Small Wars Journal

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SWJ Blog is a multi-author blog publishing news and commentary on the various goings on across the broad community of practice.  We gladly accept guest posts from serious voices in the community.

by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/08/2009 - 6:40am | 22 comments
The Next Surge: Counterbureaucracy - Jonathan J. Vaccaro, New York Times opinion.

The Taliban commander was back in the village. Our base roared to life as we prepared to capture him. Two Chinook helicopters spun their blades in anticipation in the dark. Fifty Afghan commandos brooded outside, pacing in the gravel. I was nearby, yelling into a phone: "Who else do we need approvals from? Another colonel? Why?" A villager had come in that afternoon to tell us that a Taliban commander known for his deployment of suicide bombers was threatening the elders. The villager had come to my unit, a detachment of the United States Army stationed in eastern Afghanistan, for help. Mindful of orders to protect the civilian population, we developed a plan with the Afghan commandos to arrest the Taliban commander that evening before he moved back into Pakistan. While the troops prepared, I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan. Some couldn't be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed.

The cellphone in the corner rang. "Where are you?" the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said. At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals. Intelligence arrived indicating that the Taliban commander had moved on. The villagers were incredulous. This incident is typical of what I saw during my six-month tour in Afghanistan this year. We were paralyzed by red tape, beaten by our own team. Our answer to Afghans seeking help was: "I can't come today or tomorrow, but maybe next week. I have several bosses that I need to ask for permission." ...

More at The New York Times.

by SWJ Editors | Sun, 12/06/2009 - 11:57am | 11 comments
How to Win in Afghanistan, One Village at a Time - Doug Stanton, Washington Post opinion.

In mid-October and early November 2001, about three dozen Army Special Forces soldiers landed in northern Afghanistan and, with the help of a handful of CIA officers, quickly routed a Taliban army whose estimated size ranged from 25,000 to 50,000 fighters. Allied with Afghan fighters, this incredibly small number of first-in soldiers achieved in about eight weeks what the Pentagon had thought would take two years. For the first time in US history, Army Special Forces were deployed as the lead element in a war. And then, just as quickly, the Americans went home, pulled away to fight in Iraq in 2003. The Taliban soldiers filled the emerging power vacuum, and you pretty much know the rest of the story: Gen. Stanley McChrystal's dire August report on deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, and President Obama's speech Tuesday announcing an influx of 30,000 additional American troops - needed, the president said, because "the Taliban has gained momentum."

Obama's stated purposes - to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al-Qaeda, and to train an Afghan army and police force capable of providing for the nation's security - are sensible and even noble. Accomplishing them will go a ways toward creating a more stable country. But his new strategy is not enough, and it may prove a mistaken effort to replicate an Iraq-like approach in a situation that is vastly different. In Afghanistan, we are not facing a broad insurgency with popular grass-roots support. Estimates of Taliban strength run anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 fighters, and only a small portion of the Afghan population supports the Taliban, perhaps 5 percent to 10 percent (polls are sketchy). Yet it is unclear whether Obama's plan is anything more than Iraq-lite, a counterinsurgency approach focused on building up local forces...

More at The Washington Post.

by SWJ Editors | Sun, 12/06/2009 - 7:42am | 5 comments
Obama's COIN Toss - Eliot A. Cohen, Washington Post opinion.

It is impolite, but probably true, to say that when President Obama announced in March that he had a "comprehensive, new strategy" for victory in Afghanistan, he had no precise idea what he was talking about. In Washington parlance, the word "strategy" usually means "to-do list" or at best "action plan." As for "comprehensive" and "new," they usually mean merely "better than whatever my predecessors did." So now, even after his speech Tuesday night at West Point, does the president really have a strategy for the Afghan war? What is a strategy anyway, in a war without fronts, one that might drag on for decades and that shades off into banditry at one end and terrorism at another?

Strategy is the art of choice that binds means with objectives. It is the highest level of thinking about war, and it involves priorities (we will devote resources here, even if that means starving operations there), sequencing (we will do this first, then that) and a theory of victory (we will succeed for the following reasons). That is the job of wartime presidents; it's why they have the title commander in chief. Obama set out his objectives for Afghanistan, focused on thwarting al-Qaeda, and enumerated some of the means, chiefly a 30,000-troop, 18-month surge. But what about the hard part: setting priorities, establishing a sequencing and laying out a theory of victory? ...

More at The Washington Post.

by SWJ Editors | Sat, 12/05/2009 - 5:18pm | 0 comments
Like clockwork, Jules Crittenden highlights the important "stuff" -- see Hammer, Meet Anvil -- for the latest on Cobra's Anger.

... It's the first operation post-surge announcement, though obviously the deployment and planning long preceded that. You'll note that this operation is called "Cobra's Anger," not "Make Friends And Influence People." While making friends with the Afghans is an important part of counterinsurgency, influencing them has to include convincingly reducing or eliminating the Taliban's ability to make their lives difficult, while also influencing the softer elements of the Taliban to consider a friendlier course. Look forward to more squeeze plays of this sort coming on quick, as McChrystal and the soldiers and Marines under him work their way down their clear-and-hold list...

More at Forward Movement.

by SWJ Editors | Sat, 12/05/2009 - 7:34am | 0 comments
Marines Lead Offensive to Secure Southern Afghan Town - Richard A. Oppel Jr., New York Times. In the first major military operation since President Obama's call this week for a troop escalation, about 1,000 United States Marines and Afghan and British forces swept into a rugged valley in southern Afghanistan in an effort to finally secure what was once a bustling village but what years of fighting have turned into a ghost town. Yet the offensive in the village of Now Zad in Helmand Province could prove a harbinger of a wider and more significant effort in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold whose huge opium crop provides a large portion of the insurgency's financing. After a 10,000-strong Marine brigade began operations throughout Helmand this summer, commanders found that they had enough American and Afghan troops to take control of only limited areas. In many places Taliban fighters simply pulled back to safe havens, undermining the largest Marine operation since the 2004 invasion of Falluja, Iraq. Now, commanders are preparing to assault Taliban sanctuaries in Helmand, relying on an American force in the province that is expected to nearly double next year as part of Mr. Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Marines Launch Offensive in Taliban Stronghold - Alfred de Montesquiou, Associated Press. US Marines swooped down behind Taliban lines in helicopters and Osprey aircraft Friday in the first offensive since President Obama announced an American troop surge. About 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan troops were taking part in "Operation Cobra's Anger" in a bid to disrupt Taliban supply and communications lines in the Now Zad Valley of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, the scene of heavy fighting last summer, according to Marine spokesman Maj. William Pelletier. Hundreds of troops from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and the Marine reconnaissance unit Task Force Raider dropped by helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft in the northern end of the valley while a second, larger Marine force pushed northward from the main Marine base in the town of Now Zad, Maj. Pelletier said. A US military official in Washington said it was the first use of Ospreys, aircraft that combine features of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, in an offensive involving units larger than platoons. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to detail the operation, said that Ospreys have previously been used for intelligence and patrol operations.

Marines, Afghan Soldiers Attack Taliban Stronghold - Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times. Hundreds of US Marines and Afghan soldiers descended on a nearly empty city in southern Afghanistan on Friday to cut off supply routes for Taliban fighters who have taken refuge in the area. The troops want to starve out the insurgents holed up around Now Zad, which was once a vibrant city of 30,000 but now is a virtual ghost town because years of fighting. The assault in Helmand province, named Cobra's Anger, may prove to be a warmup for a larger, more complex and more dangerous assault on Marja, a town to which many Taliban fighters and narcotics middlemen fled after Marines descended on nearby villages this summer. In Now Zad, Marines had to contend with roadside bombs that Taliban militants buried in anticipation of the Americans' arrival. Even more such bombs are expected to await troops in Marja. "Marja is that last major sanctuary in Helmand province, the last place where the enemy has freedom of movement," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. "We're going to take that away from him." Nicholson compared the prospective battle in Marja to the fight in late 2004 to clear barricaded insurgents from the Iraqi city of Fallouja.

NATO, Afghan Troops Launch Major Offensive - Voice of America. The US military says more than 1,000 NATO troops, mostly from the United States, have launched a new offensive against a key Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Military officials say Afghan forces also are participating in the operation (known as "Cobra's Anger") in the Now Zad valley of Helmand province, which is aimed at clearing insurgents, and locating roadside bombs and other explosives. The provincial governor's spokesman (Daud Ahmadi) told reporters four Taliban militants were killed in fighting, and hundreds of landmines and explosives were seized Friday. Now Zad was once the second biggest town in Helmand, but is now nearly empty, after residents fled ongoing violence. Taliban forces now use the area to transport drugs, weapons and fighters. In an interview with the Associated Press, US Central Command Chief General David Petraeus said Friday the offensive lays the groundwork for the arrival of some 30,000 additional US troops, many of whom will be deployed in the south. General Petraeus says the military has been working for months to extend security around key towns in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban influence is strong.

US Marines Advance in Southern Afghanistan - Golnar Motevalli, Reuters. US Marines pressed into a remote Taliban stronghold on Saturday with their first major assault in Afghanistan since President Barack Obama earmarked 30,000 more troops to try to turn the tide on the Taliban insurgency. Operation "Cobra's Anger," which involves 900 US Marines and sailors, British troops and 150 Afghan soldiers and police, pushed into the Now Zad district of southern Helmand province, an insurgent stronghold depopulated after years of heavy fighting. The advancing Marines killed several militants and seized bombs and weapons in the first day of the operation, which begin with an airborne assault on Friday, said Major Bill Pelletier, spokesman for the Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand. "Among other things found yesterday evening ... two or three weapons caches and IED-making materials, mortars, small arms machine guns and light weapons were seized," he said. "The operation is continuing today in an area that had an enemy presence. We are going to disrupt that presence."

Marines Fire Opening Salvo to Retake Helmand - Bill Roggio, Long War Journal. US Marines backed by Afghan forces have launched the opening salvo in an operation designed to dislodge the Taliban from central and northern Helmand province. More than 900 US Marines, sailors and British troops, backed by 150 Afghan soldiers and police, have launched operation Cobra's Anger in the northern district of Now Zad, according to the US military. Tribal militias are also playing a role, a US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. US Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, and the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion air assaulted behind Taliban lines into the northern Now Zad Valley. Another force pushed northward from the city of Now Zad. The district of Now Zad is considered to be under the control of the Taliban. The city of Now Zad is largely deserted and has a company of Marines and Afghan forces facing off against a dug in Taliban force. Four Taliban fighters have been killed in Cobra's Anger, while US and Afghan troops have discovered more than 300 roadside bombs, The Associated Press reported. Marines put off the operation until they could confirm additional forces would be deployed to the province to capitalize on any potential gains. President Barack Obama settled on a surge of more than 30,000 US forces, of which 9,000 Marines are heading to Helmand. NATO is expected to send more than 7,000 additional troops.

by Robert Haddick | Fri, 12/04/2009 - 8:44pm | 6 comments
Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Obama hasn't told us how this ends

2) Will the QDR be DOA?

Obama hasn't told us how this ends

During his Dec. 1 speech on Afghanistan, President Barack Obama promised to begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces from the country in July 2011. What condition does he expect Afghanistan to be in at that time? Or in 2012 when he will presumably be campaigning for a second term? U.S. officials seem to anticipate a chaotic backdrop to the pullout of U.S. forces. Indeed, parts of Obama's plan promote improvised -- and likely messy -- governance solutions in Afghanistan. In 2012, Obama may find it difficult to explain why Afghan chaos should be considered a policy success.

Obama's speech, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's testimony the next day to the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered only a vague description of the future they expect. Obama discussed "handing over responsibility to Afghan forces" and providing support for "Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people." Gates made clear that, "This approach is not open-ended 'nation building.' It is neither necessary nor feasible to create a modern, centralized, Western-style Afghan nation-state -- the likes of which has never been seen in that country." Gates also recommended "achieving a better balance between national and local forces" and "engaging communities to enlist more local security forces to protect their own territory."

Based on Obama's and Gates's remarks it appears that the U.S. government is giving up on the goal of building a strong central government in Kabul. Obama seems to be encouraging U.S. officials to bypass President Hamid Karzai and his circle, along with those ministries in Kabul that U.S. officials deem to be corrupt or ineffective, when they find other leaders in Afghanistan who can do a better job delivering for the Afghan people and for U.S. interests. Under this vision, U.S. officials will empower an opportunistic mix of tribal, local, provincial, and some central government actors to provide for Afghan governance and security.

It is not hard to see why the United States wants to shift to this approach.

Click through to read more ...

by SWJ Editors | Fri, 12/04/2009 - 6:16am | 0 comments
A Plan in Need of Clarity - Jim Webb, Washington Post opinion.

I have great regard for the careful process the Obama administration employed in its efforts to define a new approach for the long-standing military commitment in Afghanistan and to put an operational framework in place for our responsible withdrawal. I intend, nevertheless, to continue to call on the administration to clarify to the American public and Congress how it defines success and how we reach an end point. Since early 2009, I have said repeatedly that the US strategy for Afghanistan must proceed based on four considerations: (1) the fragility of the Afghan government; (2) whether building a national army of considerable scale is achievable; (3) whether an increased US military presence will ultimately have a positive effect in the country, or whether we will be seen as an occupying force; and (4) the linkage of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the coming weeks I intend to examine the administration's plan to see how it addresses these criteria and how it will affect our troops.

Since the president's address Tuesday, there has been much discussion of the date that the United States will begin to draw down military forces and transfer security responsibility. Just as important is a focus on creating the conditions to enable this transfer of responsibility. The administration has not defined them with sufficient clarity. Our strategy is sound only if framed with clearly defined and attainable goals, an understandable end point and a regional perspective. We must also avoid the inherent risks of allowing our success in Afghanistan to be defined by events that are largely beyond our control...

More at The Washington Post.

Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he is chairman of the subcommittee on personnel. He served in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 10:22pm | 6 comments
Our Low-risk, Low-return Afghan Surge - Rodger Shanahan, The Interpreter.

... Advisors who never get to interact with the locals outside the security of coalition bases are severely restricted in both the situational awareness that will inform good decision-making, and in their ability to manage projects. If advisors are not out among the population, it is fair to question the quality of advice they can provide to locals and to their superiors back home. The Government's announcement that our contribution to the US-led 'surge' would be additional police trainers is likely to replicate this risk-averse approach. So I don't share Mark O'Neill's view that the announcement was 'sound policy'.

Sound politics, for sure, but sound policy? Just as advisers who cannot go outside the wire are constrained in the quality of the advice they give and receive, police officers who train but cannot mentor will produce sub-optimal results. This is not to criticise the efforts that the police trainers will put in. Rather, the issue is that training without mentoring produces good objective data (numbers of police trained) but no subjective data (how do they perform once they leave the base?). There is little point in training police inside a base and then releasing them into their own cultural environment with the attendant familial, ethnic, financial and cultural pressures and expect them to become bastions of probity and respected members of the community. When the security environment is deemed too risky for the trainers to accompany the Afghan police officers on their task, it doesn't send a great message to the trainees...

More at The Interpreter.

Dr. Rodger Shanahan was the Chief of Army Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and is now a non-resident Fellow at the Institute. The Interpreter is the blog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent international policy think tank.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 9:19pm | 0 comments
How Obama's Surge Is Like Bush's - Steven Metz, The New Republic.

President Obama's revised strategy for Afghanistan has already been pinned with the "surge" moniker, inevitably leading to comparisons with the 2007 "surge" in Iraq. Certainly there are similarities. Both were part of America's global conflict with al Qaeda. Both revisions were compelled by a deteriorating security situation. In neither case was there a reason to believe that if the United States continued on its chosen track, the insurgents linked to al Qaeda would break ranks to join the masses of peace-seeking individuals. And both strategic revisions had dual purposes.

One purpose was to revive flagging domestic support for involvement in the conflicts. America was and is tired of its costly, frustrating wars. To re-inspire the nation, both President Bush and President Obama painted a picture of a direct threat. Bush asserted that if the radicals took over Iraq, then they would attack us "here." Obama asserted that without an increased American effort, the Taliban will regain control of Afghanistan and again give al Qaeda sanctuary to plot attacks on the United States. From that common point, though, the two presidents diverged. President Bush propped up domestic support by trumpeting "victory," playing on the deep American love for winning. President Obama, by contrast, tried to mollify the public's concerns by identifying a clear point at which he intends to begin scaling down US involvement in Afghanistan - the summer of 2011. Pain is always more tolerable when there is an end in sight...

More at The New Republic.

Dr. Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 1:19pm | 4 comments
Our New Afghanistan Deployment - Mark O'Neill, The Interpreter.

... An effective police force is an essential pre-requisite for stabilising a society affected by insurgency. The proper use of police by counterinsurgents offers security to the population, develops intelligence, and reinforces the appearance of normalcy that is crucial to emphasising the rule of law. Such an effect will be highly complementary to the Australian military effort in Oruzgan Province.

While working for the Counterinsurgency Center for Excellence in Iraq during 2007-2008, members of my team in Ramadi saw the impact a viable police force can have in counterinsurgency. The US Army and Marines stabilised what had previously been an insurgent stronghold. The work of the Marines was noteworthy in mentoring and developing the Iraqi Police into an effective force - a significant factor in the success of their efforts was the embedding of troops throughout the city's police stations and the delivery of training at those sites.

Unlike our American allies, Australia need not rely on its military to train indigenous police forces. The investment made in the development of the Australian Federal Police's International Deployment Group (IDG) over the last half decade has given Australia a unique capability among its principal allies with respect to deployable police...

More at The Interpreter.

Lieutenant Colonel Mark O'Neill was the Lowy Institute's inaugural Chief of Army Fellow. Mark is the author of 'Confronting the Hydra: Big problems with small wars', a Lowy Institute paper on counterinsurgency strategy. The Interpreter is the blog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent international policy think tank.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 6:29am | 1 comment
Despite Some Questions, Obama's Afghan Policy is Sound - Max Boot, Los Angeles Times opinion.

... The questions that remain unanswered after the president's West Point address: Will the troops have the time and resources needed to win? "Win" is a word that Obama avoided. He cited his long-standing goal of "disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies," but he spoke merely of his desire to "break the Taliban's momentum" rather than defeat it altogether. He spoke of wanting to "end this war successfully" but said nothing of winning the war. Nor did he endorse nation-building, even though the only way that Afghanistan will ever be secure is if we build a state capable of policing its own territory. He did say we "must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government," which sounds a bit like nation-building, but then he also promised that he would not make an open-ended troop commitment, "because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."

The most problematic part of Obama's policy is his pledge to begin a withdrawal in July 2011. Getting 30,000 troops into Afghanistan is a difficult logistical challenge. It will be a major achievement if all of them are in place by July 2010. That will give them only one year to reverse many years of Taliban gains before their own numbers start to dwindle. That may or may not be sufficient. The "surge" in Iraq had a big impact within a year, but the US had made a much bigger commitment to Iraq pre-surge than it has in Afghanistan. The good part of the deadline is that it presumably means we will be spared another agonizing White House review for at least another year. That's no small thing, given that Obama first unveiled an Afghan strategy on March 27, and less than six months later launched another drawn-out and very public reappraisal...

More at The Los Angeles Times.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 6:19am | 5 comments
Obama's Folly - Andrew J. Bacevich, Los Angeles Times opinion.

Which is the greater folly: To fancy that war offers an easy solution to vexing problems, or, knowing otherwise, to opt for war anyway? In the wake of 9/11, American statecraft emphasized the first approach: President George W. Bush embarked on a "global war" to eliminate violent jihadism. President Obama now seems intent on pursuing the second approach: Through military escalation in Afghanistan, he seeks to "finish the job" that Bush began there, then all but abandoned.

Through war, Bush set out to transform the greater Middle East. Despite immense expenditures of blood and treasure, that effort failed. In choosing Obama rather than John McCain to succeed Bush, the American people acknowledged that failure as definitive. Obama's election was to mark a new beginning, an opportunity to "reset" America's approach to the world. The president's chosen course of action for Afghanistan suggests he may well squander that opportunity. Rather than renouncing Bush's legacy, Obama apparently aims to salvage something of value. In Afghanistan, he will expend yet more blood and more treasure hoping to attenuate or at least paper over the wreckage left over from the Bush era...

More at The Los Angeles Times.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 6:09am | 2 comments
A Wartime President - Eliot A. Cohen, Wall Street Journal opinion.

When it comes to President Barack Obama's long-awaited decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, there are three main points to consider: the decision itself, the manner in which he made it, and the way in which he sold it. He could not, in the end, have decided on a very different course of action. Having replaced the previous commander in Afghanistan with one of the outstanding soldiers of this generation, how could he deny Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for some 40,000 troops? To do so would tell the world that Mr. Obama had no confidence in his new commander, a tried veteran of our post 9/11 wars.

However, the White House's decision to send only 30,000 troops, while calling upon our allies for thousands more - perhaps as many as 10,000 - makes little sense. The Europeans have repeatedly revealed their aversion to combat. Only accounting tricks will let the administration claim that they have met these targets, and then only by bringing in inferior forces mostly constrained from real fighting by anxious governments. Should the scheme fail altogether, add one more to a list of occasions upon which America's allies have stiffed this president with impunity. Moreover, the president's protracted deliberations about the war undermined his chosen course of action. On March 27, he proclaimed "a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan." But when Gen. McChrystal presented the manpower bill for the strategy, it seemed to all the world that the president and his advisers got a bad case of nerves...

More at The Wall Street Journal.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 5:49am | 0 comments
This Will Not End Well - George F. Will, Washington Post opinion.

A traveler asks a farmer how to get to a particular village. The farmer replies, "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here." Barack Obama, who asked to be president, nevertheless deserves sympathy for having to start where America is in Afghanistan. But after 11 months of graceless disparagements of the 43rd president, the 44th acts as though he is the first president whose predecessor bequeathed a problematic world. And Obama's second new Afghanistan policy in less than nine months strikingly resembles his predecessor's plan for Iraq, which was: As Iraq's security forces stand up, US forces will stand down.

Having vowed to "finish the job," Obama revealed Tuesday that he thinks the job in Afghanistan is to get out of Afghanistan. This is an unserious policy. Obama's surge will bring to 51,000 his Afghanistan escalation since March. Supposedly this will buy time for Afghan forces to become adequate. But it is not intended to buy much time: Although the war is in its 98th month, Obama's "Mission Accomplished" banner will be unfurled 19 months from now - when Afghanistan's security forces supposedly will be self-sufficient. He must know this will not happen...

More at The Washington Post.

by Dave Dilegge | Thu, 12/03/2009 - 3:09am | 1 comment
Taking the Pulse of Military Blogs After the President's Speech by our old friend Tim Hsia at the New York Times - SWJ, Schmedlap, Captain's Journal, Bouhammer, Spousebuzz, The Security Crank and Sergeant Danger.
by SWJ Editors | Wed, 12/02/2009 - 8:02pm | 0 comments

Continue on for the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, transcript of the interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, 2 December 2009...

by Robert Haddick | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 11:04pm | 17 comments
The most controversial feature of President Obama's strategy for Afghanistan is his decision to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from the country in July 2011. This feature (no doubt aligned with his re-election plans -- why else withdraw troops at the start of the Afghan summer fighting season?) is a fatal flaw and makes it very likely that little will go right for his Afghan strategy. Indeed, it negates the point of hastily adding over 30,000 U.S. and European soldiers in 2010.

Over the past three months President Obama and his team have analyzed the Afghanistan problem from first principles. Yet in spite of this effort, their solution is not likely to make the problem go away. Regrettably, the next few years are likely to reveal that America still lacks a winning strategy for modern irregular conflict.

The two speeches

President Obama wishes he could have given two speeches on Afghanistan.

The first would have been heard only by the Taliban, Pakistan's governing elite, and by Afghanistan's population wondering which side of the fence to jump to. Obama's message to this group would have been, "I am escalating this war in order to suppress the Taliban, wipe out al Qaeda, and create space for Afghanistan to take over the war."

The second speech would have been heard only by the American electorate, and especially those who most passionately supported his campaign in 2008. His message to this group would have been, "I will get America out of the Afghan war, starting in July 2011."

Alas, Obama could give only one speech to be heard by all. Tonight's speech attempted to transmit the two messages. Unfortunately, it is very likely that Obama's signals got crossed - the Taliban, Pakistan's governing elite, and Afghanistan's population heard the second message, that America is getting out, while the President's supporters angrily heard the first. The result is a muddled strategy that will reinforce bad behavior in the region, will be unconvincing at home, and will not help the morale of soldiers in the field.

Bad behavior rewarded

In order to succeed in Afghanistan, the United States needs actors in the region to change their behavior. Under Obama's plan they have no reason to do so. Now that they know the start date of America's withdrawal, the Taliban can continue to ambush U.S. soldiers and Marines, avoid major contact, and conserve their forces for a post-NATO Afghanistan. The U.S. needs Afghanistan's elites to be a real government and not feudal lords preparing their own fiefdoms. Instead, President Hamid Karzai and his allies will divert what assets they can and look for a new major-power patron. Fearing that India might be that patron, Pakistan's intelligence service will continue to support the Afghan Taliban as its proxy army. Obama's attempt to send two messages ensures that Afghanistan will get messier in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, Democrats old enough to remember the 1960s will remember that the rebellion against the Vietnam War began as a civil war within the Democratic Party. That episode seems likely to repeat.

The roots of Lyndon Johnson's failure in Vietnam extended back to mistakes made in the Eisenhower administration. Similarly, Obama's escalation in Afghanistan ratifies a murky decision made sometime in the middle of the Bush administration to construct a strong and competent central government for Afghanistan, something alien to its culture and history. The nation-state model is the reflexive Western response to modern conflict. When applied to Afghanistan, the nation-state model supplied the West with a weak partner, and the Taliban with a powerful recruiting tool and a security guarantee for its sanctuaries in Pakistan.

America's war in Afghanistan

Regrettably, this is not likely to be Obama's last speech or even his last policy for Afghanistan. Obama is hoping to leave the Afghanistan problem behind him as he prepares for a second term. But the problem will still be there, perhaps worse than ever. And the American electorate will be left wondering what the purpose was for escalating the war in 2010.

Afghanistan is not "Obama's War," it is America's war, and always has been. What America still needs is a winning strategy for this war and for future irregular conflicts. We all have a responsibility for solving that problem.

by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 8:57pm | 0 comments

SWJ full coverage can be found here.
by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 1:00pm | 0 comments
An Evening of Counterinsurgency at the Pritzker Military Library

Hearts and minds? Overrated. If you want to run a successful counterinsurgency, it all starts with the person at the top.

On Thursday, December 3rd, Mark Moyar will appear at the Pritzker Military Library to discuss his new book, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq. This event is free and open to the public. The presentation will begin at 6 p.m., preceded by a reception for Library members at 5 p.m. It will be webcast live on and recorded for later broadcast on WYCC-TV/Channel 20.

Moyar takes issue with much of the current U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which guided the "surge" in Iraq. Though its creation was overseen by Gen. David Petraeus, whose leadership he considers a near-perfect model for counterinsurgency, Moyar finds the general's most important qualities de-valued in the manual, which suffers from what he calls a "population-centric" emphasis toward defeating an insurgency by depriving it of public support. Using case studies from the Philippines, Vietnam, and other conflicts over the last 150 years, Moyar argues instead that counterinsurgencies succeed or fail based on the leaders involved: their ability to inspire subordinates, adapt to complex situations, unify civilian and military efforts, and identify capable sub-commanders, both from their own ranks and the target population.

Though A Question of Command describes historical insurgencies around the world, Moyar posits that the American South, after the Civil War, may have been the best model for the situation in Iraq. Whereas Grant and Sherman had led major victories on the battlefield, it was lesser-known leaders like Brig. Gen. Robert F. Catterson and Maj. Lewis Merrill who had the most success against insurgent forces such as the Ku Klux Klan. A Question of Command attempts to capture the qualities and decisions that set those leaders apart, making their successors easier to find.

Mark Moyar is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Marine Corps University. He is also the author of Triumph Forsaken: the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 and Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam. Moyar's writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He received a B.A. summa cum laude from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

Seating for this event is limited, so reservations are recommended. Call 312.587.0234 or email

Education professionals in Illinois may earn 1.5 Continuing Professional Development Units (CPDUs) for attending this event.

About the Pritzker Military Library

The Pritzker Military Library is a non-partisan, non-profit research institution located at 610 North Fairbanks Court in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, near the Magnificent Mile. Admission is free and open to the public, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and also for scheduled evening events.

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The mission of the Pritzker Military Library is to acquire and maintain an accessible collection of materials and develop appropriate programs focusing on the Citizen Soldier in the preservation of democracy. The 5,000 sq. ft. facility features a collection of books and films on subjects covering the full spectrum of American military history, along with vintage posters, photographs, medals, uniforms, and other artifacts from private donors and the collection of the Library's founder, COL (IL) James N. Pritzker, ARNG (Ret.).

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by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 7:29am | 1 comment
Via Marine Colonel Phillip Ridderhof as a add-on to the Birtle on PROVN SWJ article (and commentary) by Colonel Gian Gentile - III MAF Pacification in Vietnam.

Phil's comments:

The attachment is four pages that I scanned in from the OSD report "United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967" pulled from the stacks at the Gray Research Center back in 2002.

I find it a fascinating read because it represents a DoD critique of the Marine III MAF Pacification approach in the I Corps zone, conducted with the knowledge available at the time. While I'm not in total agreement with what it states, I think it raises the argument above the usual uncritical "Marines had it right" and "CAP was great" conversations that occur within the Corps.

Key points highlighted:

- The Marines took to pacification, a very different strategy, with different strategic resource and time implications, through a chain of command that completely avoided the joint force commander responsible for the campaign (MACV).

- The Marines identified the need to have operational control of South Vietnamese forces in order to conduct this strategy--something the GVN did not want.

- The Marines were drawn into local politics to a larger degree than they expected due to the lack of RVN capability (which really begs the question of success of the whole US venture).

- The Marines failed to get GVN political support because the GVN political apparatus was not consulted in the planning.

Once again, all of these are assertions, but they point to questions on the USMC approach in Vietnam, and COIN campaign design in general.

III MAF Pacification in Vietnam

by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 6:58am | 0 comments
What the US Can Achieve in Afghanistan, Despite Karzai - Mark Moyar, Los Angeles Times opinion.

Although the White House thoroughly examined the Afghan government before choosing the strategy that it will unveil tonight, the composition of that government - and hence its character - remains highly uncertain. We know the reelection of Hamid Karzai has left Afghanistan with five more years of a president who lacks leadership attributes essential for the job. Inclined toward conciliation and leniency, Karzai would make a fine president of a Kiwanis Club, but he presides over a country replete with recalcitrant tribal elders and crooked warlords that demands a leader with the toughness to strong-arm troublemakers and keep subordinates under control.

But Washington can compensate for Karzai's failings by persuading him to make personnel changes and delegate greater authority to subordinates, especially Cabinet ministers. During the run-up to this year's election, Karzai bought the support of a host of warlords and other power players by promising them Cabinet positions. How he distributes those posts could be more important than the election itself...

More at The Los Angeles Times.

by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 5:58am | 1 comment
34,000 Troops Will be Sent to Afghanistan - Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson, Washington Post.

President Obama will outline Tuesday his intention to send an additional 34,000 US troops to Afghanistan, according to US officials and diplomatic sources briefed Monday as Obama began informing allies of his plan. The new deployments, along with 22,000 troops he authorized early this year, would bring the total US force in Afghanistan to more than 100,000, more than half of which will have been sent to the war zone by Obama. The president also plans to ask NATO and other partners in an international coalition to contribute 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, officials said.

The combined US and NATO deployments would nearly reach the 40,000 requested last summer by US Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, as part of an intensified counterinsurgency strategy. The new troops are to be sent in stages beginning in January, with options to delay or cancel deployments, depending on the performance of the Afghan government and other factors. Defense officials said that, beyond Marine units deploying next month, no final decisions have been made about specific units or the order in which they would be sent...

More at The Washington Post.

US Opts for Limited Surge - Jonathan Weisman and Peter Spiegel, Wall Street Journal.

President Barack Obama has ordered a revamped war plan for Afghanistan that appears to endorse the military strategy of his top generals but will set limits on US involvement in terms of duration, manpower and money, White House officials said Monday. After a three-month review, the president delivers a televised prime-time address at the US Military Academy at West Point, NY, Tuesday to publicly define his plan for the war. He is widely expected to announce he's committing around 30,000 new troops to fighting the Taliban. Eight US allies also have committed to sending additional troops, which could total some 5,000, according to European and US officials.

That level of additional manpower comes close to the preferred option of top US commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which called for an additional 40,000 troops. Aides familiar with the new policy insist that Mr. Obama hasn't ended up where he started his review, planning for an an open-ended escalation. He will lay out benchmarks for the US and Afghan governments to meet on the recruitment and training of Afghan security forces, as well as on rooting out corruption that has bedeviled the country...

More at The Wall Street Journal.

by Dave Dilegge | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 3:59am | 0 comments
With a H/T to Abu Muqawama, here is the U.S. Army War College Irregular Warfare Selected Bibliography, dated 9 November 2009:

by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/01/2009 - 3:51am | 0 comments
Clear, Hold and Duct Tape - David Brooks, New York Times opinion.

... The administration seems to have spent the past few months trying to pare back the COIN strategy and adjust it to real world constraints. As it has done so, there has been less talk in the informed policy community about paving the way for a new, transformed Afghanistan. There has been more talk of finding cheap ways to arrange the current pieces of Afghanistan into a contraption that will stay together and allow us to go home. What's emerging appears to be something less than a comprehensive COIN strategy but more than a mere counter-terrorism strategy - shooting at terrorists with drones. It is a hybrid approach, and as we watch the president's speech Tuesday night, we'll all get to judge whether he has cut and pasted the different options into a coherent whole. It's not the troop levels that matter. What matters is how this war will be fought.

Some very smart people say that the administration's direction is already fatally flawed. There is no such thing as effective COIN-lite, they argue. All the pieces of a comprehensive strategy have to be done patiently and together because success depends on the way they magnify one another. These experts may be right. But none of us get to have our first choice on this matter. President Obama faces such a devilishly complex set of constraints that the policy he announces will be partially unsatisfying to every American and to every member of his administration. The fights inside have been so brutal that there have been accusations that the Defense and State Departments have withheld documents from the president to bias his thinking...

More at The New York Times.

by Dave Dilegge | Mon, 11/30/2009 - 7:41pm | 5 comments
Tom Ricks on three things we need from Obama on Afghanistan - "corruption and abuses? - security problems in Pakistan? - U.S. domestic support?" And Tom Donnelly at AEI's Center for Defense Studies - strength before brilliance: "the long process during which President Obama has reconsidered America's commitment to what he described as a necessary war in Afghanistan has transformed the purpose of his West Point speech tomorrow night. The first-order question is not the number of troops or the proper strategy; it's more elemental: does this man believe in victory?"

Steve Coll at The New Yorker asks what if we fail in Afghanistan? "Last week, I found myself at yet another think tank-type meeting about Afghan policy choices. Toward the end, one of the participants, who had long experience in government, asked a deceptively simple question: What would happen if we failed?" A follow on post can be found here.

Tom Barnett on the bottom-line on nation building - BLUF: "It costs the United States $1 million a year to keep a soldier inside a theater of operations such as Afghanistan. The math is easy enough: For every thousand troops, the price comes out to $1 billion a year."

Via e-mail from the Council on Foreign Relations - "in advance of President Obama's announcement on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, CFR offers expert analysis and background resources from a broad range of views."

Over at Commentary's Contentions Max Boot says one word from Obama can rejuvenate troop morale and that word would be victory. "That is a word that has been missing so far from Obama's vocabulary. I hope it is not MIA on Tuesday night."

Foreign Policy releases its first top 100 global thinkers list. Yes another list - but you guys seem to love dissecting them - and yes - General P and Dr. K are on that list.

Andrew Exum (not quite back from the dead) has a new reading list - this one on irregular warfare courtesy of the U.S. Army War College. There's also a link to AM's counterinsurgency reading list.