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]

Counterinsurgency and the Enervation of the Warrior Spirit

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 11 months ago

I find much with which to agree when Bing West weighs in, and he has done so on counterinsurgency in an odd context: he is reviewing three books.  I will focus on his review of Kilcullen’s book, Counterinsurgency, by copying the parts relevant to my observations.

According to Kilcullen, the theory that nation building is synonymous with counterinsurgency began in 2006 with a “group of intelligent and combat-experienced junior officers working quietly to change the way that military organizations thought and operated.” At that time, too many U.S. battalions were charging around Iraq in search of an ephemeral enemy, rousting civilians whose retaliation was aiding the insurgents. Kilcullen’s “intelligent junior officers” wanted to revise doctrine so that U.S. soldiers would protect rather than harass the population. Their efforts were codified in Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24), which defined nation building as a military mission and focused on population protection rather than offensives against the enemy.

My first observation has to do with the fact that there are many defenders of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine who ascribe to it false beliefs.  That is, they do not understand that it is an either-or relationship in Kilcullen’s view (and in FM 3-24), not a both-and relationship.  It isn’t about both targeting the enemy and winning hearts and minds by protecting the population.  It’s about jettisoning the notion of chasing or attacking the enemy altogether.  Population-centric counterinsurgency is an exclusive-use procedure to the doctrinaire COIN officers.  Merely incorporating population considerations doesn’t do it.  To them it is a radical paradigm shift.  Of course, it is one with which I disagree.  Continuing:

But while 45 percent of U.S. Army officers believed that the publication of FM 3-24 had significant influence in changing field operations, only 22 percent of the Marine Corps’s upper ranks concurred. Success in Iraq emanated from Anbar, an area assigned to the marines. There, various Sunni tribes came over to the strongest tribe of them all—the Americans—and turned against al-Qaeda.

In this now-famous province, there was scant “nation building.” The Sunnis in Anbar distrusted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a sectarian Shia who ignored local officials and withheld funding. When General David Petraeus took command, his brilliance lay in building on the momentum already created from the bottom up, eventually paying one hundred thousand Sunni “Sons of Iraq” to protect their local neighborhoods. The United States was able to turn the tables because the Sunnis tired of fighting well-equipped, well-trained and well-informed U.S. armed forces, not because Iraqi politicians put aside their thievery and selfishness.

Bing is right.  There was scant nation building in the Anbar Province.  Bing is wrong to ascribe the Sons of Iraq program to Petraeus (Odierno was responsible for championing the idea, while the Marines were first to come up with the idea and implement it with U.S. Marine Corps funds).  But it’s no mistake that Marine Corps officers don’t buy into the idea of population-centric COIN as an exclusive-use procedure.  They didn’t do it in the Anbar Province, and they won.

IN AFGHANISTAN, population protection and nation building have been emphasized at the unintended expense of aggressive war fighting. The top commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, has issued severe restrictions on the use of artillery and air support. While there is an admirable moral aspect to this restraint, the strategic rationale is less clear. If NATO so alienates the population by accidentally killing civilians that many more join the Taliban, then why do the Taliban deliberately kill three times as many ordinary Afghans without causing three times the backlash, leading to their defeat?

Kilcullen recommends “putting the well-being of noncombatant civilians ahead of any other consideration, even—in fact, especially—ahead of killing the enemy.” That too is a wise and moral admonition. But don’t expect reciprocity. The Pashtun tribes do not betray the Taliban in their midst. Few are arrested, and even fewer are put behind bars, because the police and judges routinely accept bribes in return for releases. The result is that Afghanistan on a per capita basis holds fewer criminals (insurgents included) in jail than does Sweden.

Based on his infantry experience and training, Kilcullen composes doctrinal essays; they are meant to provide signposts and general guidance. When he writes prescriptions such as “focus on the population . . . and fight the enemy only when he gets in the way,” others take him too literally. In southern Helmand Province, for instance, visiting American officials routinely stroll through markets that were until recently under Taliban control. Yet when U.S. troops in Helmand attacked enemy strongholds far from the marketplaces, they were criticized for violating the doctrine of protecting the population.

Their commander, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, in a conversation with me, responded, “Of course we guard the local markets. But I won’t grant the enemy a sanctuary to decide when to attack those markets. Wherever the Taliban run, I’m coming after them.”

What a strange and bizarre world in which we live.  A U.S. Marine Corps general must defend his attacks against the enemy from attacks within the U.S. military.  Finally:

Because they are partnered with our troops, Afghan soldiers are copying our rules of engagement and risk-avoidance procedures. Since they wear our heavy armor, they too cannot pursue the light and mobile Taliban forces. When the enemy initiates contact, the Afghan soldiers are trained to wait alongside our troops until our attack helicopters force the Taliban to flee. The Afghan soldiers will not be able to fight that way as U.S. resources are reduced. The Afghan security forces simply cannot take over the fight anytime soon. By not sending in sufficient troops years ago and by pursuing erratic operational strategies since, the U.S. military has prolonged its central task of training Afghans to defeat the Taliban …

Kilcullen is a stalwart warrior who has experienced combat. His essays in Counterinsurgency are thoughtful and spirited, as befits a scholar whose ideas helped to shape the 2006 FM 3-24. At the same time, the danger inherent in indeterminate counterinsurgency, defined as population protection and fighting “the enemy only when he gets in the way,” is the unintended enervation of our own warrior spirit.

At least the Marines are continuing to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver (doing squad rushes against the enemy in Afghanistan).  I cannot vouch for what the Army is doing, but as for the Afghan National Army, we have discussed their ineptitude before.  They are still waiting on the sidelines for U.S. forces to clear the enemy.  This is a recipe for disaster, and they won’t be anywhere near ready by mid-2011.  We are pursuing a failing strategy.  But Bing is right concerning U.S. forces.  Population-centric COIN – when applied as an exclusive-use procedure – appears to be causing the enervation of the warrior spirit.

Ideologues and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 11 months ago

At Blackfive, Uncle Jimbo (Jim Hanson) swerves way outside his lanes and lampoons an article penned by Colonel Gian Gentile, Professor of History at West Point and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Says Jim:

Crush points out, while nodding sagely in agreement, a piece by COL Gian Gentile bemoaning the idea that an insurgency should be fought using a counterinsurgency strategy. I think it bears a look at COL Gentile and his deep and abiding distaste for COIN prior to taking him too seriously. There is plenty to debate about the best way to counter an insurgency, but if you are going to debate you need an open mind. That is lacking here as the rhetoric in COL Gentile’s piece clearly shows.

Jim continues:

Did I miss something, I thought that a switch to COIN was one of the major factors in our victory in Iraq. (sic) even (sic) the Anbar Awakening was conditioned upon our employing a strategy that was focused on safeguarding the populace and helping the Iraqis do just that …

The fact that I am quite familiar with COL Gentile and his opinions regarding COIN would seem to argue against his feeling that there was no public debate about how to deal w/ insurgents. It seems more likely that since he lost those public debates he is now bitter. The Army needed a doctrine to deal with the active insurgencies we were facing and COL Gentile was definitely heard, he simply didn’t prevail. We continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the particular tactics that make up this doctrine and empirical evidence from the battlefield is examined to facilitate that. it may seem counter-intuitive for an Army to have a sweetness & light side, but it remains a fact that you can’t kill your way out of every problem.

Gentile’s article is entitled Time for the Deconstruction of Field Manual 3-24, published by National Defense University Press.  It’s a fairly short article, but several money quotes are given below.

Of course, leaders in war must be held accountable for their actions and what results from them. But to use as a measuring stick the COIN principles put forth in FM 3–24 with all of their underlying and unproven theories and assumptions about insurgencies and how to counter them is wrong, and the Army needs to think hard about where its collective “head is at” in this regard.

It is time for the Army to debate FM 3–24 critically, in a wide and open forum. The notion that it was debated sufficiently during the months leading up to its publication is a chimera. Unfortunately, the dialogue within defense circles about counterinsurgency and the Army’s new way of war is stale and reflects thinking that is well over 40 years old. In short, our Army has been steamrollered by a counterinsurgency doctrine that was developed by Western military officers to deal with insurgencies and national wars of independence from the mountains of northern Algeria in the 1950s to the swamps of Indochina in the 1960s. The simple truth is that we have bought into a doctrine for countering insurgencies that did not work in the past, as proven by history, and whose efficacy and utility remain highly problematic today. Yet prominent members of the Army and the defense expert community seem to be mired in this out-of-date doctrine.

Gentile goes on to cite several historical examples of counterintuitive effects in warfare, and then argues for the deconstruction of FM 3-24 with more openness to dialogue and debate than when it was first penned.

We will return to Gentile’s points later.  But Jim Hanson makes a blunder so obvious that it must be addressed before we can go any further.  He says “even (sic) the Anbar Awakening was conditioned upon our employing a strategy that was focused on safeguarding the populace and helping the Iraqis do just that.”  Anbar was won by switching strategy to a population-centric COIN model upon the advent of General David Petraeus, or so Hanson apparently believes.

This is approximately the same narrative that I heard Bill O’Reilly reiterate: “General Petraeus was able to convince the tribes in Iraq to oppose AQI, and that’s why the surge succeeded.”  It’s the narrative for the population, for the simpletons who need a short synopsis embodied in heroic proportions and in a single individual.  Americans love their generals, and their exploits tend towards the mythical.

The reality in the Anbar Province was much dirtier, much bloodier, much harder and much more costly than this narrative portrays.  The U.S. Marine Corps suffered more than a thousand Marines who perished in Anbar, and many thousands more who were maimed.  They didn’t die because of improper strategy, and the things that happened in Anbar were set into motion long before February 10, 2007 when Petraeus took over Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Colonel Sean MacFarland took Ramadi in May/June of 2006.  He observed that:

“The prize in the counterinsurgency fight is not terrain,” he says. “It’s the people. When you’ve secured the people, you have won the war. The sheiks lead the people.”

But 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.

“We get there in late May and early June 2006, and the tribes are on the sidelines. They’d seen the insurgents take a beating. After watching that, they’re like, ‘Let’s see which way this is going to go.’ “

But his approach was heavily kinetic.

Col. Sean MacFarland arrived in Ramadi as commander of the U.S. 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division. His four Army and Marine battalion commanders built small outposts throughout the city, from which troops patrolled every block. When al Qaeda in Iraq challenged this intrusion, the Americans fought back with overwhelming firepower. Unlike other American commanders at the time, who sought to minimize their losses, Col. MacFarland did not relent when American casualties mounted. “My measure of effectiveness would not be low friendly casualties,” he told Mr. Michaels. “My measure of success would be defeating the enemy.”

Mr. Michaels explains that Col. MacFarland’s military operations helped to convince Sattar that the Americans—then at a low point in their effort to reshape Iraq—would persist and prevail in Anbar Province. So did Col. MacFarland’s personal diplomacy. “Instead of telling [the Iraqis] that we would leave soon and they must assume responsibility for their own security,” Col. MacFarland recalled, “we told them that we would stay as long as necessary to defeat the

In Haditha, it was a variant of the same story.  Sand berms were used to quell the flow of insurgents into Haditha from the Syrian border, but in a pattern that was to play out all over Anbar, a local strongman helped to control the population, a former officer in the Saddam Hussein army known simply as Colonel Faruq, with the power and charisma to bring the town to heel.

In Al Qaim AQI had the tribes beaten down until the U.S. Marines engaged in enough heavy kinetics that the tribes wanted to ally themselves with the Marines.  After that point, a local strongman named Abu Ahmed helped to police the population.

By early 2007 both foreign fighters and indigenous insurgents had been driven from Al Qaim, Ramadi and Haditha, and they had landed squarely in Fallujah.  When the 2/6 Marines arrived in Fallujah in April of 2007, they had to construct some of Forward Operating Base Reaper while laying on their backs and passing sand bags over their bodies (to eventually be used for walls) because of the constant fire coming their way.  The previous unit had begin patrolling only at night because of snipers, and because they didn’t own the daytime, IEDs controlled their night time patrols, thus relegating them to sitting in their FOBs for the last three weeks of their deployment awaiting relief.  The population was so allied with AQI that their children were sent out with black balloons to demarcate patrol locations so that insurgent mortars could target the U.S. Marines (even at grave risk to the children).

Operation Alljah was started, and the Marines went in hard (I am not linking the Wikipedia link on Operation Alljah because of know with certainty that much of the data is simply erroneous or mistaken and incomplete.  The link is essentially worthless).  HMMWVs with loud speakers were deployed to every Mosque in the city bellowing U.S. positions and propaganda.  Heavy and aggressive patrols were conducted, and heavy fires were employed any time any insurgent used weapons against the Marines, including everything from fire team and squad level weapons to combined arms.

Policing of the population was aggressive, ubiquitous and around the clock.  In order to address the vehicle-borne IED problem, the use of automobiles was prohibited within Fallujah proper until such time as security was established.  Concrete barricades were set up throughout the city, and census data was taken on the entire population, much of it at night so that the population was awakened to Marine presence in their homes.

Many local insurgents were killed, and also even more foreign fighters.  Insurgents from Chechnya, men with skin “as black as night,” and even “men with slanted eyes” were killed in Fallujah in the summer of 2007.  The city was locked down and the atmosphere made very uncomfortable for the population – until, that is, they began cooperating with the U.S. Marines Corps.

I know many more things that I simply cannot share concerning this operation, but things that I have communicated to Colonel Gian Gentile.  Suffice it to say that Colonel Gentile isn’t frightened by invoking Iraq as an example of proper counterinsurgency strategy.  Whatever the incredibly intelligent General David Patraeus did for Baghdad and beyond, The Anbar Narrative is one of U.S. Marine Corps force projection.  But it didn’t stay that way.  Eventually, the warrior scholar emerged, and Lt. Col. William F. Mullen (now Colonel Mullen) was at city council meetings discussing power supply and trash collection.  Eventually, also, the concrete barricades were removed.

Colonel Gian Gentile isn’t a proponent of jettisoning counterinsurgency doctrine, despite what Jim Hanson believes.  Gentile knows that there are phases to campaigns, and one particular paper that has been influential in my thinking (given to me by Gentile) is from The Journal of Strategic Studies, entitled The Malayan Emergency as Counter-Insurgency Paradigm.  One money quote reads as follows:

It is naive to think that the blend of policies found at the optimisation phase of successful insurgencies will work well at the outset of a conflict. Hence, though measures to win ‘hearts and minds’ have their place in all phases, if only to dampen the effects of collateral damage and hatred of the security forces, in Malaya the emphasis in the critical 1950-52 phase was on getting effective command, small unit patrols bolted onto areas, and population control and security.

This campaign followed the example of phased counterinsurgency, with hard tactics and carrots and sticks employed at the right time and in the right degree.  The problem Gentile is addressing pertains to the unsubstantiated belief that everywhere, at all times, under all circumstances, and without exception, the center of gravity of a counterinsurgency campaign is the population.  I have also addressed this in Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN.  I envision multiple lines of effort, Gentile envisions a situation in which the troops on the ground discover the center of gravity if there is one, both views variants on the same theme.

Either way, Gentile is right, and the doctrines of FM 3-24 are in need of re-evaluation.  Jim Hanson has done a disservice to the practice of warfare by so quickly and disrespectfully dismissing Gentile’s arguments.  Moreover, he has come unarmed to an intellectual battle with a Jedi Master named Gentile.  It’s embarrassing for Hanson, even if he is too stolid to know it.  Colonel Gentile is discussing population-centric counterinsurgency as an exclusive use procedure, and demurring, while Hanson is discussing – well, I don’t know what.  By my Google mail search, I have exchanged literally hundreds of e-mails with Colonel Gentile on the issue of counterinsurgency.  What has Jim Hanson done to ensure that he has the proper understanding of Gentile’s position?  He doesn’t tell us.  Pity.

The question concerns the way in which to conduct counterinsurgency in the unfortunate advent of the situation in which we have no other choice.  In this, Gentile is sipping Merlot and smoking fine cigars in the back room where the decisions are being made, while Hanson is shouting and throwing down with his boys drinking PBR in the front room.  Occasionally, the raucous behavior spills over to the back room until the MPs arrive.  I’ll side with Gentile, thank you.

Postscript: See also Extracting Counterinsurgency Lessons: The Malayan Emergency and Afghanistan

The Side Effects of the Afghanistan Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 11 months ago

From Strategy Page;

After a year of concentrated effort, NATO forces in Afghanistan have reduced civilian casualties, caused by foreign troops, 44.4 percent. There were 7.8 percent fewer battles even involving civilians, and 52 percent fewer civilians hurt by foreign troops. The most striking reduction (82 percent) was in civilian casualties from air strikes. All this is calculated by comparing the last three months with the same period from last year. All this despite nearly twice as many foreign troops in action, and much more combat. Meanwhile, civilian losses from Taliban action are up 36 percent.

Many Afghans are not happy with this policy, with foreign troops increasingly encountering angry Afghan civilians, who demand that NATO act more decisively in pursuing and killing Taliban gunman. Even if it puts Afghan civilians at risk. This is an unexpected side effect to the change in NATO rules of engagement (ROE) in Afghanistan. The ROE change was partly in response to popular (or at least media) anger at civilians killed by American smart bombs. As a result of the new ROE, it became much more difficult to get permission drop a smart bomb when there might be civilians nearby. Now American commanders have to decide who they shall respond too; Afghan civilians asking for relief from Taliban oppression, or Taliban influenced media condemning the U.S. for any Afghan civilians killed, or thought to be killed, by American firepower. What to do? So far, the decision often favors the survival of the Taliban.

Unexpected?  This was only unexpected among dolts.  I said as much ten months ago (“officials” have admitted that the new Afghanistan ROE have opened up new space for the insurgents”), nine months ago (“the Taliban will surround themselves with noncombatants, in the end making it more dangerous for everyone”), eight months ago (“giving the insurgents safe haven amongst the domiciles of villages sends the opposite message than we intend”), seven months ago (“give chase to and kill the enemy as the surest way to win the hearts and minds of the locals, and thus win the campaign”), and four months ago (“I had predicted that these rules would have the opposite affect from that intended, i.e., that they would fail to prevent noncombatant deaths and might even cause more than if we were to implement a more robust set of ROE or simply leave the rules unchanged”).

Let’s not hear any more about unintended consequences or unexpected side effects of the ROE.  I’ve said plenty and issued the appropriate warnings.  The slow to learn haven’t been paying attention, and perhaps should never have been entrusted with the responsibility they have been given.

Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) is calling for a hearing on the ROE, and General Petraeus might be preparing to modify the rules of engagement, but I’ll take a wait and see approach on this.  The issue doesn’t pertain to whether there is such a thing as ROE, but whether Generals who should be talking strategy are issuing tactical directives to Lance Corporals and Sergeants in the field under fire and requiring approval of staff level officers a hundred miles away in order to bring combined arms to bear on the enemy.  It has to do with micromanagement of the campaign.  It’s simply something staff and flag level officers should not be doing.  The campaign will be won or lost based on empowerment of the troops down the chain of command.

As I chewed the cud over the dismissal of General McChrystal over the weekend, it occurred to me that there was more than just the irrational devotion to a single military doctrine to blame for the fiasco that is Afghanistan (see endnote).  General McChrystal worked much of his career in Special Operations Forces where he micromanaged many things, including at the tactical level.  General McChrystal was never the right man for this job, regardless of whether he has been a good commander of SOF.  This isn’t a commentary on the man, but rather, a commentary on the situation.  It’s time for the new rules to go.  They were a bad idea from the beginning, and nothing useful or constructive ever came from them.

Endnote: I do not support a singular focus in counterinsurgency (such as population-centric COIN), but do support multiple, simultaneous and equally viable lines of effort.  Also, my view of Special Operations Forces is that SOCOM should be abolished.  Not SF or SOF, but the separate command structure for these groups.

Afghanistan: New General, Same Strategy?

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 11 months ago

From CBS News:

In announcing that he was replacing General Stanley McChrystal with General David Petraeus as the top commander in Afghanistan, President Obama made clear that while there would be a different man at the top, the war strategy would remain exactly the same.

“This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy,” the president said in the Rose Garden, stressing that Petraeus, as the commander of U.S. Central Command, “supported and helped design the strategy we have in place.”

This is important.  It’s either true, in which case we have a massive problem, or it’s false, and General Petraeus has been biting his lower lip while General McChrystal ran the campaign into the ground.  My judgment is that the comments by Mr. Obama are true and salient, but there’s always hope that my analysis is wrong.

There is no question that the use of artillery and air power was heavier in Iraq than it is in Afghanistan (and Iraq was more urban).  As late as 2008 (well after the surge), artillery elements fired as many as 11,000 155 mm (M105) rounds in Baquba, Iraq in response to insurgent mortar activity.  There are many thousands more examples of heavy force projection, one such from Ramadi.

Col. Sean MacFarland arrived in Ramadi as commander of the U.S. 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division. His four Army and Marine battalion commanders built small outposts throughout the city, from which troops patrolled every block. When al Qaeda in Iraq challenged this intrusion, the Americans fought back with overwhelming firepower. Unlike other American commanders at the time, who sought to minimize their losses, Col. MacFarland did not relent when American casualties mounted. “My measure of effectiveness would not be low friendly casualties,” he told Mr. Michaels. “My measure of success would be defeating the enemy.”

No one wants to use artillery or air power if ground troops are available.  It’s always better for the population to look into the eyes of determined infantrymen.  But even with the infantry, their hands are tied.  We can talk strategy all day, but it’s impossible to go from tactical defeat to tactical defeat, ad nauseum, and succeed with strategy.  At some point, successful strategy requires successful tactical engagements.

Tim Lynch has a sobering post on the current situation in Afghanistan, and I sense from the usually sanguine Tim a different tone.  Reader TSAlfabet at TCJ also has a depressing observation and some questions for us.

Perhaps the choice is purely political: Obama chooses Petraeus because he knows that the GOP will not question it, and, if that Newsweek article is to be believed— a BIG if– then Obama already has Petraeus’ affirmation that a handover to the ANA can be done by July 2011. If Petraeus fails, Obama can blame it on him for not telling Obama back in Sept 2009 that it was a faulty strategy. In short, Petraeus gives Obama maximum political coverage. Conservatives will not want to criticize Petraeus and it will be difficult to fault Obama who gave the reins to the very person that the GOP wanted in charge all along.

How will this play out? Will Petraeus be given the latitude to make changes, to go on the offensive? What will Petraeus do with Karzai? What about Amb. Eikenberry?

How will all of this work out indeed?  I still believe that we are losing the campaign at the present.  Time will tell if Petraeus takes the necessary actions to turn this around.  But time is short.

General McChrystal Recalled: What’s Important About This?

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 11 months ago

General Stanley McChrystal and his staff have allowed close access by Michael Hastings writing for Rolling Stone, and the report contains somewhat embarrassing information for the Obama administration.  You can read for yourself and judge whether the views expressed by the General and his staff rise to the level of insubordination, and if so, what should be done about it.  Frankly, I don’t think it matters very much.  But when considered as part of the general warp and woof of their relationship, it’s a little late to be complaining about how dense the administration officials are, regardless of how true that view is.  Recall that this conversation took place.

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.

The president was crisp but informal. “Bob, you have any problems?” he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.

The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. “I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now,” he said. No one said anything.

“Tell me now,” Obama repeated.

“Fully support, sir,” Mullen said.

“Ditto,” Petraeus said.

General McChrystal had to be aware of the stipulations when he took the assignment.  The time to have told the administration that commitment to a counterinsurgency campaign would take another half decade or more and that military force would have to be applied was a year ago.  But in the focus on not missing the forest for the trees, it’s important not to miss the tress for looking at the forest.  At least, the important trees should be studied.

There is such a tree in this report in The Washington Post that deserves our utmost attention.

A few weeks ago, according to the magazine, the general traveled to a small outpost in Kandahar province, in southern Afghanistan, to meet with a unit of soldiers reeling from the loss of a comrade, 23-year-old Cpl. Michael Ingram.

The corporal was killed in a booby-trapped house that some of the unit’s commanders had unsuccessfully sought permission to blow up.

One soldier at the outpost showed Hastings, who was traveling with the general, a written directive instructing troops to “patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourself with lethal force.”

During a tense meeting with Ingram’s platoon, one sergeant tells McChrystal: “Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we’re losing, sir.”

McChrystal has championed a counterinsurgency strategy that prioritizes protecting the population as a means to marginalize and ultimately defeat the insurgency. Because new rules sharply restrict the circumstances under which airstrikes and other lethal operations that have resulted in civilian casualties can be conducted, some soldiers say the strategy has left them more exposed.

When you cannot patrol in areas where you think you might engage in kinetic operations because of the highly restrictive rules, you know that the campaign won’t last much longer.  Similarly, another NCO believes that the rules of engagement are too prohibitive to achieve sustained tactical success.  He reports that villagers are quite literally laughing at U.S. troop casualties, and that they cannot even obtain approval for illumination rounds to assist in withdrawal during firefights.

When NCOs begin to give these kinds of reports, we know that there is something badly wrong with the campaign on a much deeper level than mere sniping between civilian and military authorities.  We are losing the campaign in Afghanistan, and recalling General McChrystal won’t change that.  Much deeper changes need to be made, and a much deeper commitment should become evident by the administration, or men will die for a failing cause.  The time to make these changes has almost run out.

Proliferation of Bad Analysis on Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 12 months ago

Readers should beware of bad analysis work on Afghanistan.  There is an increasing frequency of it, so many analyses that I do not have the time to catalog them all.  I will mention only two such examples.

First, Rajiv Chandrasekaran writing at The Washington Post outlines a supposedly successful villagers’ revolt against the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan.  Christian Bleuer writing at Registan is duly sarcastic, and if you want to read about the ZZ Top beards you will have to drop by Registan and read Christian’s prose.

Ian comments that the reason this has people salivating is that it resembles the Anbar pattern.  Let me state in the clearest possible way I know how.  NO . IT . DOES . NOT. The Anbar pattern had to do with force projection at the beginning of the campaign by the Marines, force projection by Marines during the middle phase of the campaign, and force projection by the Marines near the end of the campaign.  Let me also be especially clear on this next point.  Had it not been for the U.S. Marines, the tribal awakening in Ramadi would have failed.  They simply weren’t strong enough, well equipped enough, supplied well enough, or numerous enough to defeat the AQI, Ansar al Sunna, and the other bad actors in Ramadi.  Furthermore, in places like Fallujah it had nothing whatsoever to do with tribes or any awakening.

By the way, the SOF does look especially stupid in their ZZ Top beards, and since they are focused on kinetics rather than embedding with the population, the beards serve no useful purpose other than to make them look stupid.  But I digress.

Next, let’s deal with a piece by Stephen Grey at Foreign Policy as he takes on the British campaign in Helmand.  Copious quotes are reproduced below, but the reader is advised to read his entire essay.

As painfully described in an investigation published last week by the Times of London, the charge against military top brass, and those like Stirrup who talked endlessly of constant progress on the ground, is of filtering complaints from field commanders and junior soldiers so that politicians under the previous Labour administration got spared the full picture of how badly things were going in Helmand and the many shortfalls, for example, of war-winning military equipment and in basic welfare for the troops and their injured. Britain went into Helmand, the article described, with its “eyes shut and fingers crossed.”

Adam Holloway, a former Guards officer and now backbench Tory MP, added in the Sunday Times: “There was a tendency under the Labour government to promote ‘politicians in uniform’ rather than officers willing to give frank advice about the strategic drift in Afghanistan.”

As Holloway implies, some of the criticism of senior commanders like Stirrup for failing to “back our boys,” rather misses the point. While the insufficiency of resources like helicopters, bomb technicians, and mine-protected vehicles was arguably a betrayal of the “military covenant” that a nation owes an armed forces bearing so much sacrifice, none of these deficiencies go far to explaining why the war has been going so badly.

So what did go wrong with British leadership in Helmand? What part did the U.K. play in the transformation of what was a quiet backwater of the country in 2006 into this violent quagmire which now requires a garrison of 20,000 foreign troops (twice what the Soviets deployed to the province)?

The British had deployed in 2006 with an original plan for Helmand that echoed key elements of what was to become Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy. Its mission was to avoid combat and concentrate on protecting the population by providing basic security and fostering development in a narrow zone of central Helmand.

But the plan was not followed. As rebellion spread, the force of 3,300 personnel, representing an initial combat strength at first of little more nine platoons, were scattered across the district centers of northern Helmand. Pinned down in small Alamo-style outposts, their presence served as a magnet for the Taliban and an inspiration for general revolt. And, forced to defend themselves, they resorted to air strikes and heavy weapons that rubble-ized the centers of towns like Sangin and Musa Qala, and forced out the populations of Garmsir, Kajaki and Now Zad.

Now committed to defending a vast geographical area (and persuaded by President Karzai that any withdrawal would hand the Taliban a major victory), over successive years, Britain’s Task Force Helmand tripled in size but, despite reinforcement by Danes, Estonians and American units, was always outstretched by the spreading rebellion. British troops and their Afghan partners have never been in sufficient strength in any one place to dominate the ground effectively and provide the kind of basic security required to implement the central elements of an effective counterinsurgency approach, like reform of local government or meaningful development work. While the U.K. trumpeted its “comprehensive approach” — the unified application of both civil and military power — the slogan was a parody of reality.

The population of Helmand is highly-dispersed, scattered among the compounds that dot the “Green Zone,” as the irrigated land on either side of the Helmand River and its tributaries is called. While the British-led Task Force could cling on to the major towns like Sangin, Gereshk, and Lashkah Gah, real population security depended on securing the land that stretches between them.

Wedded at first to a conventional mindset, British operations initially sought to break the back of the Taliban revolt with endless and bloody “sweeps” up and down the Green Zone. The Taliban got suppressed for a few weeks or months and then came back. Troops came to refer to this disparagingly as “mowing the lawn.”

The sweeps got followed by another approach of “ribbon security” — an aspiration of constructing a chain of Forward Operating Bases up and down the Green Zone to provide a more extensive enduring presence — up the Helmand from Gereshk to Sangin and then ultimately upstream as far as the strategic hydroelectric dam at Kajaki.

The approach was flawed. There were never enough troops for such ambition. And the overstretch got worse by the fall of 2008, when the revolt started spreading to previously relatively-quiet central Helmand and the gates of the provincial capital, Lashkah Gah. In the assaults that began in July 2009, the British drained resources from Sangin and pushed troops into the central Babaji and Malgir districts west of Lashkah Gah. They were joined now by U.S. Marines who took over Garmsir, Nawa, and the southern Helmand district of Khan Neshin. The U.S. Marine presence has been expanding ever since, leading to today’s change-of-command.

This analysis is incorrect in a number of places, and misses the point in many others.  First off, let’s grant Mr. Grey the point about lack of adequate forces.  I have harped on this deficiency for four years, and will continue to do so.  But the analysis veers off into logically unrelated and largely irrelevant memes.  For example, Marine presence hasn’t increased steadily for years in Helmand.  The Marines (24th MEU, coverage found in category Marines in Helmand from 2008) entered Garmsir in 2004 and engaged in heavy kinetic operations, killing some 400 Taliban fighters and in fact having to pay out compensation for damage to homes in Garmsir.  Rather than alienating the population, the hard tactics caused the population to demand that they stay and ensure security.

Rather than staying, they turned over to British forces who then proceeded to pursue the same soft tactics they had in the balance of the Helmand Province, only to lose Garmsir in 2009 with the Marines having to retake it in 2010.  Bombing and shelling (“rubble-izing” as Stephen puts it) places like Musa Qala is quite irrelevant.  For an analysis of the horrible deal we made with Mullah Abdul Salaam in Musa Qala and the harm that it did to the campaign, see my category on Musa Qala.  The British were entirely responsible for that fiasco, and rather than being hated for shelling the city, they were hated for installing a stupid, corrupt coward to rule the city and for actually believing that he would protect the population and drive out the Taliban.

I won’t go on, but suffice it to say, there is a proliferation of analysis at the moment that simply doesn’t make the grade.  They are from those coming late to the campaign, or those who cannot jettison their population-centric COIN dogma, or for whatever reason.  Read everything you can, but be careful what you believe.

Rules of Engagement too Prohibitive to Achieve Sustained Tactical Success

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 12 months ago

George Will reports at The Washington Post:

… occasionally there are riveting communications, such as a recent e-mail from a noncommissioned officer (NCO) serving in Afghanistan. He explains why the rules of engagement for U.S. troops are “too prohibitive for coalition forces to achieve sustained tactical successes.”

Receiving mortar fire during an overnight mission, his unit called for a 155mm howitzer illumination round to be fired to reveal the enemy’s location. The request was rejected “on the grounds that it may cause collateral damage.” The NCO says that the only thing that comes down from an illumination round is a canister, and the likelihood of it hitting someone or something was akin to that of being struck by lightning.

Returning from a mission, his unit took casualties from an improvised explosive device that the unit knew had been placed no more than an hour earlier. “There were villagers laughing at the U.S. casualties” and “two suspicious individuals were seen fleeing the scene and entering a home.” U.S. forces “are no longer allowed to search homes without Afghan National Security Forces personnel present.” But when his unit asked Afghan police to search the house, the police refused on the grounds that the people in the house “are good people.”

On another mission, some Afghan adults ran off with their children immediately before the NCO’s unit came under heavy small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and the unit asked for artillery fire on the enemy position. The response was a question: Where is the nearest civilian structure? “Judging distances,” the NCO writes dryly, “can be difficult when bullets and RPGs are flying over your head.” When the artillery support was denied because of fear of collateral damage, the unit asked for a “smoke mission” — like an illumination round; only the canister falls to earth — “to conceal our movement as we planned to flank and destroy the enemy.” This request was granted — but because of fear of collateral damage, the round was deliberately fired one kilometer off the requested site, making “the smoke mission useless and leaving us to fend for ourselves.”

Analysis & Commentary

This letter seems to have been written in the spirit of The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement.  Legendary Marine Chesty Puller recognized that the NCO corps was the backbone of the U.S. Armed Forces, and would sometimes bypass his officers and go directly to his NCOs.  There is nothing better than getting feedback directly from NCOs.  The observations are more direct, the learning is more instinctive and developed by real life situations, and the politics is less important than the people.  This is an important contribution to our understanding of the tactical impediments to the campaign in Afghanistan.

But note that The NCOS Speak concerned Iraq where the rules were in my estimation too restrictive but still more robust than in Afghanistan.  In spite of the bad examples from Iraq, Marines performed recon by fire, tanks fired point blank into buildings occupied by insurgents, and in Ramadi spotters were dealt with just like insurgents.  They were engaged as if they were bringing a weapon to bear – because in fact they were.

This report from Afghanistan is dreary and depressing for its reiteration of all of the problems we have rehearsed here, including the unreliability of the ANA.  But the contribution is serious and unmistakable.  We cannot achieve sustained tactical success with the current rules of engagement.  They simply aren’t rules suited to win a counterinsurgency campaign.  But the report is more stark for the sad and anecdotal report of the state of the population.  The villagers are laughing at U.S. troops.  So much for winning their hearts and minds by avoiding collateral damage.  When the population is laughing at your weakness, the campaign won’t last much longer.  It will soon be over, one way or the other.

Rock River Arms Elite CAR A4 – My New Friend

BY Herschel Smith
14 years ago

As all patriotic, God fearing, freedom loving Americans should be, I am a member of the NRA.  During the recent NRA convention in Charlotte, I inspected the Rock River Arms exhibit, and decided on a new RRA Elite CAR A4.  I ordered through Hyatt Gun Shop, America’s largest independently owned gun store.

Hyatt doesn’t just have salesmen.  They have legitimate, highly qualified gunsmiths working there.  David Benfield worked with me for a good while with the new weapon, and Hyatt Gun Shop was very generous to me.  My new friend?

A Rock River Arms Elite CAR A4, free floating quad rail for attachments.  I feel that it will become a close friend, and I intend to attach at least a front vertical grip and my Surefire tactical light.  John Bernard wants me to attach a Trijicon ACOG (you know, one with the Scripture still on it), but at the present that would require generous donations.

The New Marine Corps Commandant?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years ago

From Greg Jaffe at The Washington Post:

In a major break with tradition, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is planning to recommend that the president select a career aviator as the next commandant of the Marine Corps, a military official said Monday night.

If nominated and confirmed, Gen. James F. Amos would be the first Marine commandant with a background as a jet pilot — at a time when the Corps is fighting a ground-dominated war in Afghanistan — and his selection reasserts Gates’s willingness to shake up established service bureaucracies.

Amos, who is the service’s assistant commandant, would also become the first Marine general promoted from that position to the Corps’ top job. He served in Iraq in the early days of that conflict, but he has not led troops in Afghanistan. He has relatively less experience in waging counterinsurgency warfare than other candidates considered for the job.

Gates has said that, in selecting the commandant, he wanted someone who would help the Marine Corps chart a course beyond the current wars. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marine Corps has taken on the role of a second land Army and moved away from its amphibious roots.

Gates has expressed particular concern about how the Marines would continue to attack from the sea as increasingly lethal cruise missiles push Navy ships farther from the coastline.

“What differentiates [the Marine Corps] from the Army?” Gates asked in a speech this year. “We will always have a Marine Corps. But the question is, how do you define the mission post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan? And that’s the intellectual effort that I think the next commandant has to undertake.”

Amos has developed a reputation among Marines as an innovative thinker about future combat, said military officials. As the Corps’ assistant commandant, he has also been a passionate advocate for finding additional resources to treat Marines diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

In choosing Amos for commandant, Gates passed over Gen. James N. Mattis, who is widely considered one of the military’s best minds when it comes to waging war on insurgents.

Commandant Conway’s push towards the classical view of ship to shore operations to perform forcible entry is well known for its reliance on sea-based vehicles, and my opposition to this is well documented.

I do not now and have never advocated that the Marine Corps jettison completely their notion of littoral readiness and expeditionary warfare capabilities, but I have strongly advocated more support for the missions we have at hand.

Finally, it occurs to me that the debate is unnecessary.  While Conway has famously said that the Corps is getting too heavy, his program relies on the extremely heavy Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, that behemoth that is being designed and tested because we want forcible entry capabilities – against who, I frankly don’t know.

If it is a failing state or near failing state, no one needs the capabilities of the EFV.  If it is a legitimate near peer enemy or second world state, then the casualties sustained from an actual land invasion would be enormous.  Giving the enemy a chance to mine a beach, build bunkers, arm its army with missiles, and deploy air power, an infantry battalion would be dead within minutes.  1000 Marines – dead, along with the sinking of an Amphibious Assault Dock and its associated EFVs.

No one has yet given me a legitimate enemy who needs to be attacked by an EFV.  On the other hand, I have strongly recommended the retooling of the expeditionary concept to rely much more heavily on air power and the air-ground task force concept.  It would save money, create a lighter and more mobile Marine Corps (with Amphibious Assault Docks ferrying around more helicopters rather than LCACs), and better enable the Marines to perform multiple missions.  I have also recommended an entirely new generation of Marine Corps helicopters.

There is no end to those who continue to press for this concept, both inside and outside the Corps.

“The United States’ Marine Corps has been conducting amphibious operations for 200 years. It’s a unique capability and there is no analytical basis for arguing that capability won’t be needed in the future,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute. “Everyone we are likely to fight in the future is going to be close to the sea … like Iran, like North Korea, like Vietnam, like almost any place you can mention other than Afghanistan.”  And he added: “If the EFV is canceled, many marines will die in the future for lack of an adequate vehicle.”

This is simply a scare-tactic, and it plays both ends against the middle.  If we do ship to shore operations in sea-based vehicles, whether LCACs, the older Amphibious Assault Vehicles, or the newer and much more expensive EFVs, many Marines will die – period.  There is no vehicle adequate to defend against shore to ship missiles, mined beaches, and emplaced artillery.  Exactly why the U.S. Marine Corps believes we would actually be attacking a near-peer nation-state with tactics that parallel the landings in the South Pacific is an enigma.  Thousands of Marine would perish in such a foolish assault.

Does this mean that ship to shore operations are finished?  Not hardly.  As I have argued repeatedly, the initial assault must be preceded by massive use of air power, with the assault being done via air.  Is the Phrog really finished, or should we leave in place a helicopter from which Marines can fast rope (they can’t fast rope from the deck of a V-22 Osprey)?  Or, as I have recommended, should the Marines be investing in a new fleet of helicopters, both transport and attack?  Once the beachhead has been taken and the area secured, the Navy can transport the heavier vehicles to shore under the protection of the Marines.

The bigger question is this: does this appointment mean that Commandant Conway’s vision is being amended to one that is more air-based, as I have recommended?  Does the Pentagon read The Captain’s Journal?

Pace of Afghanistan Campaign Alarms Senior Military Officers

BY Herschel Smith
14 years ago

From Rajiv Chandrasekaran at The Washington Post:

Residents of this onetime Taliban sanctuary see signs that the insurgents have regained momentum in recent weeks, despite early claims of success by U.S. Marines. The longer-than-expected effort to secure Marja is prompting alarm among top American commanders that they will not be able to change the course of the war in the time President Obama has given them.

Firefights between insurgents and security forces occur daily, resulting in more Marine fatalities and casualties over the past month than in the first month of the operation, which began in mid-February.

Marines and Afghan troops have made headway in this farming community, but every step forward, it seems, has been matched by at least a half-step backward.

Two-thirds of the stalls in Marja’s main bazaar have reopened, but the only baker fled the area a week ago after insurgents kidnapped his son in retaliation for selling to foreign troops and the police.

Men have begun to allow their burqa-clad wives to venture out of their homes, but an effort by female Marines to gather local women for a meeting last week drew not a single participant.

The Afghan government has assigned representatives to help deliver basic services to the population, but most of them spend their days in the better-appointed provincial capital 20 miles to the northeast.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Lt. Col. Cal Worth, the commander of one of the two Marine infantry battalions in Marja. “But there’s still a long way to go.”

The slow and uneven progress has worried senior military officials in Kabul and Washington who intended to use Marja as a model to prove that more troops and a new war strategy can yield profound gains against the Taliban. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told officers here in late May that there is a growing perception that Marja has become “a bleeding ulcer.”

The central question among military leaders is whether Marja will improve quickly enough to be proclaimed an incipient success by the fall, when the Pentagon will begin to prepare for a year-end White House review of the war that will help to determine how many troops Obama withdraws in July 2011.

We discussed these very issues in McChrystal Calls Marjah a Bleeding Ulcer, and raised (at least) the following questions:

Did General McChrystal not cover the basics of classical counterinsurgency doctrine with his civilian bosses?  Did he or any of his reports mislead the administration into believing that Marjah or any other town in Afghanistan would be pacified in 90 days?  Did he or his reports – or anyone in the administration – really believe that this government ex machina we brought to Marjah would work?

Forgetting classical counterinsurgency doctrine which normally presumes that COIN will take ten or even more years, for anyone who has been listening and watching for the past several years, the most successful part of the campaign in Iraq, i.e., the Anbar Province, took about three and a half years from the inception of Operation Al Fajr until late 2007 when Fallujah was finally stable at the conclusion of Operation Alljah.

Security in Ramadi preceded Fallujah slightly, Haditha preceded Ramadi by a little and Al Qaim was secure before Haditha.  But the whole of the Anbar Province took over three years and the efforts of the best fighting force on earth, the U.S. Marine Corps, in which more than 1000 Marines perished and many more were wounded or maimed.  No one in his right mind would claim that the U.S. Marine Corps did not understand or implement a successful strategy in the Anbar Province, where the Marines had to fight their way through an indigenous insurgency (finally co-opting their services) to get to the 80-100 foreign fighters per month flowing across the Syrian border.  Iraq is still not entirely stable, and its security will be a direct function of the extent to which we confront Iran in its quest for regional hegemony.

This report is so bizarre, so jaw dropping, and so disturbing, that it naturally leads to many other very important questions.  Does McChrystal believe that the COIN operations will be successfully concluded within a year or even a year plus a few months?  Did he communicate that to the administration?  If so, does the administration believe it?  Was time frame ever brought up?  Did the administration simply lay down expectations without reference to historical precedent for successful COIN campaigns and without asking General McChrystal?

 Commenter jonesgp1996 gave us the following link in response to my questions: Secrets from Inside the Obama War Room.  This important exchange is included.

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.

The president was crisp but informal. “Bob, you have any problems?” he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.

The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. “I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now,” he said. No one said anything.

“Tell me now,” Obama repeated.

“Fully support, sir,” Mullen said.

“Ditto,” Petraeus said.

Thus the panic at the Pentagon and in Kabul, and thus the belief on the part of the horrible Hamid Karzai that NATO cannot win, and his attempt to distance himself from NATO efforts.  There you have the man who campaigned on the “good war” in Afghanistan, and the counterinsurgency experts who told him that COIN can be done with presto governments and ANA troops within 18 months.

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