Sorry to be away, but I've been absolutely buried in work. You can't imagine. While I continue to dig away at the pile, I'll just share a quick clip, apropos of the day: Leonard Cohen singing "Democracy."
Contemporary political discourse on armed violence and insecurity
has been largely shaped by references to spatial knowledge, simulation,
and control: “human terrain”, “urban clutter”, “terrorist sanctuaries”,
“failed states”, “core-periphery”. The historical counterpoint to this
is to be found in the key role the successive technologies of clock,
engine, computer, and network have all played in spatializing the
practice of warfare. In this context, what implications do “feral”
Third World cities, “rogue” cities organized along non-Western ideas of
urban space and infrastructure, and “wild” cities reclaimed by nature,
have for the battlespaces of today and tomorrow?
It might turn out to be a brilliant example of original thinking, or an incredibly goofy whackfest. As my professorial friends at Poliblogger and Fruits and Votes can tell you, it's the sort of risk you take in the world of higher education.
Of course you couldn't resist reading a post with that title. A military contractor is developing a new weapon, "kinetic fireball incendiaries." But, come on, everyone's going to call them rocket balls.
Yikes. How many D6 do you roll if you release rocket balls in a 10' by 10' room?
Embedded within this argument over military matters is a more
fundamental and ideologically charged argument about basic policy. By
calling for an Army configured mostly to wage stability operations,
Nagl is effectively affirming the Long War as the organizing principle
of post-9/11 national-security strategy, with U.S. forces called upon
to bring light to those dark corners of the world where terrorists
flourish. Observers differ on whether the Long War’s underlying purpose
is democratic transformation or imperial domination: Did the Bush
administration invade Iraq to liberate that country or to control it?
Yet there is no disputing that the Long War implies a vast military
enterprise undertaken on a global scale and likely to last decades. In
this sense, Nagl’s reform agenda, if implemented, will serve to
validate—and perpetuate—the course set by President Bush in the
aftermath of 9/11.
Nagl, in Bacevich's terminology, is a "crusader." Crusaders believe that counterinsurgency wars are winnable, so the US government should reorganize its national security apparatus, including the military, to go forth and win them.
In contrast, "conservatives" believe we should stick to the old Powell Doctrine, and just avoid those long, messy wars with less than glamorous victory conditions:
Gentile understands this. Implicit in his critique of Nagl is a
critique of the Bush administration, for which John Nagl serves as a
proxy. Gentile’s objection to what he calls Nagl’s “breathtaking”
assumption about “the efficacy of American military power to shape
events” expresses a larger dissatisfaction with similar assumptions
held by the senior officials who concocted the Iraq War in the first
place. When Gentile charges Nagl with believing that there are “no
limits to what American military power … can accomplish,” his real
gripe is with the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul
And here's where Bacevich's simple distinction between crusaders and conservatives proves to be oversimplified. In reality, there are at least three categories of opinion about wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq:
Big crusaders, who see "the Long War" as a single overarching conflict, or a set of intertwined wars that need to be addressed in some common fashion. Big crusaders invent terms like GWOT to describe their belief system.
Little crusaders, who think that some of these wars are worth fighting, but there's no bigger meta-conflict at work. A little crusader might think that the war in Afghanistan or Iraq is winnable, but there's no "vast military enterprise undertaken on a global scale and likely to last decades" that we're compelled to fight.
Conservatives, who want to push these little wars, low-intensity conflicts, or whatever the term du jour is, down the list of priorities. Whether we're not capable of doing a good job at fighting these wars, or the costs outweight the benefits, they're just not worth re-engineering the US defense apparatus to fight them.
You might slice the philosophical or doctrinal distinctions even more finely, but you get the point. I'd classify myself as a little crusader, who believes passionately in taking these conflicts seriously. Creating some bigger story arc, however, isn't necessary to justify the changes needed to fight these conflicts better.
In fact, the story arc of "big crusaders" creates dangerous misconceptions about connections that don't really exist. Back in the 1980s, people spoke about "global terror networks" as if SMERSH or SPECTRE were running the show behind the scenes. However, revolutionary groups that use similar methods don't necessarily belong to some larger network. (And, in fact, revolutionaries in the same country, using roughly the same methods, often compete with each other.) The occasional collaboration among them, such as sharing technical information about bomb-making or psychological warfare, is also not evidence of some greater network that only a "Long War" can ultimately defeat.
Therefore, we're not just arguing semantics here. The notion that, if you're not a "conservative," you are thick as thieves with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, is just ludicrous.
I hate the vast majority of movies about the Vietnam War, since they largely overlook the Vietnamese. Regardless of the movie's point of view--from the virulent anti-communism of The Green Berets, to the "My God we were screwed up" message of Platoon--the camera is always focused on Americans. Americans, as played by John Wayne and Willem Dafoe, fought the war. Americans argued over the right way to fight the war, or even to fight it at all. And, of course, whether we're talking about hapless hippies or sadistic sergeants, Americans screwed up the war.
Obviously, the Vietnamese themselves are missing from this picture. Therefore, we shouldn't be surprised at how little the average American knows about the anti-colonial movement that started before WWII, the Japanese occupation of Indochina during WWII, the First Indochina War, or what happened in the war between North and South Vietnam after the US withdrew its last combat forces. As far as American popular culture is concerned, the Vietnam War started with the first battles in the Ia Drang valley, and ended with a helicopter escaping the roof of the US embassy in Saigon.
And, even while the US was vigorously fighting the Vietnam War, the real story was America Agonistes. No Vietnamese are needed to tell that story, just the right cast of American characters.
So, my fellow Americans, let's not make this mistake all over again. As Edward Luttwak pointed out, war is not an engineering problem, in which the only thing that matters is the skill of the operators, and the amount of resources at their disposal. Not only is there an enemy (or enemies), but also, in counterinsurgency especially, a lot of people who are not fighting for any side, who nonetheless play a critical role in the story.
Treat with skepticism every book you read about Iraq that does not give the Iraqis a prominent part. Get irritated at journalists who tell us only about what the Americans are doing in Iraq. Demand from our newly-elected officials a definition of victory in terms that describe both Americans and Iraqis. We've hogged the camera long enough--let's share it with the Iraqis. And not just one stock character, who may happen to be a refugee, shopkeeper, sheik, or insurgent, who's somehow supposed to stand in for the mortifying complexity of an entire nation.
Now that the election is behind us, how will the discussion of Iraq change? Here's my guess:
Without Bush and his advisers running the show, many people will be ready to hear more about what's happening in Iraq, not in Washington. To put it less politely, without a President who still seems to think that you win a counterinsurgency war by killing every insurgent, until none of them are left, many Americans will be less worried about how the man in the Oval Office is screwing up the prosecution of the war.
For those who have lost track of what's happening in Iraq, the current reality may come as a bit of a surprise. Things have changed. The Iraqi military and police now have functioning units. Running battles like the siege of Fallujah are no longer the norm. Violence is still a daily fact of life, but it has mutated into a different form. Whether or not the status quo constitutes victory, or is pointing in the direction of victory, is beyond the scope of this small post.
The Iraq drama will feature a new cast. The new reality of Iraq begs an important question: which Americans have been most important in contributing to these changes? The answer largely lies below the level of people who give White House or Pentagon briefings. Instead, the center of Iraq strategy has shifted to the middle levels of military and civilian organizations, more along the lines that Bing West describes in The Strongest Tribe, or many contributors to the Small Wars Journal or Parameters have described.
Reflexive mockery will become less prevalent. I'm not sure if many bloggers are quite ready for this cultural shift. What will it be like to write about America's wars, without the immediate assumption that the people in charge are incompetent?
Attention to Iraq may be hard to sustain. The new Iraq narrative is likely to be filled with strategy and policy details. Are the current measures of success at counterinsurgency accurate? How much leverage does the United States still have over Iraqi factions? Will the final shape of Iraqi politics be more of a balance of power among sectarian and tribal forces, or will stronger, independent state institutions emerge from the turbulent waters of factional struggle? Not everyone has the patience or interest in these details. Unfortunately, you can't say much about the Iraq war without diving into the details.
To the extent that everyone, regardless of their political affiliation or opinion of the war, can move to a more pragmatic discussion of the Iraq war, which is the real theme of this new narrative, I say, Hallelujah!
The Obama Administration will likely not pursue cases as vigorously as its predecessor. For example, by choosing not to contest federal court rulings, such as the recent one concerning the treatment of the Uighur prisoners, Guantanamo will begin to depopulate. In other situations where the Bush DOJ contested decisions, an Obama DOJ is less likely to make the same legal challenges.
The DOJ is likely to be one of the main targets of the Obama team's planned "personnel review." If you're working for the DOJ, and you're a graduate of Patrick Henry University, you might want to polish up your resume.
The only thing that might make this situation better is the comic spectacle of some who supported for the bogus "unitary executive" theory now arguing against Obama's presidential discretion in handling these cases. Don't discount the possibility.
I'll be back to posting serious stuff later today, but in the meantime, here's a video for your enjoyment, if you're already nostalgic for the campaign season. The clip is good enough to violate my "I'm so goddamn sick of Star Wars" rule to post it.
Kenneth Payne's recent article in Parameters, "Waging Communication War," raises one of the critical questions around counterinsurgency: How does the political action part work, exactly?
Payne can't possibly answer the question fully in a short article. However, it's important to recognize how little guidance most statements of counterinsurgency doctrine provide. For example:
Everyone can agree that it's important to understand the population of people whom you're trying to win away from the insurgents. But what constitutes a convincing argument for supporting the government over the guerrillas?
Where do you begin, with the local elites or average people?
Are you trying to win the population's support or acquiescence?
How do you know you've succeeded? And how lasting is that success?
And so on. For the lieutenant or captain stepping into the job of counterinsurgency, even the best books on the subject have surprisingly little to say that provides specific guidance. Just saying that, "Every country is different," is even worse. Surely there's some practical guidance that someone can provide.
Some of the more recent training developed in the US Army and Marines is helpful on this score. I'd also like to offer another source of advice, something that Payne alludes to but only begins to explore, contemporary theories about marketing.
Now, before you roll your eyes, let me just say that the kind of advice I'm talking about goes beyond what people often think of, when they hear marketing. Slick advertising executives of the sort you see on Mad Men need not apply. Instead, there are some very down-to-earth ideas about how businesses and consumers make economic decisions that have some relevance in the counterinsurgency biz. I'll sketch out a few of them in some upcoming posts.
I've spent a good part of the last couple of days pondering the question, "What did Bing West really mean in denouncing Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone piece?" Yesterday, I jumped into the question that West (pictured to the right) raised of whether a journalist should be traveling with the enemy. (Short answer: Press coverage of the other side is essential. Being in a situation where you might be complicit in the killing of Americans is not defensible.)
Today, let's look into West's accusations of failed leadership:
Most disturbing was the lack of outrage to Rosen’s sojourn by the
administration, the military, the civilian appointees and the
politicians. Secretary of Defense Gates
is a cool, detached official who reacts to events. He does not plot a
course into the future. He does not project a determination or a vision
about how to succeed in Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Mullen,
calls for a strategic review – after six years of fighting! - laments
that “we cannot kill our way to victory”, a vacuous absolution that
transfers responsibility for failure to others. Why increase from
32,000 to 50,000 US troops, whose basic training is as riflemen, if the
application of force – killing - is not the objective? A policeman
protects the population by arresting criminals; a soldier protects the
population by shooting the enemy soldier. Our military succeeds in
confusing us all by reverting to Rodney King's plaint that we should
all just get along.
When our leaders lack moral clarity and courage, then agnosticism
about our mission in Afghanistan is understandable. Rosen’s conduct is
not the problem; he was taking advantage of American moral lassitude.
Our leaders don’t stand up for the righteousness of our cause. Why not
hang out with the Taliban, if America’s leaders see nothing wrong with
This passage inspired some equally strong responses from other bloggers. Here's our first rebuttal, from Spencer Ackerman:
Recognizing the basic strategic fact that not all problems have a
military solution indicates that Bob Gates and Mike Mullen and David
Petraeus means "transfer[ing] responsibility for failure to others."
Could this myopia be any more self-refuting? I take back what I said about not reading West's new book, because I can't wait to see how The Strongest Tribe explains away the obvious failures of the killing-our-way-to-victory strategy in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.
Abu Muqawama had even more to say in defense of the senior leadership at the Pentagon:
Aside from accusing the Department of Defense -- en masse --
of lacking "commitment and passion in the cause," West also accuses
Sec. Gates and Adm. Mullen of lacking "moral clarity and courage." If
you're Sec. Gates -- getting your teeth kicked in on a daily basis
while trying to fight two wars and keep a military from falling apart
-- how much patience would you have for Bing West's opinion right about
While the paragraphs I've quoted above are not West's best written work, I think it's pretty clear what he's arguing:
At the level of the Secretary of Defense and the JCS Chairman, there has not been a clear strategy for Afghanistan. Gates is reactive. The strategic review should have happened a long time ago.
If we can't "kill our way to victory," what's the point of sending more American troops? I'm reading that section of West's blog post a lot differently than ackerman and Muqawama. West is hardly a babe in the woods about counterinsurgency. He knows that sending soldiers "whose basic training is as riflemen" is not necessarily going to help. They're not trained to be policemen, or civilian reconstruction professionals, or intelligence analysts. The NATO mission in Afghanistan needs to increase all these skills, not just blindly send more soldiers whose training is limited to shooting the enemy. West is arguing against a simple-minded "surge for Afghanistan," when something else is needed--which undoubtedly includes more people who also know how to kill.
People who don't have a clear strategic vision leave the moral playing field wide open. If there's no clear picture of what people should do to create particular outcomes--political, military, and moral--there are no grounds for saying that someone, like a journalist traveling with the Taliban, is doing something wrong.
I don't agree with everything West says. For example, the phrase "American moral lassitude" is a bit too broad for what otherwise sounds like a criticism of the top military and civilian leadership (much like Dereliction of Duty accuses the top brass of failures in the Vietnam War). I also don't think that the US government needed to respond officially to Rosen's article at all.
On the other points, however, I think the critics both misread what West was saying, and in some ways, were definitely wrong themselves. It's specious for Ackerman to accuse West of being against a free press--a little weird, since West is a journalist himself. (And someone who has had some pretty acid things to say about the senior leadership already, in his book on Iraq, No True Glory.) And who cares if Muqawama is right that Gates gets his "teeth kicked in on a daily basis while trying to fight two wars" if he can't clarify what the strategy for the Afghanistan war really is?
West's post does have its faults. On the "how do journalists cover the other side" question, his answer leaves almost no room for a Rosen to do his job. (Robert Farley's rebuttal is still the best I've read on this question.) But on the leadership issue he has a much stronger argument.
The author, Nir Rosen, traveled with Taliban fighters to a meeting with a Taliban commander. While Rosen doesn't actually witness the Taliban fighting US, Afghan, or NATO troops, he very well could have--and in fact, set out with the intent of observing a Taliban attack, if the opportunity presented itself:
They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in
action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks, adjudicating
disputes and providing security against bandits and police.
Some bloggers, including Bing West, took exception with what Rosen did--loud, angry exception. And I largely agree with them.
During war, public information about the other side is critical. Citizens cannot judge the wisdom or stupidity of the war without knowing something about the adversary. Whether the reality of the enemy is better or worse than the caricature that emerges out of ignoramce, the important thing is, the caricature is wrong. It does not tell you what it's really going to take to defeat the adversary. Debates over the war then inevitably collapse into disagreements over the military actions we pursue, with practically no reference to the people who are their target, or the effect these operations have. Ultimately, this kind of one-sided discussion is not really about war at all, but some kind of fictional military engineering problem.
In fewer words, then, it's just important to recognize the importance of getting information about our adversaries. There's no question that, not only is that an important service that journalists can provide, but it's arguably their duty.
The real question, though, is how they go about that task. Interviewing a Taliban commander isn't wrong. Agreeing to accompany Taliban fighters during a mission to kill Afghan or Western soldiers is.
Instead of spilling a lot of my own words about this topic, I urge you to watch the second part of the "Under Orders, Under Fire" episode of Ethics In America. Both this series and The Constitution: A Delicate Balance were filmed in the 1980s. Prepare to be surprised by whom you'll see in these excellent discussions, what they say, and how well they say it.
After starting "Under Orders, Under Fire," you should first listen to the brief but illuminating discussion about torture in war. Then go to the second part, in which the panel wrestles with the problem of an American journalist traveling with enemy soldiers, just as Rosen did. The real kicker comes when a Marine colonel makes the rhetorical question: what happens when American soldiers are in a position to save endangered journalist?
If that doesn't paint a clear enough picture for you, watch this short video of a British journalist and British soldiers caught in a Taliban ambush. Next, imagine yourself as a journalist on the other side of this firefight. If you didn't have doubts whether you should be there...Well, you're a cold-hearted bastard, at the very least.
Bing West goes a little farther than necessary to make his point. Comparing the Taliban (whom I am not defending) to the Waffen SS just gives critics the opportunity to give less weight to the important part of his argument. You don't need "American moral lassitude" to explain one journalist who displayed faulty judgment.
I strongly recommend reading Robert Farley's analysis, which makes many excellent points that I don't need to repeat here. However, I'll make one last observation of my own. Rosen's article just isn't very good. He leaps to broad conclusions about the Taliban from encounters with a small group of them. Not only does that leave him open to the compound fallacy, but it's not impossible to imagine that some of the softer, nicer elements of Taliban life were staged for his benefit.
Even if you take everything he sees at face value, the narrative of the story is, "My wild, dangerous trip to see an ornery Taliban commander." His experience may add to our understanding of the war in Afghanistan, but it's too small for the general conclusions about the war that Rosen wants to make.