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.

Death from Above

At a recent conference in Beit Hatotchan on urban warfare, Major General Sami Turgeman of the Israeli 36th Armored Division announced findings from Operation Cast Lead in 2008.-9 One of them struck me as rather surprising, considering other counterinsurgency/military operations – that “the Air Force is more accurate in urban warfare.”

Now granted, that is in comparison with Israeli armor, but nevertheless it rings a bit hollow. Even with air strikes in at historical highs in October, it was deemed necessary to deploy tanks to southwest Afghanistan. Tankers were naturally thrilled, and one wrote of the new firepower available to bring to bear:

Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems,  which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.

So perhaps it’s not a zero-sum case of tanks or planes, but rather using both in areas of relative superiority. Still, returning to the IAF, Gen. Turgeman “explained that the solution for urban warfare is stronger cooperation between air and ground forces.”

There are an unbelievable number of problems facing aviation as used in urban warfare, be it counterinsurgency or conventional operations. Israel has begun to slightly shift the focus of even their conventional ops to a more population-centric (read: media-friendly) approach, but more air power is absolutely not the way to go about it. Even discriminate aerial bombing and air strikes pose a great risk of collateral damage, and most definitely does not look good on camera.

This is, of course, what I wrote my dissertation about, albeit in the case of Aden (I’ve been holding off on reprinting the whole article here while I try to get it published). But here’s a relevant passage:

While the RAF enjoyed great success up-country in the Aden Protectorate, both independent and in support of ground operations by both the FRA and the British Army, that success was useless when compared with the insurgency’s shift to urban centers, and when the political situation of Aden is taken into account. Both in terms of the use of airpower and the overall relevance of it, politics are hugely important. The potential fallout from misapplied air strikes and civilian casualties was and remains immense, as Britain learned to its detriment. Furthermore, even if airpower is used responsibly and with minimal collateral damage – such as during the Harib raid – interpretation is everything, and when Yemen claimed 25 civilian casualties resulting from the raid, Britain could neither prove nor disprove the figure, despite the near-certainty of its untruth. Obviously, the use of airpower both before and during the insurgency had to rely on precise targeting and weapons systems to avoid further alienating the local population and inflaming world opinion, but regardless of the truth, it was all too often that Britain found its reputation in tatters due to an air attack of any kind.

So while the Israeli Air Force may indeed have improved its relative accuracy, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Air power, however skillfully employed, does not win hearts and minds.

“The neutral keep out of the light; good boys are at present safe”

You’ll have to excuse the delay – it was a week before we had a bed or an internet in the apartment, and since then Comcast has really, really dropped the ball (cutting my neighbors’ physical lines didn’t help any). Also, still no job, which is less than ideal.

But still! The writing must go on. Writing and reprinting.

And so I have a very special treat for you today: the entirety of Brigadier Charles Dunbar’s “The Military Problems of Counter Insurgency.” Dunbar commanded 66 Commando Royal Marine during the Aden Emergency, and had quite an eye for low-intensity operations. Written in late 1967 or 1968, the document is a far-reaching and detailed analysis of the problems faced by the British in Aden, while also making allusions to contemporary insurgencies in Cyprus and Kenya, intrigue in Saudi Arabia, Anna Karenina, and the idiocy of “that well known Scandinavian, Mr. Rudegeld.”

I took the liberty of retyping it – my aging photocopy was worn, scuffed, and overly stamped. I’ve attempted to reproduce the formatting as exactly as possible, and this includes leaving in misspellings and other errors. You can see, for example, that when he’s talking on page 3 about the Eastern Bloc, interrogation, and Vietnam, that his mind is racing too quickly to accurately transfer all his thoughts onto paper. But you’ll know what he means. And it’s definitely worth knowing.

This document is available at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College London. Box Dunbar 2/5. Enjoy!

Notes From the Archive IV

When you have several [intelligence] battalions working this system, it is of course most expensive in terms of man hours. But except against the most highly skilled gang, success is only a question of time. What we are after is not the pistol hidden under the car seat, or explosives in the bicycle pump. It is the man with it who can ‘help the police in their enquiries’. Weapons talk, but nothing like its owner.

– Major-General Sir John Willoughby, “Problems of Counter-Insurgency in the Middle East,” The RUSI Journal 113:650 (1968), 108.

Notes from the Archive II

It merely rhymes:

Mk VII mine buried in a detour around an unfinished culvert on the new road being constructed…

Warning of concerted sabotage attempts at prestige targets and the introduction of timing and anti-handling devices…

Well-timed and expertly executed act of sabotage. The nuisance value was extremely effective considering the small effort and explosives involved…

National opinion is perhaps hardening against us.

45 Commando Royal Marine Newsletters, April 1966-June 1967

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.

Notes from the Archive I

From “The Military Problems of Counterinsurgency” under the heading MILITARY A PART OF WHOLE:

Military operations can only contribute when they are part of the broad plan for the re-establishment of Good Government right across the field of administration. And because the services are as a rule only brought in as a last resort and late, they are so often the only framework on which to re-establish Good Government.

– Brigadier General Charles Dunbar

As true as it ever was.

Dissert’ Menu

The British begin their withdrawal from Aden, 1967.

So in case anyone wasn’t aware, I’ve been working on my master’s dissertation – for which I finally have a pretty solid topic. The work right now is all archival research, which I have no problem with, but finding sources specific to my area is proving a little bit of a challenge.

That area is the Aden Emergency of 1963-67, in which the British fought a counterinsurgency in the Aden colony and the East and West Protectorate ‘up country’. Specifically, though, I want to focus on the RAF and the use of airpower in COIN strategy.

Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq has been doing some great work on counterinsurgency airpower, and I definitely recommend checking that out and contributing if you can. Many thanks to Shlok Vaidya for pointing me in that direction. In the meantime, my research is mostly being conducted in Liddell Hart Library at King’s College London, but I’ll also be dropping by the RAF archives and others. Any help would be appreciated.

I’ll also from time to time be posting little gems I manage to unearth, so stay tuned for those.