Andrew Marshall on Learning Lessons

There seems to be a tendency for organizations to learn and to institutionalize, in one way or another, lessons from the past. The difficulty is that so often the lessons learned from the past are in fact unwarranted generalizations from some particular episode in the past, very often of a particularly pleasant or unpleasant sort. Moreover, there is a tendency to simplify decisionmaking by eliminating alternatives, alleging they are impossible or infeasible.

From “Problems of Estimating Military Power,” August 1966.

How does the rampant lunacy of reshaping the Middle East by force fit into this?

Earning It

Prolonged American deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan have crippled the country’s ability to quickly respond to emerging threats and situations elsewhere in the world. Sheer logistics aside, the same stubborn logic that has maintained an American presence in Afghanistan would also preclude its redeployment on the grounds that American troops are vital to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan War.

But what happens when that might mean missing a genuine opportunity? The regime of Muammar Gaddafi, longtime sworn enemy of the United States, is in the midst of a particularly brutal crackdown against what appears to be a genuine democracy movement in that country. He has vowed to die a martyr, and what were peaceful protests have spread into legitimate civil war throughout the country.

The arguments against intervention in Libya are many, and are valid concerns. American officials – Robert Gates most prominent among them – have been offering constant reminders that establishing a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace would be more complex and dangerous than is casually thought, and the next steps – the exit strategy – have yet to be fleshed out. (The question of international law seems somewhat less damning as Patrick Porter suggests – the Arab League and Libyans themselves have called for such a step to be taken.) But unlike the Bush-era misadventures in Central Asia, commentators are actually thinking about those issues now. Such a commitment as the United States might undertake in Libya requires careful thought. But it requires more than just talk, too.

Who would such an intervention be supporting, exactly? What if the rebels lose the civil war? Will the presence of ground troops be established? These are all questions that need answering. But here’s the other crucial difference between the catastrophic error in Iraq, the open-ended disaster in Afghanistan, and this situation – Libyans are asking for it. Libyan officials who have dissolved ties with the Gaddafi government – including Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, Interior Minister Abdul Fatah Younis, and the Ambassadors to France, India, Poland, Sweden, the EU, the UN, the Arab League, and the United States – are echoing calls for a no-fly zone. The governments of Britain, France, Portugal, and the Arab League have all recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing body of Libya.

Who’s more deserving of American military backing: an Afghan government that enjoys the support of neither its people nor the United States, in a country filled with people just waiting for American troops to leave, or those revolutionaries trying to overthrow Gaddafi in their quest for democracy? Even if the United States were to adhere to the coldest realpolitik calculation, in this case the devil we know is diabolical indeed. Gaddafi is responsible for the Lockerbie bombings, for attempting an enrichment program, and is guilty of the most horrific crimes imaginable against his people. It would be difficult to find an even worse devil. And even in that case, isn’t it time to pick the one that actually matters: democratic or US-friendly? By not articulating – or proving through its own actions – just which one is the driving force behind American foreign policy, the United States continues to look weak, ineffectual, indecisive, and hypocritical to the rest of the world. And it’s that kind of ‘soft power’ that it can ill-afford to lose.

Then again, the most justified intervention would probably be in Cote d’Ivoire to remove Laurent Gbagbo. That country, after all, has already held free and fair elections that ousted Gbagbo from the presidency. But Gbagbo has refused to step down, precipitating a civil war. It’s apparent that things have gotten out-of-control bad when refugees are fleeing into Liberia.

Limited resources require prioritization. And it would appear as if America is focusing all its time and energy, its  blood and treasure, on precisely the wrong theaters. Even when Afghans aren’t actively hostile to the American presence in their country, they’re not enthusiastic about it either. The waiting game is on. Whether the United States pulls out of Afghanistan in six months or six years, the situation there won’t change. Only the cost will.

Those who aren’t asking for help don’t need or want it. Those crying out for it surely do.

Wait, What?

Every so often, I will have a mild revelation and ask myself, “Why are we still in Afghanistan?” It’s similar to the mental whiplash I developed in the run-up to the Iraq War, when all of a sudden the national conversation switched from one about Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, and Tora Bora to yellowcake uranium and l’Affaire du Plame.

Despite his somewhat over-exaggerated blame (though sadly, his position grows a little more plausible each day), I found Howard Hart’s recent take on our efforts in Afghanistan a pretty convincing echo of my own thoughts. To wit:

Leaving Afghanistan would mean that the Taliban would officially take over the country – most of which they already control. So what? It has controlled Afghanistan before. America is under no moral or political obligation to re-make the country into some sort of “democratic” state. It would make it easier for Pakistan to deal with both its internal radical Islamic threat and with a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (which Pakistan knows will be the end result of the war).

Difficult as it is for us freedom-and-democracy-loving Americans to admit, free elections will not be how the war in Afghanistan ends. Perhaps we are under some sort of moral obligation to attempt to stabilize the country, having brought war and destruction to it, but we’ve had nine years to work that out, and failed miserably. There are no positive outcomes. The only question is whether the Taliban returns sooner or later. And the longer we wait, the more it costs us.

Your depressing thought for the day.

Rolling Stan

President Barack Obama meets with General Stanley McChrystal aboard Air Force One.

I’ve refrained from commenting on the McChrystal piece in Rolling Stone, mostly because I think the entire affair is somewhat overwrought, but also because I see both sides as being wrong in a way.

Most importantly, of course, is the need to preserve a proper respect for the Office of the President and the civilians who control the military, but it remains to be seen whether that can occur even if the kind of banter thrown around by General McChrystal’s staff remained off-the-record. People say stupid things, but usually they remain unknown. That’s really where McChrystal and Duncan Boothby went wrong. MacArthur he ain’t, but neither is he some kind of modern-day Eisenhower.

Then again, can you show this kind of disrespect for your civilian leadership and still effectively prosecute the war? I don’t know (though it seems doubtful), and apparently President Obama thinks not – hence the abrupt end to McChrystal’s command and his replacement by General David Petraeus, who seems a rather inspired choice in lieu of General James Mattis. It ensures that some form of COIN will remain the dominant strategy, but also allows for a significant shakeup in staff (and paves the way for someone else to take over for Petraeus relatively soon). Still, another summer with yet another commander could even jeopardize the entire effort in Afghanistan.

If you care to look, though, there were signs of McChrystal’s casual attitude towards civil-military relations. Tom Scocca has pointed out an excellent, if subtle example, McChrystal’s use of the ACU in formal contexts (and actual military types, let me know if this is wildly off the mark). It may be emblematic of his other flaws:

McChrystal is dressed down to the level of the troops, to distance himself from the commander in chief. He is a warrior, doing things civilians don’t understand.

It’s not a fake pose. The Rolling Stone piece describes how McChrystal goes out on “dozens of nighttime raids” himself, going bravely into danger with the men he commands.

But it’s the wrong pose to take. America is nearly 40 years into a bad and corrupting arrangement, in which ordinary citizens—including me—don’t have to be responsible for fighting wars, and Congress doesn’t have to be responsible for starting wars, and the military is a professional caste apart. McChrystal is a product of this era of eroding authority. Nobody knows more than the Army knows about the Army’s business.

Bidding farewell to Stan McChrystal is probably the right thing to do here. And hopefully this culture of disrespect hasn’t extended itself too deeply yet.

An Afghan Primer

Hot on the heels of Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” comes a new guide, this time from Registan: “How to Write about Afghanistan.”

Always use the word ‘war-torn’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘tribal,’ ‘Taliban,’ ‘corrupt,’ and ‘Sharia.’ Also useful are words such as ‘shuras,’ ‘fighters,’ ‘refugees’ and ‘insurgency.’ Do not distinguish between different ethnic groups with different languages, religions and histories, or regions with different landscapes and livelihoods. If people in Kandahar tell you something, assume people in Kabul feel the same way, and vice versa. Whenever possible, mention Pashtunwali. (Note: you do not need to understand what Pashtunwali is. You get points for mentioning it anyway.)

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted Afghan accompanying your article. (Make an exception for Afghans you want to be president.) A stoned cop, a woman in a burka begging, a scowling man holding a Kalashnikov: use these. If you must include an Afghan who is not miserable or threatening, make sure you get an elderly farmer with very few teeth, or a little girl holding a baby goat.

I’m reminded of why I chose ‘monolithic’ as my word of the month (possibly of the year).

More on Clausewitz

Patrick Porter takes on Admiral Mullen’s classification of Kandahar as the enemy “center of gravity” in anticipation of the upcoming offensive there:

Is Kandahar the centre?  Does the Taliban even have a centre that we can meaningfully disrupt within time? The critical condition for most violent insurgencies is external and usually international support. If that applies to this case, the Taliban’s centre may not be its sway in Kandahar, but its relationship with Pakistan, both the state and powerbrokers within it.

This isn’t the first time a major operation has been launched to strike at an enemy “center of gravity.” In fact, it happened fairly recently, and as I then pointed out, the military’s insistence on a) clinging to the term and b) if applicable, attacking that center of gravity is just irresponsible.

But more generally, this seems to be a movement lacking any important centers of gravity. That’s the whole problem with counterinsurgency; there’s no decisive point at which to apply pressure. It’s trying to tighten your grip on a handful of sand. Obviously I’m not saying give up the ghost, but I am suggesting that perhaps the whole concept of a large offensive whilst fighting an insurgency is an anachronism.

Kandahar probably is where we need to be, but if we’re doing so for these Clausewitzian theories… then we’re just missing the point.

Men of the West

Babatim at Free Range International has a new update from the ground in Afghanistan. One quote struck me; either for the truth it holds or its stunning audacity (probably a little of both):

Less experience[d] cadres will do one of three things; stay in place because they are too freaked out to move, break contact and run because they are too freaked out to stay, or quickly surrender because they are too freaked out to fight.  Afghans do not have a cultural history of standing firm in battle and slugging it out toe to toe with heavy infantry.  Only men of the west fight using that style of warfare which is why western armies have dominated those of other lands since the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.  I am not saying the Afghan Taliban does not have brave fighters….they do but brave individual fighters do not a cohesive combat unit make.  The shock of rapid violent assault by multiple platoons from multiple angles is something only a well trained, well equipped, well supported western army can handle.  [emphasis mine]

This, of course, is the same thesis of Victor Davis Hanson’s Culture and Carnage (later retitled more directly as Why the West Has Won) – that the west has a superior, innate ability to win the kinds of battles that shape the entire world. There are two sides to this – execution and will – and while the west has proved itself quite adept at winning (even so, not always), its will to fight in the first place seems diminished and continues to shrink.

The metaphors and parallels you could draw are all contradictory and point in very different directions: the U.S. as Rome to Britain’s Greece, the Greek bankruptcy, 300, a rousing speech from Aragorn, John Ford/John Wayne movies… Perhaps that’s just my train of thought leaving the station at full steam.

But what if the west starts abdicating its position, and what if it continues to cringe in the face of particular struggles? Western society is so risk-averse now that the slightest risk of harm – to regular, professional soldiers – now leads to accusations of “authoritarian” leadership. For heading into danger in the military! Thankfully the Dutch example is not pervasive throughout NATO (nor the Netherlands themselves, for that matter).

The Dutch have the 7th highest per capita rate of any nation in Afghanistan, Steve Coll calculated. But 21 dead is now enough to call off an entire deployment of a wealthy, western NATO member. Europe is certainly in decline. America too, albeit at a slower pace. But that’s just when the Netherlands needs to reassert itself as a full and willing member of the west. As does the rest of Europe. All need to be willing to defend themselves and their interests, with force if necessary.

Stand, men of the west!

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 Liberal from Lufkin

Charlie Wilson died today. From my limited knowledge (basically a book and a film), I’ve developed a deep admiration for the man. To some extent his death is part of the passing of an era, for better or for worse. But this country will surely miss him. Bob Gates writes a fitting farewell. We’re still picking up the pieces, as Charlie always wanted.

I had the unforgettable experience of knowing Congressman Wilson when I was at CIA and he was working tirelessly on behalf of the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviets.  As the world now knows, his efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close.  After the Soviets left, Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatized country to its fate — a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today.

America has lost an extraordinary patriot whose life showed, once more, that one brave and determined person can alter the course of history.

Amen, Mr. Secretary. Good-Time Charlie, we hardly knew you.

On the Purpose of Armies

Via War is Boring:

In September 2008 two Dutch army squad leaders and their soldiers refused to go out on what Radio Netherlands describes as “a risky reconnaissance patrol” in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. The platoon leader responsible for the mission was allegedly guilty of  “excessively authoritarian behavior.” “[H]e was prepared to accept fatalities on the patrol,” Radio Netherlands reports.

On the surface, this is clearly ridiculous. Deeper down, it actually stays pretty ridiculous, but nevertheless there’s an argument to be made here. I’m not going to make it, but without conscription (as is the case in Holland), the point is moot.

I know, I know – I sound precisely like a member of the “101st Chairborne.” Then again, I haven’t joined the armed forces. My point is that if you sign up for a military willingly – and I emphasize willingly – you should be equally prepared to accept the risks inherent to combat. There’s a different between a ‘risky’ mission and one that’s ‘suicidal’, and according to the reports I’ve seen, this is a clear case of the former. It’s a warzone. There are enemies out there. And that’s why you’re there.

The worst part is the assumption of universality. The squad leaders “are worried for other soldiers who may have to serve with him in the future.” One can only hope that other soldiers take themselves more seriously. And professionally. I’m trying really hard to refrain from using this to condemn the European fighting spirit in toto, but it’s certainly one more nail in the coffin of a confident, vigorous West.