Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Eight Years On

“An occupying army cannot expect to find friends but [it must] give the uninvolved population every opportunity to have some kind of a quality of life.” MGEN Yair Naven (ret.), Israeli Defense Forces

October 7/8 will mark the eighth anniversary of the opening salvo on the “Taliban” faction of the ruling Afghanistan government, institutions, and people. At that point, there will be only 123 days – almost exactly one third of a year – before the White House, the Pentagon, and the American public find that the nation’s escalating involvement in Afghanistan has surpassed the length of another U.S. conflict – the American Revolutionary War.

It is worth noting, up front, that this milestone leaves only the Vietnam War as the nation’s longest. That dubious distinction may fall as well – that is if the U.S. and NATO commander of coalition forces, General Stanley McChrystal, finds the White House amenable to adding as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to the 68,000 who are due “in-country” by the end of the year.

President Obama has stated that he remains undecided about the “surge” in troop numbers requested by McChrystal. The president is said to be making another strategy review, one which comes hard on the heels of “leaks” from the general’s “formal” update (presumably sent through Central Command Commander, General David Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates). The leading alternatives are counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, a mix of the two, or another approach that expands the range of available options.

What is at stake is the answer to two interrelated yet simple questions. Is the vital interest of the United States – its continued existence as a nation-state – at risk from the actions of any other nation-state? Do the actions undertaken by the United States in or to other nation-states threaten their interests and continuity?

The answers can be found in the intellectual fervor at work in the decades before the formation of the United States. Many of the new ideas had been championed by English thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Locke (reason, natural law, government and social contract, economics), and French theorists such as Baron de Montesquieu (division of political power and the role of law) and Jean Jacque Rousseau (individual freedom, civil liberty). For these men the principal standard by which a person’s actions were to be judged rested not on the dictates of religion or royal privilege but on the patient and thoughtful use of reason to examine relevant circumstances that influence personal choices (and limitations on choices) by individuals and by the agreement of society as a whole. These were the tenets for which the “Founding Fathers” fought a war (albeit one supported, opposed, and ignored by approximately one third of the colonial population).

Thus the Revolutionary War was first and foremost a dispute over controlling the prevailing economic model in North America from the Atlantic shore to the discontinuous elevations that pass for a “mountain range” in the continental east. It was also a dispute over the emergence of national policy as settlers moved westward.

By the early 19th century, the ruling elites in Europe had succeeded in creating a multi-polar international system designed to dampen the frequency and intensity of wars. But the rise of unbridled nationalism undermined this promising trend, as it did the existence of equal and reciprocal obligations, responsibilities, and rights to be enjoyed by every individual in every country.

By the mid 20th century, disputes had become so intense that many predicted a permanent state of war in a bifurcated globe. Those who held a wide concept of the national interest also held that sustaining this interest required an unlimited readiness to apply military power to “resolve” all “zero-sum” disputes (those in which one side – us – wins everything while our adversary loses everything) in favor of the United States. Moreover, the freedoms and liberties inherited by the people became submerged to the rise of a new governing Leviathan, the “national security state.”

What the 43 year “Cold War” displaced in our history is the memory of how a people, for all the mistakes in their often assertive self-declared international pragmatism, managed to retain actively the intellectual foundations of their revolution for others to absorb. Historically, this struggle began April 3, 1775 when the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord, and was technically terminated at the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. That shot continues to be heard around the world to this day – not to announce the integration of western freedom with the culture and traditions of others but to assume that U.S. national interest must and will be sustained – even if the last throw of the dice – through military power.

It is time to end the Pentagon’s addiction to the paradigm of annihilation – what some have labeled as “industrialized warfare” – that has become the last justification of the traditional American approach to war. Such wars may be “safer,” more palatable, and even more popular than wars of attrition. But they surely are no more “right” simply because fewer fatalities result with reduced exposure to danger by foreign forces.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Misreading ROEs


As the first decade of the 2st century has amply demonstrated, war remains an encountered in which those who command are often confronted with conflicted information -- or even any information – on which to act.

Clearly, on the night of September 4, the 12-24 Taliban fighters had completely misread the tractability of the ground at the fording site on the Kunduz River. On finding that the site was so muddy as to be unusable for heavy vehicles – in this case two fully filled fuel tankers – some of the armed insurgents reportedly forced many residents from two villages near the river site to try to pull the second tanker free of the mud. When this effort failed, in a last attempt to salvage some of their prize, the insurgents invited the villagers to take fuel at no cost, thereby reducing the weight enough to free the mired tanker. Apparently, none of the insurgents considered the likelihood that NATO was watching their activity at the river – and deciding what to do.

Four miles away, the German commander, Colonel Georg Klein, decided that the Taliban would have two highly flammable truck bombs to use against his men or against Afghani security forces. He requested the F-15 warplanes strike the ford with satellite guided bombs. Thirty minutes later, at about 2:00 in the morning, the river site exploded in what surviving observers termed as two mushroom fireballs.

Few of the estimated 100 moving “blips” – each representing a human being – that the German surveillance radar operators were monitoring before the strike were still moving after the two satellite-guided 500 pound bombs exploded. The Germans, fearing the anger of the local residents caused by the high fatalities, deferred going to the bomb site until well into late afternoon. One of the recently created NATO inspection teams charged by General McChrystal to investigate incidents that kill civilian fatalities did not arrive for another 24 hours. President Karzai called for another joint NATO-Afghani investigation, but by then, many of the dead were already buried.

As expected, the outcome of this investigation mirrored every earlier finding. No one associated with the coalition “caused” the civilian deaths; no one can be held responsible – particularly the Germans who deferred as long as they could before going to the bomb site and nearby villages. But the provincial authorities brought a different perspective; they blamed both the Taliban fighters and the villagers that had swarmed to the site to siphon the fuel for their own use (the fuel was destined for NATO troops). The governor of Kunduz seemed more offended by the villagers’ attempt to steal a few liters of fuel than by the devastation of the ford and the high number of noncombatants killed by the coalition in this pre-dawn strike. The actual number killed – insurgents and residents – may never be known, but will probably be set at about 70 – one half the 140 Afghanis killed during another air attack in August.

What I see as emerging from the interplay of the institutional players – Afghan noncombatants, Afghan officials, the German commander, the NATO inspector team, the U.S. pilots, and the Taliban insurgents – is a failure in the normal development and integration of broad cultural mores that ordinarily would be acceptable by the majority of Afghanis – and to “outsiders” as far back as Alexander the Great – with a stake in the game.

At the end, the Afghan people have to identify the stress on the system and institutions of governance and devise ways to bridge the tribal and clan divisions that were rekindled when the Soviets and the U.S. simply walked away in 1989. This suggests some form of power sharing by the different factions, on an ethnic blueprint similar to the sectarian blueprint that evolved in Iraq over the last five years (but which might fracture again between Arabs and Kurds). What is obviously a major challenge to any effort to re-allocate power in Afghanistan is the massive corruption practiced by the “rulers” at all levels.

Few observers of Afghanistan question the skill, courage, and loyalty of individual Afghan fighters to their tribal identity and clan elders. Yet it is precisely at this point that adherence to tribal instinct and its defense cannot generate the unifying will necessary to create and maintain both inter- and intra-national institutions capable of directing the evolution of a workable political and civil society.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rules of Engagement II

If you were to ask most soldiers whether they believed their “side” would be capable of exercising restraint in war, the answer would probably be “yes” more often than not and regardless of evidence to the contrary. International law , specifically the “institutional” guidelines such as the Hague and Geneva Conventions, dictate the general restraints on violence that all participants in armed conflicts are obliged to observe. This requirement pertains when government forces, regardless of attempts to use claims of “self defense” or “military necessity,” try to justify attacks on noncombatants. It also pertains when insurgents come into villages to demand “protection money,” require “donated” labor by individuals without any pay, or require villagers to participate in military or quasi-military operations or be killed – the situation that bedevils Afghanistan today.

The growth of interactions between noncombatants, who either do not flee a battlefield or leave but then return shortly after the fighting subsides, and the force that won and holds the terrain, introduced the need to develop for the soldier expanded guidelines to direct this interaction – thus the phrase “Rules of Engagement” (ROEs).

The Pentagon’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, updated October 7, 2004, defines the phrase as “Directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.” This is the authority for the use of force – that is, the when, where, to what end, and against whom organized large-scale violence is employed.

Army training about ROEs envisions two general circumstances for using weapons: self-defense and to achieve mission completion. Whether ROEs are “permissive” (allowing more use of force) or “restrictive” (limited use of force) depends on the anticipated conditions extant in the mission – e.g., presence or absence of quantities of small arms and light weapons; existing, organized opposition groups, armed and unarmed; competency of local security forces, etc.

“Other forces encountered” is very broad. It encompasses guerrilla, police, para-military, military, and terrorists with or without national designations or insignia. Actions or indications of imminent intent to employ force to stop or impede U.S. forces are enough to consider any gathering as hostile. (Another avenue is for “competent authority” to declare a group as “hostile.”)

Some ROEs are included in unit “standing operational orders” (SOP) and form the basic structure from which adjustments are made to develop operational-specific ROEs issued to forces just prior to the start of an operation

ROEs provide for the use of deadly force to counter deadly force as an absolute right. They do not sanction deadly force to accomplish a mission. The use of force for the latter purpose is conditional on the grounds of necessity (a hostile act is imminent or has occurred) and proportionality (reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude). For example, destroying the house and livelihood of relatives of insurgent suicide car bombers is neither necessary nor proportional; it is vindictive.

This is the core disagreement between the Afghanistan central government, the Kunduz provincial leaders, the German commanders decision to request the air strike, and part of General McChrystal’s “rules of engagement" that require two independent sources verify that the proposed targets are Taliban fighters or active supporters.

ROEs must also remain flexible enough to respond to changes in the level of risk posed by operational conditions. ROEs should be drawn so as to discourage “mission creep” mindset that significantly and abruptly alters the rules under which troops operate. In fact, ROEs can serve as a brake on potential escalation in the level and extent of violence.

Consider Haiti in March 2004. With the country in chaos, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is “induced” be Washington to leave. American troops tell reporters the mission is to protect the U.S. embassy from rebel bands. But U.S. commanders in Haiti say their mission is to “stabilize the country” sufficiently for Haitian police to return to their posts, not disarm militants. Meanwhile the Pentagon says Marines would confiscate weapons.

So it sems in specific encounters, trying to disarm civilians actually could create confrontations. In others, prudence might dictate disarming potential belligerents as the best way to avoid the future use of deadly force. Then, with little notice, the mission expands again, moving more toward law enforcement and new ROEs that permit use of deadly force to protect Haitians from violence and – perhaps reflecting criticism from inaction by U.S. forces when Baghdad fell – to preclude rampant looting.

Conversely, “preventive war” doctrine developed by President George Bush could be considered a more permissive ROE national security policy statement than any in the past (e.g., no first use of nuclear weapons). It is also a policy that runs counter to the Charter of the United Nations, which the U.S. has signed, that recognizes only the right of “national self-defense” against an imminent threat of attack, not some possible threat that might or might not materialize in the indeterminate future. In some respects, the Bush doctrine has simply elevated to national policy the Vietnam War practice of declaring “free fire zones.” Yes, there were restrictive ROEs actually printed on cards handed to every soldier that directed:

-no bombing of villages without warning the inhabitants, even if the village was “known” to be communist;

-no attacking of villages without a warning even if U.S. troops had received fire from the village;

-evacuating all civilians before a village could be declared a free fire zone.

But in practice, over time the few restraints fell away; evacuations were incomplete; warnings delivered by leaflet missed their intended audience (or could not be read by the largely uneducated peasantry); ground fire by “Viet Cong” brought immediate and massive retaliation. And it was the perception that U.S. forces did not consider Vietnamese lives as of equal value to U.S. lives that lost Washington the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and cost Vietnam another generation of its youth.

That has a 21st century echo in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next: Rule of Engagement III

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Collateral Civilians and ROE

Last Friday’s news out of Afghanistan’s northeast province of Kunduz was bad – in fact quite bad. During the night, U.S. warplanes, responding to a request from the senior coalition commander in the province, fired two satellite guided “smart munitions” at as many as 100 men who were trying to free two fuel tankers that were mired in deep mud. The result was predictable: U.S. pilots hit exactly the target specified by the coalition commander.

Initial reports from Afghani officials who went to the attack site put the toll as high as 100. No one from the coalition compound even ventured outside their defenses until well past daylight. At the national level, coalition investigators likewise were inexplicably delayed in flying to Kunduz and then were warned not to land at the attack site. Regardless of the number killed, what was already clear was the absence of any affiliation with the Taliban of the majority who lived near the river crossing. They were local villagers and farmers rousted from sleep by the Taliban who needed raw “muscle” to push two captured coalition fuel trucks free of a muddy ford in which the heavy tankers had bogged down.

What follows is a two part, rough analysis of the situation in Afghanistan and how the coalition commander is writing the rules of engagement (ROE) that troops are to follow in their interactions with noncombatants.

The Setting

Life in Kunduz had always been hard and unchanging. Warfare between ethnic Tajik and Uzbek militias was common and would flare over control of territory, trade routes and smuggling. That changed in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and installed a western-backed government led by Hamid Karzai. The 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, along with 13 other countries, then agreed to help rebuild Afghanistan.

Initially, while remnants of the Taliban were on the run, physical security for contractors working on major projects was not a widespread concern. In Kunduz, the German army employed radar and television surveillance of key terrain and transportation routes and ran patrols to demonstrate a security “presence” in the province. That balance began to unravel in 2007 as the Taliban expanded their operations from their traditional stronghold in Kandahar and the south into the north and west – that is, into Kunduz province where 200 German troops were stationed.

Hijacking the fuel tankers was an audacious move by the Taliban insurgents. According to local media representatives, the German commander was concerned that the Taliban might explode one or both tankers near Afghan government buildings and security personnel, coalition forces, or civilian contractors. A “by chance” radar scan of the mired tankers was forwarded to the German headquarters. Activity at the river site could be followed in real time but the imagery could not verify the number of people at the river site or how many were armed. Separately, a local “informant” working for the German contingent reported as many as 100 men were at the river and insisted that all those at the river crossing were Taliban or supported the insurgents. Finally, the German commander called in U.S. F-15s to bomb the trucks. Survivors described a huge fireball and total destruction.

The high death toll among noncombatants is but the latest dispute among the Afghan government, NATO, and the German government about who draws up the rules governing the use of deadly force in military operations involving noncombatants. Because the U.S. force commander is also the coalition commander and the bulk of combat forces are Americans, the Pentagon approves the rules governing relationships between civilians and coalition soldiers.

The “Rules of Engagement” (ROE) are part of a commander’s decision matrix that sets restraints on the context of actions – other than self-defense – that could cause or preclude serious injury or death on a battlefield. ROEs are the core of profession military training as they render a soldier’s automatic response to the actions of combatant and noncombatants encountered during operations. At the base of such training is the assumption that human behavior in violent contexts – including armed conflict of all types – can be consistently restrained and directed so that death and destruction are minimized.

Next: ROE

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

When Strategy Miscues

II. When Strategy Miscues

In the last entry (above), I ended by summarizing the number of troops who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 or 2003, respectively. While the nation knows the toll in blood and lost lives in Iraq, only recently has the public began to focus on Afghanistan and to ask – again – how many more?

Unfortunately, the answer is always the same: how many is as unknown as it is incalculable and as particular as it is random, both for those who fight and for those in leadership who contrive to start or to continue armed conflict.

For the people of Afghanistan as for the American public, much will depend on the new “matrix” strategy being introduced to beat back the insurgency’s recent gains. The matrix is envisioned as measuring 50 “indicators” of progress on reaching a set of mutual goals established by the central Afghani government and coalition forces.

The U.S. ground commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is not expected to request a specific troop increase when he testifies before Congress in September. What will spur the administration to request Congress authorize higher war spending is the “matrix effect” – created when separate elements from different backgrounds combine their capabilities into a new entity whose power is greater than the sum of its parts. The deployment of another 100 U.S. trainers is expected to act as the catalyst that finally produces a battle-wise and tested Afghani army – more professional, more concerned with human and civil liberties, more committed to democracy, and less corrupt than the other ministries.

While this is commendable psychology, it may well be non-transferable. A person unfamiliar with the meaning of key American theoretic concepts – e.g., “equality of opportunity” – that Americans instictively believe comes with Mom's apple pie are too often left to stumble about with no insight or other support. The result is a communal psychology that features the safety of the fighters before the safety of the community as a whole. At this point the psychology on which the culture rests becomes subject to widespread disintegration, leaving no understanding as to how such concepts of "equality" become integrated personal and communal actions that sustain national objectives without the burden of rigid matrices.