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 Robert Haddick | Fri, 12/18/2009 - 9:50am | 8 comments
Two stories from this morning's New York Times discuss some internal security trends inside the United States that are headed in the wrong direction.

Defying all expectations, the United States has avoided another serious domestic terrorist attack since 2001. Part of the credit for this success may be due to good cooperation between the FBI and Muslim community organizations inside the U.S. But a recent string of "self-radicalization" terror cases has put pressure on these relationships. FBI field agents and managers are under pressure to prevent another attack. According to the New York Times article there is a debate within the FBI about how it should manage its relationships with the U.S. Muslim community:

It also attests to differing views within the bureau about the effectiveness of community outreach, said Michael Rolince, a former director of counterterrorism in the F.B.I.'s Washington field office. Some factions within the agency, he said, have always been leery of Islamic and Arab-American organizations, considering their loyalties to be divided ... But by most accounts, the unraveling of ties between the F.B.I. and Muslim-Americans began two years ago, with the F.B.I.'s decision to stop sharing information with the nation's most prominent Muslim civil rights organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The F.B.I. said it was motivated by council executives' failure to answer questions about links with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The executives denied any such connection, and accused the F.B.I. of staining the council's reputation without due process.

The FBI is caught in a vise. It will get the blame if there is another spectacular attack and is responding by putting more pressure on its contacts with U.S. Muslim groups. Those groups increasingly don't like the pressure and are pushing back.

In the second story, the game of spy-versus-spy is back, this time on the U.S.-Mexican border. The U.S. Customs Service attempts to infiltrate Mexico's drug cartels. But the drug cartels have their own spies embedded inside U.S. law enforcement agencies:

James Tomsheck, the assistant commissioner for internal affairs at Customs and Border Protection, and other investigators said they had seen many signs that the drug organizations were making a concerted effort to infiltrate the ranks.

"We are very concerned," Mr. Tomsheck said. "There have been verifiable instances where people were directed to C.B.P. to apply for positions only for the purpose of enhancing the goals of criminal organizations. They had been selected because they had no criminal record; a background investigation would not develop derogatory information."

I recommend reading both articles.

by SWJ Editors | Fri, 12/18/2009 - 9:33am | 0 comments
Strengthening our nation's front line of defense - Dennis C. Blair, Washington Post opinion.

The legislation authorizing post-Sept. 11 intelligence reform -- the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 -- was signed into law five years ago this week. We are often asked whether the new organizations, authorities and additional resources have made a difference. The answer is yes.

To be clear, the task of reinventing our intelligence structure and integrating the capabilities, cultures and information technologies of 16 diverse intelligence agencies is massive, and it is incomplete. Problems persist in our technologies, business practices and mind-sets. I have no illusions about how challenging they will be to overcome. But there is an ocean of difference between difficult and impossible.

While many successes must remain classified, there are things the public can and should know about changes that have been made and how we are directing our efforts and America's resources...

More at The Washington Post.

Dennis C. Blair is the third and current Director of National Intelligence and a retired United States Navy four-star admiral.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/17/2009 - 5:00pm | 5 comments
CNAS Releases Two Working Papers on the Future of the Force (CNAS Press Release - 17 December 2009).

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released today two important working papers as part of its ongoing work on the future of the U.S. military, which focuses on improving capabilities to confront future threats to our national security.

Contractors in Conflicts: Adapting to a New Reality, authored by CNAS President John Nagl and Senior Fellow Richard Fontaine, examines the problems exposed by the increasing reliance on private contractors in theater - including insufficient oversight, inadequate integration into operational planning, and ambiguous legal status - and its implications for successful military operations. In order for the United States to adapt to the key role that contractors will play in future hostilities -- the authors note -- the government must establish new policies and rules of the road.

This working paper is part of an ongoing CNAS project on Contracting in Conflicts and will culminate in a major capstone report released next year.

Time for Action: Redefining SOF Missions and Activities, authored by CNAS contributor Michele Malvesti, is derived from a larger study that will be published in spring 2010. In Time for Action, Malvesti - who served more than five years on the National Security Council staff, most recently as the Senior Director for Combating Terrorism Strategy - explores current organizational issues facing U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and offers recommendations for how to optimize SOF for success.

"By integrating and synchronizing activities as a united whole, the Special Operations community will be better positioned to disrupt and defeat threats and shape and enable environments in a world where SOF are increasingly relevant and in high demand," writes Malvesti.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/17/2009 - 3:42am | 6 comments
Insurgents hack U.S. drones - Siobhan Gorman, Yochi J. Dreazen and August Cole, Wall Street Journal.

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations. Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes' systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber - available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet - to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America's enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance. The drone intercepts mark the emergence of a shadow cyber war within the U.S.-led conflicts overseas. They also point to a potentially serious vulnerability in Washington's growing network of unmanned drones, which have become the American weapon of choice in both Afghanistan and Pakistan...

More at The Wall Street Journal.

by SWJ Editors | Thu, 12/17/2009 - 3:09am | 3 comments
How partnering with the U.S. could strengthen Pakistan's sovereignty - David Ignatius, Washington Post opinion.

The United States and Pakistan, always prone to bickering, need a big idea to unite and sustain them through the testing battle in Afghanistan. So here's a strategic concept I've been trying out with officials in both countries: By partnering with America, Pakistan can gain sovereignty over all its tribal territory for the first time in its history - and thereby finally complete the task of building its own nation. This is a classic example of what strategists call a "positive sum" game, where, by working together, Washington and Islamabad could gain benefits that they would not achieve alone. But instead of cooperating, they have been trading resentful messages over the past month in which the United States requested Pakistan's help in closing Taliban havens and Pakistan responded, in effect, "Don't tell us what to do."

Here's the cold, hard truth: U.S. success in Afghanistan depends on Pakistan gaining sovereignty over the tribal belt. If the insurgents can continue to maintain their havens in North Waziristan and other tribal areas, then President Obama's surge of troops in Afghanistan will fail. It's that simple...

More at The Washington Post.

by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/15/2009 - 7:26pm | 0 comments
Afghanistan and Pakistan: on the battle for Kandahar - Myra MacDonald, Reuters.

In the vast swirl of debate about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is worth taking the time to read this piece in the Small Wars Journal by Michael Yon about the looming battle for Kandahar and the central importance of the Arghandab River Valley (pdf document).

Just as "a tiger doesn't need to completely understand the jungle to survive, navigate, and then dominate", Yon argues, you don't have to master the full geographical and historical complexity of the Afghan war to grasp the importance of the Arghandab River Valley in securing Kandahar - a battle he suggests will be crucial in 2010. Rather than do this very thoughtful piece the injustice of trying to summarise it, I'd recommend reading it in full.

We have got used to hearing that the United States will find it very difficult to succeed in Afghanistan without help from Pakistan in acting against militants based there - an argument given another airing in the latest New York Times story about Pakistan resisting U.S. demands to move against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. What Yon's piece does is to give a different perspective on that argument by suggesting the possibility of U.S. military successes on the ground in Afghanistan -- almost independently of what happens in Pakistan.

The point here is not to discuss U.S. military strategy and tactics (many others are far better qualified to do so, among them Hershel Smith at the Captain's Journal who has nearly daily entries on this)...

More at Reuters.

by SWJ Editors | Tue, 12/15/2009 - 5:41am | 3 comments
SWJ received a nice e-mail from LTG Bill Caldwell (Frontier 6); Commander, NATO Training Mission -- Afghanistan, as well as, Commanding General, Combined Security Transition Command -- Afghanistan; that included an update brief on NTM-A / CSTC-A efforts and way ahead. Major areas and issues addressed in this 11 December 2009 briefing include:

- Who NTM-A / CSTC-A are and what they do

- A NTM-A / CSTC-A table of organization

- NTM-A / CSTC-A priorities

- Afghanistan National Security Forces - now - objective - future goal

- ANSF growth key points

- ANSF recruitment, retention and attrition overview

SWJ wishes NTM-A / CSTC-A the best in accomplishing this most difficult and important mission.

by Robert Haddick | Mon, 12/14/2009 - 11:40am | 2 comments
On December 12, the New York Times reported that the U.S. and Russian governments are talking about cyber security. In a significant change from the Bush administration's position on this issue, the Obama team has agreed to shift the context of cyber security negotiations from an economic and criminal law focus to more of an arms control focus. According to the New York Times article, "the United States agreed to discuss cyberwarfare and cybersecurity with representatives of the United Nations committee on disarmament and international security. The United States had previously insisted on addressing those matters in the committee on economic issues."

With a major exposure to telecommunications and computer technology both in its economy and with its military operations, the U.S. has a notable vulnerability to cyber attack and thus a great interest in cyber security. If some form of international cooperation can provide a low-cost path to greater cyber security for the U.S., it makes sense to explore this option. On this level, talks with Russia could make sense.

But it is important to be careful. According to the New York Times article, the Russian negotiating position emphasizes an international ban on offensive cyber weapons. The Russian position also seeks to protect Russia's sovereignty regarding criminal investigations of cyber activity in its territory. For its part, the U.S. seems to seek greater international cooperation on investigating and defending against cyber crimes.

The thousands of daily cyber attacks on U.S. military and infrastructure systems come from all over the world but with a substantial portion either originating or routed through Russian and Chinese sources. Naturally the Russian and Chinese governments disclaim any responsibility for these attacks. An international arms control-type treaty banning offensive cyber weapons would include only nation-states as signatories. Such a treaty wouldn't seem to help the U.S. with its current cyber defense problems. But it would take away the U.S. government's ability to use a declared offensive capability as a deterrent or as a war-fighting tool in a future campaign.

What covert relationship, if any, do the Russian and Chinese cyber attackers have with their governments? Are these cyber warriors just computer hobbyists acting alone? Or are they clandestine cut-outs implementing government policy? Would a structure of clandestine cut-outs be a way for nation-states to sign up for the international ban on offensive cyber weapons and simultaneously circumvent the ban through the use of non-state proxies? For legal and cultural reasons, the U.S. government would seem to have a more difficult time executing such a duplicitous policy, with an asymmetrical disadvantage the result.

The U.S. emphasis on international criminal cooperation gets at the key issue from the U.S. perspective, namely, will governments be held responsible for the cyber activity that originates from inside their borders? Computers located in Russia, China, and elsewhere bombard U.S. systems. U.S. officials complain to their foreign counterparts and receive a shrug in response. Is this unwillingness to take responsibility due to the governments' technical inability to stop the attacks? Or is it an element of their national security strategies?

It is good that the U.S. and Russia are talking about cyber defense (when will the Chinese government show up?). But it seems as if the two sides have very different interests. That should hardly be a surprise.

by SWJ Editors | Mon, 12/14/2009 - 3:34am | 0 comments
Europe and Afghanistan - New York Times editorial.

Afghanistan is not and should not be just the United States' fight. Al Qaeda has used its sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan to plot and launch attacks on European cities. We welcome the news that some of America's 42 military partners in Afghanistan plan to send more troops. It was not an easy call.

As President Obama said in his Nobel acceptance speech last week, "In many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public." And in Europe any ambivalence has long been replaced by fierce demands for withdrawal. Still, NATO's announcement that an additional 7,000 troops will be going falls short of what is needed, and has too many casualty-limiting caveats attached. That isn't good for Afghanistan or NATO, which has never fully shouldered the burden of this mission. And it is unfair to the American people, who are being asked to make disproportionate sacrifices for what is, emphatically, a common fight...

More at The New York Times.

by SWJ Editors | Sun, 12/13/2009 - 11:28pm | 0 comments

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through our site. You get the world's greatest selection and low Amazon price, while we get a small referral credit to help us keep the light$ on. It's a great habit to be in year-'round -- start now and keep it in mind when it comes resolution time in January, too. Thanks! Happy shopping!

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by SWJ Editors | Sat, 12/12/2009 - 5:54am | 40 comments
Where Is Our Kilcullen? - LtCol Michael D. Grice, Marine Corps Gazette.

War is dynamic, changing, and unpredictable. The ongoing war in Iraq is no different; it has seen a fundamental shift in how the Marine Corps fights as the doctrine of maneuver warfare and the decisive single battle concept have been supplanted by the steady state and continued operations that are counterinsurgency operations. Years of active combat in the hotly contested Al Anbar Province have been the driving force for change within the Marine Corps as al-Qaeda and others have sought to nullify American and the nascent Iraqi Government's influence in the area. Fortunately the studied development and application of counterinsurgency doctrine has resulted in a largely stable Iraq that is well on the road to self-governance. Unfortunately, it wasn't our idea.

The greatest single influence on our counterinsurgency doctrine isn't a Marine. He isn't even an American, or a colonel or a general or an admiral for that matter. He is an Australian lieutenant colonel who did the bulk of his influential work as a captain—work that has become the cornerstone of company-level counterinsurgent operations and has brought him to prominence as an advisor to the likes of GEN David Patraeus, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and to the Department of Defense during the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review. Not bad for a foreign field grade officer, but why are we, the most powerful Nation on the planet, importing talent to help solve our warfighting problems? Don't we have Marine officers capable of doing the same?

The answer, unfortunately, is that we do not. The Marine Corps has not invested in the education and development of its officer corps to produce such an officer and, as a result, stands ready to be marginalized within the Department of Defense as a result of this shortfall. Unconventional times and unconventional wars require unconventional thought, and the ability to think brilliantly and unconventionally is a product of education. The foreigner who so significantly impacted our counterinsurgency doctrine and the planners who developed the controversial, but ultimately successful, "surge" shared a common background—the commonality of a doctoral-level education. How, though, can the Marine Corps correct the deficiency? And who is this guy, anyway? ...

Much more at the Marine Corps Gazette.

by SWJ Editors | Fri, 12/11/2009 - 10:46pm | 0 comments
Army Executive Irregular Warfare Conference Charts Army's Path - Janice Burton, Special Warfare.

" Are we all going to become like Special Forces, or is Special Forces going to become like the rest of the Army? I hope not. Special Forces push the envelope. I do believe we need a center of excellence for IW. If it's not here (Fort Bragg), I don't know where it could be. We need someone to continue to think about the challenge of IW and to continue to push the envelope not only for the Army, but for the rest of the U.S."

The Army made a first step toward the establishment of a whole-of-government approach to ongoing military operations around the world as the JFK Special Warfare Center and School hosted the U.S. Army Executive Irregular Warfare Conference Aug. 10-14 at Fort Bragg, N.C. The conference brought together both conventional and special-operations forces, members of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development and members of academia.

Lieutenant General John Mulholland, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the host of the conference, noted that the conference brought together "luminaries and experts" in the IW field to work to put together a way ahead. Top military leaders in attendance were General George Casey, chief of staff of the Army; General James Mattis, commander of the Joint Forces Command; General Martin E. Dempsey, commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command; and Admiral Eric Olson, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Civilian experts in attendance included Robert Kaplan, Dr. John Nagl and Ralph Peters...

More at Special Warfare.

by Robert Haddick | Fri, 12/11/2009 - 3:57pm | 5 comments
Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Mexico's drug gangs don't want to destroy the state, they just want to rent it,

2) Does Afghanistan need the Phoenix Program? Part II

Mexico's drug gangs don't want to destroy the state, they just want to rent it

The U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute has published a disturbing research paper written by Professor Max Manwaring. Titled A "New" Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies, the paper discusses how Mexico's drug cartels and the private armies they finance are systematically displacing legitimate state authority across Mexico and Central America. Those who follow events in the region will not find much new in that assertion. What is new is Manwaring's description of the untapped potential of Los Zetas - the private army associated with the powerful Gulf Cartel -- and why it will be especially difficult for either the Mexican or U.S. governments to counter the organization's power.

Los Zetas was born in the late 1990s when the Gulf Cartel began recruiting soldiers from the Mexican army's Airborne Special Force Group. The Gulf Cartel was able to provide the deserters with far more pay, prestige, and side benefits than the Mexican government could. The project was a huge success; the cartel used the organization, training, discipline, experience, and equipment the former soldiers provided to greatly expand its operating territory, smuggling routes, debt collection, and capacity to intimidate or kill opponents. Los Zetas went on to recruit soldiers from the Guatemalan army's special forces and from other militaries in the region.

According to Manwaring, Los Zetas is no longer merely an enforcer for the Gulf Cartel, but an independent military force that rivals the power of legitimate governments in the region. It has used the enormous cash flow it receives from drug smuggling to acquire state-of-the-art weapons and electronics technology and to build intelligence-gathering, logistics, and operational planning staffs that Western military commanders would not only recognize but envy.

So do Los Zetas's commanders aim to seize control of the Mexican state?

Click through to read more ...

by Niel Smith | Fri, 12/11/2009 - 10:01am | 6 comments
Dr. Mark Moyar's response to "Overdue Bill" is exactly the kind of discussion I hoped the essay would engender. Dr. Moyar correctly points out the difficulty of creating change in academic institutions and Professional Military Education (PME). The four outcomes listed in the original paper which Dr. Moyar discusses were developed in 2007 by a group that included many CGSC instructors, whose advice shaped the recommendation in significant ways. The tradeoffs Dr. Moyar describes are very real, and over the past years within TRADOC cut classroom hours and readings in order to provide balance for soldiers exhausted by multiple deployments, and to shorten course length to return Soldiers to the operational force more quickly. Most of the low hanging fruit or non-critical courses have already been cut. Therefore, adding any new instruction at this point inherently forces tradeoffs with other vital topics. Given unconstrained classroom hours and students —to do extra reading, I am sure resistance to additional COIN instruction would evaporate. However, the shortcomings of current COIN instruction and ongoing operational challenges demand a thoughtful reconsideration of the weights assigned to various topics.

By virtue of where we currently sit, Dr. Moyar and I are viewing this debate through the lens of mid-level staff college education, which is generally provided to junior Majors with approximately twelve years of service. It is the last schooling the majority will receive in their military careers, except for those lucky individuals eventually selected for senior service colleges as full Colonels. The debate about what to devote limited instructional hours therefore becomes more important as the institution must consider what skills are most critical to impart on a field grade officer for what is likely the final decade of their military service. It is also the first military educational instruction that considers itself graduate level, thus increasing the ability to expose officers to more conceptual/theoretical material.

However, I think it is crucial to conceptualize the problem across all of PME, from initial entry training to the senior service colleges. Addressing one institution to the exclusion of others adds to the gaps that currently exist on COIN. While the staff and senior service colleges are full of PhD level talent, the institutions that train junior officers and NCOs generally are not stacked with such educational background. The Army does not possess the significant Marine Corps advantage of co-locating its doctrine, education, and thought institutions on one post in Northern Virginia. The Army faces the challenge across over a dozen schools and centers, widely separated by geography and each with multiple general officers shaping its approach. Therefore, the recommended educational outcomes in my essay are broad and scalable, yet applicable as to all levels of schooling and military specialties.

Dr. Moyar is correct to criticize FM 3-24 as an imperfect manual. He correctly points out some of its shortcomings. The reason I chose to focus on doctrine was twofold: first, doctrine by definition is an agreed upon set of norms by an institution, and second, despite debates on its finer points; it is an excellent introduction to COIN in a way no other singular text currently provides. In short, we could do a lot worse. I confess in an ideal world, the mid and senior level staff colleges would adapt a graduate level seminar utilizing many of the readings he suggests, analyzing and debating the finer points of COIN agreement and disagreement between various works. Given that this type of seminar is only realistic at these levels, FM 3-24 and its related texts provide an adequate foundation to build upon across the force. Perhaps the Army and Marine Corps will revise FM 3-24 in the coming years to address some of the more glaring criticisms, improving its applicability to the classroom.

Dr. Moyar's most recent book focuses on the central role of quality leadership by external counterinsurgents and the host nation to positive counterinsurgency outcomes. Providing a solid educational foundation on COIN to all Soldiers remains perhaps the most effective way of achieving effective counterinsurgency outcomes.

by SWJ Editors | Fri, 12/11/2009 - 3:24am | 1 comment
A Deadline We Can Believe In? - New York Times.

President Obama said that troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will begin in 18 months. Some of his advisers have hinted that the deadline is flexible. So, should we stick to the timeline or not? Here are three opinions from experts on the subject.

Advantage: Taliban - Ahmed Rashid

President Obama's decision muddied the waters as far as American credibility in Afghanistan and Pakistan is concerned, and created misapprehensions in Europe.

Just Stick to It - Marc Lynch

There are many reasons to be skeptical of the plan's prospects, from the corruption in Kabul to the difficulties of state-building. But a clearly communicated timeline increases the odds of success.

Military Time, Civilian Time by Nathaniel Fick

The strategic benefits of setting a timeline may outweigh its tactical costs, if it persuades President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan to make progress stabilizing Afghanistan.

A Deadline We Can Believe In? - New York Times.

by SWJ Editors | Fri, 12/11/2009 - 2:48am | 10 comments
General: Blame Taliban, Media for Afghan Civilian Deaths - Noah Shachtman, Danger Room.

Top commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal has issued strict new guidelines on air strikes, to keep civilians from getting killed. "It is literally how we lose the war or in many ways how we win it," he recently said.

But many in the Air Force see the civilian casualty problem may be more a product of media hype and Taliban human shielding than of errant U.S. bombs. "It is curious that it appears there is more ink spent on casualties from air attacks than there is on the criminality and violation of the ethical tenets of Islam that occurs daily as a result of Taliban actions," writes Lieutenant General David Deptula, the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

Deptula e-mailed me last night, in response to my story on the American air war. Here's what he wrote...

LtGen Deptula's response at Danger Room.

by SWJ Editors | Wed, 12/09/2009 - 6:32pm | 57 comments
We've been told via blog comments and e-mail that Major Jim Gant's "One Tribe at a Time" (at Steve Pressfield's It's the Tribes Stupid) cannot be accessed from at least some .mil domains. We have been granted permission to repost it here at Small Wars Journal to facilitate the maximum access possible.
by SWJ Editors | Wed, 12/09/2009 - 5:41pm | 6 comments
Mark does at Zenpundit...

... The horns of our dilemma is that our long time "ally" whom we have hitched ourselves to in a grand war effort against revolutionary Islamist terrorism is not our ally at all, but a co-belligerent with our enemy. By every policy measure that matters that causes the United States - justifiably in my view - to take a tough stance against North Korea and Iran, applies in spades to Islamabad. Yet none dare call Pakistan a rogue state.

It is the elephant in our strategy room - if the elephant was a rabid and schizophrenic trained mastodon, still —to perform simple tricks for a neverending stream of treats, even as it eyes its trainer and audience with a murderous kind of hatred. That Pakistan's deeply corrupt elite can be "rented" to defer their ambitions, or to work at cross-purposes with Pakistan's perceived "interests", is not a game-changing event. Instead, it sustains and ramps up the dysfunctional dynamic we find ourselves swimming against...

More at Zenpundit and the commentary, "Little Monsters", at Dawn that got him thinking about this issue.

by Robert Haddick | Tue, 12/08/2009 - 3:53pm | 12 comments
Those who have read the December 2009 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette should already be familiar with The Rifle Company Experiment, written by Col. Vincent Goulding, USMC (ret). (Goulding is the Director, Experiment Division, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.)

For those who have not, Goulding's article (h/t Potomac Institute for Policy Studies) shows how the Marine Corps is applying lessons learned from stabilization operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to the broad set of rifle company tasks and to amphibious landing force operations.

Key points:

1) The experiment will test whether a rifle company (specifically, a company landing team (CoLT)) can be an effective independent unit of action. Previously, the battalion landing team was organized to be the smallest such unit.

2) The experiment envisions distributed operations as a standard technique.

3) Applying experience from Iraq and Afghanistan, the experimental rifle company TO adds operations/intel/logistics personnel to the CoLT HQ element. It also adds two five-man scout/recon teams to the company.

4) The experiment will use unmanned ground and air vehicles controlled by the CoLT for ISR and logistics support purposes.

5) The experiment will attached a platoon of 155mm howitzers to the CoLT.

6) The experiment will occur as an over-the-horizon surface and helicopter-borne amphibious assault into the rugged Kahuku Infantry Training area on the north shore of Oahu. I can report from personal experience that this training area - with its many steep compartments and thick vegetation -- provides an unusual challenge for movement, communications, and control of subordinate units.

The CoLT experiment indicates several positive trends. First, the Marine Corps is applying lessons it has learned in other contexts (the requirements needed for independent company operations in a COIN environment) to a broad set of other missions. Second, even while COIN operations in Afghanistan ramp up, the Marine Corps is working on other mission requirements. Third, that the concept of distributed operations lives on. And fourth, that in spite of the growing technological ability to micromanage subordinates, the Marine Corps is designing TTPs that push more responsibility down to lower levels, and not just for COIN operations. The CoLT experiment with distributed operations appears to illustrate these positive trends.

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.

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