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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instituted new security procedures that alienated their native allies, and while some of these measure were later withdrawn,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.

Morsi and the Socratic gadfly wannabe

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — comparing presidential candidates, here and there ]

The ability to compare and contrast is an amazing business — you can get online tutorials in how to do it, and it even shows up in xkcd:

Compare and contrast is a basic human activity, in fact, closely allied with choice, and IMO can be crafted into a very powerful engine for understanding — if we first clear away the tangle of other thoughts with which we generally surround it, focus in on it, and use it to probe our assumptions and generate our creative insights…


In that spirit, then, let me pose my compare and contrast question for the day.

Compare and contrast:

The first quote presents one of Mr. Morsi‘s actual statements — hand-picked for scary — and there’s even a MEMRI video clip to prove it. The second is admittedly far more vague; it’s from a New York Times piece assessing and guessing at Mr. Romney’s likely foreign policy, which doesn’t actually quote him in any detail — instead, it lays out the basis for current speculation.

What I’m really trying to get at here, though, is how we read Mr. Morsi’s words — and my quote regarding Mr. Romney is in this instance mostly a foil, a way to suggest that at home, we don’t imagine what a candidate says is necessarily what he intends.

So my question, really, boils down to this: how ready would you be to agree that Mr. Morsi may have been making election promises in the full knowledge that he could not, would not, or might not even wish to keep them?


Different people will put different weights on Mr. Morsi’s campaign statements and those of Mr. Romney. There may be some interesting patterns to be found in the demographics of those differences.

I for one certainly don’t imagine that both Mr. Romney and Mr. Morsi would keep all their campaign promises to the letter if elected — but then neither do I imagine they would necessarily both deviate from their promises to the same extent under the pressures they, respectively, are under. And as I have indicated, I expect that different outside observers will bring different assumptions and expectations to their evaluations of the likely degree to which each of these men will / would if elected adhere to or deviate from their promises.

The pressures and constraints the two men find themselves under will differ — their respective most basic fears and ideals will very likely differ considerably, too.

And we ourselves, to the extent that we compare and contrast them, will do so from different angles — and come to different conclusions…


So: realistically and without prejudgment, how would we compare and contrast the element of what the NYT writer nicely called “political rhetoric” in these two cases?

How seriously should we take Mr. Morsi’s calls for shariah, for jihad, for “our most lofty aspiration” — death for the sake of Allah?

Religious & other weather forecasting

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — forecasting, relihttp://zenpundit.com/?p=10194&preview=truegious and otherwise ]

As I write, there are fires still raging in the area of Colorado Springs, Colorado.


Years ago (in October, 1982?) I lived in a little place called El Nido, the Nest, about half way up Corral Canyon in Malibu, California. My papers were there, a decade’s worth of my thinking and writing, all highly flammable. I was in Santa Monica as it happened, watching a wildfire that had jumped the many lanes of the Ventura Freeway — eucalyptus bark carries flame nicely in a high wind — and was pouring down the dry scrub hills towards the coast, and I heard a police spokesman say the fire had been diverted into two mostly uninhabited canyons — Corral and Latigo — to avoid any risk of the fire reaching the prestigious Malibu Colony a little ways down the road.

That fire burned to within fifteen feet of our house.

The Colorado Springs fires are in the immediate vicinity of the US Air Force Academy, in and around the city the Guardian calls “the ‘evangelical Vatican'” and NPR “a Mecca for Evangelical Christians”.


When Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of New Orleans in August 2005, Pastor John Hagee said:

All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. … I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.

When Haiti was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, killing 300,000 and rendering more than a million people homeless, one-time pastor Pat Robertson said:

Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about. … They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘Ok it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another…

Now it’s the turn of Colorado Springs, the Evangelical Vatican or Mecca.


Here’s Joel Rosenberg blogging on the topic of the Colorado Springs fires:

Thousands of years ago, God told the Hebrew prophet Haggai to write down these words: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations. . . . I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations’” (Haggai 2:6-7, 21-22). This is Bible prophecy. This is an intercept from the mind of the all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe. It is a weather report from the future, if you will, a storm warning.

His headline?


Juan Cole has a different set of resources, a different worldview:

Over the coming decades, the American Southwest will become drier and warmer as a result of all the carbon dioxide and soot that the US, China and other industrial societies are dumping into the atmosphere.

[ … ]

Professor Max A. Moritz at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley and his colleagues find the long-term probability of increase of forest fires in the American southwest is high.

Texas and Arizona are among those states at risk — further evidence that the Red States that engage in active climate change denial are committing suicide. I suspect most Coloradans know exactly what is happening to them and why, and my heart goes out to them.


It appears that Boulder, too, may be under some degree of threat, and is preparing for possible evacuation.

Boulder, as very distinct from Colorado Springs, is where the Buddhists thrive — home of Naropa University and much more besides.

Best watch out, Boulder. Some Buddhists — as true to the Buddha’s teaching, perhaps, as Rev. Hagee is to those of Christ — hold views about Karma that seem remarkably similar to Rev. Hagee’s views about the wrath of God.

I’m thinking of Sharon Stone:

Stone, 50, who was speaking to reporters at the Cannes film festival, criticised the Chinese government’s actions in Tibet and directly linked them to the disaster: “I’ve been concerned about how should we deal with the Olympics, because they are not being nice to the Dalai Lama, who is a good friend of mine,” she said. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, is that karma – when you’re not nice that the bad things happen to you?”


God, nature or karma — whatever it is, it appears to be an equal-opportunity creator and destroyer.

We’re human.

With our heads, we’d like to explain and blame. With our hearts we are terrified, concerned, meditate, pray, fear, love. And help.

Boko Haram: religious vs social war

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — follow up to Taliban: religiosity vs pragmatism ]

Sen. Ita Solomon Enang, Chairman of Nigeria’s Senate Committee on Business and Rules, recently responded to a press question about Boko Haram, in an interview published under the curious title, Boko Haram war more religious than social — Engang:

Q: Previously you said Boko Haram attacks were not targeted at Christians but with the consistent attacks on worshippers in churches, have you not changed your mind and how do you think this problem can be dealt with?

A: Unfortunately, I held a position that it is not a religious war in the past. But my position on that is becoming shaky because when people now blatantly take guns to churches and aim at unarmed worshippers, kill them and go away; or they take a bomb to the church and detonate it there, I would say this is like a jihad and I think we should stop behaving like ostriches. I think that the sooner we accept it as a religious war, the better we will be able to handle it.


I keep circling around this central point. Much of interest and concern in today’s world revolves around the manner in which politics and religion are separable, braided together, or inseparable…

image credit: Christian Mercat, under GNU license v 1.2 — see documentation.

What does it mean for a war to be a religious war, or — to avoid the complexities that defining war bring into the picture while substituting the equivalent complexities attendant on the word violence — for violence to be religious violence?

  • Do both sides have to fight a religious war for it to be religious?
  • Can individuals perform acts of religious violence within a war that is not itself religious?

In some ways the issue parallels the one raised by Zen today in a quote from Colin Gray:

It is not sensible to categorize wars according to the believed predominant combat style of one of the belligerents. Guerrilla-style warfare is potentially universal and, on the historical evidence, for excellent reasons has been a favored military method of the weaker combatant eternally. There are no such historical phenomena as guerrilla wars. Rather, there have been countless wars wherein guerrilla tactics have been employed, sometimes by both sides. To define a war according to a tactical style is about as foolish as definition according to weaponry. For example, it is not conducive of understanding to conceive of tank warfare when the subject of interest is warfare with tanks and so forth, typically, if not quite always, in the context of combined arms.

Zen’s response to Gray:

Gray is correct that many wars partake of a blend of tactical fighting styles or that most wars are better defined (or at least should be in terms of causation) by their political character. That said, a specific fighting style sometimes is a definitive descriptive characteristic of a war, particularly if a dominant tactical style explains one side’s consistent comparative advantage (ex. the Macedonian phalanx vs. the Persians) in battle and some of the resultant choices which were forced upon the adversary.


We have a sort of Venn-diagram-in-words possibility: religiopolitical — but it’s really little more than a sop to the fact that religion and politics are at time closely woven. The religiosity of voiolence, and for that matter the violence of religiosity — these are things that wax and wane, shifting sands — they don’t always stay still long enough for us to box them in words, to reify them, to treat them as easily discernible and manipulable mental objects.

That said, to paraphrase Zen, “a specific religious style sometimes is a definitive descriptive characteristic of a war…”

Our understanding may be shifting and nuanced, but the briefs and executive summaries that decision-makers receive, the soundbites they articulate (can one articulate a soundbite?), and the headlines that preach their doctrines to the wide world — these use a given word or they don’t.

Let me turn that around: the briefs and executive summaries that decision-makers receive, the soundbites they articulate, and the headlines that preach their doctrines to the wide world inevitably either use a given word, or they don’t. And yet a realistic understanding of the given situation will be no less inevitably shifting and nuanced…

I feel very timid dipping a toe into Boyd in present company, but a fighter-pilot is a one-person observer, orienter, decider and actor, no? with a loop measured in fractions of seconds, not months? — whereas between intelligence gathering, strategic orientation, policy-making, and diplomatic or military action there are a multitude of communications channels — many of which function as shears that trim nuance down to the nub.

I suspect that questions like “is this a religious war?” and “is this guerrilla war?” carry (at a minimum) book-length subtleties with them, and wind up all too often with answers which are either yes or no, one or zero.


It’s all a bit like asking, “what game is this war we’re playing?”

One senior US official in Iraq was quoted by Anthony Cordesman as saying:

the current situation is like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you.

Tom Barnett, in The Pentagon’s New Map:

It is not chess but something closer to soccer. The ball is always moving, and substitutions are constantly changing the composition of both your team and your enemy’s. But worse still, your political leadership’s definition of the “problem” you are trying to solve keeps changing, making your attempts to keep score almost meaningless. You want to know what today’s definition of the problem is? Try reading the op-ed pages; you will have plenty to choose from.

John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt:

Major transformations are thus coming in the nature of adversaries, in the type of threats they may pose and in how conflicts can be waged. Information-age threats are likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, multidimensional nonlinear and ambiguous than industrial-age threats. Metaphorically, then, future conflicts may resemble the Oriental game of Go more than the Western game of chess. The conflict spectrum will be remolded from end to end by these dynamics.

As I noted recently, Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, about the complexity of contemporary life in general:

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

When it comes time to think, there are only so many metaphor-boxes to fit your nuances into. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

New Article: The Coming National Defense Crack-Up

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I have been asked to contribute foreign policy and defense pieces to IVN – The Independent Voter Network. The emphasis at IVN  is on well-supported brevity to inform a general audience of prospective voters for 2012 and not to entertain the legions of doctorate-seeking war nerdom with iterations of mutant 4GW, hybrid neo-Clausewitzian, counter-counter-insurgency theoretical castles in the sky 🙂 Different readership there.

Here is my first article:

The Coming National Defense Crack-Up

….Despite a major speech on defense issues given at the Citadel in 2011, Governor Romney’s strengths as a candidate are not associated with national security, while President Obama’s staff prefer to emphasize to the administration’s many successes in counterterrorism operations instead of the accumulation of serious issues faced by the Department of Defense, the armed services and America’s returning veterans.

This lack of debate is problematic because the next president will require a mandate for his solutions to the Pentagon’s laundry list of problems if they are to have a hope of passing the Congress in tight budgetary times. Some of the national defense problems are structural while others constitute a legacy of ten years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and in remote lawless regions, but the political capital needed to fix them will be substantial:

  • Never has the Pentagon’s system for acquiring weapons and supplies been so dysfunctional or so ruinously expensive. Most of the major weapons systems of the past decade have been cancelled or halted in scandal at a cost of billions, including the Future Combat System, theF-22 Raptor , the next generation Destroyer, the Crusader, the Comanche helicopter, theExpeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Littoral Combat Ship. The desk-bound military bureaucracy bitterly fought against the deployment of the life-saving MRAP while outfitting troops in uniforms that made it easier for the enemy to shoot them.
  • The Obama administration is attempting a “strategic pivot” toward Asia by focusing shrinking military resources in the Pacific, but the United States Navy will be extremely hard-pressed to carry out offshore balancing of a rising China with a reduced fleet of only 285 aging ships, the lowest number in a century. Nor do we have any regional allies with operational aircraft carriers – Japan has only a helicopter carrier, Britain is losing it’s last carrier in 2014, Australia and South Korea have no carriers and New Zealand barely has enough ships to constitute a functioning navy. Naval expansion would require a significant investment and several decades to complete…..

Read the rest here.

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