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.
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.
Patrick Porter’s Military Orientalism provides an excellent analysis of the recent culturally-focused bent within western military thinking. “It is not a question of whether culture matters,” writes Porter, “but how it matters, and how to conceptualise [sic] it.” This is expressed through several case studies: British perceptions and accounts of the Russo-Japanese War, interwar military thinking and the “lessons” of Ghengis Khan (particularly as expressed by Basil Liddell Hart), the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and finally Israel’s experience in the 2006 Lebanon War.
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.
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 →