Robert H. Scales wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled Gun Trouble, with the catchy subtitle as follows: The rifle that today's infantry uses is little changed since the 1960s—and it is badly flawed. Military lives depend on these cheap composites of metal and plastic. So why can't the richest country in the world give its soldiers better ones?
Scales then proceeds to rehearse the history of flaws after the initial rollout of the M-16 in Vietnam, well known flaws (and failed to mention [read more]
Well, it seems to be in the bag now. I try to be a sunny the-glass-is-one-sixteenth-full kinda guy, but it’s hard to overestimate the magnitude of what the Democrats have accomplished. Whatever is in the bill is an intermediate stage: As the graph posted earlier shows, the governmentalization of health care will accelerate, private insurers will no longer be free to be “insurers” in any meaningful sense of that term (ie, evaluators of risk), and once that’s clear we’ll be on the fast track to Obama’s desired destination of single payer as a fait accomplis.
If Barack Obama does nothing else in his term in office, this will make him one of the most consequential presidents in history. It’s a huge transformative event in Americans’ view of themselves and of the role of government. You can say, oh, well, the polls show most people opposed to it, but, if that mattered, the Dems wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. Their bet is that it can’t be undone, and that over time, as I’ve been saying for years now, governmentalized health care not only changes the relationship of the citizen to the state but the very character of the people. As I wrote in NR recently, there’s plenty of evidence to support that from Britain, Canada, and elsewhere.
More prosaically, it’s also unaffordable. That’s why one of the first things that middle-rank powers abandon once they go down this road is a global military capability. If you take the view that the U.S. is an imperialist aggressor, congratulations: You can cease worrying. But, if you think that America has been the ultimate guarantor of the post-war global order, it’s less cheery. Five years from now, just as in Canada and Europe two generations ago, we’ll be getting used to announcements of defense cuts to prop up the unsustainable costs of big government at home. And, as the superpower retrenches, America’s enemies will be quick to scent opportunity.
Longer wait times, fewer doctors, more bureaucracy, massive IRS expansion, explosive debt, the end of the Pax Americana, and global Armageddon. Must try to look on the bright side . . .
I think that Mark is basically right. You will see a gradual waning of the ability to project force abroad. It will have at its root the health care fiasco we witnessed tonight – the socialization and nationalization of the greatest health care system on earth. I may as well take my car in for minor maintenance, only to watch the mechanics beat up my engine bay with sledge hammers, hand the car keys back to me, and tell me that the problem is fixed. Indeed, very consequential days we live in.
In Reigning in SOF in Afghanistan I addressed the issue of General McChrystal having brought Special Operations Forces under his direct control in Afghanistan, or in other words, putting into place a structure that would ensure unity of command over all U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The ostensible reason given for this was continuing noncombatant casualties and the need to reduce them by making SOF accountable to someone directly inside Afghanistan.
I demurred, rehearsing the idea once again that the attempt completely to end noncombatant casualties had contributed to the unnecessary deaths of U.S. servicemen. Pristine, riskless war is a preening moralists dream and a warrior’s nightmare. But I did support the idea of organizing all troops under a singular command structure.
I support the consolidation of forces because SOF shouldn’t be operating out of the chain of command. If there is a direct action raid and a father or a son is killed in the middle of the night, the infantry (or those attached to the infantry, i.e., SOF) should have done it, under the direction of the immediate chain of command, and they should all be present the next morning to explain to the village why it happened. If you don’t harbor insurgents, this won’t happen. There is nothing like a little time with the villagers by those who did the killing … expending effort policing, teaching and admonishing.
But this isn’t the end of the story, and it appears that the reason given for the reorganization is mere cover. First, consider what the always interesting and knowledgeable Tim Lynch tells us about Marine Corps operations in the Helmand Province regarding their use of Special Operations Forces.
While the Marines handled the close fight around Marjah they used the varsity Special Operations assets to go deep. Getting those organizations to work for you in a subordinate role is not just hard; it is one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Marine deployment to date. I’ve known General Nicholson and the senior members of his operations staff all my adult life and this last accomplishment impresses me more than anything else they have done since arriving in Afghanistan. That’s how hard it is to get the big boys to play nice. One of the consistent complaints concerning the Joint Special Operations forces in Afghanistan is their penchant for running operations without informing or coordinating or even talking to the battle space commander responsible for the area they were working. Tim of Panjwai once got a call from the Canadian HQ in Kandahar back in the day when he was on active duty and in command of a company deployed deep inside the Panjwai district:
“Why are you currently fighting in the town of XXXX?” he was asked.
“Sir, I’m on my COP and were I not here and engaged in some sort of fight I assure you sir, that you would be the first to know.”
“Then who the hell is in XXXX wearing Canadian uniforms shooting the place up?”
It was the varsity SF guys running their own mission with their own assets for reasons known only to them. Tim and his troops had to deal with the mess they created after they were long gone. To this day they have no idea what went on or if the mission which cost them in lost credibility, lost cooperation, and the loss of hard earned good will was worth it.
The Marines made a deal last summer – which went something like this: “We want you guys operating in our AO and we will give you priority on our rotary wing, intelligence and fire support assets, but you have work with us integrating everything you do with our campaign plan.” It was not an easy sell and at first there was reluctance from the varsity to cooperate. But they gave it a shot, and they started chalking up success after success and nothing attracts more talent into the game like success. While the Marine snipers and their recon brothers have been bleeding the Taliban around Marjah, the varsity has been going deep and going deep often. All the big boys have joined the game now, the SAS, the SEAL’s, The Unit and other organizations who you have never heard of and never will hear about. It is true that killing lots of fighters is not that relevant in the COIN battle. Yet you still need to target and kill competent leaders along with any proficient logistic coordinators who pop up on the radar screen. The varsity SOF guys have been doing that for months.
The Marines handled SOF differently than does Army, Navy or Air Force. Unity of command is essential to the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) and MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) mission oriented approach. Having SOF in their battle space without knowing, approving and integrating their efforts into a unity of approach isn’t the Marine way. And given McChrystal’s appreciation for unity of command in Afghanistan, he surely approves.
Or does he? First, there was this comment on the Small Wars Journal blog (regarding this Washington Post article about Army complaints concerning Marines’ autonomy in Helmand).
The rumor is that the Commandant, Gen Conway, spoke to Gen Petraeus and McChrystal and asked them, “What are you not getting that you want?” In other words, if you want some other result, tell the Marines what you want and they will change course. But let us handle it our way. The problem is that McChrystal does not respect, appreciate, or want the MAGTF. He wants to use the Marines in piecemeal fashion in suppport of Army forces.
I heard it second hand. Someone should ask this question of the Commandant.
I followed up reading this comment with a letter to General McChrystal’s Public Affairs Officer, asking the following question(s).
I would like to pose a question for General McChrystal. If he would like to respond, I will post his response without any editorial comment, remarks or redaction. Here is the question:
As you are no doubt aware, there is apparently a push to exert more control over the Marine Corps operations in the Helmand province.
Furthermore, there are indications – however reliable or not – that the MAGTF concept (philosophy and organization structure) is under-appreciated.
But mission-based, strict Marine Corps chain of command philosophy is the cornerstone of the MEU and MAGTF approach, and it has redounded to significant successes wherever it has been implemented, from the Anbar Province to Helmand (and many engagements prior to those). Can you give us your perspective on the Marine Corps operations thus far in Helmand, and speak to the issues raised in the subject article?
This letter was written five days ago and to this date there has been no response (and the commitment to post the response in full with no redaction or editorializing still holds). Still another source tells me that I have missed the real point behind the reorganization of SOF. Briefly, there is a desire not to have second-guessing going on with CENTCOM when commanders in Afghanistan made a decision to use SOF for some particular purpose or mission. The reorganization of SOF into the chain of command in Afghanistan moves them out of the chain of command at CENTCOM, and directly into the chain of command of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Furthermore, commanders in a particular battlespace do not have operational control over SOF or their missions. They may not, in fact, have any knowledge of such actions until they are dealing with the consequences after the missions. The degree of control and the unity of command that the Marines have exercised in Helmand is seen as a lesser version of the same problem as CENTCOM controlling SOF.
To be sure, there may be reasons that the chain of command in Afghanistan would want direct control over the SOF, given that they are the most timely and responsive units that any military in the world can deploy. But just as surely, the Marine Corps doesn’t want control over SOF (excluding perhaps MARCENT), as much as it wants them matrixed to their chain of command during missions if and when they participate.
There are several very important issues with which we are faced. First, while Tim Lynch may be lauding the Marine Corps philosophical approach to warfare – and while I may agree – there are some very powerful commanders who apparently do not have that same appreciation. Second, there is apparently internecine warfare within the U.S. military, and just as apparently the Army doesn’t appreciate at all the degree of autonomy afforded the Marines in Helmand. Third, the Marines have been highly successful in Helmand, just as in Anbar. Success has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.
Fourth and finally, consider how badly the main stream media missed this. Not a single MSM reporter performed further research into why this reorganization took place or what motivation brought it about. This speaks poorly about our ability to trust their reports. A corollary, of course, is that the Milblogs are providing increasingly salient and incisive analysis.
I am writing this message to you from the parking deck of a Metro station just outside Washington, DC. I just witnessed one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen in my life. By my estimate, there were more than 50,000 of average Americans like me gathered on the west side of the Capitol, yelling and screaming, because we feel that our elected representatives in that very building are ignoring us. The most popular sign that I saw today simply said, “Listen to Me!” What were we yelling about? A terrible piece of legislation, and a terrible idea known as ObamaCare. 50,000 people is not a bad turn-out, considering that the event was planned less than 48 hours in advance. I found out about it late Thursday night. And on Friday evening after work, I started driving, and kept driving.
Why did I do it, and was it worth it? I did it because after having written my Senators and Congressman (multiple times), after having researched the policy issues and forwarded to many of you the results of my research, after having been to Tea Parties and Town Halls, after having contributed to organizations fighting this terrible legislation, well, after all of that, attending today’s protest was the only thing left for me to do. Will our efforts today pay off, and will Congress do what we asked them to do, “Kill the Bill”? I honestly don’t know. Did my presence today make a difference? I honestly believe it did. At the very least, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have now done everything that I can do to stop this. Was it worth it? Absolutely!!!
Many of you have talked to me, or emailed me, or even called me on the phone, to express your frustration and helplessness and to ask me what can be done to stop a tone-deft and tyrannical President and Congress. I have several ideas, and I promise a long answer in the future. But for now, the short answer is that we all need to be more INFORMED, ENGAGED, VOCAL and ACTIVE than we have ever been before. It’s up to us to make a difference. I saw today, first hand, what a difference ordinary citizens can make. There’s nothing like seeing a line of Congressman exiting a House office building with voters on both sides cheering their demands. Go America! Go democracy!
Other interesting things I saw today: I saw Congresswoman Michelle Bachman literally sprint up the Capitol steps . . . in high heels! I thanked John Voigt for coming. Congressman Tom Price thank ME for coming and wished me a safe drive back home to Georgia.
TCJ Editorial Comment: Thanks to Keith for being there when I couldn’t. En loco protestari, or something like that?
Regarding the Battle of Wanat that has received so much attention here at TCJ, it appears as if the field grade officers involved in the planning and decision-making for the outpost have been issued career-ending reprimands.
Myer, along with two of his superior officers who were not at the battle, have received career-ending letters of reprimand for failing to prepare adequate defenses in the days leading up to the attack.
Forty-nine Americans and 24 Afghan soldiers had been ordered to set up the outpost deep in enemy territory.
It was July of 2008, and according to Sgt. David Dzwick, they were short of not just troops, but basic necessities.
“The second day we were extremely low on water,” Dzwick said. “When you start running out of water it’s very hard to continue working through the heat of the day.
Despite warnings from villagers that an attack was imminent, an unmanned surveillance drone which had been watching over the troops was diverted to a higher priority mission.
“Not having surveillance was the concern for me,” Dzwick said. “Part of the planning is that we would have some.”
The first Apache helicopters got there an hour and five minutes after the Taliban opened fire. By then, Captain Myer was the only officer still alive.
Myer can still appeal but right now he has been both decorated and reprimanded for the same battle.
I am no fan of witch hunts, and in general I think such things are destructive of any organization which implements such tactics. Furthermore, we must allow our military to be a learning institution, and if errors cannot be silently addressed, then intransigence will win the day.
Yet … the failures at Wanat are severe. We have discussed them in detail: failure to believe local intelligence, lack of timeliness in setting up the Vehicle Patrol Base (almost one year of negotiating with the local elders to obtain their approval) allowing Taliban to plan, deploy and mass forces, lack of force protection, lack of logistics, awful terrain problems with the VPB and especially Observation Post Top Side, lack of adequate forces, and so on the list goes.
BALA MURGHAB, Afghanistan — The gunfire came as no surprise, several short volleys smacking the dirt as soldiers bounded across an open field.
The U.S., Italian and Afghan soldiers were keenly aware that by venturing just a few miles south of their base, they’d crossed into enemy territory. Taking fire was almost a given.
“They always shoot at me,” Staff Sgt. Jason Holland said in mock bemusement afterward. “I like this country, but they always shoot at me.”
Since November, the men of the 82nd Airborne’s 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment have fought pitched battles in Bala Murghab to take a small bubble of key terrain in this Taliban-controlled valley in Afghanistan’s remote west.
But the mission here is hamstrung by a shortage of forces. And except for these show-of-presence patrols, that security bubble is as far as they can go until Afghan reinforcements arrive.
Insurgents sit to their north and to their south, ready at the trigger.
For the men of Company B’s second platoon, it feels like being on the front lines of the wrong war.
“We are not doing anything right now,” said Sgt. Alfred Seddon, 24, from St. Petersburg, Fla. “All we hear is we want to push south but we don’t have enough people. So why not just stay where we are and accomplish something?”
“I was excited when I heard we were doing a COIN (counterinsurgency) mission,” he added. “I thought, ‘Yeah, great, we are gonna achieve something.’ But now it feels like a facade.”
Bala Murghab is not a priority under Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of focusing on main population centers to combat the insurgency. So unlike in the south, where a new surge of U.S. forces is pouring in, the 82nd Airborne soldiers here are stretched thin, manning this valley that they like to describe as a Taliban vacation spot with a small contingent of forces and just barely enough supplies …
“This is just no man’s land crawling with Taliban, and one small platoon sitting right in the middle of it,” said Hand.
“There’s a definite line,” said Holland. “The minute you cross it, they open fire.”
While it appears that they have dealt with the terrain issues, they are ready-fodder for a massed assault. So where does the accountability end up the chain of command, and how does this get balanced with the need to be a learning institution? Expectations clearly continue to point in the direction of insufficient troops to meet the demands being placed on them.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has brought most American Special Operations forces under his direct control for the first time, out of concern over continued civilian casualties and disorganization among units in the field.
“What happens is, sometimes at cross-purposes, you got one hand doing one thing and one hand doing the other, both trying to do the right thing but working without a good outcome,” General McChrystal said in an interview.
Critics, including Afghan officials, human rights workers and some field commanders of conventional American forces, say that Special Operations forces have been responsible for a large number of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and operate by their own rules.
Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said that General McChrystal had told Afghan officials he was taking the action because of concern that some American units were not following his orders to make limiting civilian casualties a paramount objective.
“These special forces were not accountable to anyone in the country, but General McChrystal and we carried the burden of the guilt for the mistakes they committed,” he said. “Whenever there was some problem with the special forces we didn’t know who to go to, it was muddled and unclear who was in charge.”
Spencer Ackerman seems to support McChrystal’s consolidation of forces into one chain of command because of the need to protect the population as the center of gravity of the campaign. I do not. To be clear, I do not support the consolidation of forces into one chain of command for the reason that the population is the center of gravity (see Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN). I do indeed support the consolidation of forces.
Ending the silly high value target campaign (capturing mid-level Taliban commanders, only to release them 96 hours later) won’t end unintended noncombatant casualties. The attempt to completely end noncombatant casualties has already contributed to unnecessary deaths of U.S. troops. I support the consolidation of forces because SOF shouldn’t be operating out of the chain of command. If there is a direct action raid and a father or a son is killed in the middle of the night, the infantry (or those attached to the infantry, i.e., SOF) should have done it, under the direction of the immediate chain of command, and they should all be present the next morning to explain to the village why it happened. If you don’t harbor insurgents, this won’t happen. There is nothing like a little time with the villagers by those who did the killing … expending effort policing, teaching and admonishing.
Michael Yon told us about the refusal of the Spanish to work well together with U.S. forces. Bratty kids, they are. A snippet of a letter from a Lt. Colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division follows (full disclosure, my father served in the 82nd Airborne, and this Lt. Col. sounds to me like he is in the line of distinguished, hard core infantry and airborne warriors who have graced this division).
Qal E Naw: The Spanish are not interested in helping in anyway, and are trying to make us decide to leave based on their unacceptable treatment of Americans. Our refuelers [soldiers who refuel helicopters] that are living there have to run out, unroll the hoses, pull security, and roll everything back up. They have asked for gravel along the FLS as it is currently calf deep mud, but the Spanish refuse to make any improvements. They asked for a T barrier (just one) to put at a 45 degree angle outside the fence where the FARP [Forward Arming and Refueling Point; where helicopters land for ammo and gas] has to be set up so they can run for cover in case there is small arms fire, the Spanish say no and refuse to make any improvements. They asked for a small gate where their billets are located so they can access the FARP directly rather than going a half mile loop to get out the gate, but the Spanish said no and refuse to make any improvements. They [sic] guys are living hard (we understand that) but have to do laundry by hand as all of their stuff is stolen if they turn it into the laundry, they discussed this with the Spanish, but they refuse to many any improvements …
BmG: Who ever briefed that they have gravel there has never been there. We arrived during a TIC [fighting] and a MEDEVAC mission. The aircraft have to land/park in a field that has no gravel and then they sink into the ground. They have to be moved everyday to pull them back out of the mud. If we can’t get gravel, how about putting some AM2 matting, stakes and a couple of Red Horse guys on a CH-47 and fly them in to build a couple of pads just big enough to park an individual UH-60 on? We’ve been pushing the gravel issues since last fall and are no closer to a solution. Those guys are living in fighting positions. When it begins to warm up in the next month, that field will be untenable without gravel or AM2 matting. We don’t want to lose MEDEVAC capability there because we couldn’t put in two pads. We did a MEDEVAC [troop(s) wounded] and Hero [troop(s) killed] mission while I was there and the next day as well, let’s not forget that they are on the tip of the spear, we owe them more.
Michael follows up with a letter from Colonel Robert J. Ulses (U.S.) to Colonel Jesus De Miguel Sabastian (Spain). He says in this letter that he is assured that the Spanish leadership has been very responsive to all requests for support. Indeed. The letter closes with this – I kid you not, go look at the letter at Michael’s site – hand written note.
“Thanks for the support!! Look forward to meeting you.
Now they’ve done it. I feel all warm and gooey inside. On the other hand, not really. Having a father who was in the 82nd Airborne Division, a son who has spent four years in the Marines as an infantry grunt and who earned the CAR in Fallujah, a daughter who is in the process of joining the Navy as an officer, and having spent 28 years in corporate America and industry, I have never, ever, seen anything like this before.
The only thing that remains is for Colonel Ulses to put hugs and kisses on the letter. Something like this:
Which, as best as I can tell, is big, excited hugs and kisses since it is followed by the exclamation marks. Oh … oh … I feel that I’m going to be sick to my stomach. So would there have been a more appropriate way to end this sniveling letter? Has anyone even seen anything like this? My God. Give us men like Chesty Puller!!!!! (In a tip of the hat to the subject of this post, I thought it appropriate to end this sentence with some exclamation marks). No hugs and kisses, just exclamation marks.
British troops are to hand over control of the largest town in north Helmand to US forces as part of a major “rebalancing” of UK forces in Helmand, the Defence Secretary said yesterday.
Speaking on a visit to Helmand, the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, said that Musa Qala would be handed over to US forces in the next month and that “further changes” are likely to ensure that British forces have the “greatest effect in countering the threat posed by the insurgency and protecting the civilian population.”
The decision to hand over Musa Qala to US forces had been one of a series of options under consideration by senior Nato commanders. In January The Times reported that British troops were likely to be pulled out of Musa Qala, Kajaki and possibly the iconic town of Sangin …
British troops originally moved into Musa Qala in June of 2006 to counter Taleban attacks that threatened to overwhelm weak local security forces in the town. In late 2006 British forces withdrew from Musa Qala under the terms of a controversial deal that saw local tribes promises to exclude the Taliban and govern the town.
However, Taliban fighters retook Musa Qala in February 2007 and held it till December when it was retaken in a major offensive by a mixed US and UK force. The retaking of the town was aided by the defection of a local Taleban commander, Mullah Abdul Salaam, who was subsequently installed as the local district governor.
Twenty-three British soldiers have died in and around the town. General Messenger said that British forces would leave behind a success story.
There is a problem within the Ministry of Defence (and the higher echelon of the chain of command) in Britain. Musa Qala is not a success story. The British warrior is a good as any on earth, but the officer corps has a troubling predilection to grant themselves special dispensation to turn their own failures into successes (it happened with the campaign in Basra).
Let’s take a quick detour through recent history. The British were on the front end of the attempt to make deals with the Taliban, and even earlier, the local tribes. A deal was indeed struck with the locals to turn away the Taliban. The promise didn’t obtain, and the Taliban took control of Musa Qala.
In a tip of the hat to more deal-making, the British befriended one Mullah Abdul Salaam, a so-called “former mid-level Taliban commander” who promised to bring his fighters to bear upon the Taliban during the initial assault of U.S. and British troops to retake Musa Qala. In fact, upon the initiation of the assault, Salaam “stayed in his compound in Shakahraz, ten miles east, with a small cortège of fighters, where he made increasingly desperate pleas for help.” In other words, he screamed like a little girl.
This whole incident has been a stain on the British effort, and is not indicative of the high quality enlisted men in the British military. The CTC Sentinel at West Point had some very direct words to the MoD regarding Musa Qala in July 2008.
Since the initial withdrawal from Musa Qala in 2006, the British image for military capability in general and counter-insurgency competence in particular has suffered a number of setbacks, by no means all in Afghanistan. The success of Iraqi forces in Basra in 2008 was widely seen as them doing a job that the British had left unfinished for political reasons. Britain’s relations with Kabul have suffered a number of setbacks, from the removal of diplomats following direct negotiations (bypassing Kabul) with the Taliban at Musa Qala in 2006 to Kabul’s rejection of Lord Paddy Ashdown to be the new UN envoy in Afghanistan … If the United Kingdom fails in Musa Qala, its relations with coalition partners and Afghans alike is likely to be harmed, and it may have a further impact on its international standing.
One and a half years ago the relations between Salaam and the British troops had soured. The British had accused him of corruption and thuggery, while he had accused the British of undermining his “authority.” Salaam was “feathering his own nest” while reconstruction is not forthcoming from the largesse poured into Musa Qala. It would appear that relations have not gotten any better in the last year. “At their latest meeting, Mullah Salaam is complaining that the Household Cavalry Regiment Battlegroup, which has been here for nearly six months, simply isn’t violent enough.”
This is from a man who couldn’t convince his own “fighters” to make good on their promises to take Musa Qala back from the Taliban. Yet it also appears that Salaam hasn’t added one iota to the security around the area in the time that he has been “governor” of the area. Government officials still can’t move more than one kilometer outside of Musa Qala because of security problems.
It’s time for some serious counterinsurgency in and around Musa Qala, and this means that Salaam must go, or be relegated to the sidelines as the irrelevant lackey that he is. If the British didn’t have the resources to pacify the area, then the U.S. Marines might be able to squeeze the enemy out of hiding and kill them – and retake the roads in the area. And so much for tribal engagement and deals with the Taliban as the answer to every problem in Afghanistan.
Ralph Peters is sanguine concerning Iraq. Daniel Pipes is much less so. I tend towards bleak outlooks, but am waiting on either of the very good analysts at Iraq the Model to weigh in, or Nibras Kazimi at Talisman Gate (with whom I have had knock down, drag out fights). Several things are clear at this point. It is clear that there is a lot of confusion. It is clear that Ahmad Chalabi is a sniveling lackey and treacherous scumbag who has empowered Iran and hurt Iraqi unity by causing the dissociation of its sects. I have complained long and loudly concerning the Status of Forces Agreement and what it has done to U.S. power in the region. We have spent too much blood and treasure to give up so much authority and allow the criminalization of so many Sunnis who participated in the sons of Iraq program to defeat al Qaeda. ITM weighed in on the exclusion of so many Sunnis from elections and concluded that it has as its basis sectarianism.
Hunkered down in a community outside Baghdad, Raad Ali watched the national elections Sunday in anonymity. No one bothers him here. Strangers think he is just another displaced Iraqi from the capital.
The days are long, and he misses his wife and children.
He believes that the election results could mean either his return home or exile, far from his loved ones.
With his button-down shirts, slacks and habitual smile, Ali looks like an unassuming civil servant or eager salesman growing into a chubby middle age. The only sign of worry is his five o’clock shadow.
A little over two years ago, he was shaking U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno’s hand in his old neighborhood, Ghazaliya, where Ali commanded one of the first Baghdad branches of a Sunni paramilitary movement that helped restore calm to Baghdad. Now Iraqi security forces are hunting him, despite the fact that he took on the Mahdi Army and Al Qaeda in Iraq in his west Baghdad neighborhood.
Ali prays that the national elections will solve his problems. If Iyad Allawi wins, he thinks there would be a place for him in his country. If Nouri Maliki or another Shiite Islamist wins, he believes the harassment will never stop. It would only be a matter of time before he was jailed and separated from his family forever.
“If Allawi doesn’t win, the future is dark,” he said. “They will target everyone.”
Having allowed such a situation to obtain is not only bad for Iraq (and to say that Maliki is bad for Iraq is redundant). It is also bad for U.S. power and force projection. God help us if we ever have to go back to Iraq, or if the tribal leaders in Afghanistan see how we have deserted the Sunnis. We have no staying power, no stomach for enforcing deals we have struck. We are in such felt-need for legitimacy in our campaigns that we are willing to allow Iraq to stipulate the conditions of the SOFA when the U.N. approvals expire. To have a picture of General Odierno shaking the hand Raad Ali in 2008 while he is being hunted now is more than embarrassing. It’s belittling to the most powerful nation on earth – which is also still engaged in counterinsurgency campaigns across the globe.
I have the utmost respect for General Odierno and his son who lost his arm fighting in Iraq. I have difficulty mustering such respect for the politicians who agreed to the Status of Forces Agreement or timeline for withdrawal, or who refused to take Iran on in the regional war that it declared against the U.S. This picture is worth a thousand words, and it makes me sick.
For weeks, the United States public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan war against what it was told was a “city of 80,000 people” as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marjah was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centers in Helmand.
It turns out, however, that the picture of Marjah presented by military officials and reported by major news media is one of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as an historic turning point in the conflict.
Marjah is not a city or even a real town, but a few clusters of farmers’ homes amid a large agricultural area that covers much of the southern Helmand River Valley …
The ISAF official said the only population numbering tens of thousands associated with Marjah is spread across many villages and almost 200 square kilometers, or about 125 square miles (editorial note, approximately eleven miles squared) …
So how did the fiction that Marjah is a city of 80,000 people get started?
The idea was passed onto news media by the US Marines in southern Helmand. The earliest references in news stories to Marjah as a city with a large population have a common origin in a briefing given on February 2 by officials at Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base there.
The Associated Press published an article the same day quoting “Marine commanders” as saying that they expected 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be “holed up” in the “southern Afghan town of 80,000 people”. That language evoked an image of house-to-house urban street fighting.
The same story said Marjah was “the biggest town under Taliban control” and called it the “linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network”. It gave the figure of 125,000 for the population living in “the town and surrounding villages”.
The war in Afghanistan, as we have written here and in Military Review (pdf), is indeed a near replication of the Vietnam War, including the assault on the strategically meaningless village of Marjah, which is itself a perfect re-enactment of Operation Meade River in 1968.But the callous cynicism of this war, which we described here in early December, and the mainstream media’s brainless reporting on it, have descended past these sane parallels. We have now gone down the rabbit hole.
Two months ago, the collection of mud-brick hovels known as Marjah might have been mistaken for a flyspeck on maps of Afghanistan. Today the media has nearly doubled its population from less than 50,000 to 80,000 — the entire population of Nad Ali district, of which Nad Ali is the largest town, is approximately 99,000 — and portrays the offensive there as the equivalent of the Normandy invasion, and the beginning of the end for the Taliban. In fact, however, the entire district of Nad Ali, which contains Marjah, represents about 2 percent of Regional Command (RC) South, the U.S. military’s operational area that encompasses Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz, and Daikundi provinces. RC South by itself is larger than all of South Vietnam, and the Taliban controls virtually all of it. This appears to have occurred to no one in the media.
Nor have any noted that taking this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a “government in a box” might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation.
In reality, this battle — the largest in Afghanistan since 2001 — is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress. In reporting it, the media has gulped down the whole bottle of “drink me” and shrunk to journalistic insignificance.
Analysis & Commentary
The U.S. Marine Corps over the last several years in Iraq and Afghanistan has customarily been engaged in heavy combat operations. More than 1000 Marines perished in Iraq, most in the Anbar Province. Regardless, whatever the Marines are engaged in, they will officially hype their exploits and stretch the narrative, always redounding to the benefit of the Marines. It’s part of the history, mystique and political strategy of the Corps. The U.S. Marines are the best strike fighters and shock troops in the world. No matter, this narrative isn’t enough, and it is crafted and molded until the Corps takes on mythical proportions. The fact that their reputation precedes them and intimidates the enemy only justifies the strategy.
That most so-called journalists don’t know enough to be able to effectively cover the Marines is amusing, but reaches the point of being sad for analysts who spend time asking the wrong questions and reiterating what we all already know. Marjah is an approximately eleven mile squared area of operations comprising tens of thousands of farmers rather than an urban setting. So who didn’t already know that? The closest thing to a major urban center in Helmand is Now Zad. How is this “revelation” significant to worthwhile analysis of what the Marines are doing?
In Why are we in the Helmand Province? I addressed the notion that Marjah is a “worthless postage stamp” of land by pointing out that targeting Kandahar (as a population center) without a coupled effort to shut down the Taliban recruiting grounds and support network (as well as means of financing) would be analogous to giving the Taliban free sanctuary in Pakistan, just on a moderately smaller scale.
U.S. counterinsurgency strategists can claim until their last breath that counterinsurgency should be “population-centric,” but if we honestly believed that axiom we wouldn’t care about sanctuary in Pakistan. Control over population centers and good governance would be enough to marginalize the insurgents and render them powerless in spite of their sanctuaries – or so the doctrine claims.
But we know that the enemy must be stalked and killed, so we are in the Helmand Province, and Marjah was the last battle space for heavy kinetics. Policing of the population must now ensue in these areas. Kandahar will be next, and the buildup will be slow and deliberate, after, of course, we have finished with major operations in Helmand.
But if it isn’t one thing it’s another, and in addition to enduring bad analysis we must also deal with incomplete analysis that stops short of asking the hardest of questions. Consider this recent Washington Times editorial.
The recent battle in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province was a key test case for new rules of engagement that emphasized protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents. The town was taken, but whether that was because of the new rules or despite them remains to be seen.
The rules of engagement are probably the most restrictive ever seen for a war of this nature. NATO forces cannot fire on suspected Taliban fighters unless they are clearly visible, armed and posing a direct threat. Buildings suspected of containing insurgents cannot be targeted unless it is certain that civilians are not also present. Air strikes and night raids are limited, and prisoners have to be released or transferred within four days, making for a 96-hour catch-and-release program.
In Marjah, the enemy quickly adapted to the rules, which led to bizarre circumstances such as Taliban fighters throwing down their weapons when they were out of ammunition and taunting coalition troops with impunity or walking in plain view with women behind them carrying their weapons like caddies …
The fighting has wound down in Marjah, which may or may not validate the rules of engagement. Most of the local Taliban either melted away to the frontier or simply put down their weapons and are still there. The true test will come when NATO implements rules of disengagement. When coalition forces pull out, Marjah may well go back to being the Taliban stronghold it always has been, and those who cooperated with NATO and Afghan government authorities will be held to account.
True enough with respect to the rules of engagement (as we have pointed out before), this commentary ends with a non sequitur. It was predestined – the Marines were going to take Marjah, and there was nothing that the Taliban could do about it. The conclusion of the battle was firm and fixed regardless of the rules of engagement, and they have won Marjah in spite of the ROE and not because it it. The outcome of the operation says nothing to validate the ROE.
On the other hand, we all know that the Marines announced their offensive prior to its start for the specific reason of avoiding noncombatant casualties. That Taliban escaped was irrelevant. But is it? Will the Taliban simply slither away only to come back later and cause long term counterinsurgency problems in this area?
Will our focus on the population (to the detriment of killing insurgents) come back to haunt the campaign? Will we be dealing with these same insurgents later, walking with their women holding their weapons, knowing that the U.S. troops will not fire on them? What do the people of Marjah think about the rules of engagement? How long will this operation last, and will the horrible Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police be able to fill in behind the Marines?
The analysts at Foreign Policy called Marjah a “Potemkin village.” John Robb did this as well with Fallujah in a post entitled Potemkin Pacification (as best as I can tell, he took it down about as soon as it went up). There were a number of reductionist articles that sounded about the same when Operation Alljah began in Fallujah early in 2007. Most of these articles focused on the “horrible” conditions of Fallujah when the Marines locked it down.
In April – June of 2007 heavy kinetics ensued between the Marines and insurgents in Fallujah. The follow-on work involved heavy policing, gated communities, biometrics and neighborhood programs to watch and defend their turf. It was found that most IEDs were vehicle-borne, so the decision was made to prohibit vehicle traffic. When the population in a major urban center must walk everywhere, it provides a significant incentive to find and turn in insurgents and their weapons.
One narrative for counterinsurgency is that it must focus on turning the human and physical terrain into Shangri La, and if it doesn’t, it’s fake. Of course, it is the narrative that is fake. There will be heavy lifting in Marjah still to come, for it isn’t Shangri La. Fake narratives by so-called analysts will continue. But for the motivated journalist there are salient questions that must be answered.
As usual, Tyler Hicks is providing the best pictorial documentaries of Marine Corps operations in Helmand, and C. J. Chivers’ coverage is indispensable. But the Marjah narrative is yet to be written, much less the narrative for the Helmand Province (Now Zad claimed many Marine lives). Other than C. J. Chivers, we have yet to even approach anything that could be considered good analysis of the Marine Corps campaign in the Helmand Province, and Marjah remains fertile ground for reporting and analysis.
Boeing wins by default. Northrup Grumman has pulled out of the refueling tanker competition. Apparently they won low bid about two years ago, but the stipulations and structure of the contract is suspect. Northrup Grumman has pulled out because they have decided that they can’t make any money.
Defense giant Northrop Grumman said Monday that it is pulling out of the $40 billion competition to build aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force, a move that defense analysts and procurement specialists say leaves its rival Boeing as the likely winner.
Northrop’s decision marked the latest twist in the nearly decade-long fight over one of the Pentagon’s biggest and most controversial contracts and raised questions about the impact of procurement reforms proposed by the Obama administration.
In announcing its withdrawal, Northrop said that the government’s requirements did not recognize the value of the larger refueling platform it had proposed and instead favored Boeing’s proposal to build a smaller tanker using a prototype of its 767 aircraft.
Wes Bush, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Northrop, said that under those conditions, it no longer made financial sense to stay in the competition …
Northrop executives and defense industry analysts have questioned how profitable the tanker contract would be, given the Pentagon’s push for setting a fixed price for the contract before design and testing of the aircraft are completed.
I had previously weighed in against the awarding of contracts based solely on low bid because of the requirements of the awful Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Bidders learn to game the system. Northrup Grumman had previously won under the provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley, but this time around apparently wanted to perform design and testing under a time and materials arrangement.
Things are often not quite what they seem, and the big, bad, evil defense contractors occupy the same space as the big, bad, evil health insurance companies and other corporations. There are some of them, and their senior management makes way more money than they’re worth. But in the end, that is oftentimes an accidental rather than an essential feature of the problem. Giddiness over the demise of a major defense contractor can mean joy over lost jobs in the U.S., technology transfer to foreign companies, and unintended consequences of our decisions.
Northrup Grumman surely has many highly skilled people in the U.S., and I hope that they fare well through subsequent competitions. We need good competition to keep our contractors honest. Northrup Grumman folks can’t help that Vladimir Putin holds a significant interest in their company. But as for the apparent Boeing success in the tanker wars, it appears that the best candidate has won (from technological capabilities to national security), and the U.S. military will be better off for it.