May 30, 2010

The Keller precedent

Looking back into history for a precedent for the dismissal of the Task Force Kandahar commander, the guy who until yesterday was in charge of executing the lynchpin of the COMISAF/Obama strategy in Afghanistan this year, brings up slim pickings in the Canadian experience.

The one exception would be the sad end of MGen R.F.L. Keller, commander of the Canadian division at D-Day. As Jack Granatstein wrote in The Generals, "Rod" Keller was considered by his colleagues before Normandy to be spending too much time with a married mistress while they were planning the invasion.

It wasn't the only problem with Keller, either, even if he remained popular with his troops. As his 3rd Infantry Division began to falter after the initial success of the landings, Montgomery and other generals increasingly advocated for his firing, but Canadian corps commander Guy Simonds kept him on until he was accidentally wounded by a wayward U.S. bomb at the start of Operation Totalize. However, once removed from theatre due to that injury, he would never hold a command position again. See also Granatstein's fellow historian and U of T alum David Bercuson's Maple Leaf Against the Axis.

Not very comparable, obviously. But clearly this is going to be one for the history books, too. I guess the larger lesson is that no one in an operation this big is ever indispensable.

Posted by BruceR at 06:21 PM

May 29, 2010

Yon's gonna have fun with this one (UPDATED)

Canada's commander in Afghanistan has been sacked.

BGen Menard took over command late last November. His stint as Canada's battlefield commander, which seemed to run into more than its share of problems, would have normally gone until the start of the fall, through this year's entire fighting season. BGen Jon Vance, who was the Task Force commander for most of 2009, has been sent back to take over for the rest of Menard's term. That's reassuring, obviously, but clearly this still represents something of a setback for ISAF's current Kandahar efforts, having to switch out their senior commander for the city and environs right now. Menard's Task Force comprises all the Canadian units in Afghanistan as well as the four U.S. battalions currently ringing Kandahar City.

UPDATE: The headline called it. The recently disembedded Michael Yon is claiming personal responsibility tonight for getting Menard fired: "This fight was expensive for me in many ways, but I got him. Getting this man fired was worth the fight and the costs. This will save American, Canadian, and Afghan lives." In the comments he elaborates: "I reported the sexual affair."

And to be fair, there's reason to believe him. In the case of the general's March 25 negligent discharge incident, a Yon email query about it April 17 was followed the very next day by the Canadian Forces announcing the incident had occurred and charges against Menard were pending. Yon said at the time he had heard about the ND from "a couple of interesting Canadians." It would thus seem plausible a similar tipoff led to the current situation, as well. And by the sounds of the quote reporter Matthew Fisher got from Menard just a few hours before, the BGen never even saw the knives coming.

UPDATE, Sunday: Yon's feeling his oats, as I thought he might. "If writers like [Canadian] Matthew Fisher did not see Menard's incompetence underneath their very noses, they should surrender their pens. If they will not stand up, they should not cover war... General Stanley McChrystal should be following Menard out the door. Fire McChrystal!"

Now, it would be nice at some point to get some info from someone besides Yon detailing his role in this, so we can know it's not just him falsely taking credit here (As Yon doesn't appear to have actually written anything publicly before the CF announcement of the firing, so it's not clear what it is he can take credit FOR... and recall he does have an internet tip jar to fill). Meanwhile, the Globe is reporting the second soldier alleged to be involved in this situation has also been sent home.

Posted by BruceR at 09:00 PM

May 26, 2010

Pause for effect

No matter what else you might think about the U.S. president, you've got to appreciate his Cosbyesque comic timing.

Posted by BruceR at 06:12 PM

May 20, 2010

On the Semrau trial and other stuff

Credit where credit's due: I think Michael Friscolanti has penned an excellent piece on the Semrau court-martial for Maclean's. A must-read. Note also the appearance in the comments by MCpl (retd.) Paul Franklin, who criticizes Semrau's choice.

Speaking of people who know what they're talking about, Jalalabad-based hellraiser and friend-of-friends Tim Lynch has been writing some good stuff recently. There's more stuff on insurgent tactics in that one post than many intelligence reports. Another voice worth listening to is Afghan election political casualty Peter Galbraith, who tilts at the windmill of COIN positivism that is John Nagl, in the Economist this week.

Posted by BruceR at 10:35 PM

May 14, 2010

Stopped clock watch

Okay, I'll admit it: Ralph Peters (shudder) is making a lot of sense here:

Our obsession with creating a centralized, Westernized state extends to our efforts to build an Afghan military. Our model is the romanticized WWII squad in which every possible ethnic group's represented, all Americans...

The Brits cracked the code on how to get tribesmen to fight for them: You give them a substitute tribe that's an extension of their hereditary tribe. The Indian Army's regimental system fit the bill perfectly: Recruited from an exclusive tribal network or ethnic group, the regiment could count on soldiers performing well to avoid shaming their families (think Gurkhas). Plus, the regiment offered its own tribal rituals.

If you want to succeed in a tribal society, you exploit tribal identities. Our officials insist that would undercut our goals. Well, perhaps our goals should be more realistic...

So we wind up supporting yet another disdained "president" because we insist that a tribal society must subject itself to a strong central government defended by an American-model army that refuses to be built. This is not a formula for success...

If anything, our inexperienced president can be blamed for agreeing to send more forces to a country where the resistance grows in direct proportion to the visibility of foreign occupiers...

Posted by BruceR at 09:27 AM

May 13, 2010

A couple notes in passing

*With so many people lining up to discredit every last aspect of the testimony of interpreter Ahmadshah Malgarai, people are going to start wondering if he might have been at a different war altogether.

*On a completely unrelated note, I for one am happy to live in a time when this could have been viewed 3.8 million times and still be going strong.

*Great, I'm going to have that tune in my head every time I think of the Commons Afghanistan committee now.

*On a serious Afghan note, this was thought-provoking. Yglesias has already made the (trite) communism parallel. What I thought was more interesting was this bit:

"We must also contend with the effects of the media, and a world population that cringes when it is witness to overt aggression and the marginalization of people. In this response, the leaders of this campaign have taken too many precautions to ensure that everyone is content with the tact taken."

The author is saying the top-down control of our conduct in Afghanistan that is strangling the counterinsurgency effort exists because of domestic pressure to do good. But if that's the case, then what you're really saying is counterinsurgency fights are not winnable because domestic disapproval of the specific actions taken in any kind of more distributed, effective strategy would be prohibitive, outweighing public support for the mission as a whole. If the only effective way to do things is quasi-Kurtzian independent actors operating free of media scrutiny, that's basically saying there is no effective way. Which means the West will never, can never win at COIN, which probably begs the question why we would even want to try. (I don't know that I agree with that, but that's the upshot of this kind of argument.)

To bring this post full-circle, I think that the Canadian detainee controversy is a perfect example of this. If there are any Canadian liberal internationalists left, they might want to ponder what the burden of only intervening in countries where there's already a functioning and rights-respecting judicial system will do to any future prospect of Canadian peacemaking or peacekeeping anywhere in the world after 2011. (Leaving aside the point that if a country has a well-functioning justice system, it doesn't need any security sector assistance from us, anyway.)

*In other news, Andrew Exum, of all people, has decided full-up COIN's a waste of time. Which may sound drastic, but it all comes back to what's been said here and elsewhere about FM 3-24 and counterinsurgency theory. That theory says that when local forces can fight the war on their own, you've won. That's your end state. You can achieve it by degrading the enemy or building up local forces, or both, but that's what winning means: closing that gap. But take that to the logical next step (which 3-24 never does), and that means all the other COIN stuff seems at best a distraction, and/or best-handled by non-soldiers. The FID/army mentoring mission, backed up with air power but otherwise with as light a footprint as possible, seems the most likely future for western "low-intensity" fighting doctrine, not this massive-conventional-forces/"government in a box"/remaking societies stuff.

Posted by BruceR at 11:54 PM


I have no idea what Russell Smith of the Globe is on about here.

Smith hates the quirky band Pomplamoose because they've been doing a lot of cover songs recently, and to him that it's a sign of how self-referential culture is now.

That would be a valid point if Pomplamoose (AKA Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn) ONLY did covers. But they don't. Actually, I always found Conte's own songs much more interesting: try "Beat the Horse" or "Expiration Date."

Now obviously they do mp3 covers because those covers are popular right now, and they introduce a larger audience to their work. But they're clearly not just a cover band.

Smith says, "folk-jazz treatment of high-energy pop will always strip out that which makes the pop so much fun: Take off the brassy, buzzy, abrasive edge and you’re left with banality – in this case, a pretentious banality." But why is that even a given? Just because a song was delivered loudly and brassily in its best-known incarnation doesn't mean that it can't also have value when reduced to a more basic, accessible form.

A good song is a good song, and some of us, at least, are still interested in appreciating the good songs that underly the massive production numbers as lyrical and melodic accomplishments, not fashion statements and fx-laden videos. It's not a great song, but you give me the choice between my uncle singing "Summer of '69" to us as kids with just his own guitar for backup many years ago, or the whole Bryan Adams treatment, I know what experience I would have taken. But to Smith, those magic moments of small-scale creativity are just banal, apparently, because a single guitar can't do pop songs justice. All that means to me is he lives in a poorer, less interesting world.

The irony is Smith's piece was juxtaposed on the front page with their "Rock of Ages" review: the utterly clapped out and recycled 80s pop revival musical. If Smith wanted to declare war on self-referential banality (brought to you in that case by a cynical corporate benefactor), all he had to do was read the piece going up next to his. Pomplamoose isn't anyone's biggest problem in this regard.

Posted by BruceR at 11:14 PM