iraq. Indeed, while there's certainly a number of issues raised with operational security, the benefits of sharing information with the world far exceeds the risk.

After all, our enemies certainly use the Internet.

Focus: We've discussed this before--the list of sites banned by your workplace's proxy server. Honestly, I can't think of a new angle.

27 April 2009

South Park and Piracy

Everyone's favorite political satire cartoon has just now taken on the Somalian piracy issue in an episode entitled "Fatbeard". I need to download this.

Very Clever, Small Wars Journal

I've been reading Small Wars Journal's daily update for about two years. Dave Dilegge spends the entire day, as far as I can tell, collecting a number of articles for my reading pleasure.

He usually groups the articles by region or by event. For example, the first few stories would be about Iraq, then about Afghanistan, maybe Latin America, etc.

Only today, things were a little different. Take a look at the daily update and let me know if you see it.

Give up?

Now the stories from Afghanistan are listed before the ones from Iraq. Well played, Dave.

And here's to Abu Muqawama for an interesting Afghanistan/Pakistan piece.

Who joins the Army

Sic Semper Tyrannis posted some great links to the Heritage Foundation's study on demographics among soldiers in the US Army.

One of the biggest faux pas committed by Senator John Kerry was his infamous "Stuck in Iraq" remark, in which he insinuated that those who were in college were those with opportunities, whereas those in the military were those who couldn't make it into college, and thus, had few opportunities in life. It's a stereotypical viewpoint which most Americans can trace back to the Vietnam War and the draft system (although some researchers refute the "only the poor died" claim). It even popped up during the 2008 Presidential Debate at Columbia University, when one participant brought up the stereotypical demographic makeup.

Regardless of whether or not it actually is true, enough people believed it. Remember the movie Stripes? Bill Murray wound up in the Army after he lost his job, his apartment, and his girlfriend in the span of an hour.

The Heritage Foundation published some statistics that were quoted by Sic Semper Tyrannis recently. I'll be the first to caveat this by noting that the research methodology is not foolproof, so judge the data for yourself.

Assuming the data is accurate, the study by the Heriatage Foundation lays many of the myths to rest and notes that the US military is not manned primarily by minorities and the poor, but rather is more representative of the US population (save for in a few areas) in terms of race, coming from more affluent homes, and with higher education levels than the general US population. Keep in mind that this data comes from 2006 and 2007, when recruiting was supposedly at its nadir. Some highlights:

Members of the all-volunteer military are sig­nificantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 per­cent came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) pro­gram, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods—a number that has increased substantially over the past four years.

While 3.4 percent of neighborhoods nation­wide have median earnings above $100,000, 9.5 percent of ROTC com­missions and 21.1 percent of USMA graduates come from these high-income neighborhoods. Most of the men and women who risk their lives serving as U.S. military officers proba­bly could have earned high salaries if they had chosen civilian careers.

Contrary to popular perceptions, America’s enlisted troops are not poorly educated. Previous Heritage Foundation studies found that enlisted troops were significantly more likely to have a high school education than their peers. This is still the case. Only 1.4 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 had not graduated from high school or completed a high school equivalency degree, com­pared to 20.8 percent of men ages 18 to 24. Amer­ica’s soldiers are less likely than civilians to be high school dropouts.

More evidence of the quality of America’s enlisted forces comes from the standardized Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) that the military administers to all recruits. Over two-thirds of enlisted recruits scored above the 50th percentile on the AFQT. The military tightly restricts how many recruits it accepts with scores below the 30th percentile, and only 2.3 percent of recruits in 2007 scored between the 21st and 30th percentiles.

The education and intelligence levels are a big one, particularly for the types of wars we now face. Soldiers are now expected to employ sophisticated computer systems, learn basic Arabic or Pashtu, and engage in conflicts far more tricky than stopping the Soviet Red Horde.

Some surprising results (I'll save you the cut-and-paste): The Heritage study found that Hispanics were under-represented. That was one that I didn't expect. But then again, I worked in a Latin American task force, where we had more Spanish speakers, so maybe my perception is somewhat skewed.

Still, we hear much of how troop quality declined in the past few years, with evidence of more recruits with felonies being the most oft-cited statistic. This is one of those cases where I'd love to have the time and look at the evidence in detail, but unfortunately, all the evidence I have is anecdotal. As a commander, I did have one Soldier who was an outright felon, and he rightly got kicked out of the military--then again, virtually every commander has had to do that, so I wouldn't chalk that up as a harbinger of things to come just yet.

One thing that I do recall as somewhat disturbing was the fact that I had to sign a number of waivers for privates to drive HMMWVs, as a few of them were coming out of basic training with suspended or revoked licences.

The only big thing that I see in terms of recruit quality is the lowering of standards in basic training for physical fitness--recruits are only expected to get a certain score on their physical fitness tests (below the minimums) before being sent to their units. With Soldiers arriving to units either about to deploy or already deployed, there's very little time to actually conduct physical training with them. Of course, walking around in 120F heat always does good things for a weight loss program.

Then again, let's not be too harsh on them. All of these recruits actively joined a military engaged in two wars. While some of them may be a few pounds overweight, Generation Y Soldiers have shown a distinct knack for computer skills, and bring a high degree of inginuity to the fight. Most that I've seen come from backgrounds where they could have done something else besides be in the Army--they actively gave up their youth to be in the military.

For all the complaining one might do about declining weight standards, don't forget that these Soldiers are volunteering to serve their country in war again and again.

Focus: Okay, without this turning into a "these kids these days" session, what have you noticed in terms of Soldier quality? Decreased in some areas, improved in other areas?

Tikrit, Iraq

A 100% accurate documentary from Tikrit, Iraq.

I'd been waiting for someone to make this joke

The guys at XKCD have got it.

26 April 2009

Top 2% of deviant minds...

So I get this e-mail, which was forwarded to about 50 people. The e-mail included a game called "Smack Your Boss", which is kind of amusing. Turns out that I have amassed quite a reputation for being a deviant and warped mind. Maybe that can be turned into a positive bullet when my evaluation comes out, who knows...

THIS...is the kind of stuff my little NCO on the [Operations Center] floor finds while he's on nights [night shift]...I'm sure most of you will find it amusing rather than revolting and disturbing as I found it...especially YOU [Starbuck]!...you'll probably pee your pants in delight...some kids just have too much time on their hands.

Holding your breath...

While it's true that the the US military has greatly improved security all over Iraq, there are always those cities you look at, which cause you to hold your breath. Baghdad, with its Shia-dominated suburb, Sadr City is one. Mosul, in the northern portion of the country, is another one.

But there's one city that really has me biting my nails. It's the city of Kirkuk, not too far north of Tikrit. During Saddam Hussein's reign, many Sunni Arabs flooded the city, displacing the large number of Kurds who lived there. After the 2003 invasion, many Kurds returned to the city in an attempt to re-claim their homes. Well, that, and to capitalize on the massive amount of oil buried under Kirkuk.

The conflict over the city represents one of the many issues that the invasion of this fractured society caused. Namely, that there are winners and losers in this war. The Kurds definitely gained from the Iraq War. A flight over Kurdistan--yes, I flat-out refer to it as Kurdistan--is always a special treat. Much of Iraq is flat, barren desert, interrupted only in the Mesopotamia region, where you begin to see the palm groves and fields where men and women have been planting crops for thousands of years. Kurdistan is different. It features verdant hills and mountains.

Kurdish provinces where among the first to function autonomously, without American military assistance. Indeed, most American Soldiers remark that they frequently walk about Kurdistan without their body armour, unlike most other regions of Iraq. In fact, I've even heard of some interesting restaurants in Kurdistan to visit, and I hear that the hotel in Irbil (or Arbil, depending on the Romanization), the Kurdish capital, is a must-see. Kurdistan even has two international airports, one in Irbil, and the other in Sulamaniya. This is a far cry away from where the Kurds were under Saddam's regime, where they were frequently the targets of a number of massacres.

Contrast this with Iraq's Sunni population. Although they make up a minority of the population in Iraq, they constituted the dominant power under Saddam Hussein's regime. The Sunni areas received the bulk of the money during Saddam's regime, with massive presidential palaces throughout these areas, especially in Saddam's former home town of Tikrit.

However, the 2003 invasion tipped the balance of power. With the Shia now the dominant power in Iraq, and the Kurds enjoying a fair degree of autonomy in the north, many Sunni groups have lost out.

One of the key issues brought up in around 2006 or so was the issue of a de juro partition of Iraq (as opposed to the de facto partition which one might argue that Kurdistan enjoys). While a complete partition of Iraq sounds like a good idea initially, there is one key snag--the once-dominant Sunni would be relegated to areas of Iraq which have little oil revenue to speak of. Much of the oil comes from the southern portion of Iraq, which is Shia, with pockets located throughout the country--one of the largest being in Kirkuk.

One of those remaining pockets is in Kirkuk, a city that the Sunni also feel as if they have lost out on, particularly with the Kurds moving back in. It's a city where violence has decreased during the Surge, most certainly, but nowhere nearly as dramatically as in Baghdad.

In a case of life imitating art (in this case Dante's Inferno, perhaps), there's a sulfur plant just on the outskirts of Kirkuk, spewing forth pungent smoke and brimstone, with nearby oil rigs topped with tongues of fire. There really are some things you can't make up.

The city itself, however, isn't the walled citadel of Dis that that image might initially conjure, but quite a bustling city. I had the opportunity to examine the city from the ground level and observed everyday Iraqis going about their daily business, with little white cars darting back and forth along one of the many roads throughout the city. Looking at the sights and hearing the sounds of an actual metropolitan area was a relief after beeing sequestered on forward operating bases. But Kirkuk is still very dangerous--bombings are still an all-too-regular occurance.

For now, Kirkuk is one of many six-hundred pound gorillas in the room. What to do with the oil? As of yet, there appears to be no definitive agreement for any sort of sharing plan. Time is quickly running out, particularly with the imminent drawdown giving sectarian groups time and breathing room, once again, to resume violence.

Time to hold your breath with Kirkuk...

A War on Two Fronts

When I was in Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, I got to do a number of interesting missions--airborne operations with nieghboring Latin American militaries, humanitarian relief missions, and security force training.

We also did some interesting training for potential personnel recovery missions in the jungles of Central America. The dense jungle and lack of appropriate landing zones made it necessary to train on the Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction System, or SPIES. Now, I've made one or two not so bright decisions in my life, to be certain. I won't go into details, but I will say that one of those times included a few nurses, a Black Hawk helicopter, and a SPIES harness. Oh, and a bit of a disregard for safety. This, of course, led to a number of important lessons about safety that day. Fortunately, nothing was hurt. Well, save for my pride, but that recovers quickly enough. The Task Force Commander had me at the position of parade rest during that event. Some jackass took the time to snag a picture of it, too, which I wound up hanging in my office. (I even used it as my Facebook profile picture for a little while, too)

The Task Force Commander that gave me quite the thorough lesson was none other than Colonel Christopher Hughes, who just recently published a book entitled "A War on Two Fronts", which received the Army Historical Foundation's Distinguished Writing Award for Excellence last year. Colonel Hughes is an officer cut from the Petraeus mold, advocating higher education, innovation and cultural awareness from officers. I've put the book on order from Amazon (I'll probably get it in two weeks), but the description of the book on Amazon states that Colonel Hughes persuaded some of the Army's professional military courses to adopt counter-insurgency doctrine for their classes. Unfortunately, as I discovered in 2007, not all Army courses had followed suit.

So here's to what looks like an interesting read. Unfortunately, it's not available on the Amazon Kindle, which means that I will have to add it to my ever-growing bookshelf here.

25 April 2009

Military term of the day: LGOP

Well, with another sandstorm blocking us in for most of the day, it was time for another philosophical discussion. Today, everyone's favorite 82nd Airborne Division Alumnus (me), discussed the concept of "Little Groups of Paratroops", or LGOPs.

During the Normandy Invasion, German Soldiers were stymied by the tactics of the American paratroopers. The paratroopers appeared to be everywhere, striking from all directions--their ultimate objective and strategy absolutely baffled the Germans, who attempted to make sense of the American tactics.

Anyone who's ever been on a parachute jump will realize what really happened. The American transports, driven in all directions by flak and night-time navigation, dropped their paratroopers all over the French countryside. Most of the paratroopers were miles from their intended drop zones. The Americans began to slowly merge into small groups and started attacking German positions wherever they saw them. The Germans had every reason to be confused--the Americans were just as confused and disordered as they were.

We talk a lot in the military about unity of command and effort--noting that the lack of synchronization between forces often led to defeat. But the extreme opposite can often be effective as well, as shown by the LGOPs in France. Their small size and disorder proved absolutely baffling to the German forces, just as small insurgent and terror networks also seem to US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In a very real sense, maximum disorder was our equilibrium"--Thomas Edward Lawrence, referring to the propensity of numerous Bedouin tribes to attack the Ottoman Turks, with little regard to any unity of effort. The Turks could never discern a pattern to the attacks--largely because there was none.

This part got left out of Seven Pillars of Wisdom...

Today is ANZAC Day--a day in which we celebrate the achievements of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, specifically those during the Battle of Gallipoli during World War One. It is worth noting some interesting trivia about the battle. Well, Wikipedia facts:

Later in November 1914, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill put forward his first plans for a naval attack on the Dardanelles, based at least in part on what turned out to be erroneous reports regarding Turkish troop strength, as prepared by Lieutenant...

Okay, blame the intelligence lieutenant. It would really be a shame if this lieutenant's name went down in history as the lieutenant who gave Churchill bad intelligence regarding the Gallipoli landing. There is absolutely nothing a lieutenant could do to redeem himself from that.

...Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence.

Okay, maybe some people actually can make up for their mistakes.

Myspace losers are becoming extinct

Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of millions of Facebookers, Myspace is gradually being snuffed out as a social networking site.

Myspace and Facebook catered to two different crowds. Facebook, with its emphasis on using one's real name and initially opening itself to those with .edu accounts, appealed mainly to the upper-middle class. I stuck with Facebook for the longest time, shunning any contact with Myspace.

Myspace was generally used by those, well, not in that demographic. Parusing through Myspace pages reveals New Jersey douchebags, rednecks, pedophiles, and the infamous Myspace attention whores. It never ceased to amaze me how many people on Myspace could not even spell the city or state in which they resided (e.g., "Fort Brag", and "Tenesee").

When I finally sold out and got a Myspace profile to connect with some people I knew that were Myspacers, I put a little IP tracker in my profile--obviously with the intent of seeing which ladies were checking me out. I was stationed in Soto Cano, Honduras at the time--the US' only base in Latin America. It shouldn't have surprised me that I was getting a lot of hits from "women" who wanted to meet me...from Venezuela. Yeah, Hugo Chavez Venezuela. That's when I stopped using Myspace.

Myspace was also not fully plugged into the Web 2.0 format. Whereas Facebook had, early on, allowed Blackberry users to stay connected to Facebook from their devices, Myspace was slow to adopt this feature.

Its appeal to the upper-middle class and its growing popularity was not lost on the US military, with General Ray Odierno (commander of US forces in Iraq) posting regular updates on his activities in Iraq via Facebook. Yeah, he and I are now Facebook buddies. (Hey, General Odierno, join the NC State network, Mr. Wolfpack Alumnus 1988)

Yes, Facebookers have General Odierno. Myspace users have...Erin Dupree, the Myspace hooker who was involved with the NY Governor last year. Take your pick.

24 April 2009

Proof, I require

Last week, General David Petraeus published an article advocating higher education for military officers, saying “the most powerful tool any Soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind”.

And yesterday, I picked up a copy of the first four episodes of Star Wars: Clone Wars at the local post exchange. The first episode featured the Jedi Master Yoda and a handful of clones fighting a guerrilla war against a battalion of battle droids. Yoda and the clones go into hiding, where the aged Jedi Master gives them some words of advice.

“Concerned about weapons, you are. Weapons do not win battles. Your mind, powerful it is. Out-think the droids, you can.”


Does anyone actually have evidence of General Petraeus actually attending Princeton? How do we know he didn’t just go to Dagobah for two years?


And today perfectly sums up the point of yesterday's post. Christ, I hate posting timely topics.

At Least 140 Dead in Two Days of Bombings

Violence levels in Iraq are still among the lowest since the war in 2003, but in the past month concern has grown that insurgents are trying to regroup and step up their fight to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal.

Many Iraqis say they fear their own security forces will be unable to keep the lid on violence after the U.S. withdrawal. Many Iraqis say violence has increased since the U.S. stepped up efforts to empty its detention facilities, turning some detainees over to the Iraqi government and allowing hundreds of others to go free.

Others have tied the violence to the U.S. turning over control of the Awakening to the Iraqi government. The approximately 100,000 members of neighborhood Sunni militias who turned against the insurgency to side with the U.S. are widely credited with helping tamp down violence in Iraq, but in recent months tensions have mounted due to the Iraqi government's failure to pay salaries on time and the arrests of prominent Awakening leaders.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have blamed a variety of factors for the increase in violence. Insurgents may be trying to marshal what is left of their forces and resources to escalate attacks ahead of the U.S. deadline to pull out of Iraqi cities, which would allow them to claim they drove the U.S. forces out. Insurgents may also be an attempt to influence coming parliament elections this December, by making Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government look weak, ineffectual, and unable to keep the peace.

It's too early to tell what the pattern is at this point. With US forces withdrawing from the cities, it could be likely that this gives terrorist networks room to repeat the Samarra strategy (it certainly has its modus operandi) that we talked about yesterday. One American officer offers some flippant (but probably true) advice, noting that there's usually a spike in violence in March and April.

It's also worth noting that, compared to Iraq pre-surge, this is actually mild, believe it or not.

Iraq is fragile, to be certain, and I have my fears about their society's ability to weather Black Swan events.

23 April 2009

The Game of Jenga Begins...

Every now and then I get a chance to fly to the city of Samarra, along the Tigris River. Flying into Samarra is always a special treat, allowing us the opportunity to skim just a few feet over the same waters that gave birth to human civilization. The city is ringed by ancient ruins, most dating back to the Abbasid period, during which the Mesopotamian region—and Baghdad in particular—represented the pinnacle of human achievement. When London was a mere village, and the Americas were largely uninhabited, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates river produced splendid cities and magnificent universities.

One of the greatest jewels in the crown of the Abbasid Empire was the city of Samarra, which literally means “a joy for all who see” in Arabic. Chief among the wonderful sights in this city is a beautiful spiral minaret in the northern portion of the city, flanked by a mosque with a golden dome—the al-Askari Mosque, which contains two smaller golden minarets. This mosque contains the mausoleums of the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams, and is one of the holiest Shia sites. It was recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

However, a tragedy struck the city of Samarra. In February of 2006, bombers linked to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) overpowered the guards in the mosque, and set off tremendous bombs, destroying two of the golden minarets, and collapsing the golden dome in the mosque. By al Qaeda in Iraq’s design, the attack was meant to set off a wave of repercussions, as the dominant Shia forces sought retaliation against the Sunnis, whom they largely blamed for the attacks. This sparked a cycle of violence which resulted in further instability in the region, and contributed to the violence which nearly crippled the Coalition’s war effort.

We throw around words “terrorist” and “insurgent” quite a bit. Earlier in the war, Soldiers were often frustrated and confused as to why the military would switch between the two terms in describing the conflict in Iraq. But there is actually an important difference.

Insurgents can be enemies, no doubt about it, but they’re understandable. They want to take control of a country’s government for their own purposes. Terrorists are something completely different. They may have an ideology, but they want no part in government itself. They simply seek to sow chaos and confusion.

In 2008, his was summed up by a line from the character Alfred from the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight:

Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn

But, following the Surge of 2007, US and Iraqi forces have been able to restore a modest measure of security to the region, particularly in Samarra. Indeed, recently, as I flew over Samarra, I couldn’t help but notice that cranes were scattered about the remnants of the golden minarets, and tiny construction crews scurried about, attempting to rebuild the shattered golden dome. The February pilgrimage to Samarra went off with relatively few hitches.

The US basically fought a number of wars simultaneously in Iraq—a war against insurgents, a war against terrorist groups, and a war to prevent ethnic violence. By 2009, the US and Iraq had basically knocked out two legs of this deadly pyramid—insurgency and terrorism—but the potential for sectarian conflict still remains, and it casts a large shadow over much of the progress in Iraq.

Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq dates back at least eight hundred years to the Mongol sack of Baghdad. At that time, Baghdad was the most advanced city in the entire world. However, the Mongols, during their expansionary period, approached Baghdad and offered the Caliph—a Sunni—the choice of paying tribute or having his city destroyed. The Caliph of Baghdad felt that his own army was far more powerful than that of the Mongols, and refused to pay tribute. However, one of the Caliph’s ministers, a Shia, gave the Mongols the plans to the city, in the hopes that the Mongols would re-instate him as the new ruler.

The Mongols laid waste to the city, inflicting damage from which, some experts (i.e., Hodgson in The Venture of Islam) claim that Baghdad never recovered from. The Mongols captured the Caliph and, respecting the custom of not allowing royal blood to be spilled on the ground, rolled the Caliph in a carpet and trampled his body to death with their horses. The Mongols smashed the local irrigation systems, which went hundreds of years without being repaired. The Sack of Baghdad only added to the fury in Sunni and Shia relations.

The Surge was never meant to be a final solution to Iraq. For everything it accomplished in the realm of security, it can not change many of the fundamental issues of Iraq’s segmented society. The Surge was only meant to buy time for a political deal to occur between all parties. With economic turmoil at home and a military stretched to the breaking point, the US is going to have to leave the Iraqi people to make the key decisions about issues like which ethnic group will dominate the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The million-dollar question is: Are the power brokers in Iraq up to the challenge? It looks as if we’ll find out as we begin to play a high-stakes game of “Jenga” this summer as the US begins slowly withdrawing from the cities.