Archive for the 'Tribes' Category



Counterinsurgency: Can it be something other than Population-Centric?

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 5 months ago

Regular readers know about my advocacy of the idea of lines of effort versus the idea of a strict, unchanging center of gravity (usually taken to be the population in counterinsurgency).  Recall also the corruption in Afghanistan we have recently discussed in the context of Wali Karzai, Hamid Karzai’s gangster brother in Kandahar.  Someone else is thinking outside the box and questioning religiously-dictated COIN dogma, the impetus being the corruption in Afghanistan.  Spencer Ackerman (h/t SWJ) gives us the observations of an unnamed CIA operative.

Ask a person in Afghanistan, “Who are you?” and they will tell you about their tribe, ethnicity or sect –but not nationality. Deployed to Afghanistan and Pakistan as an operator for a CIA CT codeword program, I remember asking a local about himself whether he considered himself “Afghan.” He laughed and said, “Afghanistan is a line on a map — drawn by the British. There are no Afghan people,” he continued, “except in Kabul but only because it pays so well.”

One contributing factor toward this lack of understanding is how most cultural advisors to high-level US decision makers, as I learned from personal experience at Defense Department Forward Operating Bases, State Department Embassies and CIA Stations, come from a Kabul-centric background. After all, each proved educated and wealthy enough to leave Afghanistan, learn English, acquire a security clearance and secure lucrative western government employment.

Nonetheless, a vast majority of people in Afghanistan do not view as legitimate any national authority from Kabul. Further, Afghanistan lacks the infrastructure of commerce, transport and communication that facilitate the development of national identity. Finally, people throughout Afghanistan do not view Hamid Karzai as a legitimate leader, and that sentiment has hardened in the aftermath of the massive fraud uncovered in connection with the recent election.

Instead—and this is vital for policy makers to understand—the very tribal leaders we seek to influence in our efforts against the Taliban are actually threatened by our support of Karzai. Regardless of our intent, they perceive our actions as empowering his tribe and their tribal allies to dominate the other tribes via the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) and National Police (ANP) once the coalition eventually withdrawals its forces.

He recommends a system of tribal engagement similar to Major Jim Gant.  Ralph Peters also believes that Hamid Karzai is doomed – destined to be relegated to the dustbin of history (he would be smart if this happens to flee the country, as it is deadly at the top in Afghanistan).

I am and have been no particular proponent of one strategy versus another, except the hot pursuit of the enemy.  If tribal engagement works to our advantage, then so be it.  I am no admirer of the corruption among the elite and powerful in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter.  It might also be educational to recall the counsel of Lt. Col. Allen West.

You will find many of the elements we have discussed here, including zones of hot pursuit of the enemy, ROE hindering our efforts, and many others.  Population-centric counterinsurgency obviously won’t work in Afghanistan.  Truth be told, our efforts weren’t exclusively population-centric in the Anbar Province of Iraq either.  That’s only a popular myth for the masses.

Will the bottom up approach work in Afghanistan?

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 11 months ago

Steven Pressfield has probably led the charge to engage the tribes as a solution in Afghanistan.  But there is a growing chorus of voices saying the same thing.  The New York Times published an OpEd by Deepa Narayan on going from the bottom up as our strategy.

Myth No. 2: It is a weak state that is the problem. A central tenet in the current debate is that centralism is good and fragmentation is bad. The entire focus has been on presidential politics and on how to create a strong central state.

Our study shows, however, that in Afghanistan, with its rugged terrain, strong tribal affinities and extreme poverty, it is localism that will defeat poverty and corruption and knit a nation together.

More than 19 million people have participated in a community planning and budgeting process to decide how to best use government grants of around $30,000 per village. In a community in Kabul Province that was layered with 12,000 land mines, without a single standing building in 2002, the men decided to invest funds in reviving irrigation canals, and the women in electricity generators. Men in the village told us that animosities between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns had eroded as a result of the collective budgeting negotiations.

This assessment seems confused in that Narayan first hitches her wagon to the notion of strong tribal affinities, and then turns the argument on animosities between tribes being eroded by circumstances.  But if this assessment is confused, Tim Lynch has a better set of arguments for engaging the tribes.

But a seemingly definitive anthropological study on Afghanistan seems to debunk the idea that we can rely heavily on tribes.  It is entitled My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes” in Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army Human Terrain System.  This study doesn’t merely throw cold water on the idea of relying on strong tribal affinities.  It calls into question the very idea of reliance on local control at all.  The fractured nature of Afghan society, the treachery that underlies the familial structure (if there is any structure at all), and the constant internecine fighting, casts a dark shadow over plans to foment anything like what we saw in the Anbar Province in 2006 and 2007.  A few seed quotes follow.

“No clear evidence exists of tribes actually coalescing into large-scale corporate bodies for joint action, even defensively, even for defense of territory.”

“The tribal system is weak in most parts of Afghanistan and cannot provide alternatives to the Taliban or U.S. control. The Pashtuns generally have a tribal identity. Tribal identity is a rather flexible and open notion and should not be confused with tribal institutions, which are what establish enforceable obligations on members of a tribe.”

“… As a matter of fact in most cases tribes do not have observable organizations which could enable them to perform collective actions as a tribe.”

[ ... ]

One reason why the “family tree” model of tribes doesn’t apply to Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan is because of the unique relationship between male father’s-side first cousins. It is so unique to Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan that one anthropologist goes so far as to say that first-cousin hostility is a defining feature of the Pashtun ethnicity.

The word in Pashto for “male father’s-side first cousin” is tarbur, which is, at the same time, also one way of saying “enemy” in Pashto.

Why would first cousins in a tribal society be enemies with each other? The standard model of a Middle Eastern “tribal society” says that close male relatives should be a source of support against more distant “relatives” in other tribes, not enemies.   For Pashtuns, it comes down to competition over the inheritance of land from common ancestors—especially from one’s grandfather on the father’s side.

[ ... ]

“As an example, two […] cousins had neighboring plots. The cousin whose field was more distant from the village walked to his field on an ancient pathway which verged on the plot of his tarbur . There was a simmering dispute over the right to this narrow path which ended in a gunfight and the death of one of the man’s sons.”

[ ... ]

The result of this special kind of intra-family relationship is that, during times when conflicts aggravate first-cousin hostility, the sides don’t necessarily break down along “closest male relative” lines. Whereas in a classical Middle East tribal situation, all the participants in a conflict pick sides based on which side represents their closest male relative, Pashtuns establish temporary factional groupings that are unpredictable and not necessarily based on familial relationships.

The entire document is worthy study for the thinking man or woman on Afghanistan.

My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes”

But even if there is a case to be made for stronger engagement of the locals in Afghanistan, we aren’t anywhere near the tipping point for such a strategy in Afghanistan.  In the Anbar Province in 2006 and 2007 the U.S. Marines were relentless and forceful enough that the idea of joining the insurgency was a distant third or fourth place in priority to joining the coalition.  In Fallujah in 2007 enough al Qaeda and indigenous insurgents had been killed and enough aggressive patrols had been conducted that the remaining locals respected the Marines to the point that every action and reaction by the IPs and Sons of Iraq were taken not only to suppress the insurgency but also to impress the U.S. Marines who were mentoring them.

We are currently on the defensive in Afghanistan and badly in need of more troops.  The advocate of tribal engagement has been bequeathed a high bar with this Leavenworth study, and even if there is a case to be made for such a strategy, it would appear many months and even years into the future, and indeed many Marines and Soldiers, from being a viable strategy.

Fewer Troops is Better: Riding Unicorns Over Rainbows

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 12 months ago

From David Adams and Ann Marlowe, via the WSJ.

From the beginning of 2007 to March 2008, the 82nd Airborne Division’s strategy in Khost proved that 250 paratroopers could secure a province of a million people in the Pashtun belt. The key to success in Khost—which shares a 184 kilometer-long border with Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas—was working within the Afghan system. By partnering with closely supervised Afghan National Security Forces and a competent governor and subgovernors, U.S. forces were able to win the support of Khost’s 13 tribes.

Today, 2,400 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Khost. But the province is more dangerous.

Mohammed Aiaz, a 32-year-old Khosti advising the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team, puts it plainly: “The answer is not more troops, which will put Afghans in more danger.” If troops don’t understand Afghan culture and fail to work within the tribal system, they will only fuel the insurgency. When we get the tribes on our side, that will change. When a tribe says no, it means no. IEDs will be reported and no insurgent fighters will be allowed to operate in or across their area.

Khost once had security forces with tribal links. Between 1988 and 1991, the Soviet client government in Kabul was able to secure much of eastern and southern Afghanistan by paying the tribal militias. Khost was secured by the 25th Division of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which incorporated militias with more than 400 fighters from five of Khost’s 13 major tribes. The mujahedeen were not able to take Khost until internal rifts among Pashtuns in then-President Mohammed Najibullah’s government resulted in a loss of support for the militias in Khost and, eventually, the defection of the 25th Division in April 1991.

The mistake the Najibullah government made was not integrating advisers to train the tribal militias and transform them into a permanent part of the government security forces. During the Taliban period between 1996-2001 the 25th Division dispersed amongst the tribes. Many fled to Pakistan.

When the U.S. invaded in 2001, the 25th Division, reformed under the command of Gen. Kilbaz Sherzai, immediately secured Khost. But the division was disbanded by the new Afghan government for fear of warlordism.

Today, some elements of the 25th still work for the Americans as contract security forces. However, the ANA now stationed in Khost is mainly composed of northern, non-Pashtun Dari speakers, and it is regarded as a foreign body. Without local influence and tribal support, the ANA tends to stay on its bases.

Part of this is our fault. We built the ANA in our own Army’s image. Its soldiers live on nice bases and see themselves as the protectors of Afghanistan from conventional attacks by Pakistan. But to be effective, the ANA must be structured more like a National Guard, responsible for creating civil authority and training the police.

We saw how this could work in the Tani district of Khost starting in 2007. By assisting an ANA company—with a platoon of American paratroopers, a civil affairs team from the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, the local Afghan National Police, and a determined Afghan subgovernor named Badi Zaman Sabari—we secured the district despite its long border with Pakistan.

Raids by the paratroopers under the leadership of Lt. Col. Scott Custer were extremely rare because the team had such good relations with the tribes that they would generally turn over any suspect. These good tribal relations were strengthened further by meeting the communities’ demands for a new paved road, five schools, and a spring water system that supplies 12,000 villagers.

Yet security has deteriorated in Khost, despite increases of U.S. troops in mid-2008. American strategy began to focus more on chasing the insurgents in the mountains instead of securing the towns and villages where most Khostis live.

Analysis & Commentary

Make friends with the right people, empower their men, and ride unicorns over rainbows.  Presto!  Counterinsurgency made simple.  Note that at least one strategic argument all along is that Afghanistan isn’t like Iraq and the tribal awakening may not in fact apply, so it will be harder in Afghanistan than it was in the Anbar Province.  Now Adams and Marlowe turn that argument on its head.  Not only is the tribal awakening possible, but it should be easier in Afghanistan than in Iraq, and more troops are certainly not necessary.

Grim at Blackfive has a roundup of views that complement Marlowe’s plan, but on a more sophisticated level.  But as with Marlowe’s view, Grim’s discussion relies on tribal engagement.  Regular readers know that I reject the narrative (of now mythical and magical proportions) that the campaign for Anbar was all about the tribes.  It was much more complicated than that.

In Haditha it required sand berms to prevent the influx of foreign fighters into the city, combined with a local police chief strong man named Colonel Faruq to bring the town to heel.  In al Qaim it required heavy kinetic operations by the U.S. Marines, combined with a local police chief strong man named Abu Ahmed to keep out foreign fighters and bring local insurgents under control.  In Fallujah in 2007 it required heavy kinetic operations by the U.S. Marines followed on by gated communities, biometrics, and block captains (or Muktars) and strong men police all over the city.

Whereas Captain Travis Patriquin’s outline for counterinsurgency in Anbar seems to have carried the day when it comes to narrative, even in Ramadi (where the tribal awakening supposedly got its start), Colonel MacFarland’s observations are telling concerning the tribes upon his arrival to Anbar.

… the sheiks were sitting on the fence.

They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.

The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.

While Captain Patriquin wanted to talk to Sheik Risha, U.S. forces were engaged in heavy combat to shut down his smuggling lines, even at the expense of killing his tribal and family members.  The U.S. Marine Corps operations in Iraq are best described by diplomacy with a gun (and this is consistent with the literally countless interviews of Marines that I have conducted).  When it was all finished, more than one thousand Marines had perished in Anbar, and tens of thousands of both indigenous insurgents and foreign fighters had died.  There were no unicorns or rainbows in Anbar, popular myths to the contrary.

In spite of the sophistication of the Anbari tribes compared to the Afghan tribes, even they couldn’t hold off al Qaeda without heavy kinetics by the Marines.  The Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan were also said to have a strong sense of unity and organization, that is, until Baitullah Mehsud had some 600 tribal elders assassinated.  The Pashtun tribal structure is said to have been decimated by the Pakistan Taliban.

Upon the initial liberation of Garmsir by the U.S. Marines in 2008, the tribal elders pleaded with the Marines to join with them to fight the Taliban.  The 24th MEU did, at least until their deployment ended.  The British weren’t able to hold Garmsir, and no U.S. Marines followed up the 24th MEU into the Garmsir (in a tip of the hat to the “economy of force” campaign).  Thus did Operation Khanjar have to be launched in 2009 to do some of the same things that the Marines did in 2008.  Even now with U.S. Marines present in the Helmand Province, fear of retribution for cooperating with the Marines against the Taliban is pervasive.

There are certain elements of Marlowe’s analysis that are salient.  You cannot find more criticism of the ANA and ANP than I have lodged, and I objected to the use of ANA soldiers from Tajik areas to control Pashtun tribes before Marlowe did.  But for those naive analysts who believe that reorganization of the ANA is the answer to our problems in Afghanistan, you only need to know that the U.S. Marines are still trying to talk the ANA troops aligned with them to go on night time patrols.

There may also be some virtue to the notion of better engagement of the tribes.  Steven Pressfield has a continuing stream of conversation and analysis at his blog on this very topic (to be fair, I should also mention that Joshua Foust has another view on this, and both positions are well worth studying).  But after the tribes are engaged and the ANA has been reorganized, the tribes cannot stop the Taliban and allied foreign fighters alone, and the ANA is far from ready to take on defense of their country from internal threats.

What Davis and Marlowe are missing is the general evolution of the campaign and the warp and woof of the Afghan countryside now as compared to the utopia they describe.  The Taliban have grown stronger, and it will take heavy kinetics, patrolling, policing and engagement of the population by other-than-ANA forces to dislodge them.

There aren’t any easy solutions, but the general reluctance to send additional troops being demonstrated by this administration cannot possibly be a doctrinal or strategic basis for denying the necessary resources to complete the campaign.  U.S. troops are the currency upon which the campaign will succeed or fail.

The Sunni Tribes Respond to Osama Bin Laden

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 9 months ago

When the pivotal awakening figure Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was assassinated by a roadside bomb, the response from the Anbaris was swift and stern.  “All the tribes agreed to fight al Qaeda until the last child in Anbar,” his brother, Ahmed Abu Risha.”

This loss of the heart of the population has harmed the effort by al Qaeda, most particularly in Anbar, but extending into Baghdad and North to the Diyala province as well.  With their rooms of horror in Anbar and torture complexes in Diyala, Bin Laden had to come up with something for the Sunnis in Iraq, and in his latest audio he apologized for a few mistakes here and there, but reminded the Sunnis that everyone is human and humans make mistakes.  He then goes on to warn the tribes against siding with the U.S.

“I advise those who follow the path of temptation should wash out this disgrace by repentance,” he said in the 56-minute recording posted on the internet on Saturday.

“This participation [in the Awakening Councils] is a great apostasy and sedition that will lead them to Hell.”

His verbal abuse of the Sunnis – as if they cannot understand their own religion – betrays the fundamental duplicity in his argument.  Earlier in his speech he rebuked those who feel that al Qaeda threatens or harms the innocent, yet then goes on to define the innocent as those not guilty of siding with the U.S., a set of criteria perfect for al Qaeda to argue that they should continue with their torture of the Sunnis in Iraq who do not side with al Qaeda.

Tautology that it is, the Sunnis of Iraq were neither intimidated nor impressed with his logic.

The Al-Anbar district commander said that Al-Qaeda had no influence in his province and that his forces would continue to hunt down the organization until the last of its men was eliminated.

A forces commander in the Salah Al-Din district, in northern Baghdad, called Al-Qaeda “gangs and highwaymen who harm the honor of the women of the Iraqis and shed [Iraqis’ blood,” and added that the deeds of bin Laden’s men were counter to Islamic principles and to morality.

A member of the Awakening forces in the Diyala district accused Al-Qaeda of spreading corruption in Iraq and of attempting to occupy Iraq in the guise of serving the religion and Islam, and promised to eliminate Al-Qaeda members.

Al Qaeda is seventy five percent diminished in Iraq, and fifty one al Qaeda in Iraq leaders were killed or captured in the month of December, 2007.  While much of this success is due to kinetic operations by U.S. troops, there was certainly much participation by “concerned citizens” and other tribal protectors.  When a people promise to eradicate you by fighting to their last child, you must know that your future is bleak.

Concerning the Tribes

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago

Marc Lynch and Nibras Kazimi are in a bit of a tiff – I suppose – over some extremely detailed and nuanced views concerning the replacement for the now deceased sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha, his brother Ahmed Abu Reesha, now leader of the so-called “awakening” in Anbar.  I won’t dive into Marc’s discussion, and I recommend that both articles be studied by the reader.  I am fond of Kazimi’s analyses and believe him to be a smart and savvy Iraq analyst.  But there is one issue I want briefly to tackle that keeps coming up in articles, discussion threads here and elsewhere, comments here and elsewhere, and verbal debates.  It is the issue of the tribes.

Kazimi clearly is jealous for the idea that the tribes must be considered ad hoc societal building blocks, and are a throwback to medieval times.  In this most recent article he says concerning Ahmed Reesha that his:

… primary point was that the tribes were not a substitute for the state, rather their goal in the Awakening Council was to fortify the institutions of the state. The tribal role aims to nominate young men for the Iraqi Army and the security services, much like a pillar of civil society augmenting the performance of the state. But rather than dwell on military bluster and how they managed to fight Al-Qaeda in Anbar Province, Sheikh Abu Risha was more interested in talking about economics: he wanted the state’s help in creating jobs, in re-invigorating the province’s industries and in re-building what had been destroyed.

This echoes his earlier observation that “Sunnis should be encouraged to throw in their lot with the New Iraq, rather than falling back into the tribal identities of Iraq’s past.”  Kazimi has taken issue with the Multinational Force handling of the tribes, saying that the planning:

 … gives tribes too much authority over the individual, and apparently uses outlandish claims from tribal leaders themselves keen on promoting their own importance. It is one thing to be proud of one’s tribe—I take pride in being a Nakha’i—but it’s a whole different matter to take orders from one’s nominal tribal sheikh. These social structures have been fraying under the myriad forces of sedentarization, urbanization, nation states, sectarianism, land reform and dictatorship to the point where tribal sheikhs are now rendered a quaint, “savage” aristocracy that the men in power—now wearing Western suits—would tolerate and do small favors for.

This is not too dissimilar from the rebuttal of my position of strong advocacy of payment to the “concerned citizens,” including tribal leaders, for community security.  The charge is made that this approach will ultimately lead to the arming of the Sunnis to engage in civil war once U.S. forces begin to stand down in earnest.  I have responded in brief to this, saying:

The argument makes no sense to me that goes thusly: “Since our strategy cannot assure national success and is therefore imperfect, we should not pursue it.” Under this argument, no strategy could ever be pursued under any circumstances. We live in an imperfect world, so our COIN strategy will be imperfect.

Or another way of saying it would be this. Before we had indigenous Sunnis allied with foreigners, all fighting ISF and the U.S. Now we have the foreigners having been essentially defeated, with the Sunnis providing their own security and allied with the U.S. I cannot see any circumstances where we would want to return to the former conditions in lieu of the latter.

The U.S. hasn’t ‘armed’ the Sunnis so that they can now be a destabilizing force for the nation-state any more than they were previously. They were armed before, they are now. They were a destabilizing force to the nation-state before, they are less so now.

I have been entirely pragmatic in my advocacy of tactics, inasmuch as I supported the notion of dealing with the muktars in Fallujah, a throwback to the Saddam era.  Whether tribal leaders, muktars, families or whatever, the issue is one of the best and in fact only remaining viable strategy to be pursued.  If we fail to deal with the societal building block that best suits the ends of the counterinsurgency, then the only remaining option is to lay waste to the country and a people.  This, of course, we will not do.  We must work with the Sunnis, and this option presents itself as the best available at the time.

The notion that the government can be trusted by Sunnis at this juncture seems preposterous.  Kazimi’s advocacy of the administration as the identity for the Sunnis would ring true if Maliki didn’t have a pathetic, boyish devotion to Ali al Sistani, a fear of Moqtada al Sadr and his voting bloc, and trepidation of, combined with brotherhood with, the barbaric Shi’a in Iran.  In short, if the Maliki administration had displayed anything but ineptitude as a governing body, the argument has bite.  But in light of the current situation, it seems to me that no one can blame the Sunnis for reversion to the most basic building block of society.

What disturbs me more than anything else is that the family unit is not the most basic building block rather than the tribe.  Any society which has as its most basic building block anything but the family – whether tribe, city-state, nation – cannot long survive (although I suppose that families – even large ones – need a larger constituency within which to operate, as well as the fact that they might consider their tribe “family”).  Concerning the Sunnis, Kazimi knows that the ball is not in their court.  They have made their wishes known.  They want their tribesmen incorporated into the ISF and police.  They can do no more than they have already done.

The United States managed to find ways to protect the minority: the electoral college, two Senators from every state regardless of population, and the rule of law, among other things.  The governing Shi’a will find ways to do the same for the Sunnis and Kurds, or there will not be peace in Iraq.  The burden is with the administration, not the Sunnis.


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