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American Spartan Redux

Monday, July 31st, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Charles Cameron helpfully tipped the news last week in our comment section, but I wished to give this update the prominence friends of zenpundit.com deserve. American Spartan has been re-released and you can get it  from now until July 31, American Spartan is available for $1.99 at BookHub

For those who need a re-cap, long time readers will recall Major Jim 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. Gant 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 top cover to implement his ideas but Gant also faced formidable resistance and criticism from Afghan government officials, parts of the ISAF chain of command and academics unhappy with Gant’s conceptual emphasis on tribalism.

Here is an excellent review of American Spartan by Doyle Quiggle in The Marine Corps Gazette:

Whether from Plutarch or Zack Snyder’s 300, we all know the command, “Come back with your shield—or on it.” Special Forces MAJ Jim Gant, USA, came back with his shield, but, like his soul, it’s as mortar-pocked as the face of the moon. The narrator of Gant’s Spartan tale is his lady, a word used with chivalric respect. Ann witnesses, validates, and, by writing this book, binds up the many wounds Gant suffered to mind, body, and soul in Iraq and Afghanistan, an act of healing she began in her home in Maryland, kicking Gant of his drug and alcohol habits to get him back into the fight. As Gen James N. Mattis recently lamented in Warriors and Civilians, true, unflinching acceptance of what warriors become through warfighting is rare. Ann’s narrative asks readers to muster a hard-nosed acceptance of Gant in the fullness of his sometimes brutal, sometimes compassionate (Afghans call this blend of virtues nangyalee) warrior soul.

A collaboration between a warrior and his woman, American Spartan provides an exemplary model for receiving the blood-tainted warrior back into the kill-shy civilian fold. The partnership itself, a cooperative, on-going translation of combat experience into a narrative for communal sharing, is a ritual of homecoming from war, a gift of acceptance that a non-killer, Ann, gives to a killer, Gant. Together, they offer military readership an enduring lesson about how to fight—in mind and battlespace—gray-zone war. With tooth-breaking honesty, Ann records Jim’s edgy mindset after his Iraq deployment:

He had sacrificed everything at the altar of war. War was, by then, all he really knew. He could not imagine a world where the people he had loved most had become strangers, and where—unlike in Iraq—his enemies were not trying to kill him, making them much harder to find and impossible to destroy.

Read the rest here.

I wrote in my own review of American Spartan:

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.

Pick up American Spartan at BookHub today for $1.99!

Not Checkers, not Chess, no Go, Gen Perkins — it’s Calvinball time

Friday, July 7th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — on changing our very notions of game and challenge — or unanticipating the unanticipated ]
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Reading David Perkins, Big picture, not details, key when eyeing future from last year, and thinking:

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It’s scary to read Gen. Perkins — the head of TRADOC — disagree with him, sometimes quite sharply along the way and particularly when he talks about games — and then wind up agreeing with the second half of this, his closing sentiment:

So now that we know what game we are playing and assumedly what is required to win it, we can employ these insights to lay out a path toward building the Army our country will need in 2025 and beyond. It is our duty, and our country depends on us to get it right.

We don’t know what game we are playing, nor — love that word “assumedly” — what is required to win it. And if I’m right about this, how can our potentially mistaken insights help us “lay out a path toward building the Army our country will need in 2025 and beyond” — when “getting it right” is liable to be an emergent property, only recognizable as such in retrospect?

Let me cut to my main objection, for which Gen. Perkins’ checkers and chess games are analogies. Of the two games, Perkins said:

Checkers and chess are played on the same style board, but the games are far from similar. For a long time, the Army has designed forces based on a “checkers-based” world outlook. Today, we’re switching to a “chess-based” appreciation of the world.

I’ll come back to this game metaphor in time, but the paragraph I first halted at, for which the games paragraph I just quoted is a metaphor, is this one:

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we lived in a “complicated” world, but one with a single defining enemy for which we could plan against. In today’s “complex” world, there is no single defined future foe with relatively known capabilities, doctrines and intent. This is not a minor point, as designing and building the future Army rests upon what kind of world we expect to see.

I’m not at all sure jointness will mean anything at all like “cross-service cooperation in all stages of the military processes, from research, through procurement and into operations’ — whether the services be Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, or also include the National Guard, whether we think in terms of Land, Sea, Air, and Space, or throw in Cyber. What if jointness is better conceived of in terms of heart, mind and soul?

Our command structure isn’t structured along those lines, so we can’t put the Chief of Staff of the Heart, the Commandant of Minds, and the Chief of Soul Operations under the Chairman and Vice-Chairman and call them the Joint Chiefs — the very absurdity of the phrasing makes the whole idea almost ridiculous.

And yet heart, mind and soul — or for that matter, the Buddhist body, mind and speech — are the fundamental building blocks of a full and sane human personhood, and their social equivalents the equivalent bases of a full and sane human society.

Maybe heart, mind and soul are more basic than land, air and sea?

Did we ever think of that?

What I’m suggesting here, in fact, is that the challenges we face may differ from previous challenges in this: that they won’t fall into the expected mold, they won’t look to us like challenges at all, we won’t categorize or react to them as such — in short, that they will be oblique to our assumptions and expectations.

One other point of disagreement, briefly:

by 2005 we confronted a well-understood problem in Afghanistan and Iraq, and began optimizing much of the Army to meet that current threat

Oh really? You could have fooled Zarqawi!

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Getting back to games, we have some very nice comparisons and metamorphoses already “in play” in the strategic literature. Perkins’ “Checkers to Chess” is one, “Ghess to Go” is another and more sophisticated example — Scott Boorman‘s The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy is the classic here — “Chess to Star Trek’s 3-D chess” is another one worth considering, or “Chess to Mjolnir’s Game” for that matter, “Go to Buckminster Fuller‘s World Game” yet another, while “Go to the Glass Bead Game” is clearly one which would fascinate me personally..

But I’m convinced, as I’ve said before, that the game we need to understand is the one known as Calvinball:

Calvinball — Calvin and Hobbes‘ favourite game to play. There is only one main rule in the game — that you can’t play it the same way twice.

Now that game idea is an audacious one, rivaling and perhaps even surpassing Peter Suber‘s awesome game, Nomic:

in which the rules of the game include mechanisms for the players to change those rules, usually beginning through a system of democratic voting. Nomic is a game in which changing the rules is a move.

When I meantion Calvinball, I not infrequently quote the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to by a lob over the net.

Now that’s talking!

And Roland Barthes:

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

Switching games?

We’re blurring game-boards in real time, according to CTC Sentinel editor-in-chief Paul Cruikshank:

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Okay, here’s another mind in the Natsec arena, that switches the playing field from “game as cricket or chess” to “game as zero-sum or non-zero sum” — President Rouhani of Iran, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post — Iran, mark you, in WaPo — who says:

The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

Rouhani is pretty conservative in Iranian terms, though we sometimes consider him a reformer — but very “other” in his thinking, compared to ours. And if we wish to game him, our Red Team must be able to think as ably and otherly as he does.

How would TRADOC suggest we adapt to a shift in games of that sort?

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H/t The Strategy Bridge.

Muslim ban? Afghan girl robotics version

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — no great fan of robotics, but with fond memories of Afghanistan ]
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Source:

  • WaPo, U.S. denies visas for Afghanistan’s all-girl robotics team
  • From that article:

    To participate, the girls from the city of Herat in western Afghanistan needed permission to travel to the United States. So, after they convinced their parents to let them go, they made the 500-mile journey to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to apply for their visas. They did this twice, even though that location was targeted by a deadly truck bomb.

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    U.S. denies visas..

    So sad! — as one Donald J Trump has once or twice tweeted.

    Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, the equation

    Monday, April 10th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — a question of value ]
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    Footprints: Saving artefacts in Afghanistan

    The Buddha rests quietly in a corner of the National Museum of Afghanistan.

    While a group of Afghan restorers — with more than four decades of experience between them — work to restore similar artefacts, the Buddha, dating back to at least the second century BC, sits cross-legged, arms folded, awaiting its public debut in the city.

    The statue, set to be unveiled to the public in the coming weeks, is a testament to the rich history of a nation that has seen various empires and conquerors pass through its land.

    “There are artefacts in every corner of this country,” said Fahim Rahimi, the director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. However, even the layers of sand, silt and time have not been able to keep these artefacts safe from the forces of conflict and capitalism.

    [ .. ]

    The Buddha itself, discovered near the nation’s largest copper mine, is an embodiment of the duelling threats facing the physical remnants of Afghanistan’s cultural history. The statue, sitting in a reconstructed stupa, was found in 2012 in the Mes Aynak area of the eastern province of Logar. Mes Aynak, meaning literally “the little copper source,” is home to a 2,000-year-old Buddhist city filled with ancient statues, manuscripts, frescoes, shrines and stupas. It is also at the centre of a $3billion Chinese mining contract signed in 2007.

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    William Bruce My NameSake and presumed Clansman Cameron wrote “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

    Equation implies equals. Here we have a tug of cash-and-peace.

    Footnoted readings 03 – Violence, theirs and ours

    Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — on analysis by symmetry, asymmetry, comparison, form ]
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    Vijay Prashad

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    Vijay Prashad writes in Jadaliyya under the title Violence: Theirs and Ours and sub-head Binaries:

    I have spent decades thinking about the asymmetry of reactions to these sorts of incidents in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I have written about them, indignation as the mood of these essays. But this is spitting into the wind. It is futile on Facebook, for instance, to make the suggestion that the 2016 Karrada bombings in Baghdad (Iraq), which killed over 300 people, should have driven people to turn their profile pictures into Iraqi flags (as the world had done after the 2015 Paris attacks, when 137 people were killed). “Je Suis Charlie” is easy to write, but not #AmiAvijit. Eyes roll when these gestures are urged, whether through bewilderment at their meaning or exhaustion at their sanctimoniousness. After all, the eye-roll suggests, how could one compare a satirical French magazine with obscure Bangladeshi bloggers who have been hacked to death? It takes an immense act of will to push editors to run stories on tragedies that seem distant even from the places where they occur. All eyes focus on the latest attack in Molenbeek, but few turn with the same intensity to look at the tragedies in Beirut or in Cairo.

    Okay, what interests me here is his mode of analysis by form: Prashad pays specific and repeated attention to binaries — symmetries and asymmetries. I think that’s a key move in analytic terms, and you can see it in play, again, in the way he phrases his concluding paragraph:

    From Lord Baring’s Violent Shock to George W. Bush’s Shock and Awe: this cannot be terrorism. It is the business of rational states. Terrorism is what the others do. Always.

    Violent Shock :: Shock and Awe.

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    Agree or disagree with Prashad’s analyses as you will, his method is one that I too have been focusing on here at ZP for a while now — that of emphasis on form as a clue to analytic significance.


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