October 30, 2011

Tragic day for Afghan army mentoring

(Side note: this is post #2,500 on this blog).

In case anyone from the old team is wondering, the ANA soldier who killed 3 Australian mentors and wounded 7 others by apparently emptying a magazine into them on parade at a Patrol Base Peacemaker near Shah Wali Kot was from 6th Kandak, 1/205 Brigade, and had been in the ANA for three years... so probably someone who showed up after the Roto 6 team left in April '09. The Australian mentors were not living with the ANA, but rotating in, visiting from their home base in Uruzgan for 2-3 days at a time, apparently... another indication of mentoring support not keeping up with the growth in Afghan force size. No word on the name of the local Afghan interpreter who was also killed.

It needs to be noted these Australians were killed while supporting the development of 1/205 Brigade after Canadians handed over their involvement with that formation and the Kandahar "combat mission." It's a little simplistic to say the Diggers literally took a bullet for us here, but it's not wrong, either.

Posted by BruceR at 05:38 PM

October 13, 2011

Dispatches from an alternate universe

Funniest thing I've read all week:

"One area that the Afghan government and ISAF should prioritize is accountability..."

"Those responsible for abuse should not only be removed from their positions, but also subject to criminal prosecution and civil liability..."

"Funding, training, as well as military and intelligence relationships with the Afghan government and security forces should all be utilized to ensure those responsible for abuse are held accountable..."

"Right now the US and other ISAF nations have the most leverage to shape the Afghan justice system..."

Wow. Just, wow.

Posted by BruceR at 12:44 AM

October 12, 2011

Note to RIM: Next phone's a 'droid, sorry

Let's see, I'm a Canadian frequent business traveller who relies on a smartphone to do my job and I prefer a keypad over a touchscreen for typing. So I'm pretty much Blackberry's core market, I figure.

The ongoing outage, which has knocked off (for me) all internet-based services, including webmail, as well as BlackBerry Messenger, is just simply unacceptable, though. I could understand a single-system failure, but there's no reason a problem at BlackBerry's central office should be nixing my web browsing ability in two different cities across the country a day later: talk about overly centralized! Why is my phone's web browser even pinging a central single-point-of-failure server in the first place? Some key systems should have been clearly isolated from each other. Sorry, this is a total failure on RIM/BlackBerry's part, and they deserve to lose every bit of business to whatever smartphone firm with a more distributed service model starts snapping it up after this. I'm definitely gone on my next phone switch.

Posted by BruceR at 08:02 PM

October 04, 2011

Quote for the day

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Dialogue is overrated. It's not the world's job to make you a more understanding person. We give too much credit to conversation, and not enough to contemplation.

I think I've just started to realize that useful insight in a new way just these last couple weeks, but this webpage has always been more about me talking things out with myself than anything else, too. Writing here is contemplation in the public sphere, with the always possible prospect of a corrective interruption by someone who knows better, I suppose: I sometimes remind myself of one of Monty Python's philosopher-soccer players that way. I'm just going to keep contemplating here, but if you figure out what we're supposed to do with the ball first, can you send me a text or something?

Posted by BruceR at 11:31 AM

Libya lessons

Very interesting scholars' first take on the first six months of the Libya intervention -- still not over, I know -- here.

The nut graph (all emphasis marks are mine):

Several features of this operation show evidence of improvisation, innovation, and good luck, as well as the characteristic military professionalism of the allied forces involved. Non-NATO forces were integrated into an improvised command structure that was then operated through NATO, while the alliance was politically divided about it. Surveillance systems and weapons themselves were adapted and used in different ways; air to-ground communications were minimal – an unusual situation in conflicts such as this – and special forces from a number of different countries appear to have played important roles in a conflict where foreign forces on Libyan territory were explicitly ruled out by the United Nations.

On the French unilateral launch of the war:

At the end of the meeting, however, President Sarkozy announced to the world’s media, and without consultation with either of the allies who he had been with only minutes before, that French aircraft were in action over the city. Within two hours, French forces had engaged Qadhafi’s tanks and armour in a dramatic series of attacks which halted the immediate advance of government forces on Benghazi.

This played directly to world opinion, as much as to that in Benghazi, but it was little secret that Downing Street and the White House were privately furious at what they took to be an act of grandstanding. This was not the start of the campaign that they had envisaged or discussed and it had the effect of alerting all Qadhafi’s forces that the action had begun.

On civilian casualties:

While the coalition was criticised for their tentative approach in the early part of the campaign, it seems to have paid off with even loyalist forces reportedly recognising the fairness and accuracy of the airstrikes. To date between 50-100 civilians have perished from air strikes in this six month campaign – although figures vary wildly at present – compared to 400-500 in Kosovo.

This I didn't know:

The presence in theatre of the American guided missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN-728) – which at one stage fired ninety-three of its maximum potential load of 154 Tomahawk rounds – enabled the US Navy to retain the ability to fire large numbers of Tomahawks even with fewer platforms available. This was also the first conventional or nuclear launch mission of any of the US Navy’s Ohio-class submarines.

Also largely unnoted: the significant role of Egyptian Special Forces in the eastern desert, and Qatari and UAE SF in the western mountains (aided by Tunisia):

Arab states provided the bulk of the training and mentoring effort and led the advance on Tripoli... Western special forces concentrated primarily on providing an intelligence picture to rebel forces.

The absence of JTACs or Special Forces or anyone calling in strikes from the ground, meaning air assets did all the significant PID (positive ID) work, is actually kind of astonishing:

Contrary to much reporting, UK special forces are unlikely to have operated as forward controllers for air strikes in great numbers, though their HUMINT did provide greater context for decisionmaking about targets: the technical precision of targeting systems and munitions, imagery from US unmanned aerial vehicles and information provided by rebels using externally provided transmission equipment meant that forward controlling by special forces was not vital.

And this is refreshing to read:

Neither British nor French special forces dictated timing for the rebel advance on Tripoli in late August. The timing was a rebel decision, underpinned by tactical advice and intelligence from Western special forces.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. It's ironic the RUSI paper refers to this as the "Afghan model," referring to the way the initial ejection of the Taliban in 2001 was conducted, of course, when the current Afghan model (which the paper comments is an "order of magnitude" more expensive for UK forces there) in practice has been pretty much the exact opposite a lot of the time.

Posted by BruceR at 10:11 AM

October 01, 2011

Negative knowledge value

Matt Yglesias actually understates the knowledge problems of nation-building efforts in his post today:

But the point is that a country like Afghanistan is chock full of Afghan people who know lots and lots and lots about Afghanistan. Then you have U.S. government personnel who, from the top decision-makers in DC down to the enlisted troops on the front lines, don’t so much as speak the relevant languages. America has the preponderance of money, firepower, etc. but none of that changes the fact that local actors have all the knowledge. So rather than us (or before us the Russians) successfully using our assets to manipulate the situation, local actors wind up manipulating the assets we have to serve their own ends.

I WISH that was the whole problem, but it's not. If the Western intervenor's knowledge had been zero, or if he'd been only unable to discern where the value in what he'd heard was, well, the worst case there is that those Afghans with connections and influence with the West would have done better relatively than those who didn't. And that happens, true.

But that's not the worst part. We didn't just arrive in Afghanistan and try to operate with no information: by definition, nation-building implies believing that the information your friends in the occupied nation have is counter-productive to your and their best interest. "This is the way we've always done things," in any other context a statement worthy of its due, is derided by the nation-builder with a, "well, that must have been the cause of your problems."

It's when combined with any kind of arrogance like this, however well-meaning, that the information problem becomes truly pernicious for the Western intervenors, as they start ripping up traditions and norms they barely understand and for which their proposed substitutes are entirely unsuited.

There's a time and place to offer a struggling government or people help. The trick seems to be in getting them to define it, so that the Westerner doesn't have to both define the problem AND offer a solution from a low-information environment. Otherwise, that removal of agency on the part of the host is fatal to any sort of lasting success in this realm, it seems

Posted by BruceR at 12:23 AM