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Octavian Manea interviews John Nagl at SWJ

Monday, October 27th, 2014

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

 

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice by John Nagl

If General David Petraeus was the Pope of the COINdinistas, Lt. Col. John Nagl was at least the Archbishop of Canterbury. Few men alive were more closely identified in the public mind with the revival of COIN doctrine and the “Surge” in Iraq than Dr. John Nagl.

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of SWJ, interviews Nagl about his memoir, Knife Fights:

Knife Fights: John Nagl’s Reflections on the Practice of Modern War

SWJ: What are the lessons that we need to remember from the post 9/11 campaigns as we move forward?

  • American conventional military superiority will drive our opponents to irregular warfare:  insurgency and terrorism.
  • In conventional war, identifying your enemy is comparatively easy, but killing him is hard.  In irregular warfare, the converse is true:  finding is hard, but killing or capturing is easy.
  • In conventional war, politics stops until the war is over.  In irregular warfare, politics and economics continue throughout the war, and are in fact key weapons of war.  This combined political/economic/military challenge is what makes irregular warfare “the graduate level of war”.
  • In conventional war, the civilian population is essentially an obstacle to progress.  In irregular war, winning the support or at least the acquiescence of the civilian population is key to winning the war; their safety and long-term support are essential to the success of whichever side wins.
  • For a number of reasons including American conventional military superiority and the existence of nuclear weapons, conventional war has been on the decline since the 20th century.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that irregular warfare has been a growing challenge over the past two centuries, and the information revolution, demographics, and resource scarcity make it likely to be the kind of war the United States is most likely to face for the rest of this century.  It’s hard, and it’s not going to go away, so we’d better get better at it if we want to win.

SWJ: Why this title “Knife Fights”? I remember that the title of your previous book “How to Eat Soup with a Knife” intended to give us a sense on a special kind of warfare. Do you refer now also to these fights waged on the Washington battlefield to change the American way of war?

Both. This book begins with a tank fight during the Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraq war, one fought at long range where you could identify the enemy by uniform and by the vehicles that they were driving. And I compared that war with the wars that I’ve studied at Oxford whose character was so well captured by T.E. Lawrence’s reflection that “war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife”. Having fought a long range conventional war in Desert Storm, having studied irregular war, I fought my irregular in Anbar province, in Iraq in 2003-2004, a war fought at very close range, very different from the kind of war that we were prepared to fight. We were fighting people at ranges so close that our alleged situational awareness, our intelligence resources, everything that the American military invested billions of dollars wasn’t helpful. They were fishes swimming in the sea of the people so it was very difficult to identify who the enemies were.

From Al Anbar, I went almost directly to the Pentagon, working for Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz and engaged there also in very close range battles trying to change the way America was fighting, how America thought about counterinsurgency and helping the Army, DoD and State Department to understand the kind of war in which we were actually engaged in. I continued this with the publication of FM 3-24, a knife fight largely with friends. The title refers to my previous work but it is also a good descriptor of the kind of battles I fought in Iraq and in Washington.

SWJ: What is/was the center of gravity on the Washington battlefield?

It is certainly messy and slow. It doesn’t always appear to have a center of gravity. The center of gravity shifts rapidly. Astoundingly, probably the most important person in making the decision to surge forces into Iraq that General Petraeus led into 2007, the center of gravity of that decision was a man who had no official position in Washington, Retired US Army General Jack Keane.  He became a sort of intellectual father of the surge which was probably the most important decision of the Iraq war other then the initial misguided decision to invade there. Power, like insurgency, is fluid and it changes over time.  And just as it takes a network to defeat an insurgent enemy, it takes a network to change policy in Washington.

Read the rest here.

COIN theory in the mid-2000′s ultimately suffered from the transformation that Colonel John Boyd once observed where today’s doctrine becomes tomorrow’s dogma.

That said, Nagl is correct that irregular warfare is here to stay because it is a cheap and it is an effective form of warfare for the less powerful and impoverished facing the strong and the wealthy.  I think however that the “hybrid warfare” postulated by Frank Hoffman and seen most recently in Ukraine is likely to become the more dominant variant of irregular warfare in the 21st C. rather than stand-alone 4GW type insurgencies like al Qaida, ISIS or the Lord’s Resistance Army or the classical Maoist model insurgencies because hybrid warfare is now too attractive to many authoritarian, revisionist, ambitious powers like Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran. It plays to their strengths at unconventional and political warfare, terrorism and the like while providing the “plausible deniability” (even if obviously absurd, as in Ukraine) to ward off an overwhelming response from the West or the United States. The ROI is dramatic and it “levels the playing field” from the perspective of “have not” powers.

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Infinity Journal on the Strategy of Operation Protective Edge

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

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

Infinity Journal has an exclusive review up of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge campaign against HAMAS by LTC Ron Tira. Colonel Tira is the author of The Nature of War: Conflicting Paradigms and Israeli Military Effectiveness.

Operation Protective Edge: Ends, Ways, Means and the Distinctive Context  (Free registration required)

….Much of Hamas’ history has been spent under Iranian foster parenthood, even though Iranians are Shiites and Hamas is a member of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. But, in 2011, the outbreak of the civil war in Syria presented the relations with an impossible test: Iran backed the Alawite (non-Sunni) Syrian regime in its bloody war against the rebels – many of whom are theological and ethnic brothers of Hamas. Hamas had to break ties with the Shiites.

Luckily for Hamas, in November 2011 the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s parliamentary elections and, subsequently, Egypt elected a Muslim Brotherhood president. An improved replacement for Iran was found. But on July 2013, the Egyptian army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new military rulers of Egypt regard the Muslim Brotherhood as their archenemy – Hamas included.

Running out of options, Hamas looked to its nemesis Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a last financial and political resort. After years of disengagement – following the brutal killing of Fatah personnel in Gaza in 2007-8, the Hamas take-over of Gaza and divorce from the PA-run West Bank – Hamas eventually approached the PA and in April 2014 signed the Palestinian Unity Agreement. “Show me the money” demanded Hamas as the ink dried; yet the PA declined to finance Hamas-run Gaza.

With almost no allies and a financial inability to run Gaza or pay salaries, Hamas was at the brink of collapse. From its perspective, it experienced a near-existential threat. From Hamas’ side of the hill, it had no alternative but to fight its way out of the corner. This hardly resembled the context of the earlier Operation Pillar of Defense.

Israel’s lack of clarity regarding this unique context was followed by a lack of clarity in defining the enemy. Was it Hamas’ military wing, its exiled political leadership, the organization as a whole, or the Gaza Strip as a de facto state? And in this distinct context, what were the relevant centers of gravity? Hamas’ offensive capabilities, its center of combatant mass and leadership in the inner neighborhoods of Gaza City, the nod between Gaza’s military leadership and Hamas’ political leadership in Qatar, or the popular support of Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants? 

Read the rest here.

Tira has an astute appreciation for the disadvantages HAMAS labors under as a 4GW/Hybrid/Irregular/Whatever entity also trying to assume the panoply of prerogatives and obligations of a legitimate state.

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Some wrenchingly sad news, 3: the possibility of rescue revisited

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- there is possibility, there is hope -- concluding post in this series ]
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I am not the one to calculate the logistical, strategic, or tactical implications here, nor the possibility of unexpected consequences and negative feedback, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this series by offering you Barber‘s glimpse from the ground of what might be feasible.

The possibility of rescue, redux:

Despite the enormous challenge of responding to such a monumental tragedy, the possibility exists of freeing a very large number of those kidnapped in a short time. I’m referring to around 2,000 kidnapped Yazidis currently imprisoned in towns and villages in the vicinity of the Sinjar mountains.

Specifics of available intel:

Just south of Sinjar are a number of sites where kidnapped Yazidis are being held. Through phone conversations with captured victims, Yazidi leaders in the Dohuk governorate who are working on the problem have been able to get counts and exact locations for most of them. In over a dozen primary holding sites within at least six separate towns, approximately 2,000 Yazidis are trapped. Most of these contain just women, but at least one site contains entire families that have been kidnapped, including male members.

A helicopter assault:

Most of these kidnapped people know where they are. They’re in familiar territory, not far from Sinjar. If their captors were subjected to an aerial campaign — an intense helicopter assault on IS targets for as little as a half-hour — most of these people would be able to flee. The attacking force wouldn’t even be required to regain control of these towns, they would only need to occupy the moderate numbers of IS fighters in the area. The window of distraction would allow many to escape.

Failing which…

What I do know is that without greater US air support, 1) Sinjar will not be regained by Kurdish forces and the people of Sinjar will not be able to return home, and 2) large numbers of Yazidi women who might otherwise be freed will continue to be sold by IS jihadists as sexual objects.

The plea:

Sinjar is the population center for the largest segment of Yazidi people in the world. The Yazidi religion is also inextricably linked to holy places in Sinjar. If they are unable to return, it will do lasting damage to one of the Middle East’s last non-Abrahamic minorities, and thousands of victimized women will remain enslaved in 2014. Let’s do what it takes to get these people safely home and free of the most selfish form of evil I’ve personally witnessed in my life.

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Matthew Barber’s post is a remarkable one, and I recommend those interested should read it in full:

  • Matthew Barber, If the U.S. Wanted To, It Could Help Free Thousands of Enslaved Yazidi Women in a Single Day
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    What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

    Friday, August 29th, 2014

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

    ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

    What is to be done?

    That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

    An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

    ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

    ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

    Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

    This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

    However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

    • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
    • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
    • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

    Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

    I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

    These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

    DO NOTHING:

    Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

    CONTAINMENT:

    Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

    Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

    PROXY WARFARE:

    Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

    LIMITED WARFARE: 

    Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

    MAJOR WARFARE:

    For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

    GRAND COALITION:

    This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

    The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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    Ferguson compared: Kelsey Atherton compiles the tweets

    Saturday, August 16th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- easily the clearest and most powerful critique of recent events in Ferguson comes from KD Atherton and friends ]
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    Kelsey Atherton has Storified a fine compilation of tweets comparing Ferguson police, their weaponry, posture and tactcis, with military equivalents, in what is essentially an extended DoubleQuotes approach to understanding the “militarization” of US police. Please note that the piece runs two pages to see the second, you need to click for it at the bottom of the first page.

    He leads of with a sequence of tweets from Andrew Exum aka Abu Muqawama, of which this is one:

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    Two of the tweets Atherton posts use what I call a DoubleQuotes in the Wild format:

    and:

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    Here are some other examples, pulled from a total of 45 tweets all told — including some from friends of this blog:

    One point nicely made by Adam Weinstein is that the “militarization” isn’t military much beyond the gear:

    See also this:

    Here’s Jimmy Sky:

    — which pretty much confirms a point I was making in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

    Three from Nathan Bethea offer further perspective on Iraq:

    Again, that last tweet reinforces what I was suggesting in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

    My next-to-last pick: Jason Fritz makes a triple point:

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    After requesting further tweets that might be relevant to his Storify story, Atherton includes a handful of tweets from @kudzu81 aka ibreakthings, offering this moderate critique:

    Atherton’s own conclusion, which he posts as a sub-head to his Storify:

    The general consensus here: if this is militarization, it’s the shittiest, least-trained, least professional military in the world, using weapons far beyond what they need, or what the military would use when doing crowd control.

    All in all, an impressive performance — much kudos to Kelsey Atherton, be sure to read his whole piece on Storify — and follow him on Twitter.

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