The Paradox and Absurdities of Carbon-Fretting and Rewilding

Herschel Smith · 28 Jan 2024 · 4 Comments

The Bureau of Land Management is planning a truly boneheaded move, angering some conservationists over the affects to herd populations and migration routes.  From Field & Stream. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released a draft plan outlining potential solar energy development in the West. The proposal is an update of the BLM’s 2012 Western Solar Plan. It adds five new states—Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming—to a list of 11 western states already earmarked…… [read more]

Language and Interpreters in War and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

Joshua Foust has a good commentary at The New York Times concerning interpreters in counterinsurgency.

IN counterinsurgency, the most important thing is winning over the local population. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in charge of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, was right to warn that a “crisis of confidence among Afghans” imperils the effort to rebuild the country. For most American troops, however, the only connection they have to the locals — whether soldiers in the Afghan army or villagers they’re trying to secure — is through their interpreters.

United States Army doctrine describes interpreters as “vital,” which is fairly obvious given the bevy of languages spoken in Afghanistan: Dari, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek and others. Yet the way the military uses translators is too often haphazard and sometimes dangerously negligent. Many units consider interpreters to be necessary evils, and even those who are Americans of Afghan descent are often scorned or mistreated for being too obviously “different.”

Mission Essential Personnel, the primary contractor providing interpreters in Afghanistan, has basic guidelines: interpreters need to be given a place to sleep, for example, and fed. But beyond that, how they are treated is often left up to the individual unit. Many times, they are treated the way they should be: as vital members of a team. Sometimes, however, they are shockingly disrespected.

Earlier this year, I traveled through central Afghanistan as a civilian member of an American Provincial Reconstruction Team. We had a translator — we called her Brooklyn — who had been born and raised in California. During the initial briefing before our convoy set out, however, the team’s commander, an Air Force colonel, demanded that Brooklyn leave the briefing area, referring to her as “that local woman.”

The briefing slides were marked “SECRET,” which caused the colonel understandable alarm. Brooklyn, however, had a security clearance allowing her to be present. Perhaps the real problem was that she wore a headscarf, as one would expect a pious Muslim woman to do.

The next day, as we were driving between two bases, we ran into a traffic snarl at a bridge, with dozens of Afghan soldiers and police officers milling about. Our colonel, who had left his own translator back at his base, got out of his Humvee and asked Brooklyn to begin translating for him. After discussing the issue with the Afghan forces, she explained that they had found several bombs underneath the bridge, and were waiting for an American bomb disposal team to arrive. They had likely saved our lives, but we got that message only because we had an interpreter, the one the colonel had treated like an enemy spy the night before.

“Your interpreter is way more important than your weapon,” Cory Schulz, an Army major who led a tactical team embedded with Afghan troops in Paktika Province, told me. With an interpreter, he explained, you can command hundreds of Afghan soldiers; with a gun, you can only defend yourself.

Interpreters do more than talk and listen. Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, United States troops receive only minimal cultural training before they deploy. Thus interpreters often serve as cultural advisors — helping Americans learn the nuances of typical Afghan behavior.

Major Schulz said of his “terp,” as they’re often called, “he saved my life more than once.” Once the interpreter helped his unit identify a suicide bomber in a large crowd before the man could activate the explosives in his vest. The would-be bomber was acting nervously in a way that Afghans could recognize but that Americans were oblivious to, and the translator picked up on it.

American troops in some isolated parts of Afghanistan have little hope of such guidance. In March I met some officers at Bagram Air Force Base, north of Kabul, who were trying to find an interpreter who spoke Pashai; the Pashai represent only about 1 percent of Afghanistan’s population, but live in some of the most violent and insurgency-ridden areas of the country’s northeast.

Mission Essential Personnel couldn’t supply anyone who spoke the language, the officers told me, yet they felt that being able to speak to the Pashai could prove important for the war effort. So they went to the camp on the outskirts of Bagram where many interpreters live and found one who could speak the rare language. (Later I was told that he had been assigned to a battalion in Khost, 100 miles south of any Pashai-speaking areas, because he also spoke Pashto.)

American officers and enlisted soldiers repeatedly told me how vital interpreters are. Yet there remains no standardized way for units to use them, which can lead to insulting incidents like the one Brooklyn had to endure.

Often, the insults are more subtle, but more personal. In Khost Province, I met an interpreter named Afzal, who worked for a team of Army civilians doing economic and cultural research. Afzal had helped this team for several years, through three rotations of leadership and personnel. He had been trying for a long time to get a visa from the State Department to come to the United States, something many interpreters hope for because of threats to their families. Eventually, extremists began posting threatening letters on his door overnight.

Afzal told me that two years earlier, the team’s leader, a lieutenant colonel, had promised to submit the paperwork for the visa and vouch for his status as an interpreter, but he apparently never did. The next team leader, another officer, made the same promise, but also apparently never followed through. It was not until the arrival of the third team leader, a civilian, early this year that Afzal was able to submit his application. The delay has complicated the procedure — for this year the State Department cut the number of available visas for interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq to 50 from 500.

As for winning the local population being the most important thing in counterinsurgency (or its center of gravity), I advocate the idea of lines of effort such that killing the insurgents is also similarly important.  But Joshua has it exactly right concerning the need for language training and good, reliable interpreters – interpreters who are paid and treated well.

This idea of dumb rules and interpreters not being allowed in the states is as old as the campaign in Iraq.  There is a robust discussion at the Small Wars Journal concerning whether this is a typical malady or an atypical occurrence.  I cannot provide any further guidance or detail concerning the frequency of problems.  I can say that in the campaign for Anbar, Iraq, interpreters for the Marines were considered Marines themselves.  That’s how well respected they were and how necessary their skills to the campaign.


Lessons in COIN

Lousy Excuses Against Language Training for Counterinsurgency

The Enemy of My Enemy

Interpreters, Language and Counterinsurgency

Brief Initial Take on McChrystal’s Report to Gates

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

There will be much more on McChrystal’s report to Gates in the coming days.  But my brief initial take is that there are parts of the assessment that aren’t serious.  It says “The ANSF is currently not large enough to cope with the demands of fighting the resilient insurgency in Afghanistan.”

The ANSF aren’t currently capable of fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan for reasons other than their size, as our coverage of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police shows.  My assessment is that Afghanistan needs more qualified, less drug addicted, more dedicated, more professional forces.  In addition to this, the GNP of Afghanistan cannot support an ANSF as large at it currently is, much less larger.  Thus McChrystal’s advisors live in a daydream.  This doesn’t bode well for the balance of the study.


Our friends at the Small Wars Journal have done a good roundup of initial reactions to McChrystal’s report to Gates.  Bill Roggio in particular reports that McChrystal to resign if not given resources for Afghanistan.  But this isn’t what the McClatchy report says.  They say that:

Three officers at the Pentagon and in Kabul told McClatchy that the McChrystal they know would resign before he’d stand behind a faltering policy that he thought would endanger his forces or the strategy.

This is a quite a bit different.  McChrystal has requested 45,000 additional troops.  He needs more – and he needs to rescind his tactical directive  before more Marines die as they did in Kunar.  The unintended consequences of lack of force projection (i.e., the remedy) will prove to be worse than the “disease” itself.  It will kill the patient.

More on Bank of America Dishonoring the U.S. Marine Corps

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

In Bank of America Removes American Flags Honoring Dead Marine we briefly discussed the ugly incident where a BofA branch removed American flags honoring a U.S. Marine who had perished in Operation Enduring Freedom.  We demanded that a Bank of America executive weigh in with comments explaining the policy that required such a thing – or otherwise, why a branch manager would take it upon herself to do such a thing.  Whether the BofA executives have not read our demands or are just cowards is not yet clear.  But here is more to explain the ugly incident.  First is a video of part of the funeral procession.  The second is mostly audio explaining the incident itself.  You can be the judge.

Bank of America Removes American Flags Honoring Dead Marine

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

Greenville, South Carolina saw the arrival of a Marine who perished in Afghanistan, and Gaffney, S.C. was his ultimate resting place.

Only the faint sound of lightly marching feet could be heard as hundreds stood silent on the Greenville-Spartanburg International tarmac Wednesday while fully adorned Marines carried Lance Cpl. Chris Fowlkes’ flag-draped coffin.

The solemn arrival began an afternoon-long procession that ultimately wound through the streets of the 20-year-old Marine’s hometown of Gaffney, where businesses shut down and mourners lined the streets.

The homecoming came six days after the former Gaffney High School football player died in a military hospital in Germany from injuries sustained a week earlier in an explosion in the Helman province of Afghanistan.

Well-wishers waved flags, saluted and shed tears as an army of police cars escorted Fowlkes’ family along the 40-mile stretch from the airport to the town.

Lance Corporal Chris Fowlkes was a popular and well known young man in Gaffney, and a brave warrior who gave his life in the service of his country.  It was seemingly a very heart-felt and patriotic funeral procession.  But all was not well in Gaffney, S.C.

A South Carolina Bank of America branch is drawing criticism Thursday after an employee reportedly ordered the removal of American flags placed to honor a fallen Marine over fears that people would be offended.

The Palmetto Scoop received one eyewitness email claiming that the branch manager at Bank of America’s Gaffney branch at 1602 West Floyd Baker Blvd. “told a citizen who was preparing the route for a U.S. Marine killed in action in Afghanistan by placing small American flags along the roadway that the flags might upset some of her customers.”

Said the outraged tipster, “[The branch manager] took them down and made the citizen go in to get them if she didn’t want them thrown away.”

The flags were part of the funeral procession of Lance Corporal Christopher Fowlkes, 20, who died last week after an explosion in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

WSPA-TV has also received similar tips about the “flag flap.”

A teller at the branch confirmed to TPS that the branch manager had been there around the time of the incident but had left for the day.

Bank of America released a statement apologizing for the incident and celled it a misunderstanding.

“We want to ensure the community knows how deeply proud we are of the men and women who have sacrificed so much in service to our country,” the statement said. “The bank does fly the American Flag at our locations throughout the country and flags were displayed in front of our banking center in Gaffney the evening prior to our dedicated Marine returning home.”

UPDATE: WCBD in Charleston reports that Bank of America said the incident was a “miscommunication in corporate policy.” That raises the question, which policy would require employees to remove American flags that are part of a funeral procession for a fallen Marine?

One commenter says “You Lie.”  The branch in Lexington [Main Street, Lexington, South Carolina, United States of America] refuses to fly the flag the tellers tell me they have on site. The flag pole has been naked for over 2 years now. It is a disgrace, and a poke in the eye.”

So should BofA rename their corporation to bank of Russia?  Is it Bank of America, or is it not?  With whose offense were they worried?  Really.  Who, exactly, would have come into the bank and demanded that an American flag be removed for a Marine who perished in Afghanistan?  And why would Bank of AMERICA have cared?

What corporate policy was in effect?  Was this a branch-specific issue, or is there a corporate policy that forbids the displaying of American flags for the fear of causing offense?  Who was responsible for removing the flags?  Has corporate policy been changed?  If so, why was the policy in effect?  If not, what is the justification for the policy?  Will Bank of AMERICA issue a formal apology to the Fowlkes family first and then to AMERICA?

There are many unanswered questions concerning this ugly incident.  I feel that it’s necessary for a BofA official to formally comment on this article to enlighten my readers.

In the mean time, my most sincere condolences goes out to the Fowlkes family.  God be with you through this most difficult time.

More Thoughts on Marines and Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

Briefly following up on Taliban Ambush in Eastern Kunar Kills Four U.S. Marines, we know now that there will be an investigation of this incident reviewing whether the ROE was a contributing cause to four Marines perishing.  There have been some blog posts and other discussion forums questioning the veracity of the reporting done that day by McClatchy.  Christian at Defense Tech (whom I respect) says Jonathan Landay with McClatchy is “a well-respected journalist whom I’ve known for years.”  I see absolutely no reason prima facie to doubt the veracity or accuracy of the report.

If the report had vacillated I would be less strident about this incident.  But the report was clear.  The Marines were under fire and demanded artillery not once, but twice.  They were denied artillery and CAS not once,  but twice – for the stated reason that the ROE didn’t allow it.

McChrystal has released his tactical directive, but let’s be clear about this.  There is what is written on paper and the unwritten context.  Here is the unwritten context.

“If you are in a situation where you are under fire from the enemy… if there is any chance of creating civilian casualties or if you don’t know whether you will create civilian casualties, if you can withdraw from that situation without firing, then you must do so,” said McChrystal.

There is always a chance.  Always.  But here is something that has no chance of happening.  No investigation will find that a tactical directive written or endorsed by a four star general was responsible for anything bad.  The directive will be exonerated and the field grade officers responsible for denying artillery had better begin looking for another line of work.

You heard it here first.

Why are we in the Helmand Province?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

In Helmand is a Sideshow – Or Not I addressed the charge that had been leveled in a WSJ article that Helmand was a sideshow to the real fight.  Summarizing, the author said:

American forces have been waging a major offensive in the neighboring southern province of Helmand, the center of Afghanistan’s drug trade. Some U.S. military officials believe the Taliban have taken advantage of the American preoccupation with Helmand to infiltrate Kandahar and set up shadow local governments and courts throughout the city.

“Helmand is a sideshow,” said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. “Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that’s why they want it.”

I responded:

The Helmand Province is the home of the indigenous insurgency, the Afghanistan Taliban, and its capital is Lashkar Gah.  Without hitting the Taliban’s recruiting grounds, fund raising and revenue development, training grounds, and logistical supply lines, the campaign cannot be won.  Focusing on the population centers is a loser strategy, doomed to sure failure.  Controlling the cities as some sort of prison while the roads are all controlled by Taliban is just what the Russians did, only to withdraw in ignominy.  The Marines are in Helmand because just like Anbar, Iraq at the time, it is the worst place on earth.

But the narrative won’t go away, and even seems to be gaining momentum.  Joe Klein weighs in with the next installment.

The U.S. military does not move in mysterious ways. It plods, it plans, it plots out every logistical detail before launching an initiative. Things take time. For example: not all of the 21,000 additional forces that President Obama authorized for Afghanistan last winter have even arrived in the country yet. For another example: the battle plan those troops were asked to execute was devised primarily by General David McKiernan, who was replaced about the time the troops started arriving. McKiernan’s plan reflected his experience in conventional warfare: he chose to deploy the troops where the bad guys were — largely in Helmand province on the Pakistani border, home of nearly 60% of the world’s opium crop, a place that was firmly in Taliban control. But pursuing conventional warfare in Afghanistan is about as effective as using a football in a tennis match. The Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine says you go where the people are concentrated and protect them, then gradually move into the sectors the bad guys control. That is not what we’re doing in Afghanistan. In addition to all the other problems we’re facing — the corruption of the Karzai government, the election chaos, the porous Pakistani border — it has become apparent that we’re pursuing the wrong military strategy in this frustrating war.

Note how the narrative has graduated to the strategy being implemented was McKiernan’s, not McChrystal’s, and McChrystal had no choice in the matter due to logistical inertia.  Continuing with the “McChrystal is powerless to change things” meme:

Upon his arrival in Afghanistan as McKiernan’s replacement last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. “The ship was moving in that direction,” a military expert told me, “and it would have been difficult to turn it around.” Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course. The additional troops were needed immediately to blunt the momentum of the Taliban and also to provide security for the Afghan elections. The trouble was, the troops would have been better deployed in Helmand’s neighbor to the east — Kandahar province, especially in Kandahar city and its suburbs. “Kandahar is the center of gravity in this insurgency,” says John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who helped write the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine. “It is as important now as Fallujah was in Iraq in 2004.”

Kandahar is the capital city of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority, home of both the Karzai family and Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. It is where the Taliban began. It has been run, in a staggeringly corrupt manner, by Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai — who, according to U.S. investigators, has extensive links to the opium trade. As the Karzai government has grown more unpopular, the situation in Kandahar has deteriorated. The Taliban own the night, slipping death threats under the doors of those who would cooperate with the government. In Iraq the military’s counterinsurgency strategy turned around a similarly bleak urban situation — notably in Baghdad, where U.S. troops helped the Iraqis regain control of neighborhoods by setting up and staffing joint security stations. But the troops who should be securing Kandahar are fighting an elusive enemy in Helmand.

Following Clausewitz into a single center of gravity for a campaign is the reason behind Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN, and I still continue to believe that nothing so easy and clear will present itself as a single focal point for our efforts.  But the statement concerning Fallujah in 2004 is odd.

Kandahar doesn’t seem anything like Fallujah in 2004.  The security situation in Kandahar may be degrading, but in Fallujah it was so bad that at the beginning of al Fajr the city was free of noncombatants and only fighters were left behind, many or most of whom were high on epinephrine and morphine.  The campaign in Anbar saw more than 1000 U.S. Marines perish, way more than have died in Operation Enduring Freedom between all branches of the service.  Fallujah saw continued operations into 2007 with Operation Alljah, but during the fight for Anbar Marines were also deployed to Haditha, al Qaim, Hit, the Syrian border and other rural areas.

The argument to control the streets of Kandahar makes sense if that argument doesn’t also hinge upon removing the Marines from Helmand where the fighters recruit, train, raise their support, and get ingress to and egress from Afghanistan.  In Now Zad Taliban fighters have been so unmolested that they have used that area for R&R.  The city of Now Zad – with an erstwhile population of 30,000+ civilians – is deserted with only insurgents remaining to terrorize the area so that inhabitants don’t return.  The Marines are so under-resourced that they can only fight the Taliban to a standstill.  It is so dangerous in Now Zad that the Marines deployed there are the only ones to bring two trauma doctors with them.

It is a strange argument indeed that sends Marines to Kandahar while the insurgents in Now Zad have separated themselves off from civilians and invited a fight.  So send more Marines to Kandahar to control the streets.  The Taliban bullying will stop once a Regimental Combat Team arrives.  This should not be too difficult to pull off.  As I have said before, there are so many Marines at Camp Lejeune that some units are not even in the same barracks, and more barracks are being built.  Not since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom has the Corps been so large with so many Marines garrisoned in the states.  Furthermore, if they aren’t in the states they are on board amphibious assault docks doing nothing.  Entire Battalions of Marine infantry – doing nothing for nine months.

But if the resources to control Kandahar are there, the argument to remove them from Helmand is not.  Whether the sources for the WSJ and Joe Klein’s article are wishing for the narrative to gain traction or there is in reality a sense that Helmand is a sideshow is irrelevant.  The strategists need to sense the reality that Helmand is not a sideshow, and that it is a very real line of effort in the campaign.  Without hitting the insurgents where they live we will follow the Russians out of Afghanistan.

Marines in Kunar

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago


A U.S. Marine fires at Taliban fighters during an insurgent attack on U.S. and Afghan troops in the Watapor Valley.

Did ROE Lead to Marine Deaths?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive is at the same time entertaining, sardonic, witty, and when he wants to be, quite serious.  He is an asset to the Milblogging community, certainly more so than I.  But occasionally we must disagree, and I’m sure that James is okay with that.  Today is one of those times.  He writes:

The answer is no. Michelle Malkin has a post up now titled “Report: Rules of engagement led to soldiers’ deaths”. I wrote her to explain why this is not the case.

When Gen. McChrystal released his new Tactical Directive there was much consternation about the fact that there were strict limitations about when strikes against civilian locations were authorized. This was done to change our methods of dealing with enemy activity from dropping a bomb or indirect fire on them, to disengaging if possible to avoid killing civilians. This is a wise move if we are ever to gain the trust and help of the Afghan people. The new directive specifically states that if a unit cannot safely disengage, then they can use fire support against civilian locations.

But it was not the Rules of Engagement (ROE) that caused their deaths. If this report from a McClatchy journalist is accurate then mistakes were made. But the mistakes were in improperly applying the ROE and in disregarding the commander on the ground saying that there were no civilians in jeopardy regardless. If as reported they were denied this fire support due to an overly tight and wrong interpretation of the ROE, and worse if the chain of command failed to listen to the unit in contact advising that the call for fire would not harm civilians, then heads should roll. But let’s find out if that is the case before we jump to judgment. And you will pardon me if I decline to take a story published by one journalist as the gospel truth on this. None of this, however, points to the ROE as the cause of these Marines deaths.

Where Michelle has been is an enigma.  I covered this eight days ago.  But without rehearsing again the idea that there are unintended consequences to every action we ever take or decision we ever make (including ROE), we’ll tackle only the issue of this specific engagement.

First, as for the McClatchy reporter, I see no reason to doubt his account.  I wasn’t there.  Second, based on direct reports on ROE experiences from a certain Marine with whom I am close, an Army intelligence contact based in Ramadi several years ago, and extensive interviews of other Marines, I just don’t think it’s as clear as follow the written ROE and if you fail to provide support for your troops you’re an incompetent toad and should be flogged.  Things that are made out to be black and white are in reality under the stress and pressure and fog of battle only shades of gray.

Based on all indications, there is no question that the ROE contributed to this catastrophe.  It may not have been the only contributing cause, but it weighs large in the scheme of things.  A different decision, i.e., to support the Marines with artillery, might have averted the deaths of four Marines.  That decision was made based on the rules as they commanders understood them.  The communications they had directly from the battle had to be sifted through “what ifs,” and “is it possible that,” and the knowledge that Lt. Col. Chessani was brought up on charges for merely failing to conduct an investigation over the incidents at Haditha, Iraq.

So it’s one thing to demand that heads roll, and quite another to acknowledge that the formal rules by which our warriors are charged with crimes might have led to being hamstrung during battle.  As I have observed before, the counsel to consider the holistic consequences of actions in battle should never have been dealt with as a set of rules or a tactical directive.

Generals should teach, enable, inspire, create strategy, and lead.  When they issue tactical directives to Lance Corporals and Sergeants in the field, our military establishment has lost its way in a morass of micromanagement and unnecessary details.

Cyber Exploitation

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

Today at The Captain’s Journal:


Take careful note.  This is a visit from the Chinese Army, searching the terms “cyber exploitation and offensive operations.”

Now recall TCJ articles:

China’s Escalating Unrestricted Warfare Against the U.S.

China and U.S. at War

China’s Unrestricted Warfare Against the U.S.

Knife Blogging

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

I have had my eyes on a knife at the MCX (Marine Corps Exchange) at Camp Lejeune for a while, and Sunday it was purchased for me.

2009C 398

This is considered by Ka-Bar to be a utility knife (at least, it is included under the rubric “utility” on their web site).  But I must admit that in a long history of ownership of knives I have never held such a solid, hefty knife with such close machining precision in the action.  It has a stainless steel blade with a partially serrated edge, and it is extremely sharp.  Its folder is heavy enough that it has the feel of something special – something different than the simple camping and hiking knife.  It has a no-slip grip.

The sheath shows that Ka-Bar knows that this is more than a utility knife.  It holds the knife tight and has a belt loop or two loops for molle strap attachment to a tactical vest, vertical or horizontal orientation with Velcro and snap closure.  This would be a good gift for a Soldier or Marine deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Ka-Bar has their own description.  They call it the Mule Folder, Serrated Edge.  I’m not saying anything about the price at the MCX compared to commercial price.

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