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New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  ”go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.


Narco-cartels as MBAs Doing 4GW

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]


Yale organizational behaviorist Rodrigo Canales has an interesting talk on the Narco-insurgency in Mexico ( which he correctly sees as having been as lethal as Syria’s civil war). While this won’t be news to close students of Mexico’s cartel wars, Canales explains how Los Zeta, La Familia, Knights Templar and Sinaloa cartel violence is neither random nor strictly criminal on criminal  violence but is used as part of organizational strategies to create distinctive “franchise brands”, amplify political messaging,  reinforce effects of social service investment in the communities they control and maximize market efficiency of narcotics sales and other contraband. COIN, 4GW and irregular warfare folks will all see familiar elements in Canales management theory driven perspective.

A useful short tutorial considering the cartels are operating inside the United States and their hyper-violent tactics are eventually going to follow.


Manea interviews Kilcullen at SWJ

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of Small Wars Journal, steps up with an interview with COIN guru and former USG senior adviser Dr. David Kilcullen:

Future of Warfare in a Post-COIN Conflict Climate


SWJ: Should we expect that when we see all these clustered elements conflict is more likely, the societal environment more conflict prone?

David Kilcullen: There are two different ways to look at this set of relations. If we look at this from the standpoint of the military or law-enforcement, then it is pretty clear that we really need to get comfortable with operating in a very littoral, very urban and very highly networked environment because that is where the bulk of the people on the planet are going to live in the next generation. If you are not comfortable operating in such an environment you are not going to be effective. But this doesn’t mean that the solution to this problem is a military one. Seen from the perspective of the city in itself, it is pretty clear that the solution is not to bring the hawk cops in, and apply hard power tools to stabilize the environment. This is often a recipe for disaster. The paradox is that, on the one hand, there are no military solutions, but at the same time there are no solutions at all without security. Someone will provide that security and it is better for it to be the locals, but if the locals cannot do it, then history suggests that we will be drawn into this kind of conflict with about the same frequency as in the past.    

SWJ: You emphasized in your book, and also at the New America Foundation launching event that in the future we will face operational continuity and environmental discontinuity. What if the environmental discontinuity can in itself be a variable able to change the operational continuity?

David Kilcullen: That’s possible, to the extent that we have data — information based on historical patterns. On one hand, it seems that there is a lot of unwillingness on behalf of the American politicians to contemplate future engagements like Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has no appetite as we’ve seen in the case of Syria for further military activity overseas. The military leadership is very reluctant to recommend that kind of operation. But going back to the 19th century we see a cyclical pattern in American military history where we repeatedly have leaders coming out with this kind of statement and yet we end up doing these kinds of operations anyway, on about the same frequency. There are deep structures about the way the US is connected to the international community that lead to this kind of behavior. It is possible that we won’t do this in the future, but it is not the way to bet. If you are going to bet on what is likely to happen, the pattern suggests that we are going to see a specific “conflict climate” (shaped by population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness) within which wars will arise.

Read the rest here.


America’s Defense Amnesia

Friday, November 1st, 2013

(by Adam Elkus)

Over at The National Interest, Paul Pillar diagnoses America with an “amnesia” about intelligence. The US, like Guy Pearce’s amnesiac character in Memento, does not perceive that it is caught in a larger oscillating cycle:

Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

Pillar goes on to explain that the nature of intelligence does not provide easy directions regarding how allied intelligence targets figure into larger geostrategic intelligence factors that impact what policymakers desire out of the intelligence community. It is a great read from a man who is both a veteran of the intelligence world and a consistent critic of US foreign policy and security. However, I’d like to expand Pillar’s metaphor of “amnesia” beyond the intelligence world. We really have defense and national security amnesia.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not uncommon to hear sentiments arguing that force-on-force, firepower-centric conventional warfare could not cope with the challenges of a “global counterinsurgency.” Indeed, some argued that the previous high-tech military ideas not only were out of date with the nature of the challenge, but almost lost the war altogether. Both manpower-heavy and manpower-light counterinsurgency campaigns were proposed.  The Surge is still seen today in many quarters as the closest thing America has to a recent military triumph. As Antulio Echevarria noted, critics of conventional warfare argued that opponents had adapted around America’s strategic advantages, but it was less clear that there was any causal relationship.

Circa 2007-2009, however, large-scale occupations in the Muslim world began to go out of style. Critics began to clamor for a light footprint approach heavily based around counterterrorism strike forces and standoff firepower. A presidential candidate promised to hit al-Qaeda hard with flexible counterterrorism forces. Reduce the terrorist threat steadily growing in safe havens, he and his staff argued. The zeitgeist began to turn towards a culture of raiding, characterized by some of the very same assumptions about light and lethal forces that were so widely criticized prior to the counterinsurgency era. Manpower-intensive occupations were out, intensive counterterrorism in the dark was in. Instead of stabilizing failed states, America would use a combination of intelligence, special operations, and statecraft to marginalize and undermine al-Qaeda.

The age of “dirty war”  became a lightning rod for criticism. But one of the most trenchant criticisms was that an obsession with tactical counterterrorism intelligence was harming America’s intelligence agencies’ traditional specialties in strategic intelligence and counterintelligence. The line between military and intelligence was being “blurred.” The larger cost? Focusing so much on short-term, tangible, and easily justifiable counterterrorism intel requirements blinded America to the larger picture that it needed to see. As a result, it would be perpetually surprised by events like the Arab Spring.

In light of today’s furor over spying on allies, it is worth examining how this line of argument cast the difference between strategic intelligence and strike intelligence as a military-industrial complex analog of the classic dichotomy between basic and applied scientific research. Basic scientific research is often difficulty to justify in the short term, and frequently does not result in immediate payoff. But none of today’s scientific discoveries would have been possible without it. Hence, as Pillar noted in his essay, in retrospect it is easy to see “failures of intelligence” in areas where ambiguity regarding the purpose of intelligence, targets, and immediate payoff motivated hesitation. Ironically, as Dan Trombly tweeted, most of the intelligence community’s “counterterrorism obsession” critics were silent (with the notable exception of Joshua Foust) when evidence accrued that foreign spying was conducted for non-counterterrorism purposes.

Returning to Pillar’s opening metaphor, it seems that the American defense and foreign policy community is suffering from a collective case of amnesia. A call for counterterrorism, light footprints, and intelligence leads to an intelligence architecture that supports a raiding posture, and is then promptly and widely criticized for focusing so intensely on counterterrorism. A call for counterinsurgency results in substantial investment in counterinsurgency abilities, and then is promptly and widely criticized for its time and expense.

My analysis is undeniably unfair in some ways. First, the aggregated commentary of the DC defense commetariat consensus as presented here smoothes out meaningful differences, nuances, caveats, and variations. It was not as simple as I make it out to be, but the consensus of a community is not easily described in a single paragraph. Second, each idea also produced data that was (fairly or unfairly) evaluated. Counterinsurgency theory looked very appealing to many analysts in 2006 but was pronounced dead by war-weary Americans in 2011. Compared to Iraqi and Afghan quagmires, drones and special ops seemed compelling . But as the wars drew down and more press attention focused on the ramped-up counterterrorism campaigns, analysts began to have substantial misgivings.

That said, the problem is that while the world certainly changes fast, it has not changed fast enough to justify the kind of analytical mood swings that have frequently occurred since the beginning of the COIN era. If one took the last 12 years of national security commentary as gospel, they would believe that some seismic, worldview-invalidating event occurred every 1-3 years and necessitated a wholesale rejection of the policy the previous worldview-invalidating event spawned. Events have complicated and qualified—but not wholly invalidated–the merits and demerits of COIN, special operations and counterterrorism, and strategic intelligence (which includes spying on allies). While all of the arguments I’ve summarized here contradict each other, I can’t say with confidence that any of them are completely wrong.

The problem with America’s defense amnesia is not “be careful what you wish for.” No one can know exactly how their policy preference will work out. It is not even “remember what you wish for.” Rather, the lesson is to keep in mind that however fast events may move, there are larger and systemic factors and tradeoffs that stimulate day-to-day policy problems. These systemic factors change very slowly, and remain fairly consistent across administrations. Why we cannot comfortably dismiss any of the varying defense memes I’ve cataloged is that each dealt with a segment of a larger problem.

Being conscious of the unchanging challenges of American national security, from the difficulties of maintaining local outposts of American hegemony to how America’s national position produces incentives for perpetual war, has important intellectual benefits. We can avoid calls for dramatic course correction over hysterias of the moment and keep the longer term in mind. And we gain an appreciation for what has changed and what remains the same. A wider view tells us that war is not more complex, the calculus of strategic intelligence is not simple, and there are costs to both counterinsurgency and standoff counterterrorism that must be evaluated.

Moreover, we gain a greater respect for the policymakers who must deal with underlying manifestations of deeper and systemic problems instead of behaving (as even I sometimes do) like we have cracked some secret code unavailable to the idiots in Washington. There is some truth behind the disdainful phrase “good enough for government work.” But if the national security and foreign policy problems that government tackles were as obvious or linear as today’s criticism often implies, would our policy demands oscillate as wildly as Pillar alleges? It seems that unless we start tattooing relevant names, events, and information on our bodies (like Pearce’s Memento character does to help him remember), we won’t remember enough to answer that question. Such is the life of an amnesiac.


New Article up at Pragati: Lethal Ideas & Insurgent Memories – Review of The Violent Image

Friday, October 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

I have a new book review up at Pragati this morning:

Lethal ideas and insurgent memory 

….One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21stcentury’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20thcentury followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Read the rest here.



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