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REVIEW: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, July 15th, 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 

When I first posted that I had received a review copy of American Spartan from Callieit stirred a vigorous debate in the comments section and also a flurry of email offline to me from various parties. Joseph Collins reviewed American Spartan for War on the Rocks , Don Vandergriff posted his review at LESC blog , Blackfive had theirs here,and there was an incisive one in the MSM by former Assistant Secretary of Defense and author Bing West, all of which stirred opinions in the various online forums to which I belong. Then there was the ABC Nightline special which featured Tyson and Gant as well as an appearance by former CIA Director, CENTCOM, Iraq and Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus:

Major Gant was also a topic here at ZP years ago when he released his widely read and sometimes fiercely debated paper “One Tribe at a Time“, at Steven Pressfield’s site, which launched all of the events chronicled by Tyson in American Spartan.  To be candid, at the time and still today, I remain sympathetic to strategies that enlist “loyalist paramilitaries” to combat insurgencies and other adversarial irregular forces. It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered. With that background in mind, on to the book.

First, as a matter of literature and style, Ann Scott Tyson is a gifted writer who can weave a compelling story with dramatic flair. American Spartan is a page turner from start to finish. Having all the ingredients of a Hollywood action movie or bestselling novel, American Spartan would appeal to a wide audience, not simply readers with military experience or a wonkish interests in foreign and defense policy. Moreover, Tyson is well served by her long experience as a war correspondent. She gets the gritty texture of the theater of  scenes and little details of Army outpost life right in a way that other civilian writers sitting at a remove, recycling war stories could not. American Spartan is compared to Sebastian Junger’s War for good reason. If you like a good story and that is reason enough for you to read a book, buy American Spartan; it will not fail to engage and entertain.

Secondly, we need to be frank regarding Tyson’s objectivity. It is clear-cut; she has none. American Spartan is not a work of journalism or a biography of Jim Gant, it is Tyson’s memoir and apologia. She was not an observer or an anthropologist among the Mohmand. Nor is she merely partisan scribe on Gant’s behalf. Tyson is a full-fledged participant in events – even battles -in her own right.  Tyson pleads her own cause as well as Gant’s in American Spartan. This is an ancient rhetorical tradition that goes back to Xenophon and Julius Caesar and it is often a noble one, but to the reader, with this kind of genre, caveat emptor.

The substance of the book, Gant’s implementation of his “One Tribe at Time” strategy among the Pashtuns and his rise and fall with the hierarchy of the US Army is more complicated and begs for deeper examination. Readers with knowledge of Afghanistan, the Army, American policy or some combination of the three will find nearly as much to read between the lines of American Spartan as they will in the text itself. It is fascinating, really, and the moral implications are deeply disturbing.

To summarize, American Spartan lays out a tragic paradox. My impression is that the tribal engagement strategy Gant championed would never have been permitted to succeed, even had he been a Boy Scout in his personal conduct; and secondly, even if tribal engagement had been fully resourced and enthusiastically supported, Gant himself would have self-destructed regardless.  A Greek tragedy in a khet partug.

Gant has frequently been compared to the legendary Lawrence of Arabia and the fictional Colonel Kurtz.   Interestingly, both of those figures died early and untimely deaths, having long outlived their usefulness for their respective armies. Major Gant is, fortunately, very much alive today which may be the only good outcome associated with his fall from grace.  Given his predisposition for assuming heroic risks, taking battle to the enemy, chance hazards of war and Gant’s own struggle with PTSD, alcoholism and pills chronicled by Tyson, the bitter vendetta of Gant’s immediate superiors ironically may have kept him from also becoming Afghanistan’s John Paul Vann or Bernard Fall.  Gant is not a Colonel Kurtz. That charge would be a slander; nor is he really T.E. Lawrence either, though that is a much better comparison. Gant had more bite to Lawrence’s bark and that was at least part of the equation in Gant’s success.  The al-Saud and al-Rashid tribes and Turkish pashas did not fear Lawrence the same way Taliban commanders and rival Pashtun subtribes personally feared Jim Gant, whom one of his fiercest anthropologist critics called “very scary”.  It was not only tea and beards, nor could it be.

Gant was the best qualified SF officer to go on the mission he was assigned, to win over Pashtun tribal support against the Taliban, but was in no condition to do so in the aftermath of his firefight-heavy deployment in Iraq.  Gant went to Afghanistan anyway, despite jealous Kabul based colonel-bureaucrats warning him and and his mission off as unwanted.  This is a brutal and seldom fully appreciated aspect of our recent wars. In Vietnam, two combat tours was considered heavy-duty and three or more tours could have you marked as a “combat bum”. Today three combat tours are not unusual and I have met men with five and seven. This burden is distributed with great inequality among uniformed personnel and even more so among society at large. To this burden is added an incredible degree of micromanagement of fighting units by the chain of command, particularly in Afghanistan. In this respect at least, Gant proved the exception to the rule: he defiantly operated largely free of oversight or constraint.

The behavior of the US Army hierarchy toward Jim Gant and his mission as chronicled by Tyson in American Spartan could only be characterized as schizophrenic. Gant enjoyed tremendously intimidating “top cover” support for most of his time in Afghanistan – Admiral Eric Olson, head of SOCOM, General David Petraeus, head of CENTCOM (later ISAF commander), General Stanley McChrystal, ISAF commander, Lt. General John Mulholland (who would later cashier Gant), head of Army Special Operations Command, Brigadier General Michael Repass, the commander of Army Special Forces, several key members of Congress and the powerful Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. As a result, Gant enjoyed tremendous autonomy in his operations in Mohmand territory, both with the tribe and how and where he chose to engage the Taliban. There was a distinct lack of curiosity, a studied looking away of Gant jettisoning counterproductive ROE, refusing micromanagement by radio during firefights or even what could only be called the batshit crazy decision  to have Tyson live with him as his camp “wife” in Malik Noor Afzhal’s village. That Tyson was useful to Gant in dealing with Mohmand families and winning the trust of the tribe is true but her presence was also a mad risk and so flagrant a violation of the rules that Gant was essentially daring a termination of his mission and likely his career. Despite her presence being well known – the Taliban openly spoke of Tyson’s presence on their radio –  these things were ignored because Gant was producing the political results he promised the top brass without losing a man to the enemy.

Not that this success made Gant popular with his immediate superiors or staff officers at ISAF headquarters. By contrast they termed him “an alcoholic, womanizing, mentally unstable, maverick”.  But smarting from being publicly overruled on tribal strategy by General Petraeus, having failed at sidelining Gant into a desk job and then thwarted in an attempt to divert Gant to a different district, Gant’s nominal superiors in Afghanistan were too afraid to try to openly derail his  high profile operation a fourth time. So they retreated to a campaign of petty bureaucratic harassment and non-support of Gant’s mission.  Needing an experienced SF team of AfPak hands, his superiors assigned Gant soldiers from conventional units, transfers from noncombatant positions, green recruits straight from boot camp and those who had washed out elsewhere. They issued lengthy, niggling,punitive, regulations prescribing the precise grooming and length of beards worn in the field and the placement of patches. They slowrolled supplies and later squeezed money and ammunition and eventually succeeded in removing Gant from the Army, partly on Mickey Mouse violations but mainly because of  his cohabitation with Tyson. In short, the Army bureaucracy demonstrated with Gant’s mission all of the utter lack of urgency regarding the war, blind obstinacy, misplaced priorities, selective ethics, politicized incompetence and manipulative self-regard that has helped the US maintain its  glide path to defeat in Afghanistan.

Gant, however, made their task easy once his superiors felt safe to pull that trigger.

In between Gant’s arrival and his departure from Afghanistan, Gant demonstrated that he was a remarkably talented SF officer, gifted at recruiting and training indigenous forces and adept in harmonizing tribal politics to a convergence of interests with ISAF security goals.  Gant expanded his earlier rapport with “Sitting Bull” Malik Noor Afzhal, integrating his unit with Noor’s Mohmand villagers and himself with the tribe, eventually becoming a malik himself and virtual son of NoorAfzhal.  Gant’s methods, leadership based on personal example and building trust cemented by careful adherence to local conceptions and customs of honor, paid dividends. Taliban influence in the area receded and neighboring district subtribes, once determinedly hostile, began to waver and send feelers to Gant. However, these methods required working with tribes from a posture of respect, adjusting to the ways of Afghans rather than trying to adjust the tribesmen to the ways of America, living with them, eating their food, listening to their advice. If Gant resembles T.E. Lawrence in anything, it is here; with the Mohmand, Gant walked their walk and the Mohmand responded.

Until Gant’s downfall at the hands of a malcontented subordinate, vengeful superiors and his own personal foibles, he was doing exactly what special forces were created to do – connecting the tactical to the strategic by enabling indigenous troops to become real force multipliers. This is also inevitably a political act in the local context. As villagers become armed and trained they become empowered to defend their own interests.  That changes the power calculus not only against the Taliban insurgents, but also against wealthy bigwigs, criminal gangs, corrupt provincial authorities and the central government itself. That threat was why Karzai had so little tolerance and even less enthusiasm for “arm the tribes” American schemes and why a national expansion of Gant’s “One tribe at a time” template was unlikely to happen. It was politically impossible in Afghanistan, as Gant himself conceded to General Petraeus. Arguably, it may have also irked the chain of command to have some “cowboy” Major free-lancing thousands of tribal fighters from his qalat in rural Afghanistan, accountable to no one, while they sat at desks in converted shipping containers  designing power point briefs and attending to paperwork. Hence their accusations that Gant had “gone native” and had become a Colonel Kurtz-like mad warlord of Chowkay. Gant was subsequently broken in rank, his special forces tab was revoked and was retired as a captain.

The story of Major Jim Gant, placed into historical context, should give us pause for several reasons:

First, is the repeated difficulty of the American military in the modern era to effectively fight counterinsurgency wars.

One element in our failure may be the historic intolerance of a swollen military bureaucracy for the inherently political demands of unconventional and counterinsurgency missions that require greater flexibility and autonomy of judgement on the part of NCO’s, junior and field grade officers than standard procedures and regulations normally permit. Repeatedly, COIN wars tend to yield up “mavericks” like Gant whose successes in the field are conducted by methods at odds from the expectations of micromanagers running headquarters. Or whose local successes result in an overselling of possibilities at the policy level to scale these efforts up to an unsustainable degree. It may also be that the sizable expansion of special forces and special operations forces in size since 9/11 have also resulted in an importation of greater bureaucracy into the way that even these relatively nimble, elite units conduct their missions. I’m not certain, but when it takes the concerted intervention of a constellation of  three and four star generals, including theater and combatant commanders to force something as simple as the deployment of one single SF officer and a small unit to work with tribesmen, something is seriously wrong.

Secondly, the shifting of costs in our recent wars has become troublesome at a moral level.

Seldom in American history have so few bore so much on behalf of so many who did so little in wartime. Major Gant’s flaws and mistakes are his own but it is difficult to argue that a tempo of overdeployment to “hard combat” that is burning out and breaking down the SF/SOF community was likely to improve his or anyone’s performance as a soldier and commander. The AVF was not designed to fight a decade of war without calling up all of the reserves and/or returning to conscription but that is how we have prosecuted our wars, including temporary gimmicks like stop-loss orders and lowered recruitment standards to patch over the manpower deficit. As a result, the cost of doing the real work of fighting fell on far too few with the unsurprising rise in PTSD, broken marriages and suicide among veterans while absolutely nothing has been asked of society at large. Nor have we done right by those who have helped us. By that I do not mean the corrupt and incompetent Karzai and Maliki regimes, but of the ordinary Iraqis and Afghans who stuck out their necks to fight with Americans against the enemy as interpreters, allied units or tribal irregulars. As a seventy year historical pattern, the USG and military bureaucracy always abandons our real friends to the enemy, denying them visas, money or even ammunition even while continuing to lavish aid dollars on treacherous thieves like Hamid Karzai.  When we leave and the day of reckoning comes for those who helped us, we look away and accept no responsibility.

American Spartan is not a book, it is a mirror held up to America’s war effort at the granular level.

Strongly recommended.

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Jabhat and IS “caliphate” by the numbers

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- large numbers don't fit well into small skulls, but we do what we can ]
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Charles Lister tweeted today:

The numbers are, for my humble self, staggering.

And you can’t lose $1.5 billion if you didn’t have $1.5 billion at some point to lose.

**

How about the “caliphate”?

Here’s the Jabhat vs ISIS — now IS, aka the “caliphate” — comparison:

Among other things, ISIS “made off with £256 million in cash and a large amount of gold bullion from Mosul’s central bank during its takeover of the city” as the Telegraph reported. That’s a half billion dollars, give or take.

And now IS is presumably “worth” 2 billion. Give or take.

**

To put those figures in perspective, let’s compare IS today with AQ in 2001:

Business Insider calculated bin Laden‘s ROI at the time of his death at 2,514,000 to 1:

Al-Qaida pulled off the Sept. 11 attacks for approximately $500,000, according to the 9/11 Commission report. By the end of fiscal 2011 the U.S. will have spent $1.3 trillion, or 9% of the national debt, fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq according to the Center for Defense Information. But when it’s all said and done the total cost of the wars will make Bin Laden’s 2,514,000:1 return at the time of his death multiply dramatically. It has been projected by Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and others that the lifetime cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will run to approximately $3 trillion, or over 20% of current federal public debt, when long-term medical care for the wounded and other costs are factored.

**

And here’s the current cost comparison with Iraqi losses:

Okay?

I have to confess my mind is a little bit numb with the numbers at this point.

**

If I had time and talent, I suppose I’d make theis whole thing more comprehensible, at least to people like myself, by treating dollar amounts the way XKCD treats radiation — but I don’t, so here’s my attempt to give a wider overview, sorted in ascending order of magnitude to make it easier for me to notice how $millions become $billions become $trillions.

**

Sources:

  • Lister, leaked audio [edited to add: but see comment #1 below]
  • Lister, Golani admits
  • Guardian, $2bn network
  • Telegraph, ISIS’ half-a-billion-dollar heist
  • Business Insider, Bin Laden’s ROI
  • Exec Summary, 9/11 Commission Report [see under "financing"]
  • BasNews, Iraqi costs
  • CIA, GDP Iraq (2013 est)
  • CIA, GDP Syria (2011 est)
  • CIA, GDP USA (2013 est)
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    Baghdad to Samarra: “you are entering a hot zone”

    Thursday, July 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- life not quite as subtle as art, but echoing it nevertheless ]
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    Poignant photo of refugees sleeping in Samarra's Askariya mosque -- credit Bryan Denton for the NYT

    **

    Alissa Rubin, writing in yesterday’s NYT under the title On the Road to Samarra, Glimpses of Iraq’s New Fractured Reality, offers a realistic description of the road between the two cities:

    About 20 miles beyond the northern gates of Baghdad, on the way to the embattled city of Samarra, site of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, the road empties out as if some invisible barrier has been passed.

    From this point on boundaries are constantly shifting, with the Iraqi government’s control extending only a little beyond the side of the road, and sometimes not even there.

    The 75-mile drive from Baghdad to Samarra plunges the traveler into Iraq’s precarious new reality. It is a world of Shiite militias, where many of the men carrying arms on behalf of the government have only the most tenuous ties to the Iraqi security forces. And it is a world where Sunni militants, who advanced to within 50 miles of Baghdad in their initial burst last month before their drive stalled, often are no more than a mile or so away.

    Travelers must read signs that would be invisible to a newcomer: Flags and uniforms signal safety or danger.

    **

    I can’t help but remember Somerset Maugham‘s account of that same distance, metaphysically measured, as quoted by John O’Hara:

    Death speaks:

    There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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    Sir Richard Dearlove speaks — and the caliphate responds?

    Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a nasty piece of news to come across after listening to Dearlove's RUSI speech ]
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    Here is Sir Richard Dearlove, Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service, speaking on Terrorism and National Security: Proportion or Distortion? at the Royal United Services Institute, yesterday:

    **

    Sir Richard’s thrust was that 9-11 has overshadowed our thinking about intelligence resources, and we (which means the Brits, here, but with wider possible application) should cut back on CT and focus more on Russia, China, and other non-jihad-driven threats. In his view, we have seen CT through the lens of 9-11 as jihadists vs the west, naturally enough, when in facty it is becoming clearer and clearer that the “real” ME issue is the ancient rivalry of Sunni vs Shia.

    However, and notably for my purpose here, he had one qualification to add to that overall assessment:

    In one important respect I need to add a qualification to my argument. I’m surprised that some of the more chilling threats that we did worry about, and should still probably worry about, have not materialized. And I’m of course referring to the possibility of CBRN, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks. A single successful urban attack using any of these methods would probably have far-reaching consequences. It would represent an escalation that could fundamentally change — in the opposite direction from what I’m saying — how we do counterterrorism, and destroy my argument about proportionality.

    However, with the exception of a possible radiological contamination event, I think that this threat is more latent than actual. The technology bottleneck is a narrow one. Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are largely state developed and controlled, and unless an ISIS-type movement were to rest control on aspects of a state program, we should have the means to exercise surveillance and control of that bottleneck.

    This transcript is partially my own work, partially drawn from JustSecurity.org‘s abridged but helpful version.

    **

    That was yesterday, July 7th 2014.

    Today, an AP bulletin caught my eye:

    Iraq says ‘terrorists’ seize chemical weapons site

    UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Iraq has informed the United Nations that the Islamic State extremist group has taken control of a vast former chemical weapons facility northwest of Baghdad where 2,500 chemical rockets filled with the deadly nerve agent sarin or their remnants were stored along with other chemical warfare agents.

    Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim said in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon circulated Tuesday that “terrorist” groups entered the Muthanna site June 11 and seized weapons and equipment from the protection force guarding the facility.

    He singled out the capture of bunkers 13 and 41 in the sprawling complex, which according to a 2004 U.N. report also contained the toxic agent sodium cyanide, which is a precursor for the chemical warfare agent tabun, and artillery shells contaminated with mustard gas.

    For obvious reasons, that had a lot of folk concerned. The current version at the same link begins:

    Iraq: ‘Terrorists’ seize ex-chemical weapons site

    UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The Islamic State extremist group has taken control of a vast former chemical weapons facility northwest of Baghdad, where remnants of 2,500 degraded chemical rockets filled decades ago with the deadly nerve agent sarin are stored along with other chemical warfare agents, Iraq said in a letter circulated Tuesday at the United Nations.

    The U.S. government played down the threat from the takeover, saying there are no intact chemical weapons and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to use the material for military purposes.

    Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a letter that “armed terrorist groups” entered the Muthanna site on June 11, detained officers and soldiers from the protection force guarding the facilities and seized their weapons. The following morning, the project manager spotted the looting of some equipment via the camera surveillance system before the “terrorists” disabled it, he said.

    The Islamic State group, which controls parts of Syria, sent its fighters into neighboring Iraq last month and quickly captured a vast stretch of territory straddling the border between the two countries. Last week, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land the extremists control.

    Alhakim said as a result of the takeover of Muthanna, Iraq is unable “to fulfil its obligations to destroy chemical weapons” because of the deteriorating security situation. He said it would resume its obligations “as soon as the security situation has improved and control of the facility has been regained.”

    Alhakim singled out the capture of bunkers 13 and 41 in the sprawling complex 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad in the notorious “Sunni Triangle.”

    The last major report by U.N. inspectors on the status of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program was released about a year after the experts left in March 2003. It states that Bunker 13 contained 2,500 sarin-filled 122-mm chemical rockets produced and filled before 1991, and about 180 tons of sodium cyanide, “a very toxic chemical and a precursor for the warfare agent tabun.”

    The U.N. said the bunker was bombed during the first Gulf War in February 1991, which routed Iraq from Kuwait, and the rockets were “partially destroyed or damaged.”

    It said the sarin munitions were “of poor quality” and “would largely be degraded after years of storage under the conditions existing there.” It said the tabun-filled containers were all treated with decontamination solution and likely no longer contain any agent, but “the residue of this decontamination would contain cyanides, which would still be a hazard.”

    CBRN would be the game-changer…

    And I’m not quite sure yet, whether to feel relieved again or not.

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    Sunday hilarious surprise: Eric Metaxas and Canon Andrew White

    Sunday, July 6th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- if religion is neither your cuppa tea nor your hookah mixture, you can safely ignore this post ]
    .

    Move over, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — just this once?

    Both Eric Metaxas — who “wrote the book” on Bonhoeffer – and Canon Andrew White — sometimes known as the “Vicar of Baghdad” — are simply hilarious in this interview, if you’re interested and potentially amused by the intricate varieties of religious experience within Christianity. I haven’t had this much fun watching two real people talking with one another in a long while.

    And behind the delight, there’s more..

    **

    You know me, I love echoes, symmetries, fugal restatements of a theme. I thought Canon White’s bizarre and engaging dialectics, both spiritual and ethnic, was worth a DoubleQuote:

    — but you really need to hear White’s deadpan delivery of those lines to fully appreciate the humor.

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