31 October 2009

Your annual Halloween Spook-tacular

Greatest Halloween Prank Ever:

On Language

(H/T Wired's Danger Room and Reach 364)

Earlier this week, I came across a press release which expressed great admiration for a US Air Force major who became fluent in Pashto, one of the native languages of Afghanistan. While I certainly applaud this man's achievement, Wired.com hit the nail on the head--this shouldn't be breaking news. We should have hundreds of service men and women fluent in Pashto. Instead, we rely on contractors, tapping into a pool of roughly 7,000 Pashto speakers in the US, not all of whom actually speak the language fluently enough to comverse with locals, and even fewer that are in the right physical shape to accompany Soldiers and Marines through treks up and down the mountains in full body armor.

A few years ago, then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who was the commander of the US Army Combined Arms Center, made the following observation in an interview with Nathan Hodge: during the Cold War, when Soldiers were assigned to Germany and Italy in large numbers (some hardship tour that was!), Soldiers went through a mandatory 1-3 week introductory course in the local language--learning just enough to get by, get directions, and generally engage in some degree of public diplomacy with the locals.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that being assigned in a foreign country gives you great language immersion training, but not from the 1-3 week introductory course. Indeed, in order to motivate men to do anything, you need to appeal to the basics--throw them into the local environment and force them to eat, drink beer, and try to hook up with the local chicks, and they'll be fluent within a few months. Guaranteed. If you want to learn even more quickly, get wild and drunk and try to talk your way out of trouble with the authorities (but this is an awesome story for a later time).

Now, granted, the "long-haired dictionary" approach won't work in Afghanistan, but better language immersion training will help. Prior to deployment, all troops get a one-hour class in Arabic or Pashto, which is hardly enough to stay fresh and current in the local language--it's "check the block" training.

Reach 364 had some interesting ideas, such as suggesting that AFN nix many of the awful PSAs (seriously, the Army needs to tell us not to rape women?!) and replace them with language tips--even if it only teaches us the basics of "hello" and "good-bye". He also recommends putting all of the Defense Language Institute's Curriculum online so that it is accessible to all. I thought the military had been doing this with Rosetta Stone software, but more accessible language training will always be appreciated.

The best holiday of the year...

Forget Christmas, Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year. Why, you ask?

I'm just waiting for a girl to show up with a sexy reflector belt costume.

Congratulatons are in order...

Tom Ricks' The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq 2006-2008 is #11 on Omnivoracious' Top 100 Books of 2009.

30 October 2009

Troops strike back at reflector belts

Today, Wired.com ran an article which highlighted a new group on Facebook entitled "I Hate Reflector Belts", which has amassed nearly 4,000 fans so far from nearly every branch of the Armed Forces.

For those of you who don't know, reflector belts are worn by US personnel on bases all over the world at night--even in combat environments--in order to ensure that large trucks do not run over the camouflage-clad troops.

It is the ultimate in nanny-state-ism.

It's prompted quite a bit of parody and satire, to include the infamous PowerPoint presentation, "Reflector Belts Throughout History", which deduces that Confederate General Stonewall Jackson might not have been shot by his own troops had he been wearing a reflector belt. I've posted extensively on the reflector belt, noting the various colors and styles of reflector belts--to include pink belts for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I was going to make the point that reflector belts are not worn during combat missions, until I realized that one time, I removed my body armor and flight gear, and realized that I still had my reflector belt on, due to the fact that I pre-flighted the Black Hawk during the early morning darkness. Great.

So here's to the reflector belt and amusing reflector belt stories. I'm sure you all have them...

(If anyone knows how to rotate video, I'd greatly appreciate it)

Is Yemen the new Afghanistan?

An al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is gaining ground in Yemen. It's certainly a disturbing trend, and it this confounds our counter-terror efforts in Afghanistan. What should we do in Afghanistan if Yemen becomes the new world center for violent extremism?

From the Wall Street Journal:

The homeland of Osama bin Laden's father, Yemen has long been a top U.S. security concern. For years, al Qaeda militants -- including at least one Saudi released from U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- have taken refuge here. One complication surrounding the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo is what to do with the nearly 100 Yemeni detainees there. U.S. intelligence officials say they have little confidence in the Yemeni government's ability to keep them in prison back in their home country.

Since the 2000 al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, U.S. officials have reported mixed results from the Yemeni government in the fight against terrorism. President Ali Abdullah Saleh established a rehabilitation program for jailed Islamic militants, but hasn't curbed the growing network of al Qaeda fighters who have flocked to lawless parts of Yemen and are using the country as a launching pad for attacks.

The new offensive comes as al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, as the local branch of the militant group is called, appears to be gaining strength. An Arab intelligence official says that al Qaeda fighters fled to Yemen this summer from Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the movement has suffered military setbacks in recent months.

While the number of fighters retreating to Yemen is unknown, the movement is worrying Yemen's Arab and African neighbors. Recently, al Qaeda announced the merging of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of the organization in Yemen after a crackdown by Saudi authorities.

A Saudi militant, traveling from an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen, injured Saudi Arabia's deputy interior minister in a failed suicide-bombing attack last month.

In 2008, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for two suicide-bomb attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, in which 16 Yemenis were killed. This year, the group claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four Korean tourists and two of their Yemeni security guards.

Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen are also aiding Islamic rebels trying to topple the Somali government, according to U.N. officials in Somalia and Yemen. Al Shabab, the Somali insurgency group that U.S. officials view as an al Qaeda proxy in East Africa, restocks with fighters and weapons through Yemeni smugglers working the narrow Red Sea passage between the two countries, these officials said.

Your COIN of the day

A while back, I was talking with another captain who was frustrated at the military's emphasis on counter-insurgency and "soft power". Much like Ralph Peters, he felt that we shouldn't deal with insurgencies by protecting the population, playing by "rules", maintaining the moral high ground, delivering services, and the like. Rather, he felt that "shock and awe" was the best way to deal with an insurgency. In his opinion, brutality would serve as an effective deterrent against insurgent activity.

"After all", he said, "look at Russia and Chechnya"

From the Washington Post:

The details emerged between sobs: the arrival of the security forces earlier in the day, her husband's panicked attempt to flee, the gunfire that erupted without warning. He was a law student, barely 20 and "so beautiful," she said, but the soldiers planted a rifle next to his body and called him an Islamist rebel. Then they took everything of value -- the family's savings, a set of dishes, even baby clothes, she said.

Such heavy-handed tactics by the Russian security forces have helped transform the long-running separatist rebellion in Chechnya, east of Ingushetia, into something potentially worse: a radical Muslim insurgency that has spread across the region, draws support from various ethnic groups and appears to be gaining strength.

Moscow declared an end to military operations in Chechnya in April, a decade after then-President Vladimir Putin sent troops into the breakaway republic. But violence has surged in the mountains of Russia's southwest frontier since then, with the assassination of several officials, explosions and shootouts occurring almost daily, and suicide bombings making a comeback after a long lull. On Sunday, a popular Ingush opposition leader was fatally shot, months after the slaying of Chechnya's most prominent human rights activist...

...Russia has long blamed violence in the region on Muslim extremists backed by foreign governments and terrorist networks, but radical Islam is relatively new here. In the 1990s, it was ethnic nationalism, not religious fervor, that motivated Chechen separatists. That changed, though, as fighting spilled beyond Chechnya and Russian forces used harsher tactics targeting devout Muslims.

In 2007, the rebel leader Doku Umarov abandoned the goal of Chechen independence and declared jihad instead, vowing to establish a fundamentalist Caucasus Emirate that would span the entire region. After Moscow proclaimed victory in Chechnya in April, he issued a video labeling civilians legitimate targets and reviving Riyad-us Saliheen, the self-described martyrs' brigade that launched terrorist attacks across Russia from 2002 to 2006.

29 October 2009

Above all, be realistic

One of the things that struck me from reading Seth Jones' "In the Graveyard of Empires" was exactly how tumultuous Afghanistan's history was. I always knew it was bad--after all, the first Anglo-Afghan War left only one British survivor--but I began to grow increasingly skeptical of those who talked about Afghanistan's stable periods. Indeed, Afghanistan, when left to its own devices, has a tendency to eliminate its own leadership periodically.

A Newsweek article from two weeks ago painted a picture of Afghanistan that was perfectly stable until the Soviet invasion, but this is completely false. It was Afghanistan's instability and successive coups which prompted the Soviets to invade in the first place. The most oft-quoted period of stability occurred from the early 1930s to the early 1970s, when a number of reforms led to a democratic state, which even gave women the right to vote. Nevertheless, it was mired by corruption and economic strife (sound familiar), and ended in a coup in 1973.

If we are going to set up a government in Afghanistan, let's not pretend it will be a perfect democracy. This is not what they want, nor what they will recognize. It should simply be able to deliver justice, police its own people, provide security, and be able to provide basic services (water, food, schools, electricity). It may not even be a democracy as we know it at all. This is perhaps the best "success" we can hope for in Afghanistan.

Donate to Soldiers' Angels Valour IT!

Soldiers' Angels is a great charity organization which sends care packages to troops stationed abroad, as well as special packages to those wounded in the major hospitals in Iraq, Afghanistan and Landstuhl, Germany.

From now until Veteran's Day (11 November), Soldier's Angels will be holding the Valour IT project, a sort of friendly competition among the various milbloggers to raise money for this organization. The milbloggers are organized into teams falling along service lines (with Greyhawk supporting the US Air Force and Karaka Pend supporting the US Navy). All money goes to the same pot, so there really is no preferential treatment--just some friendly inter-service competition.

In order to raise money for this cause, I have noted that sex sells. In response, I will be accosting the young ladies tonight and soliciting them for money for this organization. With pics. Yeah, suck it, USNI Blog! (Just kidding, I love you guys)

28 October 2009

Links of the Day

Today's Link of the Day roundup:

Update on this week's crashes

The three aircraft destroyed this week in Afghanistan included a CH-47F Chinook from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), as well as a UH-1Y Huey and AH-1Z Cobra from the US Marine Corps which collided in a separate incident. As of now, no enemy involvement is suspected in either of the two incidents. My condolences go out to the families of the victims in these crashes.

In related news, armyaircrews.com has begun to release the names of those killed in the Chinook crash. This appears to have been the third Class-A accident (one which results in either a destroyed aircraft, over $1 million worth of damages, or a fatality) for the 160th SOAR in the past two months, after an MH-60 crashed near Mt. Massive in Colorado in August, and another MH-60 crashed during a training mission on the USNS Arctic last week (ArmyAirCrews reports).

Update: Since the Chinook is a 160th aircraft, it's correctly an MH-47 Chinook, not a CH-47 Chinook.

Additionally, Wired's Danger Room reports that a dusty landing zone and night vision goggle conditions contributed to the accident. During takeoffs from dusty or snowy landing zones--particularly when conducted under night vision goggle conditions--aviators are nearly blind until they can climb above the dust cloud and transition to forward flight.

Afghanistan's mountains--with their high altitude, high temperatures, unpredictable weather conditions and, of course, Taliban--are often referred to as the "graduate work" of aviation.

27 October 2009

Thanks for stealing my snide mockery...

Well, Jason Sigger at Armchair Generalist beat me to the punch. Yesterday, I received an e-mail in reference to a conference last Friday in Slovakia, where several NATO defense ministers endorsed General Stanley McChrystal's new counterinsurgency plan. This plan would call for up to 44,000 additional troops in Afghanistan.

The e-mail said something to the effect of "looks like full-blown COIN in Afghanistan".

Uh, not really.

Pop quiz: which NATO contingent is volunteering to extend the war past 2011? Canada and the Netherlands are withdrawing their troops. The Germans and Italians still haven't even admitted that there's a war in Afghanistan. There's a few countries that may volunteer to send more troops, but the vast majority of that 44,000 will have to come from the United States.

Not to knock the NATO participants who might send more troops, but this sounds a lot like the "good idea fairy". Certainly, pumping more troops and money into Afghanistan sounds like a great idea---as long as someone else does it.

Okay, since everyone's doing it...

In the next few days, I'm going to have my own comprehensive Afghanistan strategy. I mean, everyone else is doing it. But that will come in a few days. For now, I'm just sitting and sleeping on the floor, since the movers have not arrived at my apartment with my household goods. But I do have wireless internet. Priorities of work, my friends...

26 October 2009

There's strong, and there's Army...not...so...strong...

Tom Ricks linked to a great article on CompanyCommand.com (only available to those with an AKO address, sorry) which listed eight lessons to learn before going to Afghanistan.

The number one lesson that almost every commander listed was the importance of physical conditioning. Even the most well-conditioned troops get fatigued while patrolling in the thin mountain air of Afghanistan on foot, laden with heavy body armor, helmets, ammunition, water, radios, and night-vision devices.

Unfortunately, although the fitness standards are still the same as they have been for the past ten years, they're considerably less strictly enforced now, in an attempt to keep more troops in uniform. Soldiers graduating from Basic Training are no longer required to pass their physical
fitness test (which consists of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups and a two-mile run). Instead, they are told that, upon graduation, they have a year to pass their physical fitness test, placing the burden of conditioning them on their first unit.

If a Soldier can't get in shape with a drill sergeant hovering over him--making him do push-ups and monitoring his diet strictly--it will be that much more difficult to get him into proper shape in the relative freedom of their first unit, when they can eat whatever they want at the dining facility, and have weekends to play World of Warcraft non-stop.

This doesn't mean that it's impossible to get a Soldier in shape--certainly, I met quite a few who worked diligently and passed their physical fitness test upon arrival in my company. But it's that much more difficult to do so. Not to mention that it's become that much more difficult to chapter overweight or unfit troops out of the Army once they're in (see picture above).

With that said, since we're basically forced to go to war with the Army we have, and not the one we wish we had, we need some new ways to get Soldiers used to the conditions in Afghanistan. One of the best training events I ever took part in involved some winter survival training in the mountains near Lake Placid, New York. You know, we're the 10th Mountain Division, so we had to do something, well, mountain-like.

Anyway, the training event involved climbing up one of the mountains in the area (was it Whiteface Mountain?). Not only did we have to deal with the thin mountain air--a mere increase in altitude of 3,000 feet will sap one's stamina like you wouldn't believe--but we also
had to learn how to properly layer our clothes so we wouldn't overheat,
sweat, and get our winter clothing wet, leading to further cold-
weather injuries. On the way down the mountain, we used our survival GPS to navigate, just like we would do if we were shot down. (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I also slipped and slid pretty much all over the face of the mountain. But hey, it made for a quick trip back down, so suck it)

It was quite a fun training event, and it was excellent conditioning for the mountains of Afghanistan. I highly recommend this to anyone going there. Apparently, we aviators in the North Country weren't the only ones doing this sort of training--a number of tankers at Fort Stewart, Georgia, found out that they would be fighting as dismounted infantry in Afghanistan and began to condition themselves in the Appalachians.

Focus: What other exercise programs would you suggest for Afghanistan?

Know your enemy: the Taliban

Know your enemy and know yourself, and in a thousand battles, you will have a thousand victories.

--Sun Tzu

Small Wars Journal provided a link to an article in The New Yorker which, among other things, shed some light on a new Taliban training manual for guerrillas. (Related question for the audience--how many in the Taliban are illiterate?). From the New Yorker:

Over the summer, the Afghan Taliban’s military committee distributed “A Book of Rules,” in Pashto, to its fighters. The book’s eleven chapters seem to draw from the population-centric principles of F.M. 3-24, the U.S. Army’s much publicized counter-insurgency field manual, released in 2006. Henceforth, the Taliban guide declares, suicide bombers must take “the utmost steps . . . to avoid civilian human loss.” Commanders should generally insure the “safety and security of the civilian’s life and property.” Also, lest anxious Afghan parents get the wrong idea, Taliban guerrillas should avoid hanging around with beardless young boys and should particularly refrain from “keeping them in camps.”

I took the opportunity to thumb through the Taliban manual. While I agree that the manual for insurgents places considerable emphasis on the support of the population, this has been a hallmark of guerrilla movements since the earliest days. Indeed, it's a little arrogant to claim that the Taliban are reverse-engineering our Counterinsurgency Field Manual...many of these points are lifted from Mao Tse-Tung's "On Guerrilla War", and a number of them refer to the administrative structure and notes of the organization. (I half expect them to discuss the reflector belt policy).

In all, though, a good read--be sure to get inside the enemy's OODA loop and read it at least twice.

A bad day...

Today is a bad day for Army Aviators. Three aircraft with fourteen people aboard crashed earlier today in two separate incidents. Names will be withheld until the families can be notified, but they can probably be found at ArmyAirCrews.com. Condolences to the families of those involved.

A series of helicopter crashes killed 14 Americans in Afghanistan on Monday, the U.S. military said. It was one of the deadliest days of the war for U.S. troops.

In the first crash, a chopper went down in the west of the country after leaving the scene of a firefight with insurgents, killing 10 Americans – seven troops and three civilians working for the government. Eleven American troops, one U.S. civilian and 14 Afghans were also injured.

In a separate incident in the south, two other U.S. choppers collided while in flight, killing four American troops and wounding two more, the military said.

U.S. authorities have ruled out hostile fire in the collision but have not given a cause for the other fatal crash in the west. Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmedi claimed Taliban fighters shot down a helicopter in northwest Badghis province's Darabam district. It was impossible to verify the claim and unclear if he was referring to the same incident.

U.S. forces also reported the death of two other American troops a day earlier: one in a bomb attack in the east, and another who died of wounds sustained in an insurgent attack in the same region. The deaths bring to at least 46 the number of U.S. troops who have been killed in October.

Earlier this month, insurgents killed eight American troops in an attack on a pair of isolated U.S. outposts in the eastern village of Kamdesh near the Pakistan border. That was the heaviest U.S. loss of life in a single battle since July 2008, when nine American soldiers were killed in a raid on an outpost in Wanat in the same province.

“These separate tragedies today underscore the risks our forces and our partners face every day,” Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the NATO-led coalition, said Monday. “Each and every death is a tremendous loss for the family and friends of each service member and civilian. Our grief is compounded when we have such a significant loss on one day.”

25 October 2009

Be social, be smart...

With a military largely seperated from the American public, the few glimpses many get of service men and women come from recruiting commercials. Based on these commercials, you would think that troops spend all day saluting the American flag during a blood-red sunrise, jumping out of airplanes, and looking sternly at the camera. Those of us who have spent a day in uniform know that our lives are far from that. Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me that people are shocked...shocked, I tell you...to discover that service men and women like to unwind, play a few practical jokes, and make a few funny Internet videos.

Now, I love the various dance videos, practical jokes, parody videos and songs--it gives troops something amusing to do, and it provides all of us with some entertainment. However, one has to be social and be smart at the same time. For one, don't "ghost ride" an MRAP. Here's another thing not to do (H/T Themistocles' Shade)--watch the video closely (hint--it starts around the 3-minute mark)

Yeah, I love a funny video just as much as the next guy, and I'm not totally averse to pictures of detainees. But putting them in your funny video is probably not the best of ideas.

Classic Post re: women, alcohol, and 4GW

Those of you who know me personally may have wondered when I became a counterinsurgency blogger instead of a blogger who concentrated on his weekend debauchery? Fear not, because I have a bit of a blast from the past--a post I made last year in another blog which combines the best of 4th Generation Warfare theory and debauchery at the club. Let's watch:

Originally posted 20 January, 2008:

I've talked earlier about the famous OODA Loop, a theory of warfare and business based on the writings of fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd. Essentially, it represents a decision cycle which everyone--from the tiniest one-celled organism to the largest bureaucracies--must undergo in order to spark action and adaptation to unfolding circumstances, the key to success in any arena.

Note: Boyd notes that Decide and Act can often be done simultaneously, especially when one has a highly developed sense of intuitive thinking and knows exactly what needs to be done in many situations (often developed by experience). This can also, in my case, be a result of alcohol.

But could OODA be applied to talking to women at the club? The Intel Officer and I go undercover at SUNY-Oswego in order to find out.

True to form, the Intel Officer had credible intelligence to suggest that SUNY-Oswego had bars and girls. Unfortunately, when we got to Oswego, we found out the intelligence was flawed, as SUNY-Oswego was not in session for another few weeks.

We went into a few bars to see whom we could talk to. We wound up going to one club, where, after a few beverages, I needed to relieve my bladder. I was trying to get over the fact that I didn't remember college-aged girls looking so, well, young, when the Intel Guy came up to me and told me that he had struck up a conversation with two girls who wanted to "dance". (I put that in quotation marks because, well, after watching the pure awesomeness that was the Stormtrooper Dance from yesterday's entry, this didn't qualify as dancing.)

That's when I noticed something alarming about these two girls.

Observe: I see little X marks on the hands of these two girls.
Orient: Previous experience has taught me that this means that someone is under 21, which is not good in my current predicament.
Decide-Act: I make some nonverbal gestures at the Intel Officer which basically means we need to get the hell out of there quickly.

Observe: One girl starts to pop her collar.
Orient: Analysis and Synthesis...I remember that popping one's collar is a part of a great Chuck Norris joke. Previous experience tells me that everyone loves those Chuck Norris Jokes.
Decide-Act: I say, "So, you're popping your collar? You know, Chuck Norris doesn't pop his collar. His shirt just gets an erection from being on his back."

Now we have an unfolding interaction with the environment, which leads me to observe this:

Observe: The girl is not laughing at my joke. Instead, she has a puzzled look on her face and asks, "Who's Chuck Norris"?
Orient: How the hell does this girl not know who Chuck Norris is? Cultural traditions and previous experience have told me that this either means that a.) She's way too young to know who Chuck Norris is or b.) She's an idiot. I realize that since Chuck Norris jokes are all over collegehumor.com, the average college student must be aware that they exist, so I settle on a.) this girl is an idiot.
Decide: I need to bail now.
Act: The Intel Officer is still doing well with his girl, so, being a good wingman, I decide to wait this one out.

Fortunately, I observe that...

: The girls want to leave the club to go eat.
Orient: I realize that this will give us an excellent opportunity to escape.

This constitutes a mini-OODA loop within a larger one. (You can go backwards through the loop, according to the diagram, as you constantly process new information).

Observe: The Intel officer must be reading my mind, because he says, "We should leave, like now".
Orient: I realize that there is no more perfect time to do so.
Decide-Act: As the girls are placing their order, presumably expecting us to pay for everything, the Intel Officer and I bail out the back door of the pizza place, hopefully leaving these girls to pay for their meal unexpectedly. Heh heh heh.

Bonus--Quote of the Evening:

Girl who doesn't know who Chuck Norris is: (Looking at my beer) Do you drink until women look cute?
Me: No, but tonight's a good night to start...

This one doesn't hold water

Every time I re-visit the Afghanistan debate, I also find myself dithering between counter-insurgency, counter-terror, and a hybrid mix between the two of them. I think that the latest "hybrid" theory on Afghanistan is based, in no small part, on the fair amount of logic in both camps about the operational needs in the COIN camp and the strategic value of Afghanistan in the CT camp.

Needless to say, this argument to abandon Afghanistan doesn't really seem to hold a lot of water (H/T SWJ, from today's Washington Post):

Vietnam is the nuclear option of historical analogies. Yet, rather than fear that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam, we should embrace the prospect. If the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan eventually resembles the one we now have with Vietnam, we should be overjoyed. Little more than a generation after a bloody, frustrating war, Vietnam and the United States have become close partners in Southeast Asia, exchanging official visits, building an important trading and strategic relationship and fostering goodwill between governments, businesses and people on both sides.

The lessons of the Vietnam War are clear and sobering, but history does not end in 1975, when the last American diplomats fled Saigon. Once large-scale fighting ends in Afghanistan, Washington should strive for the kind of reconciliation it has achieved with Vietnam. America did not win the war there, but over time it has won the peace. As unlikely as it seems today, the same outcome is possible in Afghanistan...

...Today, however, 76 percent of Vietnamese say U.S. influence in Asia is positive, according to a 2008 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs -- a greater percentage than in Japan, China, South Korea or Indonesia. When President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, citizens greeted him like a rock star, mobbing him whenever he stepped out in public. Two-way trade now surpasses $15 billion annually, compared with virtually nothing in 1995, the year the two countries normalized diplomatic ties. American companies have descended upon Vietnam, and last year foreign direct investment in the country tripled compared with 2007.

U.S. Navy ships now call at Vietnamese ports, and the two governments have institutionalized high-level exchanges, including a 2003 Pentagon visit by Vietnam's defense minister -- the highest-level Vietnamese military trip to Washington since the war. Following up on Clinton's visit, President George W. Bush traveled to Vietnam in 2006; the previous year, Bush welcomed Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai on a visit to America.

Why the dramatic reversal? Time helped, certainly: Just as Americans will forget Mohammad Omar, eventually the images of tortured American POWs and massive bombing of the Vietnamese countryside began to fade on both sides. But more important, American war veterans publicly made peace with their old adversaries. In the Senate, vets John Kerry and John McCain pushed for the normalization of ties between the nations in the 1990s. And on the ground in Vietnam, groups of veterans met with civilians from the areas where they had served. These meetings had a profound impact on Vietnamese public opinion.

Hanoi reciprocated American goodwill and allowed a U.S. investigative commission to scour the country for any remaining prisoners of war, a major concern of the U.S. veterans community. The commission reported in 1993 that it had found little evidence that any POWs remained. The report, more than any other gesture, helped bring the American public on board for reengaging with Hanoi.

A nation with no ports, minimal economic value, and poor road transportation will probably not become a beacon of liberal democracy, trusted friend, and booming economic partner upon NATO withdrawal and a resurgent Taliban sharia government. Sorry, foreign policy does not look like this:

Step 1.) Withdraw from Afghanistan
Step 2.) ?
Step 3.) Profit!

24 October 2009

The middle ground?

If it weren't Saturday night, I'd be posting all about the new plan for Afghanistan (basically a hybrid counter-insurgency/counter-terror plan). I need to see the specifics, but it doesn't sound half bad at a precursory glance. Something to mill about when I sober up tomorrow morning....

Book Review...

I quit procrastinating and finished In the Graveyard of Empires by Seth Jones while I was having coffee.

I particularly like how the book ended. After discussing the insurgency which developed in that particular Middle Eastern nation, the author writes about his experience visiting some of the ancient ruins in the area, and reflects upon the thousands of years of history in the region, and the uncertain future of the nation. Although I got a strange sense of deja vu--I could have sworn I read a book that ended just like this...

Seriously, though, the book is a great read--I particularly liked how Jones shed light on Pakistan's involvement with the Afghanistan Taliban during the war.

Your Star Wars of the Day

Where were you when Rebel Terrorists blew up the Death Star?

And for those of you who like Star Trek AND Star Wars...

23 October 2009

What's in a Name?

In the 1967 James Bond parody movie, Casino Royale, a number of the British agents decide to re-name themselves "James Bond" in an attempt to confuse the enemy. To that end, we have David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and even Ursula Andress all playing characters who have changed their names to "James Bond". It sounds like a ridiculous plot point--after all, who would be confused simply by giving a whole bunch of agents similar names?

Most of you should be raising your hand right now.

(H/T SWJ's daily roundup) Today's New York Times ran an interesting article regarding the confusion even within the major policy think-tanks regarding the vast number of groups in Afghanistan who refer to themselves as the "Taliban". (As the author notes, "Taliban" is not so much a proper noun as it is a word for "students" in Arabic). Note that the points the author makes about the all-encompassing term "Taliban" can also be applied to the all-encompassing term "al Qaeda" (e.g., al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq, etc). Take a look:

[A]s it devises a new Afghanistan policy, the Obama administration confronts a complex geopolitical puzzle: two embattled governments, in Afghanistan and Pakistan; numerous militias aligned with overlapping Islamist factions; and hidden in the factions’ midst, the foe that brought the United States to the region eight years ago, Al Qaeda.

But at the core of the tangle are the two Taliban movements, Afghan and Pakistani. They share an ideology and a dominant Pashtun ethnicity, but they have such different histories, structures and goals that the common name may be more misleading than illuminating, some regional specialists say.

“The fact that they have the same name causes all kinds of confusion,” said Gilles Dorronsoro, a French scholar of South Asia currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

This week, Mr. Dorronsoro said, as the Pakistani Armybegan a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, many Americans thought incorrectly that the assault was against the Afghan Taliban, the force that is causing Washington to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan...

...“To be honest, the Taliban commanders and groups on the ground in Afghanistan couldn’t care less what’s happening to their Pakistani brothers across the border,” said Mr. Strick van Linschoten, who has interviewed many current and former members of the Afghan Taliban.

In fact, the recent attacks of the Pakistani Taliban against Pakistan’s government, military and police, in anticipation of the army’s current campaign into the Pakistani Taliban’s base in South Waziristan, may have strained relations with the Afghan Taliban, saidRichard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer who tracks Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the United Nations.

The Afghan Taliban have always had a close relationship with Pakistani intelligence agencies, Mr. Barrett said recently. “They don’t like the way that the Pakistan Taliban has been fighting the Pakistan government and causing a whole load of problems there,” he said...

...Before 9/11, the Afghan Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of Al Qaeda, but the groups are now separated geographically, their leaders under pressure from intensive manhunts. On jihadist Web sites, analysts have detected recent tensions between Al Qaeda, whose proclaimed goals are global, and the Afghan Taliban, which have recently claimed that their interests lie solely in Afghanistan.

Mr. Dorronsoro, the French scholar, said the Afghan Taliban were a “genuine national movement” incorporating not only a broad network of fighters, but also a shadow government-in-waiting in many provinces.

By comparison, he said, the Pakistani Taliban were a far looser coalition, united mainly by their enmity toward the Pakistani government. They emerged formally only in 2007 as a separate force led by Baitullah Mehsud under the name Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Students’ Movement of Pakistan....

...Polls show that Americans, frustrated by the United States’ supposed allies and confused by the conflict, are losing their fervor for the fight. “The complexity of all this is hard enough for experts to understand,” said Paul R. Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at Georgetown University. “It’s not surprising if it baffles a lot of ordinary people.”

I've made this analogy before, although I stole it from my Middle Eastern history professor some ten years ago, but it's worth making again: the vast number of groups with similar-sounding names but vastly different agendas bears a striking similarity to the various Palestinian liberation groups in Monty Python and the Life of Bryan (all COINdinistas should probably find that link amusing).

As David Kilcullen points out in The Accidental Guerrilla, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are hybrid wars--fights against multiple insurgent groups, numerous terror networks, various competing sectarian and tribal groups, criminal syndicates, and so forth. This is common among many "small wars". Indeed, during the Hejaz War of 1916, Lawrence could not convince many of the Arab groups to join together to fight the Turks. Rather, he was able to get one tribe to lay an explosive device on the railway on one day of the week, then another tribe to mount a small attack somewhere on another day of the week, and so forth. It drove the Turks mad, as they were unable to discern any larger pattern to the operation. As Lawrence quipped, "maximum disorder was our equilibrium".

Small Wars are increasingly frustrating for the populations of Western countries. In addition to the factors frequently cited--namely, the length of time needed to conduct a successful counterinsurgency--the complexity of these operations is sometimes too much for the public to comprehend. In conventional wars, we find it easy to follow the success or failure of our forces. In many ways, it resembles a game of football--we watch our forces move increasingly closer to the "goal line", we face lines of battle which are generally similar to our own, and there's clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys". Insurgencies and hybrid wars, on the other hand, are difficult to relate to--there are often many enemies, their numbers can grow or dwindle at will, they remain hidden and seek battle on their own terms, and success is difficult, if not impossible, to measure.

But this is the future of warfare--it's increasingly confusing, complex and muddled. And that's why we need to train leaders capable of dealing with these environments.

(Additional Reading: See "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence", which has some great passages dedicated to military leaders' aversion to ambiguous situations)

22 October 2009

Sci-Fi and Strategy (Again)

Thanks to Andrew Exum and Adam Elkus for opening my eyes to this topic--the analogies between science fiction/fantasy and military history are pretty much everywhere. (Just ask Tom Ricks and Reach 364). You can even find them at one of the greatest humor sites on the Internet, Cracked.com.

Cracked.com does a lot of "Top x stupidest Star Wars y" lists, but one they published today actually hit close to home. It's called "5 Reasons Star Wars Sequels Would be Worse than Prequels".

You see, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (called the "Exploited Universe" in one of the best SW prequel parodies) has basically run out of ideas and gotten incredibly lame. For example, the ending of Return of the Jedi pretty much killed off the best bad guys in the series. What's a Star Wars writer to do? Aha--they can use that whole cloning loophole from Episode II to clone Emperor Palpatine millions of times! You can never run out of enemies now!

Yes, I realize that cloning the Emperor basically cheapens the whole plot of the six movies, which are basically about Anakin Skywalker destiny as the "Chosen One", who eventually destroys the Sith, but who needs mythological symbolism anyway?

The ending of Return of the Jedi also leaves us with some very bad assumptions. You see, most of us had assumed that, at the end of the movie, the tyrannical dictator is overthrown, the Rebel insurgents now have control of the galaxy, and are now capable of setting up a new government based on peace and justice.

Think again! As Cracked.com points out about the Star Wars expanded universe:

The Emperor's plan to recruit Luke to the dark side failed, and Darth Vader redeemed himself by dunking the raisin-faced bastard into the reactor core of the Death Star like Lebron James. Vader, electrocuted and hairless--and decidedly not James Earl Jones--died and the Death Star exploded, effectively wiping out the Sith, releasing their chokehold on the Galaxy and infuriating whoever was the lienholder on the destroyed battle station.

Simultaneous celebrations were held on countless planets because evidently news travels fast through the infinite expanse of fucking space. Our heroes dance with some teddy bears and the credits roll.

Not so fast...

In the unofficial "sequel" stories, this happens:

That is, the Empire keeps rolling right along, imposing space-tyranny on all who stand in their way.

And the thing is, it's hard to argue with the idea.

Neither the Emperor nor the Death Star had ever been a threat to the Rebellion, so, you know, fuck those first three movies. The Imperials had been able to control the Galaxy without a Death Star for a couple of decades, relying instead on fleet warfare and ground support for good old fashioned genocide. As for the Emperor, does killing the leader of a tyrannical government with a powerful and loyal army immediately end the entire conflict?


According to the majority of the books and comics set after the original trilogy, with the Emperor gone, there were hundreds of Admirals, Generals and Politicians who vied for control of the Galaxy. Without a universally accepted leader, the Empire spiraled into a civil war.

The Rebellion is still, well, a Rebellion, which means it still has to gain victory over the remaining Imperials to win, who are in turn fighting amongst themselves. And so, the Skywalker family, which you may remember as being the entire point of the Star Wars saga, fades into the background as we watch the Rebels continue to fight two different Empires for 20 more years. During that time it's fair to assume billions more people died and trillions more words of poorly written dialog were spoken.

Regarding Fortresses (Redux)

One of the replies I got to yesterday's post regarding the battles at COP Keating and at Wanat comes from Paul, a Vietnam veteran. I thought I'd discuss it here, as he brings up a lot of great points.

Now, I'd love to show everyone a 3D Google map of the area like Fareed Zakaria on CNN's GPS, but alas, I can't quite find COP Keating, so I leave you all mapless. Not to fear, as Paul does a great job at summing up much of the difficulties at Keating.

I knew nothing about COP Keating until after the battle. When I saw some of the photos, I said to myself “oh sh*t, I can see why these guys got pounded.” Anytime the opposition can direct fire down on you, you’ve got a big helping of hurt on your hands. On the other hand, it didn’t look like there was much in the way of flat ground, or even a reasonable slope, on which to set up a base in the hills. And locating it too far up the hill would have meant that resupply could probably only be done by helicopter. I gather that that’s not a real solid link at times during the year.

I had some questions, though. Did these guys have listening posts out? Did they do nighttime patrols in the village and in the hills around their base? How was their intel capability within the village? If something out of the ordinary was going on, would they have known about it? How were they keeping an eye on the mosque (which was an obvious rallying point)? Did they set ambushes every night? The impression I’ve gotten is that the answers to these questions might be kinda negative. It strikes me that if they were doing these things properly, it would have been fairly difficult to assemble over 100 fighters without our troops knowing about it.

If you have a base on bad ground, you absolutely cannot sit around and wait for the other guy to come to you. You have to project your eyes and ears outward so you have advance warning. You also have to make the enemy cautious about approaching you. That’s the purpose of foot patrols and ambushes.

In the kind of guerrilla warfare that we’re facing now, the enemy is always going to go for the lowest hanging fruit on the tree. The T’ban undoubtedly spent a fair amount of time observing this base, absorbing what their routine was and then figuring out how they could use the terrain (including the buildings in the village) to their advantage. Had their observation been adequately disrupted, they may well have said “hey, these guys are on their toes — let’s go somewhere else.”

The change to a counterinsurgency force (at least in some circles) has been positive in many aspects, but it's caused some skills to atrophy. Nearly a decade of war has allowed the US military to build increasingly massive garrisons in the middle of nowhere in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before the US military really had an enemy, we focused on "joint forcible entry"--parachuting in to an area and setting up an air head or beach head for follow-on operations. US forces were trained to enter a country, secure an area, occupy it, and defend it.

Years after the initial invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the concepts of "secure, occupy and defend" are not in the lexicon of most troops. We simply move to massive garrisons which have already been built for us--the guard towers, the fortifications, the defenses are all in place. The "priorities of work" that are often found in infantry manuals (and at the conclusion of the first segment of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa) are an anathema to most troops. Upon hopping off the plane, troops can easily go to their sleeping quarters, the mini-mall, the post exchange, the Starbucks, etc. instead of securing and defending their positions. Indeed, "improving the foxhole" on these bases meant building more luxurious conditions, not making the area more tenable.

And there's little defending to do, particularly in Iraq, especially on the larger bases. These bases are located in the middle of the desert, where no insurgent group can realistically mount a credible sustained assault upon it. Most troops play little role in external base defense--a small cadre performs that duty, while troops are free to do their everyday tasks such as fixing aircraft, mission planning, operating a blog, you name it. The massive Forward Operating Bases are static and immobile, not just in the physical sense, but also in the sense that it stagnated one's thinking.

Only a few troops have had the task of setting up defensible areas in the past few years, most notably those who established many of the combat outposts during the troop surge of 2007 (with an urban siege on a combat outpost in Baghdad described in detail in Tom Ricks' The Gamble) .

I wonder if, based on experience in Iraq, we've lost the ability to accurately analyze terrain. Numerous people looked at the locations of these bases and instantly smacked their heads upon realizing they were located on the low ground. A number of the Vietnam veterans correctly noted comparisons to the Battle at Dien Bien Phu, where the French were pummeled by Vietnamese forces, after taking up positions in the low ground.

The battles at COP Keating and Wanat also bring up another interesting tidbit--the lack of unmanned aerial sensors, which are the modern-day equivalent of the listening post. (The official AR 15-6 investigation specifically suggests adding more air-ground sensors in its conclusion) One of the key observations many made about both battles was the Taliban's propensity to attack during periods of poor weather, presumably to take advantage of degraded NATO air support (which affects not only the ability detect the enemy, but also to target and destroy attacking forces).

Focus: Soldiers got quite a bit of good combat experience conducting counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, but some skills have atrophied. What other skills have you noticed?

Speaking of reckless jackasses...

Yesterday's post involved some reckless driving of HMMWVs and MRAPs. Today, we'll explore some reckless flying, thanks to a video I received from Greg in Mexico.

Basically, two aircraft--a Bonanza and a Russian-made L-39 jet fighter trainer--are doing some formation flying in a mountain range. Then, it happens: they go inadvertent IMC. For the non-aviators out there, this means that they accidentally flew into a cloud bank. IIMC, as it's known, is the cause of many aviation accidents, as the transition from visual meteorological conditions (where a pilot can see outside) to instrument conditions (where a pilot can't see, and must trust the flight instruments) is particularly dangerous. Many pilots become overconfident and attempt to "see and avoid" obstacles even when their vision is severely limited. This is a particularly dangerous scenario for multi-aircraft operations, as all aircraft involved must not only avoid obstacles on the ground, but also each other.

Take a look at this video:

Part of effective pre-flight planning involves the inadvertent IMC plan--what to do if one accidentally punches into the clouds. For multi-aircraft operations in particular, the flight crews know to turn away from one another and climb to safe altitudes, with each aircraft in the formation climbing to a different altitude to avoid colliding with one another. During the preflight briefing, all pilots know what altitude to climb to, so that, in the event of an emergency, the actions are instinctive.

Note that the pilot of this Bonanza simply takes the lazy route and looks at his GPS to keep him away from a mountain ridge, failing to climb to the published minimum safe altitude. He almost dies as a result.

Don't let GPS make you lazy--remember your pre-flight planning from flight school. It might save your life.

I rely on blogs for information, because they're that credible...

Yesterday, I ran across a fellow captain who was serving with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. We were discussing deployments and I noted, correctly, that the 1st Brigade Combat Team's recent deployment to Iraq was cancelled, with a future deployment still up in the air.

Now, how did I know this? I didn't glean this information from official sources. Rather, I got this from Gulliver's post in Ink Spots (Taches d'huile, as the site's URL states, which is an allusion to David Galula's concept of "oil spots" in counterinsurgency).

Milblogs--source of all credible military analysis. Right?

Focus: I've seen a bunch of cases of credible military information coming out in media outlets (particularly blogs) before it comes through command channels. Without breaking operational security, how many times have you noticed this?

21 October 2009

Social Media--Be Social, Be Smart. Above all, please be safe...

(H/T Pat O)

I really can't improve on this article from Noah Shachtman at Wired.com's Danger Room, so I'm going to pretty much quote it in full.

Not too long ago, the U.S. military was brain dead about social media — banning sites from their networks, and grounding troops for their postings. But things are changing, fast. Not only is the Pentagon poised to allow troops access to Web 2.0 sites, if a draft policy is approved. The Defense Department is also getting more clever about how it talks to its people about the sites. Gone, apparently, are the bad old days whenads like this one filled the military’s airwaves. Now, we’re seeing spots like the one below that are even kind of funny. Go figure.

Wired.com continues:

The only bad news? We all might be a little more bored at work, without our videos of snake-eating soldiers and ghost-riding G.I.s.

Wait, "Ghost Riding" troops? Yes, thanks to Wired.com's Danger Room, I've actually discovered something on Youtube that I'd never seen before. (Those of you that know me will find this shocking, I know).

Warning: While I find this absolutely hilarious on one hand, I have to caveat this by saying that this is by far the quickest way to remove one's self from the gene pool. You can read up on the trend here. Anyway, without further ado, here's the "Ghost Riding" video.

Seriously, never fucking do this:

That video kind of reminds me of the dumbasses that did this: (full version of this video can be found here)