Category Archives: US military

Give Us Nine Leaders More

Let me explain:
from the Pakistan press:

    Lahore, Pakistan: Of the 60 cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders, besides perishing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians.

Fourteen “wanted al-Qaeda leaders” and 687 innocent Pakistanis — men, women and children — killed by unmanned, controlled Predator airplanes firing AGM-114 Hellfire missiles with blast fragmentation warheads.

Continue reading

Why A Military?

Government programs normally have an objective, a goal. There are funded programs to educate children, help the elderly, provide housing for the poor, build bridges and highways, etc. These programs normally have recognized, specific goals and are funded commensurate with the goals.
The government also has programs to provide security. Currently “homeland security” is a program to secure the ports and borders of the country, and there is also a program, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, as much as all other countries on the planet spend combined, to provide what are called conventional military forces.
The question is, do these very expensive military programs have an objective, a goal?

Continue reading

Play It Again, Barry

I thought it might be interesting to look at two speeches, comparing President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan Friday to President Nixon’s Vietnamization speech on November 3, 1969. Comparative excerpts follow.
First, announce the New Strategy–
Nixon:
We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces, and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable. This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.
Obama:
Today, I’m announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this marks the conclusion of a careful policy review, led by Bruce, that I ordered as soon as I took office. My administration has heard from our military commanders, as well as our diplomats. We’ve consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments, with our partners and our NATO allies, and with other donors and international organizations.
Then the scary part–
Nixon:
Fifteen years ago North Vietnam, with the logistical support of Communist China and the Soviet Union, launched a campaign to impose a Communist government on South Vietnam by instigating and supporting a revolution. But the question facing us today is: Now that we are in the war, what is the best way to end it?
Obama:
The situation is increasingly perilous. It’s been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power, yet war rages on, and insurgents control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Attacks against our troops, our NATO allies, and the Afghan government have risen steadily. And most painfully, 2008 was the deadliest year of the war for American forces.

Continue reading

Problems of the west’s extreme casualty aversion, Afghanistan and Gaza

The extreme aversion of the US and Israeli armies to own-soldier casualties has huge and often unintended consequences in the realms of both strategic effectiveness and ethics. This is now being amply demonstrated with regard both to Israel’s practices in Gaza (and the West Bank), and US military’s practices in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Joshua Foust of the generally excellent Registan blog has a ‘guest writer’ gig on the Reuters Pakistan blog, summing up the most important things he learned during his just-completed ten-week military embed with the US forces in Afghanistan.
His main point, well illustrated in the Reuters post, is that the culture of extreme casualty aversion that’s dominant in the US military hobbles it from waging effective “counter-insurgency” in Afghanistan.
Writing that, “It is a cliché that, in counterinsurgency, one must be among ‘the people’,” Foust then shows some of the many ways in which the own-soldier casualty aversion of the US forces in Afghanistan means that that is not happening:

    A rural insurgency is a devil’s game. It is difficult for a foreign counterinsurgent force to concentrate itself to maximize effectiveness, in part because the insurgency itself is not concentrated. When there are no obvious population clusters, there are no obvious choices for bases. Bagram Air Base, the country’s largest military base, is in the middle of nowhere, comparatively speaking – dozens of miles north of Kabul, and a 45-minute drive from Charikar, the nearest city in Parwan Province. FOB Salerno, a large base in Khost Province, is miles away from Khost City, the province’s capital-and the road in between is riddled with IEDs.
    The many smaller bases strung in between are surrounded by enormous Hesco barriers, concertina wire, and guard towers. No one is allowed on the base without being badged and interviewed by base security, and in many places delivery trucks are forced to wait in the open for 24 hours before completing their trips to the dining halls, clinics, or technology offices.
    There are other ways in which Coalition Forces are separated from the people of Afghanistan beyond their heavily fortified bases. Most transit – on patrol, on delivery runs, or on humanitarian missions – is performed through Mine Resistance Ambush Protection, or MRAP vehicles. These enormous trucks, thickly plated with metal blast shields on the bottom with tiny blue-tinted ballistic glass, make it near-impossible to even see the surrounding countryside from another other than the front seat.
    On the narrow mountain roads that sometimes collapse under the mutli-ton trucks, soldiers drive, too, in up-armored Humvees, which are similarly coated in thick plates of armor and heavy glass windows they aren’t allowed to open.
    When soldiers emerge from their imposing vehicles, they are covered from head to groin in various forms of shielding: thick ceramic plates on the torso, the ubiquitous Kevlar helmets, tinted ballistic eye glasses, neck and nape guards, heavy shrapnel-resistant flaps of fabric about the shoulders and groin, and fire-resistant uniforms. A common sentiment among Afghans who see these men and women wandering in their midst is that they look like aliens, or, if they know of them, robots.
    There is no doubt that MRAPs, up-armored Humvees, and the seventy pounds or so of bullet and blast shielding has saved the lives of countless soldiers. But counterinsurgency is counterintuitive: in the relentless quest to ensure a casualty-free war, it seems the West has begun to engineer its own defeat.
    By separating itself so completely from the population it claims to be trying to win-even at Bagram, where there is almost no combat, ever, it is almost impossible for a soldier or civilian to walk outside the gates to purchase something in the nearby bazaar-there remain precious few opportunities to do the gritty work of actually trying to “win hearts and minds”.
    The end result is stark: in a war that is desperately short of the troops needed to provide security to increasingly less remote communities, 93% of the soldiers stationed at the Coalition’s primary base never walk outside the gates. Instead of a focus on separating the insurgents from the population – another clichéd pillar of counterinsurgency – the focus seems instead to be simply killing as many of the enemy as can be identified.

I would just amend what he writes in one way, what “the west” is trying to fight in Afghanistan is not entirely a “casualty-free war”, but rather one in which the casualties among its own soldiers are reduced as far as possible toward zero. Casualties among the identified “enemy” may indeed, as he writes, tend to get maximized. But intense aversion to own-soldier casualties also– in both Afghanistan and Gaza– leads to far greater casualties than would otherwise be the case among the civilian population.
In Gaza, as many testimonies from the IDF soldiers themselves have now made clear, the general ROEs were that own-soldier casualties should be avoided even if that meant opening fire on Palestinian civilians. That, despite the fact that even the IDF’s own code of ethical conduct reminds soldiers that a soldier has a duty under international law to avoid civilian casualties even at the cost of some additional risk to his own troops.
In Gaza, many of the killings of civilians were fairly up-close affairs, but others were inflicted from drones or from aircraft flying at very high altitude– just like the way the US forces operate in Afghanistan (and Pakistan.)
This does not, as Foust notes, help win “hearts and minds” in a counter-insurgency context in Afghanistan.
And nor did it succeed, in Gaza, in inflicting a paralyzing dose of “shock and awe” to the Gazan population, where that seemed to be more of the intention than any form of, um, winning “hearts and minds.”
In today’s Haaretz, Amos Harel writes that before the latest Gaza war:

    The General Staff expected that Israelis would have trouble accepting heavy Israel Defense Forces losses.
    The army chose to overcome this problem with an aggressive plan that included overwhelming firepower. The forces, it was decided, would advance into the urban areas behind a “rolling curtain” of aerial and artillery fire, backed up by intelligence from unmanned aircraft and the Shin Bet. The lives of our soldiers take precedence, the commanders were told in briefings. Before the operation, [GOC Southern Command Yoav] Galant and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi painted a bleak picture for the cabinet ministers. “Unlike in Lebanon, the civilians in Gaza won’t have many places to escape to,” Ashkenazi warned. “When an armored force enters the city, shells will fly, because we’ll have to protect our people.”
    A large part of the operation was conducted by remote control. “The Palestinians are completely transparent to us,” says A., a reservist whose brigade was posted in the Gaza Strip. “The Shin Bet has people everywhere. We observe the whole area from the air and usually the Shin Bet coordinator can also tell you who lives in what house.” The Shin Bet defines the enemy and, for the most part, someone who belongs to Hamas’ civilian welfare organizations (the da’awa) is treated the same way as a member of its military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam.
    Essentially, a person only needs to be in a “problematic” location, in circumstances that can broadly be seen as suspicious, for him to be “incriminated” and in effect sentenced to death. Often, there is no need for him to be identified as carrying a weapon. Three people in the home of a known Hamas operative, someone out on a roof at 2 A.M. about a kilometer away from an Israeli post, a person walking down the wrong street before dawn – all are legitimate targets for attack.
    “It feels like hunting season has begun,” says A. “Sometimes it reminds me of a Play Station [computer] game. You hear cheers in the war room after you see on the screens that the missile hit a target, as if it were a soccer game.”
    …There is a discrepancy between the official military response, of denial and horrified disapproval, the testimonies of the Rabin pre-military preparatory course graduates, and the response to those reports by key officers, unwilling to be identified.
    “What did you think would happen?” a senior officer wondered this week. “We sent 10,000 troops into Gaza, more than 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 100 bulldozers. What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?”
    The IDF estimates that approximately 2,000 houses were destroyed in the fighting. The Palestinians say the figure is twice that. IDF officers, who were not surprised by the testimonies, recalled that during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, military courts convicted soldiers for killing civilians, including the British peace activist Tom Hurndall, who was killed in Gaza in 2003.

Harel also reminds us that it was not until the Second Intifada, which started in 2000, that the IDF judge advocate general “annulled the practice of opening an investigation into every killed Palestinian.”
Wow, that would be how many investigations they would have to launch into what went on in Gaza?
What Harel writes about the IDF’s targeting doctrine indicates very clearly indeed that the IDF was not trying to make the distinction, deemed essential under international humanitarian law, between combatant (legal) and noncombatant (illegal) targets.
I don’t have time to write more about this important topic now. I’ll just note that the lethal and destructive consequences of the decision that both the IDF and apparently also the US military have made, to work to avoid own-soldier casualties even where this can clearly be expected to increase the casualties inflicted on noncombatants are first and foremost quite tragic for the civilian residents of the war-zone.
Making this decision to value the lives of one’s own soldiers above that of civilian residents of the war-zone is racist and, quite simply, illegal under international humanitarian law.
Also, at the end of the day these decisions are strategically either ineffective in these kinds of wars or even actively counter-productive.
All of Foust’s post there on the Reuters blog bears close reading. He points out that the extreme own-soldier casualty aversion of the US troops in Afghanistan has resulted in huge areas of the country simply being ceded to the effective control of insurgent forces.
He concludes with these wise words:

    It is that mentality – severe risk aversion, coupled with attention paid to process rather than outcome – that risks ultimately undoing the Western mission in Afghanistan. As an institution, the U.S. Army seems unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary to create the conditions for peace: a population that is adequately protected from the crime, drug, and war lords, and therefore no longer contributing to the desperate regional instability.
    It is also a mentality that can be challenged in small doses from below, but demands concerted action from above. Command at the highest levels is vital in changing course, and admitting that war is actually a terrible and ghastly thing that requires your own people dying to win. It is a choice not many at the top seem willing to consider.

I should note that I disagree strongly with Foust in his assessment that for the US “winning” in Afghanistan is even possible. But he is a realist; and he’s right to note that the idea that the US can ever “win” in Afghanistan without taking very many casualties among its own soldiers is quite wrongheaded.
He’s equally right to remind everyone that “war is actually a terrible and ghastly thing.”
Because of that, international customary law lays upon every international actor that has a deep conflict with another party a very strong responsibility to find non-military ways to resolve that conflict.
Do such non-military ways exist in the case of Israel, with the Palestinians, or the US, in Afghanistan?
Of course they do.

An officer home from Iraq: his thoughts

I enjoyed an extended chat with a jr. US Army officer, on furlough from Iraq, about the time that Phyllis Bennis here gave a stimulating guest comment that questioned the Obama Administration agenda in Iraq.
I too was sensing something awry when the WaPost Outlook section last Sunday had three separate neoconservatives (Feith, Pletka, & Scheunemann) praising “Obama’s Plan for Iraq,” presumably because it seemed to place more emphasis on “finishing the job” and equivocating on the withdrawal timetable.
On the other hand, I’ve often wondered how simply withdrawing US troops necessarily will “end the war,” especially with the multiple worm cans festering in northern Iraq. (That of course is not an argument in itself for staying, just a “grounded” check.) In any case, I am encouraged that the violence is down considerably, even as we debate the various explanations.
With such questions on my mind, I was eager to listen to this young officer current impressions. He’s been there less than half a year, ensconced in one of the large army bases near the Baghdad airport. I present here a few of his observations, without my own “spin.” For his sake, I am not going to mention his name or unit, save to say that his comments were “candid” and, as far as I could tell, unconcerned about command ramifications.
Biggest complaint: While he did frequently mention cold showers (which beats being electrocuted by one of the notorious KBR showers!), his primary gripe was about sheer, raw boredom. The army keeps him “busy.” As a young engineer-in-training, he puts in 13+ hour days , 6.5 days a week, but his duties seem largely dominated by bureaucratic “make work” the army notoriously can create to fill space. (For effect, he mentioned that his drudge work had included warehouse inventories at the massive Abu Ghraib complex.)

Continue reading

Divide and Conquer

Success in foreign affairs, where domination is the goal, is often accomplished withn a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Conn Hallinan, 2004:

    It was “divide and conquer” that made it possible for an insignificant island in the north of Europe to rule the world. Division and chaos, tribal, religious and ethnic hatred, were the secret to empire. Guns and artillery were always in the background in case things went awry, but in fact, it rarely came to that.
    The parallels between Israel and Ireland are almost eerie, unless one remembers that the latter was the laboratory for British colonialism. As in Ulster, Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories have special privileges that divide them from Palestinians (and other Israelis as well). As in Ireland, Israeli settlers rely on the military to protect them from the “natives.” And as in Northern Ireland, there are political organizations, like the National Religious Party and the Moledet Party, which whip up sectarian hatred, and keep the population divided. The latter two parties both advocate the forcible transfer of all Arabs — Palestinians and Israelis alike — to Jordan and Egypt.

And in Iraq, there was the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006.

    The world-famed Golden Mosque, a Shiite religious shrine located in Samarra, Iraq, was bombed Feb. 22. The mosque’s golden dome was blown off in the explosion, which touched off a round of Sunni-Shiite discord across the country.

Continue reading

Climate of Change?

In a recent NYTimes article entitled “Climate of Change” Paul Krugman wrote:

    Elections have consequences. President Obama’s new budget represents a huge break, not just with the policies of the past eight years, but with policy trends over the past 30 years. If he can get anything like the plan he announced on Thursday through Congress, he will set America on a fundamentally new course.

Baloney. from a recent news report:

    Obama Budget to Boost Military Spending $20.4B
    President Barack Obama wants to increase spending on the U.S. military by $20.4 billion in 2010. . .
    The president unveiled a federal budget for 2010 that would increase defense spending to $533.7 billion. This year the military is receiving $513.3. The difference is a 4 percent increase, the White House said Feb. 26.
    The $533.7 billion does not include money for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or about $20 billion that is to be spent on nuclear weapons and other military items outside the Defense Department.
    Obama wants $130 billion for the wars – down from $144 billion being spent this year.
    The three elements combined – the “base” budget, war funding and nuclear weapons – would push 2010 spending to about $683.7 billion. Spending for 2009 is about $681 billion.

Continue reading

Black is Black, I Want My Barry Back

NOTE: Helena and I have been thinking quite independently along similar lines, which is not an isolated occurrence.
Approximately half of the CIA budget is reportedly devoted not to intelligence but to operations, such as targeted assassinations. New technology allows the US to use un-manned aircraft to kill people whever and wherever the President directs.
On February 13, 2009 Senator Diane Feinstein reported that the CIA has been flying Predator aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles from a Pakistan base.

    Reporting from Washington — A senior U.S. lawmaker said Thursday that unmanned CIA Predator aircraft operating in Pakistan are flown from an air base in that country, a revelation likely to embarrass the Pakistani government and complicate its counter-terrorism collaboration with the United States.

    Continue reading

From Specialst Armer to Obama: Actions vs. Words

The WaPo today informs us that US troops are increasingly “uneasy” in Iraq. No mention is made of the carnage being inflicted on Gaza as a concern.
Instead, journo Ernesto Londoño informs us that the concern is over “the new security agreement that demands that American combat troops depend more heavily than ever on their often-bungling Iraqi counterparts.” That, we are told, has left some troops feeling “vulnerable.”
Londoño quotes a US Army Specialist Cory Aermer, age 23:

“We’ve got to walk on eggshells…. I understand you can’t go out and shoot everyone and play Rambo. But war is war. We shouldn’t be falling under the jurisdiction of a country we’re at war with.”

Excuse me? Assuming Londoño didn’t put words in his mouth, somebody should explain to Specialist Armer that the US Army is not at war with the country of Iraq, but with, “the bad guys.” The idea of course is to get the good people of Iraq to reject the “bad guys,” to help them stand independently for themselves.
When not taking condescending swipes at Iraqi soldiers, Londoño appears to be siding with complaints about US troops being “forced” to “comply with the new requirement that bars the U.S. government from holding suspected criminals who have not been charged by Iraqi authorities.” According to a US Captain Dominic Heil,

“We used to detain people for their intelligence value only…. We can’t do that anymore.”

One hopes the Captain comprehends that the policy shift is actually good for American interests. It’s far easier to convince Iraqis of the merits of things like the rule of law when the US practices what it preaches. National Security “Mom” has it right: “Actions speak louder than words.”
An all-too-sad excuse often made for US soldiers behaving badly in Iraq was their civilian leadership’s winking and nodding at human rights abuses. I still have hopes for the incoming administration, but Barrack Obama’s comments on Sunday explaining why he’s in no apparent rush to close the Guantanamo Bay are disconcerting:

It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize and we are going to get it done but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it’s true.

Obama apparently wants to create “a process” by which we can keep them and get around (e.g., “balance”) those pesky human rights concerns that the world finds so important. Glen Greenwald draws out the implications of Obama’s apparent stance here:

What he’s saying is quite clear. There are detainees who the U.S. may not be able to convict in a court of law. Why not? Because the evidence that we believe establishes their guilt was obtained by torture… But Obama wants to detain them anyway…. So before he can close Guantanamo, he wants a new, special court to be created…. where evidence obtained by torture… can be used to justify someone’s detention….. That’s what he means when he refers to “creating a process.”

Mr. President elect, say it isn’t so. Please stop even implying actions that will drown out our words. In your campaign, you eloquently said that, “we will send a message to the world that we are serious about our values.”
Just what message would a “process” that permits the use of evidence obtained through torture send?

Counter Recruitment

This is the third and final installment in the American Warrior trilogy. Previous articles were on the need and recruitment of “warriors” into the US military ground forces.
Counter-recruitment is a strategy often taken up to oppose war. Counter-recruitment is an attempt to prevent military recruiters from enlisting civilians into the military. There are several methods commonly utilized in a counter-recruitment campaign, ranging from the political speech to direct action. Such a campaign can also target entities connected to the military, such as intelligence agencies, or private corporations, especially those with defense contracts.
Military recruitment and resistance to it has historically been a significant political issue in colonies of the British Empire. This is true in Ireland especially as the campaigns for independence from the British Empire intensified. The British Army raised many regiments from English colonies to fight in conflicts such as the Crimean War, World War I, and World War II. Irish songs opposing recruitment to the British army that date from the mid 1800s provide some evidence that this colonial policy was resisted – examples include Arthur McBride, Mrs. McGrath, and Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, which in part goes:

    With your guns and drums and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
    With your guns and drums and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
    With your guns and drums and drums and guns
    The enemy nearly slew ye
    Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer
    Johnny I hardly knew ye.
    Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo
    Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo
    Where are your eyes that were so mild
    When my heart you so beguiled?
    Why did ye skedaddle from me and the child?
    Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye.
    Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo
    Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo
    Where are your legs that used to run
    When you went for to carry a gun
    To be sure but your dancing days are done
    Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

Continue reading