April 22, 2011

Adventures in fact-checking

"Other NATO nations do not fly armed Predators [UAVs], although they have unarmed versions for reconnaissance and targeting purposes..."

--New York Times

Technically true, but only because the Royal Air Force flies the much more deadly Reaper UAV, which has also largely replaced the Predator in US service, and would likely be the primary US platform in Libya as well.

Posted by BruceR at 01:09 AM

April 20, 2011

Tim Hetherington, 1970-2011

The tragic loss of war correspondent Tim "Restrepo" Hetherington in Misrata, Libya has hit hard. We were close in age, and I really liked his work.

I never really wrote a post about Restrepo, which I finally saw long after I left the theatres. (I agreed with basically everything Pat Lang wrote here.) I think it caught the basic humanity of the American soldiers in the Korengal, but also the utter futility of everything they did. Their officers seemed clearly mediocre, and the chances of counterinsurgency success given their initial conditions would have been slightly higher if they'd been trying to pacify Mars. Just by letting soldiers tell their own stories, he ended up with as strong an anti-Afghanistan polemic as has ever aired. Hetherington is to be respected as one of those few journalists who could work easily as an equal among soldiers in an embedded situation, but not compromise his craft in any way in doing so. He will be missed.

Posted by BruceR at 10:17 PM

April 12, 2011

Bam... we're done here

In the Aperture Investment Opportunities (#2 here) Valve has sadistically combined my adoration of actor J.K. Simmons and my love of the game Portal into my new favourite Web advertising promo campaign of all time. Can they please keep making these after the game comes out?

Posted by BruceR at 10:09 PM

This week's essential Afghan reading

The ever-dependable Gary Farber provides some details on the sad fratricide incident out of Helmand. They declared "PID" (positive ID) on "hot spots?" That just doesn't seem right. The Pred would have had IR optics so even at night someone had eyes on here.

The generally reliable Tim Lynch is somewhere between despair and needing a really long vacation. After some regrettably racially tinged commentary about his current president, he hits his Afghan points in rapid fire, all of which I'd say are pretty much inarguable at this point:

--The Kandahar City suicide ambulance attack was fiendish, and effective;

--"General Petraeus can say what he wants but we all know he doesn’t know because he has no human intelligence capacity. That is the price he must pay for having unlimited funds with which to build little islands of America all over the country, isolating most of the forces completely from the Afghans." (See also Alex Berenson on the human tragedy that is Kandahar Air Field; I will only say what I've said here before on this, that any minute one spends beyond what is absolutely necessary on a megabase like KAF is a minute utterly wasted, both personally and militarily.)

--"The United States could easily send half the people deployed in Afghanistan home without diminishing combat power." I wouldn't put it that high, but it's not zero, either.

--"You could easily cut the intelligence effort in half because Afghan intel is an echo chamber with endemic circular reporting coupled to sycophantic analysis. And you can close the COIN Academy – setting up a new “innovative” school house is a loser move..."

--The United States is like pre-Caesarian Rome, he concludes: and in short, "we're losing in Afghanistan."

Finally, I was in a bit of a comment contretemps this week over at Herschel Smith's place. Since he tends to get a little snippy whenever I comment on one of his stories more than once or twice, I'll leave the original issue where it lies. I did read with interest the comments at the end of the comment thread, though, about Operation Strong Eagle I in the Kunar, since followed by Strong Eagle II and III. I do recommend the Stars and Stripes series on the first Strong Eagle last summer, which I think reveals a lot about the issues that continue to bedevil Western action in Afghanistan.

In short, a battalion of the 101st Airborne, one month in country, attempted a battalion-sized clear-op into Daridam, with Afghan military and border police units providing the "Afghan face." The Afghans weren't told about the operation practically until they crossed the LoD, and predictably promptly deserted en masse when the shooting started. By this point, however, the battalion had several platoons it had airmobiled in behind the insurgents' known positions in the hills to extract, and so an 18-hour firefight in 100 degree heat resulted, with the insurgents retreating under cover of night. The battalion, which had lost 2 American and 2 Afghans killed, claimed 125 enemy dead (more in other tellings). At least five other Americans were injured by friendly fire. The battalion concluded their Afghan allies simply had to "want it more."

Now look. This was a frontal assault by a then-untested battalion, against an enemy whose strength had caught them by surprise, in comparable numbers dug in on a ridgeline above them. I'm sorry but you simply don't get 30:1 fatality ratios in favour of the *attacker* in that kind of situation, no matter what the DuPuy ratings of the opposing forces are. So the battle damage assessment here is almost certainly way off, as is probably is their estimate of the number of enemy they faced, for that matter (certainly it was more than they counted on when they devised the plan... ). Certainly the infantry, firing uphill with small arms, didn't get anywhere near that number of kills. Close air support and artillery in support, maybe, but that implies some estimation of effect, estimation that is generally inflated by a certain factor. I thought it interesting that at one point the Americans watch the enemy "through night vision goggles as the insurgents collected their dead." I'm sorry, are you sure about that? Because I don't recall ever giving enemy burial parties a free pass before. If they were seen, presumably they could have been fired upon but weren't, implying the Americans had been fought to a standstill, even before their enemy pulled out before morning.

And seriously, re the Afghan units that fled, want WHAT more? To be pushed ahead of the new foreigners in town, for a purpose they can't even be bothered to tell you, and in something of a sketchy plan at that? Note there's no mention of Afghans going in with the cutoff groups, so they couldn't even go to the Afghan commander and shame him into fighting to save his own men's lives... another classic partnering error. (They learned though; note how the sense of Afghan agency had changed by the time of Strong Eagle II, a month later.) Look, I'm happy for the 101st's tactical victory here, and I'm sure they did some damage, but one were to think this writeup was one of the bigger success stories out of Afghanistan last summer... well, it t'aint much at all.

(The same battalion engaged in the same location again a couple weeks ago, in Op Strong Eagle III... this time the casualty estimate, for a much more experienced American unit by now, with 6 US and an unknown number of ANSF vs 50 Taliban KIA in that fight, seems much more plausible.)

Posted by BruceR at 08:50 PM

April 11, 2011

Well, that didn't help the debate much

A rather lame outing this week in the Globe by Michael Byers and Stewart Webb about the Canadian military training deployment to Afghanistan. It's an excerpt of their Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper, "Training Can Be Dangerous," which you can find here.

Now, this was a rather shoddy paper, even by CCPA standards. What was remarkable about it to me was that the writers did no real research of any kind, with all their citations pointing to news articles or other similar papers. They didn't interview a single soldier or former soldier, or anyone with any first-hand knowledge of Afghan military training in Canada or outside. (The bibliography is also bereft of any references to Afghan sources of any kind, for that matter.) I doubt I'd have said anything if they had called, but I really don't think we're all that hard to find. So there's no real reason to take anything they have to say seriously, let alone put an excerpt in the Globe and Mail.

The article begins badly: "Remember – the first four Canadian deaths in Afghanistan occurred when a training exercise attracted “friendly fire” from an American F-16 fighter jet in 2002. So just how safe will this new training mission be?"

This blog wrote extensively about that incident and the military trial that followed, and I can't believe anyone has forgotten this, but just in case, that was a mistaken attack by an American plane on a Canadian night live fire exercise on an established weapons range just outside Kandahar Air Field. It had nothing to do with training Afghans. At all. In this context, it's a complete non sequitur.

But it gets worse: "Although the Prime Minister insists that Canadian soldiers will remain safely within the confines of their bases, this is unlikely."

I really don't know what value one can make of an argument that a military training deployment is bad because it still risks the lives of military personnel. That does, as they say, come with the job description. To say that Canadian soldiers may be exposed to some mortal risk (at a rate and with a degree of protection and medical support, one might add, significantly better than the Afghan general population at present) is to say that they are doing soldiering. It is not in any way an argument against a mission. One wishes they could have focussed on the more interesting questions of its likely efficacy compared to the outlay involved, rather than scattergun negative connotations in this way.

To impeach the Byers-Webb argument here, really one needs only to pose a hypothetical: what if the Canadian military reconfigured as nothing but globe-encompassing armed aerial vehicles, like the Predator UAV? We could intervene internationally without risk to any Canadian personnel, ever, that way. But would Byers and Webb consider that the optimal form of Canadian force projection? I suspect not. But if they wouldn't, that suggests their inordinate concern for Canadian military lives now is really just the biggest negative they could come up with as far as this particular mission is concerned, not any sort of principled or coherent position that one could shape a foreign or defence policy structure around. That's disappointing.

Posted by BruceR at 10:18 PM

April 01, 2011

Defending the Kill Team... poorly

(See previous entry.) Michael Yon, predictably, comes to the defense of 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, who he feels were maligned in the pages of Rolling Stone this week for, you know, thrill-killing innocent people occasionally.

I was embedded with the 5/2 SBCT and was afforded incredible access to the brigade by the Commander, Colonel Harry Tunnell, and the brigade Command Sergeant Major, Robb Prosser. I know Robb from Iraq...

Well, credit for being honest, I suppose. A lesser man would realize that the good friend of a man irretrievably tarnished by these events -- whose reputation as the brigade chief disciplinarian will forever be mud after these atrocities committed by his soldiers -- might himself be accused of insufficient objectivity should he write about those crimes... but not our Michael.

Yon's "few bad apples" defense is pretty weak for all his passion (he's now calling for his fans to boycott Rolling Stone advertisers). His anger for Rolling Stone mostly centers on the Motorcycle Kill clip, involving a different group of soldiers from the same brigade in the Arghandab.

Now, it's fair to say the link between this clip and the Kill Team story is pretty tangential... not sure why it's linked from the story's web page, either, to be honest. But focussing on just this clip (which most people, seeing the ammo vests on both the dead Afghans aren't going to condemn 5 Brigade any the more for anyway) at the expense of the rest of the whole damn story is typical gnatshit-out-of-pepper Yonism.

I remember being part of a much smaller army around the time it got into trouble for a soldier's murderous atrocity in Somalia. And yeah, I didn't think the entire Canadian military deserved to be judged for the actions of MCpl Matchee back then either. But I didn't attack the newspapers that broke the story and resulting coverup for only writing about bad soldiers. Bad soldiers, like bad police officers and bad judges, need to be written about; no servant of the public can ever get a pass on that most basic of accountabilities. But Yon's only impulse here was not to try to deal with or challenge the facts of the story in any way, but just to say, "yeah, but I had friends in that brigade and they were nice." Well I have a friend in that brigade too, chump, one whom I'm sure had nothing to do with this either. Not. Relevant. Now.

Posted by BruceR at 12:08 AM