Marjah

Lance Cpls. Keith B. Lawson and Spence G. Press, scout snipers attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, work together to identify targets as Taliban fighters approached from Marjeh toward their position at the “Five Points” intersection Feb. 9, 2010.

Last night, the American, British, and Afghan assault on Marjah began. 6,000 soldiers were in the initial wave, and another 15,000 have been committed to rooting out Taliban-aligned elements operating in the area. Early reports have five Taliban fighters and one British soldier killed.

Resistance has been “light.”

In the run-up to the attack, there was no shortage of criticism over the advance warning given, the stated objectives, and even the target of Marjah itself. It was certainly well-founded. Registan argued that the strategic value of Marjah was limited at best and that the amount of opium production in the area was overstated, while Wired characterized the Coalition heads-up as asking residents to “please, please, pretty please don’t leave the warzone.” But everyone may be wrong about the purpose (or at least the timescale) of fighting in Marjah altogether. From Free Range International:

When the Marines crossed the line of departure today, the battle for Marjah had already been won.

Like a master magician General Nicholson mesmerized the press with flashy hand movements to draw attention away from what was important.  The press then focused on the less important aspects of the coming fight.  Just like a magic show the action occurred right in front of the press in plain view yet remained out of sight.

In an unparalleled combination of regular and special forces units, the real conflict over Marjah was conducted mostly behind the scenes. It’s too early to say for sure, but the FRI analysis sure does raise some interesting points. If the goal was to convince the Taliban (and not the civilian inhabitants of Marjah) to leave, doesn’t that just allow them to escape and regroup? (i.e., what’s the point?) Obviously avoiding civilian casualties is of huge concern, but there still seems to be a disconnect over goals and methods.

Conversely, even if everything is going as planned and the Taliban bugs out, “somebody has to do the hold and build – it is not fair or smart to put that burden on the 2nd MEB.” Absolutely. I can’t help but wonder how thoroughly the post-battle plan was thought out.

Either way, at this point nothing to do but play the waiting game. Now let’s see how this plays out.

The End of COIN?

Maj. General Rick Nash tries his hand at camel riding during a visit to the Sa’adoun tribe confederation land.

Last month, the zenpundit (Mark Safranski) came up with a startling idea: “The Post-COIN Era is Here.” The idea, while revelatory, is definitely worth consideration. The modern timescale for adopting and conceiving new doctrine has shrunk from the decades it used to take to only a few short years – both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side is the ability to shift rapidly from a failed strategy to one which stands a chance of succeeding, saving time and lives that would otherwise be wasted. At the same time, an untested new idea runs the risk of failing, in perhaps even more spectacular fashion.

It was fairly clear, then, that something would have to give way after the abyss into which Iraq plunged the first few years after invasion. Safranski lays down three main reasons for the initial adoption of COIN:

1) The  ”Big Army, fire the artillery, fly B-52’s and Search & Destroy=counterinsurgency” approach proved to be tactically and strategically bankrupt in Iraq. It failed in Mesopotamia as it failed in the Mekong Delta under Westmoreland – except worse and faster. Period.

2) The loudest other alternative to COIN at the time, the antiwar demand, mostly from Leftwing extremists, of immediately bugging-out of Iraq, damn the consequences, was not politically palatable even for moderately liberal Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.

3) The 2006 election results were a political earthquake that forced the Bush administration to change policy in Iraq for its’ own sheer political survival. COIN was accepted only because it represented a life preserver for the Bush administration.

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Outside the Box

Foreign Policy just ran an article on “The World’s Most Bizarre Terror Threats.” A collection of five ‘wacky’, ‘zany’ (note: those are not actual quotes), potential terrorist threats, they’re pretty roundly dismissed by Kayvan Farzaneh. Unfortunately, a quick ruling-out of these threat vectors is not something to be taken lightly. It was said that 9/11 was “unimaginable” and that the use of commercial airliners to strike American landmarks was an inconceivable event.

Yet, Tom Clancy described such a scenario in the Jack Ryan novel Debt of Honor – which he wrote in 1994. It must have seemed pretty crazy at the time. After the conclusion of a shooting war between Japan and the United States, a disgruntled JAL pilot – whose brothers were killed during the war – crashes his 747 into the Capitol Building during a full joint session of Congress, decapitating the federal government in one fell swoop.

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The Taliban: Now with 50% More Softness

McChrystal’s population-centric counterinsurgency definitely appears to be working. Now the Taliban has adopted similar methods in order to recreate NATO’s success with the Afghan population.

A 69-point plan has been issued with restrictions and limitations on executions, prisoner-taking, the treatment of civilians, and other rules of engagement that are generally observed by the West. Definitely interesting that a long-term insurgency would start playing by the same rules as their opponent. Patrick Porter sees this as a reinvention along traditional Hamas/Hezbollah/jihadist lines.

How this might play out in the long run of course remains to be seen. Much like Americans, Afghans love a winner, but they’re much more overt about hedging their bets and backing the likely victor. That, in the end, may prove to be the most important factor of all.

Brave New War: A Review

I had the pleasure of reading John Robb’s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization over the last week. I’ve been familiar with his excellent blog, Global Guerrillas, for some time now, but reading the framework that he’s constructed for his own analyses has added a great deal of depth to my own understanding of his philosophy. Robb has a peculiar style of interpreting news and events, and one that’s very much influenced me. His predictions may not come true, but regardless, he has laid out some fine groundwork even just as a futurist.

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Clausewitz Lives?

For all the debate surrounding the applicability of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz to modern war, it’s fairly well-established that much of Clausewitz’s On War is the product of his age. Sun Tzu is perhaps better read, even by Western armies, if not for the sole purpose that it often serves as the guide for their enemies (not to oversimplify or state a categorical, but this is at least the assumption). At a strategic level, there is certainly some utility to be found, but the image one gets of Clausewitz’s writing is that of a relentless forward-only-advancing army, with no guile or subtlety to deploy.

It was for all these reasons that I was dismayed to hear Brigadier General Larry Nicholson of the 2nd MEB refer to Marjah, Afghanistan as the “enemy center of gravity” (about 1:20 in the clip). Marja is a “stronghold” of sorts, where insurgents stockpile weapons and have built defenses. Granted, General Nicholson was paraphrasing Afghans (whose most frequent asked question is, “when are the Marines leaving?”), but the fact remains that he’s employing Clausewitzian terminology to describe a decidedly un-Clausewitzian conflict.

You don’t hit the enemy where’s he strongest; nor do you hit him where he’s weakest. You attack where the enemy does not defend; you defend where the enemy does not attack. You avoid cities at all cost (this is not entirely applicable to Afghanistan, but it’s a strong general principle). If the Imperial German Army was wise enough to bypass Liège and Namur, you’d think the 2nd MEB could do the same. Obviously the parallels aren’t exact, but they’re there. If Marjah is what they’re defending, Marjah is what we don’t attack.

Why They Fight

They hate us because we don’t know why they hate us.” The perceived ignorance of Americans as to the wider world around them was often cited as a compelling reason for the mass murder of several thousand citizens on September 11, 2001. Low scores on math and science, and the inability of two-thirds of Americans between eighteen and twenty-four years old to locate Iraq on a map in 2006 merely perpetuated this claim; that somehow American geographical ignorance is responsible for jihadists and regional strife around the world.

This is of course not the only suggested explanation for conflict in the developing world. Essentially, all the arguments put forth can be summarized as pertaining to ‘greed’, or monetary and personal gain, and ‘grievance’, i.e., ideological and cultural clashes. Abridging the vast array of motives to these two is oversimplifying the matter to begin with; further choosing one of the two as the sole factor would be downright spurious. Complicating matters is the tendency to use the ‘pre-modern’ character of third world conflicts to build an intellectual bridge back to the very beginning of history. Continue reading