October 27, 2010

"The long term may be difficult but the short term is near-impossible"

Judah Grunstein is basically right, here, when he says that two concurrent wars have broken the British military.

This is the inevitable consequence of any operational approach that requires comparative expenditures on the order of 100-to-1 or more against an enemy with essentially inexhaustible human resources and no vital ground to be denied to them. The insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have been succeeding to a significant degree in spending the West into the ground. This is extremely problematic.

We are going to see in the coming years an increased interest in military strategies that defeat that spending dynamic: either over-the-horizon, in-and-out sorts of approaches, or possibly finding ways to leverage host nation forces much more economically (both, one notes, traditionally the pervue of SOF; sorry, Herschel!). But barring some kind of a tragic misestimation, it's hard to see another Western-led main-force multi-year COIN fight like Afghanistan in our lifetimes. It simply doesn't seem affordable.

Against an enemy for whom everything is low-tech, there's not really a lot of easy chokepoints or nexuses which could produce a decisive military effect. Leaders? They regenerate. Fighters? Dime a dozen. Facilities? They'll just store stuff in the next grapehut over if you blow this one up. Communications? You can monitor them, but you can't cut them off. Logistics? Don't be silly. And while our soldiers can absolutely hurt insurgents in all these areas with the application of sufficient deliberate pressure (more soldiers, more ISR, etc.), no question, the dollar cost of doing so, compared with their own costs of operating against you if you don't, is simply astronomical, putting us on the losing end of a fight that is inherently attritional.

Posted by BruceR at 11:13 PM

Combat in Afghanistan

An amazing combat story of surviving a Taliban complex linear ambush from Paktika. Substitute BTRs for HMMWVs, and you'd have something straight out of Les Grau's books on the war with the Soviets.

Posted by BruceR at 10:40 PM

Side notes on the Maiwand killings

I've nothing much to say about the American soldiers on trial for killing Afghan civilians, or the questions about their leadership, except to note the one Canadian-specific barely-relevant thing about Col Harry Tunnell that was not mentioned in this Washington post article... that being that it was Col Tunnell who apparently complained to gadfly Michael Yon that his fellow formation commander Canadian BGen Daniel Menard was responsible for the SVBIED attack succeeding in damaging a highway bridge near Kandahar AF. As documented here over many weeks, Yon's subsequent crusade against Menard would only end after Menard was removed from command for issues unconnected to the bridge. Disdain for allied generals, contempt for one's own doctrine... interesting fellow that one.

As also discussed here previously, Tunnell's formation was relieved of responsibility for Arghandab district, which had exploded into Zhari levels of violence on them in mid-2009 for reasons that I've yet to see anyone fully explain. The Atlantic piece on "The Last Patrol", describing the current conditions there, was excellent, I thought. As far as an assessment of Tunnell by an experienced soldier-blogger, "Old Blue" cut loose with both barrels in the comments to this Registan post.

Posted by BruceR at 09:12 PM

Our short memories

Since I'm picking on Carlotta Gall of the NYT tonight, I might as well comment on this piece:

Three years ago, Canadian troops built a temporary post near Lora. When they immediately came under fire from insurgents, they bulldozed much of the hamlet, flattening houses, water pumps and surrounding orchards, the villagers and local elders say...

“Not only Lora was destroyed; in Zhare (sic) District two villages were completely destroyed,” said Hajji Agha Lalai, the provincial councilor from the area.

The piece had Andrew Potter of Maclean's concerned enough to ask, "Did Canadian troops bulldoze an Afghan village?"

From the location and timing, one assumes we're talking about either Strongpoint Talukan or Strongpoint Zangabad, two Afghan National Army posts that were built by the Canadians in this area, and evacuated in late 2008. And no doubt there's been some serious attempts to figure out who should be compensated for any damages.

Now Gall does mention some of the problems, such as the fact the Taliban will take their cut of compensation money by threatening those compensated, and the fact that until recently no one could actually return to assess the damage. What she doesn't mention is the complete absence of any believable land ownership records in southern Afghanistan means the mulberry trees in question have probably been claimed (and compensated for) several times over.

As for Haji Agha Lalai, he's an interesting cat. Undoubtedly influential in Panjwaii, he's had a complicated relationship with Canadians for over four years. In 2006, as head of the Kandahar reconciliation commission, he claimed to have convinced 300 local Taliban to turn in their guns; he would later resign reportedly because promises of compensation weren't being honoured by Kabul. In 2007 he was touted as the likely replacement for Alokozai elder Mullah Naqib as the lord of Arghandab District but was passed over by Karzai in favour of Naqib's son. He has repeatedly pushed in the press for greater Canadian investment in his part of Panjwaii, and is doing so again now. He's a complicated figure, of very complex allegiances, but always ready to be quoted, and maybe not the best source for an unverified rumour about Canadian malfeasance the next district over.

Reading Lalai badmouthing the previous Westerners to the current Westerners, one couldn't help recalling Rajiv Srinivasan's blog (an excellent read, by the way, every military advisor in history will identify with the burning tanker story) and his stories of how ANA soldiers were using the gap between American rotations, or even changes in liaison officers, to game their system. This is part of the Afghan experience, too. Every claim that can be made against the West can be made again, generally six to 12 months later when the next rotation arrives. The point in both instances is at least partially short-term profit-taking while the Americans are still around. At some point, every Afghan knows, the Western military effort will draw down in Afghanistan. In the meantime, right up to the top, they're maximizing their return. Which, when one thinks about it, is entirely reasonable of them.

Posted by BruceR at 09:03 PM

Things going well in Kandahar?

I want to think things are going well in Kandahar Province as much as the next guy, but everyone reading these sorts of stories should really keep in mind it's simply way too early to tell. Violence always dies down to baseline levels this time of year, and the fighters always exfil to Pakistan for winter. This will be the fifth year in a row this pattern has been observed, and every time some reporters have claimed this was the beginning of the end. For instance, here's Matthew Fisher same time a year ago.

I hope that's not the case again. But what's needed is a comparison not between a peak and a trough in the violence, but between this trough and the previous troughs; and then, when spring comes, a comparison between that uphill curve and the previous ones. Saying "we're winning" in Kandahar in October is meaningless. We've always been winning... in October.

A more accurate assessment might be that ISAF has now recovered roughly the same position around Kandahar geographically as we had in late 2007 or early 2008, and this time with many more troops than before: positions Canadians were besieged in for years and in many cases ultimately withdrew from are now reoccupied in much greater strength. I'm told that at the lonely post of Lakokhel in Zhari, where roughly six Canadians at a time were bravely stationed with a small Afghan garrison for well over a year, a U.S. platoon recently handed over to a U.S. company (over 100 men). That kind of force ratio will certainly make some kind of difference in the local dynamics.

ADDENDUM: What IS interesting in the Kandahar news is in the Post link above, and the heavy reliance of the U.S. on the Afghan Border Police out of Spin Boldak led by Abdul Razziq, to capture "hundreds" of Taliban fighters throughout Zhari-Panjwaii and Arghandab, instead of the army or local police. One is allowed to be skeptical of that data point, too... the Afghans I worked with were quite successful at "rounding up the usual suspects" when they had to, and at this point in the year total insurgent fighter strength was only likely in the hundreds to begin with... so I guess that means we got all of them, then? (And yes, this is the same Abdul Razziq who if you scroll down this page a little back on Sept. 26 was being accused of fixing yet another election for the Karzais.) It's notable that the NYT's Carlotta Gall, also linked above, who some seem to consider a strong reporter, managed to completely miss that factor, focussing instead on HIMARS artillery rockets as a key factor. Yeah, they're a very effective way of dropping 90kg of high explosive in a one-metre square on the first try, but come on.

Posted by BruceR at 07:19 PM

October 21, 2010

I-don't-think-that-word-means-what-you-think-it-means Watch

Globe and Mail, Tuesday, discussing a new film about the Inuit experience with global warming:

Most startling for the filmmakers, though, was the Inuits’ belief that along with pollution and environmental changes, caused mainly by Southerners, the Earth has actually changed its tilt. The filmmakers kept hearing this theory in different communities. Perplexed, they contacted the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration for answers, but experts said this was impossible.

When the filmmakers presented some of their findings at the Copenhagen conference on climate change last year, the media picked up on these views of the Inuit subjects, film co-director Ian Mauro says, and alarm bells started to ring in the scientific community. “We had a litany of scientists come back to us, responding after seeing this news, saying, ‘This was great to be speaking to indigenous people about their views, but if you continue to perpetuate this fallacy that the Earth had tilted on its axis, [the Inuit] .... would lose all credibility.’ And so there was really this backlash by the scientific community.”

Dude, that's not a backlash, that's just friendly advice which you really should have taken. By presenting your Inuit elders' opinions on how the earth's axis was shifting due to global warming, you basically allowed everything else they said to be discounted. Even Globe writer Guy Dixon at least tried to come up with a logical explanation (increased haze in the atmosphere is leading to refraction of the sun's rays).

Posted by BruceR at 09:28 PM

Stuff I've been up to

Haven't been able to write here much... new job is turning out to be wonderfully busy. In other media, a short piece of mine was recently in the University of Toronto magazine, on World War One usage of the university campus by the Royal Flying Corps.

Posted by BruceR at 09:14 PM

October 02, 2010

Today's essential Afghan reading

Joel Hafvenstein, in a tightly argued piece on the most likely Afghan outcome. One can quibble (and there's some very strong quibbles in the comments) but it's hard to argue with the overall forecast.

We are simply not going to see a stable, insurgency-free Afghanistan at the end of this tunnel. America will continue to subsidize Karzai and his motley coalition, in the hopes that like Najibullah, he’ll be able to hang on in Kabul even after the troops are gone. The Karzai government will never reach the “position of strength” from which we’d like to negotiate with the Taliban. Instead, I’m guessing we’ll try to freeze the conflict at a level of violence which, while high, will be tolerable to Western interests and minimize our loss of face. The losers will be the majority of Afghans, whose country will remain a wound for the foreseeable future, stuck with the system we’ve given them.

Also this week, Anand Gopal reporting from the front lines of the Afghan election:

A clutch of U.S. military vehicles idled nearby; the gunner from one gave us a friendly wave, seemingly oblivious to the spectacle of plainclothes men marching detainees across the street at gunpoint. This polling center, too, was closed—the result of a brawl over who had the right to stuff ballots at the station. All that remained was blood-stained soil, scraps of clothing, and a few dazed men shuffling away from the center.

Posted by BruceR at 01:20 AM