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instituted new security procedures that alienated their native allies, and while some of these measure were later withdrawn,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

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.

Query: COIN Manual Conference Feedback

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012


Was the COIN  Manual conference at Fort Leavenworth last week a success or a failure?

I have heard backchannel that the focus of the rewrite of FM 3-24 was going to be on “tactics” and but that a “light footprint option” had to be included to appease policy makers. Some good suggestions were made at SWJ by Colonel Robert C. Jones, but not much has been said yet online that I have seen. USACAC bloseriously could use some updating on a more frequent basis.

I’m curious where they went with this. Opinions and comments solicited.

Pondering Transition Ops with Quesopaper

Monday, April 16th, 2012

One of the nice things about this blog is that periodically, smart folks will send me their unpublished material for feedback and private commentary. This comes in a wide variety of formats – manuscripts, articles, book chapters, powerpoint, sometimes an entire book or novel! It is flattering and almost always informative, so I try to help where I can or at least point the sender in the direction of someone more appropriate.

Recently, I was given a peek at a very intriguing paper on “Transition Operations” by Dr Rich Ledet, LTC Jeff Stewart and Mr. Pete Turner, who blogs occasionally at quesopaper.  Pete has spent a good chunk of the past ten years in a variety of positions and capacities in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he currently is with American troops in a remote rural district and it was he who passed their draft to me. They have taken a fresh look at the subject.

While I can’t give away their “secret sauce” in detail,  I particularly liked the fact that while the  focus and advice for executing transition operations is aimed at field grade officers and their civilian agency counterparts, their vision is in sync with the ideal of having policy-strategy-operations and tactics as a seamless “whole-of-government” garment. If only we could get our politicians to think in these terms, half the battle would be over.

Their paper is now headed to a professional journal; when it is published ( as I think it will be), I will definitely be linking to it here and hopefully, that will be soon.

My reason for my bringing this up – I have the permission of the authors to do so – is that the trio have put their finger on the major doctrinal problem faced by the United States military in Afghanistan – “transition operations” being a politically charged topic, laden as it is with implied foreign policy decision making by heavyweight policy makers, is treated in very scanty fashion by FM 3-24. Compared to other aspects of COIN, very little guidance is given to the the commander of the battalion or brigade in the effort to coordinate “turnover” of responsibilities and missions to their Afghan Army, police and government allies.

This at a time when the “readiness” of Afghan units and officials to accept these burdens in the midst of a war with the Taliban is questionable, variable, controversial at home and politically extremely sensitive in Afghanistan.

And at a point where, ten years after September 11, the US State Department is no more able in terms of personnel and vision or sufficiently funded by Congress, to step up their game and take the lead role in Afghanistan from the Pentagon than it was on September 10, 2001.  SECSTATEs Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton deserve great praise for making State do more with less, but State needs wholesale reform to fit the needs of the 21st century and the money and budgetary flexibility to split foreign policy tasks more equitably with the Defense Department.

State is not going to be playing a major role on the ground in our transition out of Afghanistan, which makes guidance to our majors and colonels – and in turn to their company and platoon leaders stationed there-  all the more important.

New Book: THE SNAKE EATERS by Owen West

Friday, April 13th, 2012

The Snake Eaters by Owen West 

Just received a review copy yesterday, courtesy of Simon & Schuster.  Full disclosure, by happenstance, I am on a private listserv with Major West, but you can take data point that alongside the fact that until today I hadn’t realized he was also the son of Bing West.  🙂

Judging from West’s already accomplished biography, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

Flipping through briefly, this book seems to be part high octane action story, part memoir,  part COIN treatise by other narrative means. The “novel-like” format appears to be an emerging trend in military and national security publishing distinguished from traditional, eye-in-the-sky, synthesizing, narratives like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars.  Pre-publication materials sent described The Snake Eaters, thusly:

….The Snake Eaters takes readers into the streets, schools and homes of Khalidya [Iraq] – where the people WQest’s team were trying to protect were indistinguishable from the enemy they were trying to kill, and the the Iraqi battalion they mentored was both amateurish and hostile….By the end of the mission, the Snake Eaters was the first Iraqi battalion granted independent battle space, the insurgency was wiped off the streets of Khalidya, and peace was restored

Ok, that is just PR stuff which can be taken with a grain of salt, but the respected Bill Roggio of  The Long War Journal was embedded with the Snake Eaters in Iraq 2007 in the deadly Anbar province, when they were under Major West’s tutelage:

….Instead of moving out on Humvees, the Snake Eater’s platoon of scouts, accompanied by 5 MTTS and myself, struck out on foot from the battalion base, which sits on a hill overlooking Khaladiya, and moved into the city. The patrol moved through the desert hills between the base and the town. This approach is dangerous, particularly during the day, as soldiers are silhouetted behind the sky when coming over the hills, perfect targets for the snipers in the area.

On the march into Khaladiya, we overheard four mortars fall into one of the bases in the distance. The mortars were blind fired and we were told they didn’t hit a thing. The ever present semi-wild Iraqi dogs howled in the distance, and their howls grew louder as we approached and they shadowed our patrol. The insurgents couldn’t ask for a better early warning system.

This group of Iraqi Army scouts were the most disciplined and tactically proficient Iraqi soldiers I have seen while accompanying Iraqi troops outside the wire. They moved sharply, covered dangerous intersections and rooftops, effectively used hand and arm signals, and maintained their intervals. The scouts clearly embraced the idea of the “predator-prey” relationship. On the streets of Khaladiya, they were the hunters.

That doesn’t hurt the street cred (though TTP is way, way outside my area of expertise – I’ll leave that for folks who know what they are talking about to assess).

Incidentally, the FID/advisory/transition ops theme of The Snake Eaters is likely to make it very relevant reading in 2012 -2013.

A review will be forthcoming – have a bit of a backlog of reviews that I need to clear  (The End,  All In and The Hunt for KSM)

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