Archive for the 'Col. Gian Gentile' Category

The Better War

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 3 months ago

There are a lot of Milbloggers, military aficionados, knowledgeable members of the military, and veterans of wars that can and often do weigh in on issues of policy, strategy, tactics, techniques and procedures.  But occasionally a real warrior-scholar steps into the fray, and we are always blessed with insights beyond what we could normally bring to the table.  Gian Gentile is just such a warrior-scholar.  I do not believe that a man has to have waged war in order to be a scholar and great historian on it, but with Gentile, we have the entire package.  He has both studied it and lived it.  He is both a friend and a genuinely good man, and we are richer for having his insights.

Gentile uses the occasion of a new book to give us insights into Vietnam, extending his lessons into Iraq and Afghanistan.  The book is Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley.  Gentile begins his review thusly.

DID GENERAL Westmoreland lose Vietnam? The answer is no. But he did lose the war over the memory of the Vietnam War. He lost it to military historian Lewis Sorley, among others. In his recent biography of William C. Westmoreland, Sorley posits what might be called “the better-war thesis”—that a better war leading to American victory was available to the United States if only the right general had been in charge. The problem, however, is that this so-called better war exists mostly in the minds of misguided historians and agenda-driven pundits.

[ … ]

In 2008, former secretary of defense Robert Gates chided the American military establishment, and the army in particular, for its affliction of “Next-War-itis.” Parts of the American military, lamented Gates, were too focused on fighting hypothetical future wars rather than the immediate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the secretary also might have noted another dangerous affliction suffered by parts of the U.S. Army: “Past-War-itis.” Those afflicted with this disease obsess about a Vietnam defeat they believe should have been averted.

Sorley titles his book Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. This is “Past-War-itis” run amok. Is it possible that a single man actually lost the war and all of Vietnam? The question is pertinent today because many seeking to bring logic to the past ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have embraced the simplistic concept that to win those wars we just need to put the right guy in charge. One such example is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot, an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars … another example is writer Thomas Ricks, one of the purveyors of the better-war thesis for Iraq. Ricks wrote a glowing jacket endorsement for Sorley’s book, and he also noted on his military-affairs blog that it would probably end up as the “definitive” biography of Westmoreland. If one is interested, however, in a fair and balanced historical biography of William C. Westmoreland, Ricks is wildly off the mark.

The better-war thesis argues that there was a tactical panacea in Vietnam—a golden cipher of success—just waiting for the right general who could grasp and apply it. Instead, for the first three years of the war beginning in 1965, the U.S. Army was led by a fumbling general named William Childs Westmoreland, who did not crack the code that would have produced victory for the United States. Luckily, as the better-war thesis continues, once Westmoreland was replaced in the summer of 1968 by a savior general named Creighton Abrams, everything changed for the better, and Abrams’s army actually won the war in the South by 1971. The tragedy, according to this thesis, was that weak American politicians undermined the victory by eventually cutting off material support to South Vietnam after the United States departed in 1972.

Weak American politicians and an unwilling American public did indeed undermine the campaign, but I’ll basically state my agreement with Gian’s thesis on the better general, while I’ll also [later] demur with some of his specific findings on Vietnam and Iraq. We’ll continue with Gian’s observations.

The tale of a better war in Vietnam is seductive. It offers a simple explanation of an army redeemed through tactical innovation brought about by a savior general. But the United States did not lose the Vietnam War because it didn’t have the right general in charge at the start, or because of weak politicians toward the end of the war. Washington lost because it failed at strategy. It failed, in short, to discern that the war was unwinnable at a cost in blood and treasure that the American people would accept. There was never a “better war” in Vietnam.

THIS FAITH in the promise of better tactical wars with savior generals has emerged in full force in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In August 2007, as the violence in Iraq dropped precipitously, Clifford May, former New York Times reporter and current president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, identified Petraeus as the main cause of the reduction in violence. May wrote that this enlightened general replaced a failed general and then equipped his army in Iraq with new methods for conducting counterinsurgency. Later, in October 2009, Sorley penned a New York Times article that praised the counterinsurgency tactics of General Stanley McChrystal, then senior American commander in Afghanistan. May and Sorley saw Iraq and Afghanistan as better wars in the making based on the arrival of savior generals.

[ … ]

But the conditions in Iraq that would lead to the lowering of violence in late 2007 were already in place. They included the spread of the Anbar Awakening and the decision of Shia militias to end attacks against Sunni civilians. Recently published databases such as the Iraq Body Count project’s show quite clearly that the sectarian violence peaked in December 2006 and then started to drop a good two months before Petraeus ever rode onto the scene with his new counterinsurgency manual in hand. Petraeus, the savior general, played only a marginal role in the greater series of events and circumstances that brought down the level of Iraqi violence.

I do indeed think that there was a “better war” in Vietnam – not in the sense that Gian critiques – but we’ll get to that later.  His observations on Iraq contain a number of things I have personally addressed with Gian, but it will be useful and productive to lay it out for closer inspection.

First, let’s address the so-called Anbar Awakening.  The Awakening – primarily in 2006 and beyond – was significant.  It certainly truncated the Marine Corps campaign for Anbar shorter than what it would have been.  But it was primarily a feature of Ramadi, and it was primarily a feature that obtained as a result of hard Marine Corps combat operations in the Anbar Province convincing the population that the victor would ultimately be the Marine Corps.

In Haditha late in 2006 and early in 2007 pacification is primarily attributed to a former officer in the Saddam Hussein army known simply as Colonel Faruq, with the power and charisma to bring the town to heel, along with sand berms around the city (constructed by the Marines) to prevent transnational insurgents from coming in from Syria and causing problems.

In Al Qaim, the fight against al Qaeda began in 2005 when Abu Ahmed took them on, lost, fled to the desert, and sought (and obtained) help from the U.S. Marines to defeat AQ.  In Fallujah in 2007, al Qaeda fighters were so firmly ensconced in the city that the people, fearing for their lives, were sending their own children out to mark and encircle Marine patrols with balloons (at the direction of the AQ fighters) so that the patrols could be targeted with crew served weapons.

It took the 2/6 Marines using extremely hard and aggressive tactics, coupled with local IPs and block captains, or Mukhtars, recruited from among the population, again using extremely hard and aggressive tactics, to drive AQ from the city.

My point is that invoking the Anbar Awakening has become in many ways symptomatic the campaign.  It’s as if without it, the Marines wouldn’t have been successful, but with it, Anbar was Shangri La.  Neither view is true.  Nor is it true that the Marines weren’t grateful for what awakening that did occur in various parts of Anbar.  The truth is more complex than simple narratives can possible convey.

Similarly, to say that the Shia militias decided to end attacks on the Sunnis misses the point, and in the superlative degree.  Perhaps they did, but this bit of historical myopia is tailor made for constructing false narratives about Baghdad and the Shia South.

In 2003 the 3/2 Marines had Moqtada al Sadr in their custody (this is as conveyed from the Battaion Commander to Andrew Lubin).  They were ordered to release him.  Then as the U.S. Marines (BLT 1/4) and U.S. Army Calvary swept through al-Najaf in 2004, for all practical purposes they obliterated the Sadrist militia.  The year of 2004 could have seen the virtual end of the organized Shi’a militia threat.  The 1/4 Marines had surrounded Moqtada al Sadr (see this John Burns interview, beginning at 17:20 into the discussion).  Sadr and his militia were essentially finished twice, once in 2003 and again in 2004, due to 3/2 and 1/4 Marine Corps combat operations.  Both times they were ordered to stand down.*

We could have chosen to kill Sadr, finish the Shi’a militia, and end the threat of a violent Shi’a uprising against the Sunni population.  We chose unwisely, and the order came down to let Sadr go.  To say that the Shi’a militia later decided to end attacks against the Sunnis is to miss the bigger picture, i.e., there wouldn’t have been any Sadr to command them, and likely no militia to speak of, had we engaged in the “better war” in Iraq when we had the chance.  Instead we had Paul Bremer, the British and horrible leadership.  It was a toxic combination, and it cost precious lives.

Meanwhile to the West, campaign command pulled the Marines back from Al Fajr I, creating the necessity for Al Fajr II, more loss of lives, more time wasted, and more legitimacy lost.  We didn’t fight the better war in Fallujah either.  And when we completed the job, we sent Marines on wasteful MEUs rather than into Fallujah to ensure stability, and thus the 2/6 Marines had to deal with an ensconced al Qaeda in 2007.

But something tells me what while Gian and I may disagree on the details of the campaign in Iraq, he would concur with my general theme.  Gian observes of Vietnam:

The better-war thesis argues that if only the U.S. Army had concentrated from the start on building up the South Vietnamese armed forces and winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people through limited applications of military force, we would have won the war. But the question remains: Precisely how could tactical adjustments early in the war have overpowered the political constraints placed on the army by the Johnson administration, which kept it from taking the fight to the North Vietnamese? Or the dysfunctional nature of the South Vietnamese government and military that precluded them from standing on their own? Or the declining popular support and political will in the United States as the war dragged on without a decent end in sight? Or, perhaps most importantly, how could tactical adjustments toward better methods of counterinsurgency have overpowered a communist enemy that fought the war totally while the United States fought it with limited means? In his Westmoreland biography, Sorley essentially ignores these questions.

Could the United States have prevailed in Vietnam? Yes, but it would have had to commit to staying there for generations, not a mere handful of years. The Vietnam War was an attempt at armed nation building for South Vietnam.

The better fight in Vietnam to which I earlier referred has nothing to do with staying for generations or armed nation-building.  These are the policy mistakes we have made in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We tend to see campaigns as failures unless they install governments and re-create populations that never pose another threat to the U.S.  But this isn’t reality, and this is certainly not the way the U.S. Marines think about these issues.

This last point isn’t mere inter-service rivalry.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard Marines express their desire to end campaigns quickly, and then go back and do it again in two, five or ten years if the need arises.

The better war to which I refer was alluded to by Gian when he posed the question, “Precisely how could tactical adjustments early in the war have overpowered the political constraints placed on the army by the Johnson administration, which kept it from taking the fight to the North Vietnamese?”

If this question isn’t explored, the book is essentially worthless no matter how many endorsements the author obtained.  Consider for a moment how we dealt with the threat from Germany during World War II.

The burning of Hamburg that night was remarkable in that I saw not many fires but one.  Set in the darkness was a turbulent dome of bright red fire, lighted and ignited like the glowing heart of a vast brazier.  I saw no flames, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash.  Above the city was a misty red haze.  I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified.  I had never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again.

Roads melted, and some people were seen stuck in the melted asphalt, having put their hands out to try to get out, only to get their hands stuck as well.  Many were seen on fire, eventually melting in their own fat.  Eight square miles of Hamburg were completely burned out that night, killing 45,000 Germans.

If we had not done this, countless more American lives would have been lost, and the war may not have been won by the allies at all.  Destruction of the will and industry to wage war was necessary to end the war, whether this fits into the American clinical view of bloodless war or not.

Compare this with the decision to refuse to take the fight to the North Vietnamese.  Consider for a moment what would have happened if we had bombed the dikes and dams on the Red River Delta.  To be sure, the cost in human tragedy would have been staggering, but this is exactly the point.  We wish to wage war, but only partly.  The Viet Cong insurgency in the South was for all practical purposes defeated (in spite of the succor given to them by the North via the Ho Chi Minh trail), and it was the entrance of the NVA regulars that saved the insurgency.  A hobbled North Vietnam from having bombed the Red River Delta for year wouldn’t have been able to give the kind of assistance that the VC got.  It might have even brought down the regime.

Back to Iraq, if we had taken on the Syrian pre-deployment camps for AQ fighters (80 – 150 fighters per year crossed the border to fight in Iraq), and if we had fought the Iranian Quds forces by targeting them in Iraq and elsewhere (while we also engaged in a program of targeting Quds generals like Suleimani), and if we had allowed the Marines to kill Sadr and finish off his militia, and if we had allowed them to continue the sweep through Anbar like they started it in Fallujah, and if we had sent more Marines into Anbar instead of on wasteful MEUs … what would the campaign have looked like?

Gian continues:

In war, political and societal will are calculations of strategy, and strategists in Vietnam should have discerned early on that the war was simply unwinnable based on what the American people were willing to pay. Once the war started and it became clear that to prevail meant staying for an unacceptable amount of time, American strategy should have moved to withdraw much earlier than it did. Ending wars fought under botched strategy and policy can be every bit as damaging as the wars themselves.

The better-war thesis, with its seductively simple cause-and-effect schema, buries the reality of American strategic failure in Vietnam.

The campaign in Vietnam was unwinnable under the stipulations dictated by the President, Congress and perhaps the Secretary of Defense.  And the campaign was unwinnable if winning was defined as building an American-like democracy (in which Gian is correct, taking multiple decades of toil).  On this Gian and I concur.  The proposed end was wrong, and the means weren’t defined in a manner that matched the proposed end.

Gian goes on to supply data that contradicts Sorley’s theses.  Again, I concur.  Westmoreland didn’t lose the war in Vietnam any more than Creighton Abrams could have won it with alternative tactics.  Tactics, techniques and procedures don’t replace strategy, and they certainly don’t replace policy.

The “better” general in Iraq didn’t win Iraq.  As we have [briefly] discussed, the hard work of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps was done before and during the tenure of all the generals who commanded the campaign.  It was a matter of time, endurance and professionalism by the U.S. military.  To the extent that we attained success in Iraq, it is attributable to the U.S. military.  To the extent that we failed in Iraq, it is attributable to lack of vision or clear policy by the administration(s), e.g., the failure to fight Iraq as a regional war, the support of corrupt Iranian apparatchiks like Nouri al-Maliki, the failure to secure the borders, the engagement of protracted nation-building, etc.

Afghanistan is lost due to the same reasons.  I generally give the U.S. military more credit and attribute more capabilities to them than does Gian.  But one thing the U.S. military cannot pull off is replacement for national policy.  Gian reminds us again that seeking out military heroes to do just this is a distinctly American pastime, but it is mistaken and dangerous, at least for the thinking men among us.

* Thanks to  Wes Morgan and Andrew Lubin for assisting me to get the Marine Corps units and dates correct regarding operations in 2003 and 2004.

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

Counterinsurgency Zeal

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 1 month ago

COIN zeal grips Afghanistan.

The young governor of Yousef Khel district in eastern Afghanistan takes US Army Lieutenant Marcus Smith by the hand and leads him down a slippery slope.

“Partnership,” Smith says, as the two walk hand-in-hand over churned-up wheat fields, repeating the message at the heart of the strategy he is trying to implement in the small outpost he commands in Paktika province.

A determination to implement US and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy is evident among the soldiers in this part of Afghanistan.

At bases across the east, inverted pyramids and intricate flow charts are tacked to walls and scrawled on white boards, with slogans such as: “The population is the centre of gravity.”

Up mountains and through valleys, soldiers on patrol muse on historical counter-insurgency campaigns and the writings of Che Guevara or Mao Zedong, trying to find analogies for their modern war.

“We came in with a counter-terrorism strategy specifically to remove the Taliban,” said US Army Major Steven Bower, an intelligence officer for the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktika and Paktya.

“You have to transition into a strategy that looks, smells and tastes like counter-insurgency — you’ve got to provide security, you’ve got to build capacity and government.”

[ … ]

But implementing the plan creates problems, too.

In some remote areas there is no government partner. In others, local leaders are too young and inexperienced to have any influence. Rookie Afghan police and army lock horns, while wary tribal elders refuse to cooperate.

Militants are attacking development projects while money is frequently skimmed in the corruption-riddled nation, US officials say.

“It’s a very slow and tedious process and you take a couple of steps forward and you take a step backwards here and there,” said Lieutenant Colonel David Fivecoat, commander of 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment in Paktika.

Fivecoat talks about the “oil spot” theory: bringing security and establishing a government presence in one population centre before branching out to smaller, outlying villages.

But that isn’t what we’re doing.  In what I have forecasted will be a mistake, we have withdrawn from Korengal Valley and given the Taliban easy means of ingress and egress to Eastern Afghanistan and free reign to interdict lines of logistics, train, recruit and take safe haven.  We have done this in order to focus on large population centers such as Kandahar.  And we have take this approach because the COIN school of thought (as it is currently being promulgated) believes that the population – in all geophysical space, at all times and in all phases – is the center of gravity (CoG) of a counterinsurgency campaign.

Tom Ricks is writing again on the lack of COIN training for the Army (tip to Bruce Rolston at Flit).  He cites Joe Klein (something I would not do in this case – and frankly, not in any case that I can think of), and I won’t repeat the quotation since the Major quoted by Klein drops by Rick’s blog and corrects Klein.  His fawning over current COIN doctrine is enough to convince anyone that Klein does a poor job with the theme of his article.

Here are my thoughts on COIN and this is what I expressed in my interview:

COIN is very complex. A unit cannot be trained for all situations presented while conducting COIN operations. Three lines of operations (effort) are mutually supporting in successful COIN operations: Security, Governance, and Development. The US military, alone, is not task organized to accomplish all three lines of effort and we require assistance from those agencies that are: State Department and Research, developers and engineers. Since their arrival, we have been able to conduct succesfull operations along all three lines. The 1-12th is a learning organization and we apply our daily lessons into actionable and achievable victories.

I have watched a transformation of the Soldiers in this Infantry Battalion take place in a short period of time, 11 months. We have transitioned from a lethal fighting force to a population centric machine. We / I get it. COIN is about the people, the population. I often say, and said to Mr. Klein the day I was interviewed, that the current fight we are in with the Taliban is a fight for the population. It does not matter how many Taliban are killed or captured, if you do not gain the trust and confidence of the population, we will not succeed.

I have been in the Army 18 years, third deployment…..I have seen what works and what does not. I know “population centric” operations is the way to succeed, the only way to win.

In relation to this same subject, Ricks and Col. Gian Gentile interact over another Ricks piece, where he leads off with a pointer to the failed Israeli campaign in Lebanon.  Gentile responds with this:

Well Tom as you quite imagine I think your assertion that the US Army isnt taking Coin serious enough is a bit off the mark to say the least. In fact it has taken Coin as pretty much the only thing, and for some good reasons due to the operational demands on the army with Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also think you draw on a trope instead of a better understanding of history. The trope being a reduction of the of the Weigley thesis that the Coin crowd has latched onto: that the US Army only wants to do big battles at the expense of irregular warfare. If you read Weigley in its entirety you would of course seen that what his book is really about is wrestling with the problem of utility of military force in the post world war II era of nuclear weapons. Too, Weigley wrote his classic as the US was just coming out of the Vietnam war where the question of utility of force in that war certainly was on his mind. Weigley’s book in all of its brilliance has been seriously challenged recently by an excellent review of it by scholar Brian Linn in the April 2002 issue of the Journal of Military History. You may want to have a look at Linn’s criticism of Weigley’s work.

With regard to the American Army and Vietnam and Krepinevich’s hugely important but deeply flawed book on it, shoot Tom there has been much scholarship done on the topic since his work was first published that seriously questions his thesis and argument. In fact a close reading of the scholarly literature of the history of the Vietnam War shows that the majority of scholarly historians are not in agreement with the Krepinevich argument. There is still a minority of historians who accept it, but they are in the minority. Suggest you have a look at Gary Hess’s excellent book-length historiographical sketch of the literature and also Andy Birtle’s award winning Journal of Military History article of last year titled “PROVN and the Historians.”

Lastly and with regard to Dave Johnson’s absolutely superb recent Rand analysis on Lebanon and Gaza I am not clear how you can end this post, Tom, questioning my concern about leaning too heavily toward Coin, and at the same time highlighting Dave’s piece since one of his main arguments is that the reason why the Israeli Army had problems in 2006 was due to an almost complete focus on Coin to the detriment of combined arms competencies.

This was exactly my reaction when I read Tom’s article before even reading Gian’s comment.  How odd it is that Tom lead off with an example that argues counter to his theme.  I won’t plumb the depths of the issue of training.  Better and more educated minds such as Gentile can make those arguments and don’t need my help.  But I will focus on one theme that runs like a scarlet thread through the gospel of COIN.  It is to be population-centric, and nothing else.

But is it really?  The Major who was misquoted by Klein tells us that the population is always the CoG – the only way to win.  But this is a logical fallacy.  It is inductive reasoning, and he is really merely telling us that as best as he can ascertain, in the limited number of geophysical areas to which he has been deployed, focus on the population seemed to work for him.  Or, that he failed to focus on the population, and he failed.  Either way, he is citing doctrine.

Col. Gian Gentile argues that the CoG must be discovered.  I argue (is a similar vein but with a different twist) that the CoG may not in fact exist.  Multiple lines of effort must be pursued (and not just lines of effort with the population, but lines of effort in the campaign, such as kinetic operations, robust policing, etc.).  Gian has further argued that there may be different CoG for each phase of a campaign.

Returning to population centers, Michael Yon has an interesting article on the Battle for Kandahar.  Stopping momentarily to comment on one thing, Michael observes that language training continues to be a significant weakness in our effort, a problem that I have noted before, literally begging for more and better language training.  At the Small Wars Journal, this interesting comment is left (concerning the operations in Kandahar).

We keep claiming that we’re so much better than the Soviets in Kandahar. Yet Dr. Marc Sageman, one of leaders of the CIA team fighting Afghan War from Pakistan:

“This has led me to go back and review what Soviet policy was in Afghanistan for 10 years. It has been bad-mouthed so far in this panel, but I was on the other side. I was intimately involved in running the war against the Soviets for three years, and I couldn’t afford to underestimate the enemy. We should not repeat their mistakes. We should learn from them.  The Soviets had an advantage. They were dealing with a less corrupt Afghan government, and they were dealing with fairly strong leadership as soon as they got rid of Babrak Karmal and put Najibullah in as the president. Najibullah was a fairly effective president and not corrupt, and the Soviets did not have any pressure from domestic protest because they hid the body bags. They actually did not tell the population how many people they lost until after the war. They were very careful about that; nobody could mention Afghanistan.

They developed a fairly efficient and effective counterinsurgency doctrine after 1986.  They learned from their mistakes after about six years, and what they did is exactly what we are suggesting right now. This, to me, was a surprise because it was fairly sophisticated. They were preaching national reconciliation and achieved quite a bit of success with it. They withdrew from the countryside, consolidating the cities and providing security in the cities and on the roads for most of the time they were there. I know because I was very frustrated; I was trying to disrupt that security from my side. They encouraged armed local militias in order to frustrate me and my colleagues at the time, the mujahedeen. They were pretty good. They also had a fairly decent administration for dispensing justice for this kind of conflict resolution, and they built roads, schools, factories and hospitals. That sounds really familiar.  What did that give them? It gave them a decent interval of three years from the time they withdrew to the time Najibullah fell. That decent interval lasted as long as the money and support flowed from the Soviet Union. As soon as Yeltsin took over, he cut it off and Najibullah fell within months.

The citation is Symposium: U.S. Policy in Afghanistan.  So I am back to where I started.  The withdrawal from Korengal will likely have lasting consequences.  The reader can judge for himself.  Must counterinsurgency always be population-centric?  Is that always and in every location the center of gravity?

How long did it take to learn counterinsurgency in Iraq?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 5 months ago

The Small Wars Journal blog post COIN Toss is better reading for the comments than the TNR article it links.  Gian Gentile questions the assertion that we didn’t learn counterinsurgency in Iraq until 2004 (2005, 2006 or whenever)?  Questioning conventional wisdom again, he is.

Gulliver treats us to his customary exercise in asininity by questioning how much reading Gian has done, but Gian presses the question – and he is correct to do this.  Of David Ucko’s book, Gian states:

Because your book, David, conforms to the Coin template. It accepts the notion without evidentiary proof that the American Army did not start learning and adapting until a certain point, then after that it did. You say 2005, then I ask again why 2005 and not 2003? What proof do you have? Don Wright’s and Tim Reese’s book, “On Point II,” argues the opposite that the majority of Army combat units were learning and adapting and adjusting to Coin very quickly, almost as soon as they hit the ground in Spring and Summer of 2003. I heard a very senior American Army General who commanded a Division in Iraq in 2003 (not General Petraeus by the way) state basically the same thing that his Division learned and adapted quite well to the various situations that confronted them on the ground.

Your book reads almost verbatim like the Nagl/Krepinevich critique of the American Army in Vietnam in which the American Army did not learn and adapt in that war. Moonshine. It did, in many different ways. So too did the American Army start its learning and adapting in Iraq in 2003. And do you want to know why it was able to do that learning and adapting so quickly, David? Because it was an army trained and optimized for combined arms warfare. It is books like yours that elevate the principle of learning and adapting toward better population centric coin above the fundamental necessity to do combined arms. In a sense you and many of the other Coin experts are putting the cart before the horse. The ability to do combined arms at all organizational levels gives an army in whatever situation it is thrust into the subsequent ability to seize and maintain the initiative; it can act. And if it acts first in response to a hostile enemy force or complex conditions through the initiative it can learn and adapt. My worry is that all of this talk of Coin and learning Coin and learning and adapting, yada, yada, yada, has taken our eyes off the absolute necessity of combined arms competencies and replaced it with an artificial construct of learning and adapting toward better population centric Counterinsurgency. As I have argued before, the rules of this construct, however, do not allow a unit to learn and adapt its way out of doing Coin. This box that we are in continues to push us down the Coin path toward significant organizational changes, and it keeps us locked in a world of tactics and operations, unable to see and do strategy. Strategy in war of course is more important than tactics and operations. It was a failure at strategy that caused us to lose the Vietnam War, not because the American Army didn’t learn and adapt toward doing better Coin tactics and operations.

Briefly repeating what I said in Do we need a less aggressive force posture in Afghanistan:

To be sure, the importance of the “awakening” in Anbar must be one of the elements of understanding that campaign, but the popular myth has grown up around Western Iraq that makes it all about drinking chai, siding with the tribes, going softer in our approach, and finally listening to them as they communicated to us.  And the leader of this revolution in counterinsurgency warfare was none other than General Petraeus.  We were losing until he appeared on the scene, and when he did things turned around.

We Americans love our generals, but this explanation has taken on mythical proportions, and is itself full of myths, gross exaggerations and outright falsehoods.  While Captain Travis Patriquin was courting Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, elements of the U.S. forces were targeting his smuggling lines and killing his tribal members to shut down his sources of income.  The tribal awakening had a context, and that was the use of force.  As the pundits talk about the tribes, the Marines talk about kinetics.

Furthermore, the tribal awakening was specific to Ramadi.  The beginnings of cooperation between U.S. forces and local elements came in al Qaim between Marines and a strong man police chief named Abu Ahmed.  In Haditha it necessitated sand berms around the city to isolate it from insurgents coming across the border from Syria, along with a strong man police chief named Colonel Faruq.

In Fallujah in 2007 it required heavy kinetics, followed on by census taking, gated communities, biometrics and heavy policing.  Even late in 2007 Ramadi was described by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman as like Stalingrad.  Examples abound, and as late as 2008, artillery elements fired as many as 11,000 155 mm (M105) rounds in Baquba, Iraq in response to insurgent mortar activity.

Whatever else General Petraeus did for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. Marine campaign for Anbar was underway, prosecuted before the advent of Petraeus, and continued the same way it was begun.  The Marines lost more than 1000 men in combat, and this heavy toll was a necessary investment regardless of drinking chai with the locals.

Regular readers know that I am not part of the COIN bandwagon.  We didn’t learn counterinsurgency TTPs in Iraq from FM 3-24 or the advent of the right generals.  The campaign in Anbar conducted by the U.S. Marines started, was conducted, and ended like it started and was conducted.  There was no turning to the right or to the left.  It was relentless, full-orbed targeting of the insurgency and policing of the population at its root.  It had phases because counterinsurgency has them, not because of a new general.

It may be that we in fact did learn strategically in greater Iraq, but not in the way the COIN proponents claim.  When the Baghdad Museum was under assault for its wares and possessions and the public saw this, most heads of household likely thought, “Uh huh, check the box, I get it.  It’s clear now.  They either don’t have what it takes or refuse to protect my belongings.  My entire net worth will be spent on that AK-47 after all.”  And young Omar saw exactly what paid well.

Overthrowing a government while our Soldiers and Marines had to follow on in post-Saddam Iraq with rules that resemble the SCOTUS decision in Tennessee v. Garner was a mistake of mammoth proportions, and lead to countless deaths of both U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians.  Paradoxically, our aim and desire for civility lead in part to the pain they and we experienced.  Leaving Sadr alive (who was in the actual possession of the 3/2 Marines) because the British and Sistani wanted us to was a mistake.  Withdrawing from Fallujah during the first assault (al Fajr) was a mistake, and so on the process goes.

But these are strategic failures – failures of command, and failures that if anything else too closely followed COIN / nation building dogma.  No, drinking chai with the locals didn’t win Iraq.  We were successful when we allowed our fighting men to do what was necessary to win the peace.

Colonel Gian Gentile on Killing the Enemy

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

Friend of The Captain’s Journal Colonel Gian Gentile has an article out at the Small Wars Journal, in which he quotes a Washington Post article, which itself points out that:

The Taliban has become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving its own tactics and finding gaps in the US military playbook, according to senior American military officials who acknowledged that the enemy’s resurgence this year has taken them by surprise.

US rules of engagement restricting the use of air power and aggressive action against civilians have also opened new space for the insurgents, officials said.

Yes, just like we said it would (and more here).  Continuing with Colonel Gentile’s points:

A very recent article in the Washington Post says that the enemy in Afghanistan has improved its tactical fighting abilities when confronting American forces there. The article stated that the enemy has figured out “gaps” in the current American tactical and operational approach of population centric counterinsurgency. And the article added the tactical improvement on the part of the enemy in Afghanistan, according to “American military officials,” has taken us by “surprise.” This means in effect that the enemy has the initiative.

Afghanistan is war, right? In war there has to be fighting or the threat of fighting for it to be war, right? If there is no fighting or threat of fighting then it cannot be war, right?

The answer to this tactical problem in Afghanistan provided by the Counterinsurgency Experts is better population centric Coin tactics and operations; just try harder at building schools, roads, local security forces, establishing government legitimacy, and population security through dispersion of forces to protect them. Once we get better at these processes and try just a bit harder, with a just a few more troops, then voila (just like we think happened in Iraq) victory is achieved, triumph is at hand. But where in this formulation of scientific processes are the enemy and the killing of them?

Perhaps the way ahead in Afghanistan, at least the immediate way ahead to stabilize the situation is to not focus on hearts and minds but in killing the enemy. This is not so radical of an idea, mind you. Earlier this year two infantry lieutenants and one of their sergeants, fresh from hard combat experience in Afghanistan, made the argument that the American Army was losing its ability in Afghanistan to conduct basic infantry combined arms warfare. Their solution was not better population centric counterinsurgency tactics and processes but improving infantry platoons and companies ability to close with and kill the enemy through fire and maneuver. What they were calling for was a reinvention of the American Army’s approach in Afghanistan in order to regain the initiative. And in war, whether it is counterinsurgency war, conventional war, hybrid war, whatever, the INITIATIVE is everything. In Afghanistan we have lost the initiative because population centric counterinsurgency is basically a symmetrical, reactive tactical and operational measure.

History shows that focusing on killing the enemy works in a counterinsurgency campaign. The British in Malaya for example (what follows is radically contrary to conventional knowledge about Malaya that has been built by a bevy of counterinsurgency experts and zealots since the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War but is supported by current historical scholarship) broke the back of the insurgency there by brute military force from 1951 to 1952, and not as is so commonly believed through the hearts and minds campaign conducted by General Templer from 1952 to 1954.

Colonel Gentile is deadly accurate in his assessment and his entire paper is worthy reading.  For further reading on Taliban and U.S. Marine tactics see:

Marines, Taliban and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

Squad Rushes in Afghanistan

Counterinsurgency, Brutality and Women in Combat

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

Generally I think that articles which rely on the ideas of other bloggers is to be avoided.  Occasionally however, it is appropriate to respond to critics.  One strength of blogging is the ability to link, criticize, interact, and respond.  I accept that although I don’t want it to dominate my prose.

Now for Gulliver at Ink Spots.

People will use just about anything as evidence for things they already believe.

Case in point: Herschel Smith thinks that the presence of women in Soviet combat formations is one of the top five most important reasons for their failure in Afghanistan.

I think that other things were essential to the loss, including [a] focus on the cities v. the countryside, [b] complete breakdown of the lines of logistics due to [a] above, [c] heavy losses because of Taliban control over the roads due to [a] above, [d] focus on mounted combat and mounted patrols as opposed to dismounted operations, [e] women in combat billets which led to a high number of lower extremity injuries and a high number of combat ineffective units, and a whole host of other things. [emphasis mine]

This comes in the SWJ comment thread about an article on “Sri Lanka’s disconcerting COIN strategy,” as part of a post in which Smith dismisses Soviet “ruthlessness” as one of the primary reasons for defeat in the Afghan war.

So in short, girls in the infantry were more damaging to the Russian war effort than bad counterinsurgency tactics. “There is the thing of testosterone, and it’s different because God made it that way.” Ok? Ok. Glad we cleared that one up.

Let’s think carefully about both my comment and Gulliver’s reaction to it.  Both say something about the commenters and their thought boundaries.  The comment was left at the Small Wars Journal blog in response to an article by Major Niel Smith.  If I may be allowed to summarize the thesis, he posits that the more violent and less population centric counterinsurgency model has its supporters.  He specifically mentions Ralph Peters and Colonel Gian Gentile; I’m not sure sure about Ralph Peters, but I would comment that the inclusion of Colonel Gentile in this category is true to some extent, but somewhat inappropriate given the nuance included in Gentile’s model and also given the use made of this inclusion (for one of the best discussions of Gentile’s position, see The Imperative for an American General Purpose Army That Can Fight, Foreign Policy Research Institute).  His (Niel Smith’s) discussion ranges into the brutality of less population centric counterinsurgency, and in this he should have (in my opinion) focused more on Edward Luttwak.

But getting back to the main point, Niel goes on to grant the assumption that some of the evidence is compelling in favor of this view, but that there is even more compelling contrary evidence – defeater evidence – for the success rate of counterinsurgency focused on heavier combat tactics.  At this point he uses several examples, one of which is the Russian campaign in Afghanistan.

So Niel has written a fairly open minded article positing that there is evidence to support what I will call the Luttwak position, while more compelling defeater evidence.  He then invites critique.  In my critique I didn’t weigh in on the overall thesis, but did essentially state that the Russian campaign was a poor example to support the thesis.  I opined that there were other more important reasons that the Russians lost the campaign.

Enter Gulliver.  He thinks that I have listed my top five reasons that the Russian campaign failed.  Why Gulliver thinks that I have listed my top five reasons is not known.  Gulliver would have to answer that question himself.  If I had been asked to list my top reasons that the Russian campaign failed, I probably would lead with focus on the population centers and relegation of the countryside to the Taliban to recruit, train and raise support.  In second place wouldn’t be U.S. help and assistance, although many would place this one in first or second.  My second reason (challenging for top spot) would be the existence of the Russian made RPG, plentiful to the Taliban for reasons that included U.S. help.  The Russian RPG was the first EFP (explosively formed projectile) used en mass on the battle field.

But no one asked me to enumerate my top five reasons the campaign failed.  I merely included a list of things that initially came to mind.  Let’s deal with women in combat now.  Gulliver’s response drips with sarcasm even after his incorrect assumptions concerning my list of reasons that the Russians lost.  But it remains undisputed that there were women in combat billets in the Russian campaign, and it remains undisputed that there were a large number of lower extremity injuries and that this led to a large number of ineffective units.

Marine in Helmand suffering under a heavy combat load, way more than 100 pounds.

But there is more to discuss on this issue.  As regular readers know, we have followed the dismounted campaign by the U.S. Marines in the Helmand Province.  CBS reporter Lara Logan has seen the Marines in Helmand without an ounce of fat on their bodies, and she has even expressed concern over their health.  When my son deployed to Fallujah he was so slim and muscular that I wondered how he would lose any weight whatsoever, as there was no weight to lose.  The only way he lost 20 or 30 pounds was the same way the Marines in Helmand do it.  The body turns on itself and begins eating muscle for energy.  I am a weight lifter and I know how to avoid this, i.e., I know when to stop my workout because I am no longer helping my body.  It’s actually dangerous, although Ms. Logan doesn’t know how to express it.  The body hurts itself when it begins using muscle and internal organs for energy.

Here is a test question.  We have discussed the Marines carrying 120 pounds on their back in 120 F heat in Helmand, patrolling all day and even conducting squad rushes with this weight.  Now for the question for the readers.  How many of you – raise your hands now – believe that women could carry 120 pounds in 120 F heat all day in Helmand and then conduct squad rushes?  You can answer in the comments – it’s okay.  But if you answer yes, you are also required to tell us what kind of dope you’ve been smoking.  You see, we all know what the honest answer to this question is, even if Gulliver doesn’t admit that he does.

Now let’s close with a little examination of what the Democrats think about special forces, special operations forces, and women in combat billets.  I support women in the military, and one example of such a role would be the use of female Marines to interact with Afghan women after terrain has been seized.  But the Democrats in Congress ( hereafter Dems) wanted something different for the Army.  Hence, women occupy combat billets in the Army.

The Dems want their social experiments and projects, but even they know that there has to be a boundary for this.  Michael Fumento has a good article on the Dems’ love of SF and SOF and their promise to expand the SF.  I have weighed in on the cult of Special Forces, so I won’t reiterate my issues with the Dems’ proposal or Michael Fumento’s prose here.

The point is that SF are deployed all over the globe.  They are involved in black operations that are never seen, never heard of, and are not subject to the Dems’ social experiments.  The Dems know this and they want it that way.  Women are not allowed in combat billets, not in the Special Forces, not in the Special Operations Forces, and not in Marine infantry.  The Dems want their programs, but they also want to know that they can call on infantry to do the job of infantry, so they restrict their own programs to known boundaries.  I challenged those boundaries and believe that they should not allow women in Army infantry.  The Dems include women in Army infantry.  But they stop there.  Not the Marines, and not Army SF.

There you have it.  They are at the best simply not forthcoming, and at the worst, disingenuous liars.  The truth gets spoken in quiet circles when no one but the power brokers are listening.  The public hears what the power brokers want them to hear.  One piece of that tripe is that there is no difference between men and women in the military.  They know better, but don’t want you to know that they know.

Now back to Gulliver … if Gulliver has managed to hang on and pay attention this long.  Is it I who has allowed his bias (presuppositions) to dictate the outcome, or Gulliver?  Note again his comments above.  Gulliver is simply indignant that I have “dismissed” Soviet ruthlessness as the reason for their failure in the campaign.  But isn’t he begging the question?  Has he not even allowed the Niel Smith’s assumptions to dictate the course of the debate?  Niel has allowed that there is evidence that supports Luttwak’s thesis, but believes that there is stronger defeater evidence.  Gulliver doesn’t engage in the debate.  He simply assumes that the Soviets lost due to the reasons he outlines, and then proceeds from there.  Who then is the one who uses just about anything as evidence for things he already believes?

The reader can judge for himself.  In the mean time, I have given you Luttwak, Gentile, Niel Smith, women in combat billets, heavy combat loads, squad rushes, the Small Wars Journal blog, SF and SOF, black operations and the Dems in Congress to think about.

If I ever give you worthless tripe like you read at Ink Spots, you should savage me in the comments.

McChrystal Releases Counterinsurgency Guidance and Requests More Troops

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

General McChrystal recently released counterinsurgency guidance for the ISAF.


From the very first executive summary statement, the mission(s) of protecting the people and destroying the enemy are set in juxtaposition with each other, as if contradictory or somehow mutually exclusive.  We have dealt with this before in Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN, so this issue will not be reiterated except to say that no one – no one, not the so-called COIN experts at CNAS, not military historians, no one – has demonstrated that for success in counterinsurgency we must focus away from killing the enemy.  Iraq was done the opposite way, with heavy kinetics and intelligence driven raids a huge part of the campaign from 2006 through 2008.

There is much with which to agree in the document, including what the Marines are doing in the Helmand Province to exemplify the guidance contained in this document – heavy interaction with the population.  Furthermore, it is obviously necessary to protect the population from killers and get the population involved in the fight against the insurgency.  But there are so many things with which to disagree it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Page 2: ” … an insurgency cannot be defeated by attrition; its supply of fighters, and even leadership, is effectively endless.”  Well, this simply isn’t true.  Turning to the most recent counterinsurgency campaign in our history, Operation Iraqi Freedom, I know something about how the Marines approached the campaign in the Anbar Province.  To claim that the U.S. Marines bifurcated and set in opposition the notions of protecting the population and killing the enemy is worse than just dense.  It’s dishonest.  Tens of thousands of insurgents were killed, Anbar was pacified before the balance of Iraq, and the supply of insurgents wasn’t endless.  I just don’t know how to be clearer.  This claim is simply false.

Next is this jaw unhinging claim on page 3: “We must think of offensive operations not simply as those that target militants, but ones that earn the trust and support of the people while denying influence and access to the insurgent.  Holding routine jirgas with community leaders that build trust and solve problems is an offensive operation.  So is using projects and work programs to bring communities together and meet their needs.  Missions primarily designed to disrupt militants are not.”

Now just to make sure that we are clear on this, jirgas are good.  Community projects are good.  But this statement goes so far down the path of the Western-trained PhD sociology student that it’s unclear why we aren’t reading that “flowers are beautiful, butterflies are too, and I love you!”  (Colonel Gian Gentile also warns against the notion of “weaponizing” cultural knowledge because it is an illusion).

Now.  Note the claim.  After outlining various things that could be considered offensive operations, it is stated that missions designed to disrupt militants is not offensive.  This is so gobsmackingly outlandish and juvenile that it really casts serious doubt as to whether we can grant any legitimacy whatsoever to this document.

After having to perform squad rushes against Taliban positions in Helmand recently, it’s doubtful that the Marines will have any use for this guidance.  This document seems to be the kind of thing that staff officers discuss with field grade officers who discretely roll their eyes, while the junior officers wouldn’t be caught telling their reports that their recent squad rush directly into Taliban fire wasn’t really an offensive operation.

The guidance has highly poignant and intelligent moments such as on page 4 when it recognizes that the insurgents will sometimes set themselves off from the population (such as with Now Zad where we have been begging for more Marines), and in such circumstances it is wise to engage in high intensity kinetics because of the opportunity presented to us.  But then the guidance devolves to the almost absurd, such as on page 5 where it is stated of the Afghan National Army that we should “Put them in the lead and support them, even before they think they are ready.  Coach them to excellence, and they will amaze you with how quickly they take charge.”

This sounds more like a football coach pep talk than a General advising his troops.  It will likely have little traction with U.S. forces who have watched the ANA engage in drug abuse, smoke hashish before patrols, collude with Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops, themselves claim that they cannot hold Helmand without Marines and fear being killed if they even go out into the streets, be relatively ineffective against Taliban fighters, sleep on their watch, and claim to be on vacation in the Helmand Province.

The incoherence of the document and perhaps mildly or moderately insulting and preachy manner will limit its usefulness in the field and even in the classroom.  Fortunately, while this document is being sent to leaders in Afghanistan, General McChrystal is quietly preparing to give the administration options, all of which include more troops (although not as many as we had recommended).

The general is leaning toward three major options — the “high risk strategy” is to add only 15,000 troops to the 68,000 that will be on the ground by the end of this year — as in, the highest risk of failure. The “medium risk strategy” is to add 25,000 troops, and the “low risk strategy” is 45,000, according to a senior defense adviser helping craft the plan.

Also fortunately, the enlisted Marines in Helmand won’t be reading this document.  They don’t have time, as they will be doing what the author of this document has not discussed.  They will be engaging in full orbed, comprehensive counterinsurgency in their area of operation, from jirgas to squad rushes.  Let’s hope that the balance of the forces will be doing the same thing in spite of the guidance.

Marines Take the Fight to the Enemy in Now Zad

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 11 months ago

NOW ZAD, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – U.S. Marines maneuver through a wall to conduct site exploitation after a precision aerial attack during a combat operation in the abandoned village of Now Zad, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, April 3, 2009.

The residents of Now Zad were forced to abandon their homes nearly three years ago out of fear for their lives due to the strong presence of insurgents. By conducting combat operations here, Marines are bringing Now Zad closer to the reintroduction of Afghan-led governance.

The Marines of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced), the ground combat element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Afghanistan, have served in Now Zad since November 2008.

Now Zad, Afghanistan is in the news.

The 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment had deployed to Afghanistan last spring to train Afghan police. But when Karell’s platoon arrived in Now Zad, the largest town in a remote northern district of Helmand province, they’d rolled into a ghost town.

The Afghans who used to live here, more than 10,000, had been gone for several years, their abandoned mud-brick homes slowly melting into the dusty valley. Insurgents were using the place for R&R. At night, all you heard were the jackals, ululating like veiled, grieving women. The fact that Now Zad had no civilian residents, much less any police, had somehow escaped the notice of the coalition planners who had given the Marines their mission.

“They saw what they wanted to achieve but didn’t realize fully what it would take,” Task Force 2/7’s commander, Lt. Col. Richard Hall, said at the time. “There were no intel pictures where we are now because there were few or no coalition forces in the areas where we operate. They didn’t know what was out there. It was an innocent mistake.”

So, with no police to train or civilians to protect, the Marines in Now Zad were left with the job of evicting the insurgents who had taken over the town.

Joshua Foust has an interesting take on this kind of narrative.

I think we’re starting to reach the point at which you can only tell the same story so many times: U.S. military comes to town, finds out things are worse than they realized, learns their training sucks, and must adapt. Cue gunfire, the agonizing death of comrades, and the realization that you finally get it, and the guys who come to replace you in a few months will be better off as a result. Rinse, repeat.

Well, perhaps intelligence missed it.  Perhaps it would have been better to have known what Now Zad was like before deploying.  But Marines are generally trained at the range (iron sights at 500 yards), close and hand to hand combat in MCMAP, room clearing, language, culture, checkpoints and traffic control, squad rushes, fast roping, and other infantry tactics.  It’s unlikely that they will face anything in Now Zad for which they cannot adapt.

The Captain’s Journal has a different take on things.  Notice the tip of the hat to population-centric counterinsurgency with the horrible notion that there were no civilians to protect.  We have been as strong an advocate as possible of the idea of protecting the population from the Taliban.  But recall that in the context of the Army’s presence at the Korengal Valley we also discussed enemy separation from the population – and targeting the enemy – as another line of operation.

But it will not always be this clear.  The enemy is who we are after, but to get to them at times requires focusing on the population.  Every situation is unique, and thus rather than finding a center of gravity, it is best to see the campaign as employing lines of effort.  In spite of the lack of adequate troops, the campaign will not be an either-or decision, focusing on the enemy or the population.  It will be both-and.

At times this will be extremely difficult, with the insurgency embedding with the population, shielding themselves with women and children, and hiding from U.S. forces.  Counterinsurgency thus proves to be a difficult mix of direct action military engagements, streetside conversations, visits to homes, learning the population and culture, and rebuilding the infrastructure.  There will be enough of this to go around for everyone in the campaign.

But just occasionally, the insurgents will separate themselves from the population, attempt to mass on a location, and go into conventional military formation.  When this happens and when U.S. forces can find it, it pays to kill them on the spot whether they are a direct threat or not.

Why are U.S. forces present in the Korangal valley?  The obvious answer is to kill the enemy.  It’s the perfect circumstances, crafted by the insurgents themselves.  No women, no children, no surrounding infrastructure to be destroyed, only the enemy and U.S. troops.  We dread the difficulty of population-centric counterinsurgency and pray for such engagements.

Intelligence failure or not, Lt. Col. Hall shouldn’t be apologizing for the fact that there are no civilians in Now Zad to protect.  This exigency should be the occasion for celebration.  It happened for the Marines in Garmser, and it’s happening again in Now Zad.  God must love the Marines.

In counterinsurgency, rarely does the opportunity present itself to have an unhindered killing field to defeat an enemy militarily.  This is it.  Several hundred hard core Taliban fighters have garrisoned themselves in Now Zad without any civilian inhabitants whatsoever.  This question was asked earlier and answered by us in Major Combat Operations in Now Zad Afghanistan.  Why are the Marines there?  Answer: Because the Taliban are.

But in this marvelous AP report, we learn – again – that there aren’t enough troops to clear and hold.  More are needed, and this is General McChrystal’s job.  Finally, when population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine makes us question why Marines are killing the enemy, as Col. Gian Gentile would point out, the doctrine is no longer our friend.  We must allow the forces to discover the center of gravity.  In this case, we don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Prior Featured Article: Taliban Tactics: Massing of Troops

Now Zad Video

Marine Corps Commandant and Colonel Gentile Agree

BY Herschel Smith
15 years ago

Friend of The Captain’s Journal Colonel Gian Gentile is well known for his arguments that the traditional warfighting skills should not be allowed to atrophy.  He strikes back at those who simplistically claim that this means turning the clock back a quarter century or more.

Arguing for rebuilding the Army’s capacity for conventional operations does not mean taking the Service back to 1986 in order to recreate the old Soviet Union so we can prepare to fight World War II all over again in the Fulda Gap. Such accusations have become the standard—and wrongheaded—critique that purveyors of counterinsurgency dogma like to throw at anybody who argues for a renewed focus on conventional capabilities. The Army does need to transform from its antiquated Cold War structure toward one that can deal with the security challenges of the new millennium and one focused primarily on fighting as its core competency (italics mine).

U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Conway apparently agrees, at least as it pertains to skills he sees being at risk to atrophy.

The Marine Corps hopes to give Marines 14 months at home after deployments by mid-2010, Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway said Thursday.

Currently, Marines spend seven months deployed and seven months home, but that could change now that the Corps has grown to 202,000 ahead of schedule, and with almost all Marines expected to leave Iraq next spring, Conway said.

“That’s going to be very helpful, we think, for our families,” he said. “We think that young Marines who maybe haven’t had a chance to meet someone are going to be afforded that opportunity.”

Marines will also use that extra time to train for amphibious landings and to fight conventional wars, two types of skill-sets that have deteriorated as the Corps has focused on counterinsurgency, he said.

“We believe very strongly in this capacity of the Marine Air Ground Task Force,” Conway said. Its core competency is maneuvering under its own fires and rolling up on an enemy just as the smoke lifts. We used to do 10 of those [exercises] a year at Twentynine Palms. Today we do none.”

The importance of Marines getting back to their traditional warfighting skills is underscored by current tensions on the Korean peninsula, he said.

If a conflict broke out, Marines would likely be called upon to launch amphibious operations, he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates implied in April that amphibious landings might be a thing of the past, noting that the Corps’ last major landing was in 1950.

Asked about Gates’ comments later that month, Conway said the Corps had launched amphibious operations since then, most notably when Marines helped to evacuate U.S. citizens from Lebanon in 2006.

Conway quickly added Thursday that the Corps would be able to do the job eventually.

“But I’m simply arguing we can do it better when we’re trained to it, and that’s the value of this 1:2 deployment to dwell: to give us the opportunity to give those young Marines more time with the families and more time to, again, relax at home, but also to get on these training fields and get back some of these core competencies that have withered over time,” he said.

Analysis & Commentary

It’s very difficult to imagine a near-peer or even a nuclear-armed state (whether near-peer or not) settling for massive human casualties in a conventional war without invoking the nuclear option (which is not quite the same thing as saying that it’s hard to imagine a conventional campaign in the future).  Contrary to what many think, the best use for nuclear weapons is not using them – it is in creating a situation in which they don’t have to be used.

There is also no question that while counterinsurgency involves the application of soft power, it also includes quite conventional warfighting skills at times (as these two videos show).  We have discussed the Taliban tactic of massing troops against smaller units of U.S. forces, up to and including half-Battalion size engagements.  The lessons learned from one such engagement with a Marine Force Recon company was to remember the tactics taught in School of Infantry, because they will be used in such fights.

Involvement in counterinsurgency campaigns has brought U.S. forces to the point of being the most combat experienced fighters on earth, contrary to the example of the appalling performance turned in by the Russian troops against the Georgian Army (an Army, by the way, which had come back from Iraq with recent experience).

It is also very difficult to imagine that the Marine Corps will ever launch another large scale amphibious assault involving high numbers of casualties.  Other ways will be found – and should be found – leading us to recommend replacement of the EFV and the notion of sea-based assault with more air power and delivery aboard Amphibious Assault Docks.

Either way, talk of amphibious assaults clouds the main point, and it is one on which both Colonel Gentile and the Commandant have settled.  We must not let our warfighting skills atrophy.  With the Commandant, The Captain’s Journal also believes very strongly in the concept of the Air Ground Task Force, as well as teaching all Marines to perform squad rushes and other conventional tactics as well as the room clearing and constabulary operations more focused on counterinsurgency.

Quite obviously, if the Marines are not performing these field exercies and maneuvers, then it’s high time to get back to them.  This is equally true for the Army.  One need not posit the near-peer conflict in order to see the usefulness of warfighting skills if these very tactics are being used in the counterinsurgency campaigns in which we are now engaged.

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