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“Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces”

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski – a.k.a “zen”]

A remarkably blunt article on SF/SOF (“special forces” is being used as an umbrella term for both) in the context of policy and strategy, from the perspective of an emerging great power by LTG Prakosh Katoch of the Indian Army. The American example of SOCOM in Afghanistan/Iraq/GWOT has obviously had an impact here, as has the negative example of Pakistani use of terrorists as proxy forces and ISI covert operatives for direct action in Indian territory and elsewhere. Quite aside from global conflicts and the bilateral rivalry with Pakistan, India also faces more than a dozen long term irregular conflicts with their own dynamics, such as the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency , which Katoch places in the context of Chinese strategic ambitions against India.

A must read.

Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces

….In India, the lack of strategic culture, more on account of keeping the military out from strategic military decision making, has led the hierarchy to believe that conventional forces coupled with nuclear clout can deter us from irregular threats. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Pakistan, though conventionally inferior, has been successfully playing her ‘thousand cuts policy’ knowing full well that India has failed to develop the required deterrent. It is our inability to find a cure to this Achilles’ heel, that has led China, which was hitherto using Pakistan as proxy to wage irregular war on India, now directly aids and supports insurgent and terrorist outfits inside India.

….Why the US has managed to secure its mainland post 9/11 is not only because of an efficient Homeland Security organisation but because the US Special Forces (USSF) are operating in 200 countries including India. Significantly, USSF have undeclared tasks such as conducting proactive, sustained ‘man-hunts’ and disrupt operations globally; building partner capacity in relevant ground, air and maritime capabilities in scores of countries on a steady – state basis; helping generate persistent ground, air and maritime surveillance and strike coverage over ‘under-governed’ areas and littoral zones and employing unconventional warfare against state-sponsored terrorism and trans-national terrorist groups globally. Before 26/11, Al-Qaeda had planned similar operations against New York but could not because the USSF had infiltrated Al-Qaeda. One cannot guard the house by simply barricading it. You must patrol the streets and the area outside.

Growing inter-dependence and interlinking of terrorist groups regionally and internationally should be a matter of serious concern. It is not the US alone that has deployed its Special Forces abroad. This is the case with most advanced countries including UK, Russia, Israel, China and even Pakistan. Pakistan’s SSG was operating with the Taliban in Afghanistan and has been active in Jammu and Kashmir, Nepal and Bangladesh, primarily training anti-India forces. There is a strong possibility of their presence in the Maldives and Sri Lanka as well, aside from presence within India. The Chinese have been smarter. For all the development projects throughout the globe, including in Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan-POK, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Seychelles, contracts underway by PLA-owned/affiliated companies employ serving and veteran PLA soldiers and disguised Special Forces with assigned tasks, including evacuation of Chinese citizens from that country in case of emergencies. 

Read the rest here.

Are Insurgencies “Antifragile”?

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book,  Antifragile . It’s a highly intriguing book and I will give it a full review soon, but Taleb’s core concept of antifragility is important  and lends itself to wide application. Here’s Taleb on what constitutes “antifragility” – things that gain or improve with disorder – which he was careful to distinguish not just from “fragility” but also from “robustness” and “resilience”:

Almost all people answer that the opposite of “fragile” is “robust”, “resilient” , “solid”, or something of the sort. But the resilient, robust (and company) are items that neither break nor
improve, so you would not need to write anything on them – have you ever seen a package with
“robust” stamped on it? Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. It’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed. [31]

Italics in original.

Taleb uses a number of metaphors – the Phoenix, the Hydra – as well as examples to get across the point that an antifragile entity overcompensates in reaction to stress/damage/disorder by becoming better, growing stronger, more powerful, adaptively improving itself. Think of the effects of weight training in building muscle or a wildfire spurring bountiful growth in an ecosystem. There’s more to Antifragile than this but the gist is sufficient for now.

Which brings me to the question, “Are insurgencies antifragile?”

The study of insurgency, terrorism and revolution, while important and useful tend to suffer from several drawbacks. One is compartmentalization and academic specialization. As Robert Bunker pointed out in Narcos Over the Border,  a problem like “criminal-insurgency” attracts very different reactions from Law enforcement, intelligence analysts, the military, counter-terrorism officials and other experts (to say nothing of politicians) which makes consensus over a common analytic framework very difficult. Sometimes even defining the problem across domains is frustrating. As a result, many studies are too narrow and the few admirably ambitiously broad ones are deeply stamped in the political lens of the era in which they were researched and written – i.e. imperialist Small Wars, the Cold War, the War on Terror, Pop-centric COIN of Iraq and Afghanistan wars etc.  It is a subject that requires both more (and more intellectually creative) scholarship and a greater degree of synthesis.

In the meantime, I’d like to offer some speculation in an effort to answer the question:

  • The characteristics of “antifragility” in terms of at least some kinds of insurgency bears a striking resemblance to that of “wicked problems“, which has also been used to categorize some enduring irregular conflicts. Particularly in the sense of not having natural stopping points , manifesting complex interdependencies and resistance to simple, silver bullet solutions that could destroy it.
  • Moreover, most successful insurgencies are not, contrary to Maoist theory, autochthonous  – they draw many resources from external sources – black globalization, foreign patrons, legitimate trade, fundraising – and from the very state waging counterinsurgency warfare against them. The Afghan Taliban would be a much poorer military force without the vast amount of American aid passing through the hands of Pakistan and the Karzai regime
  • An insurgency’s claim to being “antifragile” may rest as much or more upon the general political and socioeconomic environment being relatively chaotic than on the nature of the insurgent organization itself.  The Chinese, Russian and Lebanese civil wars, Mexico’s narco-insurgency, West Africa and Afghanistan in the 1990’s, the Congo basinand Iraq in the 2000’s all had polycentric and disorderly environments that allowed  irregular groups to rapidly rise and fall on a local and regional basis. By contrast, “bilateral” insurgency vs. state dynamics can stabilize conflict for decades
  • An insurgent organization may lose antifragility as it restructures itself over time to become either more robust (ex. -Hezbollah) subnational entity or to accept greater fragility in order to acquire state-like hierarchical advantages ( political discipline and specialization). Note that “fragile” does not mean “weak”, it means “vulnerable”. States can be very strong and concentrating massive amounts of resources and coercive force, yet be strangely vulnerable to internal coups, popular uprisings, economic collapse, strategic myopia or even natural disasters. One of the great dangers today are complex systems that combine epic power with extreme fragility – small disruptions by irregulars yield huge ROIs.
  • States might be able to seek a strategic advantage over insurgencies by improving their robustness and smother the relatively ineffectual kinetic attacks of guerrillas or terrorists with inertia, refusing to “feed” the growth of an antifragile insurgent opponent, starving them of material resources and political oxygen. India has trucked along with something like seventeen ongoing insurgencies and episodic acts of major terrorism for decades without the Indian state remotely being in jeopardy of being overthrown by, say, the Naxalites, Sikh extremists or Kashmiri Islamists. Compare that with the rapid collapse or retreat of the state in places like Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Syria and so on.
  • The effects of globalization and information technology, the ability to have  John Robb’sopen source” decentralized, fast-evolving, insurgencies, give an an impetus to insurgencies becoming antifragile. At a minimum, it improves the odds.
Comments welcomed

Empirical Studies of Conflict Site

Monday, January 21st, 2013

For those studying war, insurgency, irregulars or terrorism ESOC will be extremely useful – and depending on your area of research, possibly invaluable – as a resource.

Small Wars Journal had this to say about ESOC:

.…ESOC identifies, compiles, and analyzes micro-level conflict data and information on insurgency, civil war, and other sources of politically motivated violence worldwide. ESOC was established in 2008 by practitioners and scholars concerned by the significant barriers and upfront costs that challenge efforts to conduct careful sub-national research on conflict. The ESOC website is designed to help overcome these obstacles and to empower the quality of research needed to inform better policy and enhance security and good governance around the world.

The ESOC team includes about forty researchers (current and former) and is led by six members: Eli Berman, James D. Fearon, Joseph H. Felter, David Laitin, Jacob N. Shapiro, and Jeremy M. Weinstein.

The website is organized by countries and research themes. The six country pages are: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The content is structured according to five themes: Demographic/Socioeconomic, Geography, Infrastructure, Public Opinion, and Violence. The website currently hosts about 45 ESOC data files, over 35 ESOC peer-reviewed publications (with replication data), and ten working papers. The ESOC team has also posted links to many external data repositories and external readings that have proven useful for analysis. The website will be regularly updated with new micro-level conflict data and contextual information, as it is compiled and submitted by ESOC researchers.

One caution: based on my source who was one of the folks gathering data for part of this project, as with all quantitative method research, there are hidden qualitative decisions in who did the counting, how and by what yardstick. If you are drawing conclusions about big picture trends in insurgency or irregular warfare across periods of time you are good to go. If your research is sharply confined to a specific and narrowly defined historical case study (say one campaign, a battle, one district – whatever), then drill down into ESOC’s data and methodology to the granular level before drawing a conclusion vice your sources and data outside ESOC.

William Lind on the Taliban’s Operational Art

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Adam Elkus directed my attention today on Twitter to a new piece by William S. Lind, “the Father of 4th Generation Warfare” at The American Conservative:

Unfriendly Fire 

….The Soviet army focused its best talent on operational art. But in Afghanistan, it failed, just as we have failed. Like the Soviets, we can take and hold any piece of Afghan ground. And doing so brings us, like the Soviets, not one step closer to strategic victory. The Taliban, by contrast, have found an elegant way to connect strategy and tactics in decentralized modern warfare.

What passes for NATO’s strategy is to train sufficient Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban once we pull out. The Taliban’s response has been to have men in Afghan uniform— many of whom actually are Afghan government soldiers or police—turn their guns on their NATO advisers. That is a fatal blow against our strategy because it makes the training mission impossible. Behold operational art in Fourth Generation war.

According to a May 16 article by Matthew Rosenberg in the New York Times, 22 NATO soldiers have been killed so far this year by men in Afghan uniforms, compared to 35 in all of last year. The report went on to describe one incident in detail—detail NATO is anxious to suppress. There were three Afghan attackers, two of whom were Afghan army soldiers. Two Americans were killed. The battle—and it was a battle, not just a drive-by shooting—lasted almost an hour.

What is operationally meaningful was less the incident than its aftermath. The trust that existed between American soldiers and the Afghans they were supposed to train was shattered. Immediately after the episode, the Times reported, the Americans instituted new security procedures that alienated their native allies, and while some of these measure were later withdrawn,

Afghan soldiers still complain of being kept at a distance by the Americans, figuratively and literally. The Americans, for instance, have put up towering concrete barriers to separate their small, plywood command center from the outpost’s Afghan encampment.

Also still in place is a rule imposed by the Afghan Army after the attack requiring most of its soldiers to lock up their weapons when on base. The Afghan commanding officer keeps the keys….

Lind has lost none of his skill for zeroing in on which buttons to push that would most annoy the political generals among the brass.

However, I think Lind errs in ascribing too much credit to the Taliban here. A much simpler explanation is that the usually illiterate ANA soldier is a product of the same xenophobic cultural and religious environment that created the Taliban, the Haqqanis, vicious Islamist goons like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or the Afghan tribesmen who slaughtered the retreating garrison of Lord Elphinstone in 1841.

While the Taliban have infiltrators, it remains that many of the “Green on Blue” killings are just as easily explained by personal grievances, zealous religious bigotry, indiscipline, mistreatment by American advisers or Afghan superiors and sudden jihad syndrome. While it is impolitic to emphasize it, Afghan betrayal and murder of foreign allies (generally seen as “occupiers”) is something of a longstanding historical pattern. The Taliban capitalize on it politically but they are not responsible for all of it.

Book Review: The Snake Eaters by Owen West

Friday, June 8th, 2012

The Snake Eaters by Owen West 

Owen West, commodities trader, novelist and USMC Major in the Reserves has written a remarkable book in his war story of counterinsurgency in Khalidiya, a decaying rural town in the deadly Anbar province, heartland of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. A success story for COIN, but also a very cautionary tale of the transformation of the Iraqi Brigade 3-1, from a dispirited, ill-equipped, poorly led unit distrusted and ignored by it’s American “partner” battalion and under siege by a hostile population into a self-confident, elite, combat force, “the Snake-Eaters”, feared by insurgents and respected by townspeople – and of their American advisors of Team Outcast who struggled to broker this transformation.

After reading The Snake-Eaters and reflecting, the book speaks to readers at different levels.

For the casual reader,  West has a narrative with no shortage of colorful characters – the inexperienced jundis, “Hater”, the grim Major Roberson, Colonel Troster, “Captain Bomb”, “Private Crazy”,  the treacherous police chief Shalal, the Superfriends, the beloved Doc Blakley, the indomitible Major Mohammed, Sheikh Abbas, the no-nonsense Huss, “Ogre” McCarthy, the Sadiqiya Sniper and some advisors who were “strange by any measure”.

The chronically undermanned, underesourced handful of  Team Outcast advisors in might resemble a Middle-eastern version of The Magnificent Seven, except that unlike Yul Brynner, Colonel Troster arrived in Khalidiya only to find Calvera and his bandits in control of the town, completely invisible and supported by a community that was implacably hostile:

….To protect a fellow Sunni was the duty of every Khalidiyan. Even if they didn’t love AQI, they were socially connected to and literally enriched by, the local insurgency. In the same way small Texas towns follow their football teams, everybody in Khalidiya knew an active resistance fighter and kept score. The Americans promised security but had brought a hurricane of damage. They passed through Khalidiya in their armored trucks like tourists on glass bottomed boats admiring exotic fish.

The Khalidiya sheikhs, a title loosely used in Anbar for any man with influence, implored the AQI fighters to remain cautious. If they paraded in their black balaclavas too prominently in town, mugging for pictures on al Jazeera, they would draw the attention of Marine headquarters in nearby Fallujah. It was best to inflict some casualties on each American unit that rotated through the area – enough to keep Americans on the defensive but not so many that the Marines would mass their forces and crush the city, as they had done to Fallujah in 2004.

The 3-1 of the New Iraqi Army in Khalidiya bore scant resemblance to a unit of the mighty, Soviet equipped, legions with which Saddam Hussein had daunted his neighbors, held off Iran for ten years of bloody combat or sacked and pillaged Kuwait. Or even the shadow version of Saddam’s Army, decimated by American arms  and hollowed out by a decade of UN sanctions after the Gulf War. West describes the Iraqi soldiers initially as a mendicant mob of ill-fed, untrained, Shia jundis without heavy arms, patrolling as seldom as possible, with beat-up Nissan junkers and a pray and spray shooting reaction to the frequent IED blasts that injured and killed them with regularity.

Like any underdog story, with much suffering and lessons learned counted in the lives of men, the American advisors bond with their Iraqi charges through a herculean effort at non-stop  patrolling of  Khalidiya’s bomb and sniper-ridden streets. Training Iraqis in aggressive tactics while learning Iraqi mores from them, the 3-1 evolves up into the Snake-Eaters, winning over the townspeople of Khalidiya and demoralizing, defeating and driving away the insurgents and gaining the respect of their American mentors. This is the level at which most readers will enjoy and be impressed with The Snake -Eaters.

A second level of reading will be for defense intellectuals, policy wonks, COIN and CT theorists, military historians and other academics. Despite West writing with tactful restraint, avoiding directly criticizing senior brass or national civilian leadership by name, The Snake-Eaters is, in it’s own way, an incredibly damning indictment by virtue of empirical observations of the conditions and restrictions under which Team Outcast labored, driving home the disconnect between leaders, indifferent bureaucrats or FOBbits and the men waging COIN on the ground.  Only in the last chapters, when West himself appears in the narrative, does the author permit himself something approaching real and embittered criticism of the Alice-in-Wonderland myopia that sometimes prevailed during the Iraq War:

“If he does this again, I will end his life! Dhafer threatened. “I will burn his house down!”

It was an empty threat. Every day in Iraq, troops encountered suspected insurgents who had previously been arrested. When I first joined the team, I had read Troster’s after-action report excoriating the “ridiculous evidentiary justice system” that “had no place in a wartime environment”. Most detainees were let go because their crimes could not be proved to the satisfaction of corrupt Iraqi judges, or to US military lawyers. We didn’t have prisoners of war in Iraq, only criminal suspects entitled to many of the same rights as in the States. Most detainees were set free within a few months. The advisors called it “catch and release”.

That’s an excellent of example of policy sabotaging strategy and undoing tactical success for transient to nonexistent political benefits for those in comfortable, clean offices far, far away from the crack of rifle fire and the cries of wounded men.

In his Epilogue, West is even more frank regarding counterinsurgency and respect for his efforts in Khalidiya and in the writing of this book require excerpting it here:

While writing this book over the past four years, I’ve tried to figure out how much influence an advisor team really has on it’s unit., and whether institutional expectations match those limitations. I have again read the field manuals taught in our Army and Marine schools where we train advisors. The manuals have an upbeat, culturally correct tone, suggesting that our soldiers and Marines will succeed as advisors based on their tact and sensitivity. The manuals need drastic revision: they are misleading a generation of advisors.

That the recent conference at Leavenworth on the COIN rewrite has been an insular affair may not bode well for the acceptance of critical, empirically-based, views of COIN being offered by Major West.

The final level of reading is one to which West alludes several times in the text, but one in which I cannot share, is that of the soldier or marine who was “outside the wire”. For those men, there is a poignancy in the stories of the figures portrayed in The Snake Eaters that goes beyond mere words, which West bluntly states comes with a sense of despair at the lack of comprehension in the civilian world. Perhaps these feelings of isolation are also shared by veterans of earlier wars, when they speak of Kasserine Pass, the Bulge,  Chosin or Khe Sanh; or perhaps not, as every war is horrible in it’s own way. But if we cannot understand these shades of grief and meaning that West indicates are harbored in our veterans, the rest of us can at least acknowledge them and respect it.

The Snake-Eaters is an important book that delivers a microcosm of the COIN war in Iraq, gritty and unromanticized, as experienced by jundis, marines, soldiers and Iraqis in sweltering and crumbling Khalidiya. It is a success story but it is where the phrase “winning ugly” comes to mind; dedication and valor, stubborness and cunning, pitted against dolorous bureaucracy and savage insurgency.

Strongly recommended.


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