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REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

Friday, March 30th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

What a marvelous book!

Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

Strongly recommended.

 

Central Standard Time, Issue # 2

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen”]

Professor Totorici has the second issue of Central Standard Time up.

My contribution for this issue comes from the ZP archives – in keeping with the cultural spirit of CST I decided on a book review, the one on American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson, but with an updated prologue:

American Spartan

If even the simplest things in war are difficult, as Clausewitz claimed, counterinsurgency wars are also dirty, dark and dysfunctional. This is so partly because counterinsurgency wars are as much about politics as they are combat, the clarity of victory usually proves elusive. The other reason is that the few “rules” that govern warfare, rules followed even by the Wehrmacht on the battlefield, are routinely ignored by guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists who try to swim among the people as fish in the sea. That is if we assume the fish are piranhas engaged in a contest against sharks.

….I reviewed Gant’s story, American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson, two years ago at my home blog zenpundit.com and elsewhere online. The book, like Jim Gant himself and his approach to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, remains highly controversial in military circles and outside of it to this day. To be blunt, I am an admirer of Jim Gant; he did everything as a soldier that the U.S. Army asked of him as an officer and more at great personal cost and the Afghan tribesmen with whom he worked considered Gant to be one of them, part of the tribe. This is not to say Gant was without flaws or error – they were perhaps as significant as his strengths. But Jim Gant’s story is also America’s story; I can think of no better book at the human level to explain America’s rise and fall in Afghanistan than American Spartan.

Read the rest here.

Guest Post: Why the United States cannot put Boots on the Ground to Fight ISIS

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Today, I’m pleased to offer a guest post by LtCol. Bob Weimann, USMC (ret.) .  Weimann is the former Commanding Officer, Kilo Co., 3/1 and Weapons Company 3/1. He also served as a Marine Security Force Company commanding officer, an infantry battalion Operations Officer and the Executive Officer of 1/6 during Desert Storm. A frequent presenter at the Boyd & Beyond Conferences, Bob is on the Board of Directors of UAP (United American Patriots) and a contributing editor to www.defendourmarines.com . UAP is a non-profit charity that aids military service members to help defray expenses for an adequate and fair legal defense. See What UAP Believes here: http://www.unitedpatriots.org/ .

Why the United States Cannot Put Boots on the Ground to Fight ISIS

By Bob Weimann

The expression “boots on the ground” has an extended military-jargon history…The term is used to convey the belief that military success can only be achieved through the direct physical presence of troops in a conflict area … The term is particularly applied currently (2010) to counter-insurgency operations.[1]

The expression “boots on the ground” basically means we need to send in ground troops, grunts, warriors, dog-faces, jarheads, combatants…those shifty eyed fowl mouth two fisted go for broke Soldiers and Marines that close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver in order to kill the enemy. These are the folks that must place the front site of their rifle on an enemy and pull the trigger. These are warriors brave enough to step through the doorway of an enemy occupied house, detect and disarmed an IED, engage a treacherous enemy that does not take prisoners and an enemy that does not hesitate to torturer and murder innocents. Our warriors are the sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, neighbors, and acquaintances from every community, town, city and state across this country and one of the greatest representative cross sections of patriotic American citizens in existence.

Our warriors are a different generation but they possess the same spirt America’s warriors have establish and exhibited since the Revolutionary War. For over 240 years these folks have never let us down and have volunteer for the nasty, dirty, immoral, brutalizing effects of combat. You can say we lost in Viet Nam, Somali, Iraq and Afghanistan but the scary truth is we lost those wars strategically after we won them tactically. The unfortunate reality is that the strategic always trumps the tactical. Tactical is all about the troops; strategy is all about the generals.

The other scary fact is that since 2003, we have seen an unprecedented number of courts martial that the media labels “war crimes” … more “war crime” legal cases since 2003 than in all the battle history of all the United States war’s combined. How can this be possible when we have fielded to today’s battles the best trained, best equipped, smartest warriors in this country’s history?

The issue is not the troops, the issue here is the senior military leadership, the general officers that have forgotten they are warriors and exhibit the traits and leadership characteristics of politicians. Today’s general officers understand careerism but do not understand the Laws of War that should be their stock and trade.  They hid behind lawyers and Rule of Law equivocations that cannot co-exist on a battlefield.

For this reason, we cannot put combat boots on the ground because the troops are being used as political cannon fodder. Over and over again we see American combatants thrown under the bus for the sake of justifying a policy objective of executing a bad military strategy.  Names like Lt Ilario Pantano, Sgt Larry Hutchins, SSgt Frank Wuterich, Sgt Michael Williams, Sgt Jose Nazario, 1Sgt John Hatley, Sgt Derrick Miller, Capt Roger Hill, Lt Michael Behenna, Major Fred Galvin, Major Matt Goldsteyn, PFC Corey Clayett, GySgt Timothy Hogan, SPC Franklin Dunn, SSgt Osee Fagan, SPC Michael Wagnon, and Lt Clint Lorance are the more notable cases. You can be certain that the list will continue to grow not only with the recent Afghanistan Kunduz Hospital Airstrike[2] but also any combat actions against the terrorist in Iraq and Syria.

Military campaigns are always based on a “kill or capture” strategy, however, our leadership does not believe in a kill strategy nor do they believe in a capture strategy. Our military leadership believes that our Soldiers and Marines are in combat to die for the “greater good”.[3] Instead of capture, we have a “catch and release” program that continually frees known enemy combatants and terrorist to again kill, not only our service members, but also civilians. “Catch and release” is nothing more than a treachery award program for the enemy. Our generals believe that our combatants have no right to self-defense on the battlefield.[4] The idea that our warriors are there to make the enemy die for their cause is a lost priority in our general officer’s politically correct minds.

We cannot put boots on the ground because our generals do not trust our Soldiers and Marines to show the initiative necessary for successful combat operations. The generals have forgotten how to fight and win. They have forgotten how to support our warriors by setting the correct strategic policies to allow them to fight. We no longer have combat commanders. The Washington DC political cronies continue to dedicate failed policies that undermine and kill our warriors in order to acquire political curry and favoritism.

War is not a moral exercise. There is no morality that can justify the slaughter of war. War is the ultimate competition that is won by killing the bad guys and bringing our warriors home alive. Collateral damage is an unescapable reality. Yes, collateral damage considerations are important but collateral damage must be weighed against military necessity. The Laws of War principle of military necessity allows for a rigorous war; a rigorous war is a short war; and a short war minimizes civilian casualties. Mixed into military necessity is the idea that field commanders have a responsibility to bring home alive as many of our warriors as possible. Sending them to Leavenworth is not part of the “bringing them home” equation.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boots_on_the_Ground

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunduz_hospital_airstrike

[3] http://www.wnd.com/2012/03/sacrifice-marines-for-the-greater-good/

[4] http://newsok.com/article/3690397

Anne Smedinghoff Didn’t Have to Die Part 2

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

[ Last week, Zen hosted Pete Turner’s guest post, PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All. Here is part 2 of that article — posted by Charles Cameron for Zen ]
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pete turner header

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Last week I wrote about the tragedy of Anne Smedinghoff, who died on a patrol in Qalat Afghanistan.  This is part 2 of the story–

My intention here is to illustrate HOW? rather than “what” we (Dr. Rich Ledet and I) did regarding the proper means to improve education in rural Afghanistan.  I submit that our method is more reliable, predictable, measurable and can be replicated; yay scientific method.  

Dr. Ledet and I leveraged an unusually strong partnership with a key Afghan political-religious leader.  More than simply believing that we had a great relationship, we’d taken steps to build and validate the strength of our partnership, leveraging tools I had personally developed over years of immersion in conflict environments.  

To begin with, we avoided the common US “crutch” of dominance, never assuming that we were “in charge.”  Not only did we share many meals and tea with him, but we socialized with him and his family apart from any other American military elements. We also invited this leader to our dining facility to eat with us on numerous occasions.  We shared our relevant reports (normally made for US elements only, these reports dealt with our evaluation of his region) with him (unclassified or FOUO) so that he could better understand our role and how the US was attempting to support him–This post is long enough already. I’ll have to come back to this particular topic later.

As a side note, I thought I had a great relationship with this leader after working with him almost daily for months.  One day, he sat back, put his hand above his head and said, “I get what you are doing now.  I understand that you are truly helping me with the Americans.”  This breakthrough was surprising, as I thought we already had a good partnership.  But I had misjudged what was previously accomplished, and the lesson I learned was that not only is trust VERY hard to earn, but also that there are different forms of trust to be accounted for when attempting to partner with leaders in conflict environments.  Only after this point did I realize that I had earned an additional level of trust, and that he allowed me more latitude and access than he afforded any other American.  In fact, I could come to him for advice, as he knew that I was genuinely working to support the Afghans in a way that was within the bounds of their customs.

We brought our research problem regarding education to our partner, and asked him how to best work toward a solution.  He immediately identified the other elders with whom we needed to discuss and work, while providing us with the new Provincial Minister of Education’s (MoE) personal phone number (which we did not previously have on record) and advised us to mention his name when we talked.  He noted that he was also attempting to work with the MoE on education in his district, and although they hadn’t always agreed, he felt the MoE was an honest man.

This process of partnering, and acquiring information about other leaders and the MoE, demonstrated a measure of trust indicating that our partner indeed valued us and our efforts.  Further his validation through providing us with an introduction to other key decision-makers in the province which gave us unique access to a set of leaders that didn’t typically interact with US elements.  We had truly entered through a more culturally appropriate door, as our partner trusted that we would not expose him in a negative light to the other leaders.  

Once we were able to make contact with the recommended leaders, we were careful to explain the agenda, set up appointments, and accommodate their schedules as best as possible.  We never showed up unannounced, or uninvited.  With the safety of all involved in mind, we took time to determine their preferred place of meeting, which was critical considering that we lived on an American forward operating base, and could move in heavily protected convoys.  We were remarkably “safer” than those leaders, as they lived in constant threat.  We displayed a respect for their safety when we considered their venue preference.  While these logistical steps seem obvious, we found this level of respect nonexistent in DoS, PRT and US forces attempting to work with local leaders, again relying on domination to achieve goals; US forces prefer to show up unannounced, unscheduled and take over the Afghan leader’s schedule as we set fit.  

When we met, the recommended leaders were also accompanied by multiple religious elders.  We didn’t ask them to do this, by the way, but it was something that was required in their culture.  This was also an indicator to us that we approached the problem from the most culturally appropriate angle known to us (and recommended by our Afghan partner who originally set us up for success).  Afghan leaders, when not influenced by Americans, will have a religious leader (mullah) present as they make decisions.  

Over the course of several meetings, and after deliberation between the MoE and other family and religious leaders, we were able to ascertain what was expected in terms of US assistance.  Keep in mind that what we were also doing was helping to link family, religious, and political leaders with a valid MoE backed plan to improve education throughout all of Zabul province; a critical element of creating stability wins.  

These leaders never asked for money. They never asked us to build another school.  They recognized that we could help, and they also wanted us to help them determine if these programs were working.  They knew we had the capacity, which they knew they did not, to help them measure the success of the program.  

What is most telling is that these leaders noted a lack of security, which is a common theme throughout my time in conflicted areas.  Security concerns are superior, and every other effort is subordinate.  This is where you need to pay attention DoS–The MoE asked that he never be seen engaging with the US at his office, as US patrols could only expose him to harm, he and other leaders wanted to reduce the amount of contact between US forces and their children for the same reason.  Moreover, leaders in the district wanted us in the background, as they wanted to see the Afghan government and the MoE doing their job.  They wanted the people living in Zabul Province to see the same–This is setting the stage for believable, culturally based stability win…and there is no photo op.

Our work established the beginnings of a clear plan that meets the requirements for creating stability. It satisfies a test we developed that indicates potential success when conducting non-lethal missions or operations…Is the operation Afghan inspired, Afghan led, Afghan provisioned, and sanctioned by a Mullah?  

Is it possible that if DoS had bothered to teach Anne this test or heed our report, that she would still be alive?

New Book- The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House

Friday, March 25th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / a.k.a  “zen“]

The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House […] by Zalmay Khalilzad

Just received a courtesy review copy of The Envoy, the memoir of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, from Christine at St. Martin’s Press.

Khalilzad was part of a small group of diplomatic troubleshooters and heavy hitters for the second Bush administration, whose numbers included John Negroponte, Ryan Crocker and John Bolton who were heavily engaged during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like the others, Khalilzad had held a variety of important policy posts at State, the NSC and the Department of Defense before assuming ambassadorial duties; the bureaucratic experience, ties to senior White House officials and the exigencies of counterinsurgency warfare would make these posts more actively proconsular than was typical for an American ambassador.   Indeed, the endorsements on the book jacket, which include two former Secretaries of State, a former Secretary of Defense and a former CIA Director testify to the author’s political weight in Khalilzad’s years of government service.

It’s been a while since I have read a diplomatic memoir, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how Khalilzad treats Afghanistan’s early post-Taliban years, given that he personally is a bridge from the Reagan policy of supporting the anti-Soviet mujahedin to the toppling of the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 and helping to organize the new Afghan state. Khalilzad is also, of course, an Afghan by birth, giving him greater insight into that country’s complex political and social divisions than most American diplomats could muster.

I will give The Envoy a formal review in the future but Khalizad has given a synopsis of where he thinks American policy went awry in Afghanistan over at Thomas E. Rick’s Best Defense blog.


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