Sunday, October 28, 2007

Weekend Update

The Economist this week on counterinsurgency: leader and brief.

"A True Culture War," Richard Shweder, The New York Times op-ed, Oct. 27

"'I Don't Think This Place Is Worth Another Soldier's Life'," The Washington Post, Oct. 27 (profile of 1-18 IN, 2d BCT, 1 ID)

"A Self-Defeating Hegemony," Francis Fukuyama,, Oct. 26

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Good Reads

"COIN of the Realm" by Colin Kahl, Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2007

"Secretary Gates declares war on the Army brass" by Fred Kaplan,, Oct. 12, 2007

JCS Chairman Mullen visits Sill, Leavenworth and Riley:
NY Times
Phil Carter's Intel Dump - Discussion

"Remember Iraq" Tom Friedman, NY Times, Oct. 24, 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekend Round-up

A couple noteworthy articles from this weekend:

"At an Army School for Officers, Blunt Talk About Iraq," Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2007

"The Dignity Agenda," David Ignatius, The Washington Post, Oct. 14, 2007

Video - The Charlie Rose Show: An Hour with David Kilcullen, Oct. 8, 2007

"Navy SEAL to receive Medal of Honor," The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 12, 2007

Friday, October 12, 2007

Turning on the Mahdi Army

(Hat tip, SWJ blog)

The New York Times lead story today:

BAGHDAD, Oct. 11 — In a number of Shiite neighborhoods across Baghdad, residents are beginning to turn away from the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia they once saw as their only protector against Sunni militants. Now they resent it as a band of street thugs without ideology.

The hardening Shiite feeling in Baghdad opens an opportunity for the American military, which has long struggled against the Mahdi Army, as American commanders rely increasingly on tribes and local leaders in their prosecution of the war.

The sectarian landscape has shifted, with Sunni extremists largely defeated in many Shiite neighborhoods, and the war in those places has sunk into a criminality that is often blind to sect.

In interviews, 10 Shiites from four neighborhoods in eastern and western Baghdad described a pattern in which militia members, looking for new sources of income, turned on Shiites.

The pattern appears less frequently in neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shiites are still struggling for territory. Sadr City, the largest Shiite neighborhood, where the Mahdi Army’s face is more political than military, has largely escaped the wave of criminality.

While the Mahdi militia still controls most Shiite neighborhoods, early evidence that Shiites are starting to oppose some parts of the militia is surfacing on American bases. Shiite sheiks, the militia’s traditional base, are beginning to contact Americans, much as Sunni tribes reached out early this year, refocusing one entire front of the war, officials said, and the number of accurate tips flowing into American bases has soared.

Shiites are “participating like they never have before,” said Maj. Mark Brady, of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad Reconciliation and Engagement Cell, which works with tribes.

“Something has got to be not right if they are going to risk calling a tips hot line or approaching a J.S.S.,” he said, referring to the Joint Security Stations, the American neighborhood mini-bases set up after the troop increase this year.

“Everything is changing,” said Ali, a businessman in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Ur, in eastern Baghdad, who, like most of those interviewed, did not want his full name used for fear of being attacked. “Now in our area for the first time everyone say, ‘To hell with Mahdi Army.’

“Not loudly on the street, but between friends, between families. Every man, every woman, say that.”

The street militia of today bears little resemblance to the Mahdi Army of 2004, when Shiites following a cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, battled American soldiers in a burst of Shiite self-assertion. Then, fighters doubled as neighborhood helpers, bringing cooking gas and other necessities to needy families.

Now, three years later, many members have left violence behind, taking jobs in local and national government, while others have plunged into crime, dealing in cars and houses taken from dead or displaced victims of both sects.

Gertrude Bell: The Queen of the Quagmire

In The New York Review of Books, Rory Stewart, who served as a Coalition Deputy Governor in two southern provinces in Iraq, reviews a handful of new books on Gertrude Bell, the influential administrator during the creation of Iraq in the 1920s.

Stewart concludes:

"Some suggest today that the US failure in Iraq is due simply to lack of planning; to specific policy errors— debaathification, looting, the abolition of the army, and lack of troops; and to the absence of a trained cadre of Arabists and professional nation-builders. They should consider Bell and her colleagues, such as Colonel Leachman or Bertram Thomas, a political officer on the Euphrates. All three were fluent and highly experienced Arabists, won medals from the Royal Geographical Society for their Arabian journeys, and were greatly admired for their political work. Thomas was driven from his office in Shatra by a tribal mob. Colonel Leachman, who was famed for being able to kill a tribesman dead in his own tent without a hand lifted against him, was shot in the back in Fallujah. Bell's defeat was slower but more comprehensive. Of the kingdom she created, with its Sunni monarch and Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish subjects, there is today no king, no Sunni government, and something close to civil war. Perhaps soon there will be no country.

"Bell is thus both the model of a policymaker and an example of the inescapable frailty and ineptitude on the part of Western powers in the face of all that is chaotic and uncertain in the fashion for "nation-building." Despite the prejudices of her culture and the contortions of her bureaucratic environment, she was highly intelligent, articulate, and courageous. Her colleagues were talented, creative, well informed, and determined to succeed. They had an imperial confidence. They were not unduly constrained by the press or by their own bureaucracies. They were dealing with a simpler Iraq: a smaller, more rural population at a time when Arab national-ism and political Islam were yet to develop their modern strength and appeal.

"But their task was still impossible. Iraqis refused to permit foreign political officers to play at founding their new nation. T.E. Lawrence was right to demand the withdrawal of every British soldier and no stronger link between Britain and Iraq than existed between Britain and Canada. For the same reason, more language training and contact with the tribes, more troops and better counterinsurgency tactics—in short a more considered imperial approach—are equally unlikely to allow the US today to build a state in Iraq, in southern Afghanistan, or Iran. If Bell is a heroine, it is not as a visionary but as a witness to the absurdity and horror of building nations for peoples with other loyalties, models, and priorities."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

SecDef Gates at AUSA

A couple notable excerpts from his speech (emphasis mine):

It strikes me that one of the principal challenges the Army faces is to regain its traditional edge at fighting conventional wars while retaining what it has learned – and relearned – about unconventional wars – the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead.

One of my favorite sayings is that “experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.”

In the years following the Vietnam War, the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine, and budget priorities. Consider that in 1985 the core curriculum for the Army’s 10-month Command and General Staff College assigned 30 hours – about four days – for what was is now called low intensity conflict. This was about the same as what the Air Force was teaching at its staff college at the time.

This approach may have seemed validated by ultimate victory in the Cold War and the triumph of Desert Storm. But it left the service unprepared to deal with the operations that followed: Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq – the consequences and costs of which we are still struggling with today.

The work that has been done to adapt since has been impressive – if not nearly miraculous. Just one example is the transformation of places like the National Training Center, where, as one officer put it, the Army has “cut out a piece of Iraq and dropped it into Southern California,” replete with a dozen villages and hundreds of Arab Americans employed as role players. The publication of the counterinsurgency manual is another milestone, and is being validated by the progress we’ve seen in Iraq over the past few months. This work and these lessons in irregular warfare need to be retained and institutionalized, and should not be allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine.

Put simply, our enemies and potential adversaries – including nation states – have gone to school on us. They saw what America’s technology and firepower did to Saddam’s army in 1991 and again in 2003, and they’ve seen what IEDs are doing to the American military today. It is hard to conceive of any country challenging the United States directly on the ground – at least for some years to come.

Indeed, history shows us that smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos. As one officer recently told the Washington Post, “the toys and trappings have changed,” but the fundamentals have not.

We can expect that asymmetric warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature, and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior – of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.

One of the challenges facing the Army will be how to incorporate the latest in technology without losing sight of the human and cultural dimensions of the irregular battlefield. For example, we have spent billions on tools and tactics to protect against IEDs. Yet, even now, the best way to defeat these weapons – indeed the only way to defeat them over the long run – is to get tips from locals about the networks and the emplacements or, even better, to convince and empower the Iraqis to prevent the terrorists from emplacing them in the first place.

In addition, arguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries. The standing up and mentoring of indigenous armies and police – once the province of Special Forces – is now a key mission for the military as a whole. How the Army should be organized and prepared for this advisory role remains an open question, and will require innovative and forward thinking.

The same is true for mastering foreign language – a particular interest of mine – and building expertise in foreign areas. And until our government decides to plus up our civilian agencies like the Agency for International Development, Army soldiers can expect to be tasked with reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure, and promoting good governance. All these so-called “nontraditional” capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and strategy – where they must stay.

Finally, there is a generation of junior and mid level officers and NCOs who have been tested in battle like none other in decades. They have seen the complex, grueling face of war in the 21st century up close. They’ve lost friends and comrades. Some have been deployed multiple times and want to have a semblance of a normal life – get married, start a family, continue their schooling.

These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced to the point that they can use their experience to shape the institution to which they have given so much. And this may mean reexamining assignments and promotion policies that in many cases are unchanged since the Cold War.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

LT Mark Daily

Read his story by Christopher Hitchens.

Update: Daily's MySpace page is here.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Catching Up

A couple articles worth reading:

LTC Gian Gentile, "Eating soup with a spoon," Armed Forces Journal, Sept. 2007 (subsequent discussion at the Small Wars Council here).

Andrew Bacevich, "Sycophant Savior," The American Conservative, Oct. 8, 2007

George Packer, "Planning for Defeat," The New Yorker, Sept. 17, 2007

Rick Atkinson, "Left of Boom: The Struggle to Defeat Roadside Bombs," The Washington Post online

David Rohde, "Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones," The New York Times, Oct. 5, 2007

Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb, "Federalism, Not Partition," The Washington Post, Oct. 3, 2007

Robert Kaplan, "Modern Heroes," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 2007