Oct 30

Some passages from the great novels are too good to not share. Instead of an original post today, we want to share John Steinbeck’s words:

    "Of them all, only Colonel Lanser knew what war really is in the long run.
    "Lanser had been in Belgium and France twenty years before and he tried not think what he knew--that war is treachery and hatred, the muddling of incompetent generals, the torture and killing and sickness and tiredness, until at last it is over and nothing had changed except for new weariness and new hatreds. Lanser told himself he was a soldier, given orders to carry out. He was not expected to question or to think, but only to carry out orders; and he tried to put aside sick memories of the other war and the certainty that this would be the same. This one will be different, he said to himself fifty times a day; this one will be different.
    "In marching, in mobs, in football games, and in war, outlines become vague; real things become unreal and a fog creeps over the mind. tension and excitement, weariness, movement--all merge in one great, grey dream, so that when it is over, it is hard to remember how it was when you killed men or ordered them to be killed. Then other people who were there tell you what it was like and you say vaguely, “Yes, I guess that’s how it was.”

I've written before about The Moon is Down before here and here.

Oct 28

(Based on the urgings of my father and co-blogger, my next few posts will deal with the most contentious foreign policy issue under debate today: should America escalate in Afghanistan or return to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy? I am hesitant to address this issue because so many excellent opinion makers have already covered it so well. We started this site to take a different approach to foreign policy, though, and we feel we must discuss Afghanistan. Over the next few weeks I will provide my thoughts.)

The biggest national security problem facing America is still Al Qaeda. The Taliban government was an awful government, but their only crime against the US was harboring Al Qaeda. Thus, every opinion about Afghanistan--be it from an academic, political, media or military sphere--must deal with these Islamic extremists who use terrorism to further their aims.

However, it is a mistake that America focuses exclusively on Pakistan and Afghanistan in this debate. The problem is not that Afghanistan or Pakistan did, does and could harbor Islamic extremists in the future; the problem is that failed states--like Afghanistan following the civil war that ended in 1994--harbor Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda.

Like the mythical hydra, Al Qaeda will always replace every member we kill. Fortunately, we know that Al Qaeda lives in the swamp of failed states. Instead of metaphorically cutting off their replaceable heads, we must drain the global swamp. We must deny them sanctuary in failed states.

Ergo, if the US only uses a counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, we risk allowing them to fail once again.

I have struggled before with how to define a failed states. Thankfully, think tanks have done the research for me. Whether one uses Foreign Policy working with the Fund for Peace, the Center for International Development and Conflict Management’s Peace and Conflict 2010 or USAID and the World Bank’s State Fragility Index, we can identify confidently the states at greatest risk of failing. By comparing issues like civil violence, political control, economic prosperity and human rights, we can predict the future survival of states.

Since the initial communist takeover in the late seventies, Afghanistan has toyed with failed state status. Incredibly violent, politically uncontrollable, and economically stagnant--the instability led to a perfect training ground for Al Qaeda. Even after the Taliban emerged victorious from a long civil war, their repressive government kept human rights, economic progress and social justice from taking root, the perfect safe haven for Al Qaeda.

While Afghanistan occupies our current national attention, it is not the only failed state that could harbor terrorists. Yemen is in the beginnings throes of an insurgency, Al Qaeda continues to make inroads in the anarchic Somalia, and though Iraq appears to have emerged from their civil war, the situation with the Kurds in Mosul remains tense. Finally, sub-Saharan African states continues to populate lists of failing states, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Guinea, and Chad.

Every failed state, a state without political control or economic progress, could harbor Al Qaeda. A precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, even to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy, risks letting it return to civil war and failed state status. As others have said, we can wage counter-terrorism forever. The terrorists will simply replace their fallen. Does anyone really think we can kill our way out of this problem?

Removing failed states, as a true long term strategy, will prevent the causes that allow terrorism to exist. The issue is not terrorism, or even Al Qaeda. The issue is failed states.

Oct 26

(Based on the urgings of my father and co-blogger, the next few posts will deal with the most contentious foreign policy issue under debate today: should America escalate in Afghanistan or return to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy? I am hesitant to address this issue, the following story explains why.)

Like all young teenagers, I knew everything. At 18, I believed I knew enough history that I could predict the future.

My high school, the prestigious San Clemente High School, ran an International Baccalaureate program. For my senior thesis in the fall of 2001, I chose to analyze the recently begun Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. I boldly predicted its failure. I compared it loosely to the US experience in Vietnam and wrote that the US would be stuck in a quagmire for years to come. (To show my ignorance of history, I totally ignored the Russian example. I don't know why.)

The paper was amateurish. Comparing two wars--one historical and one ongoing--and trying to sum it all up in 4,000 words was probably a bit audacious. Especially bold because at the time I didn’t regularly read the Economist and I hadn’t yet read David Galula’s Counter-Insurgency Theory and Practice and The Accidental Guerilla, The Sling and the Stone and Eating Soup with Knife had all yet to be published.

Two years later, as Iraq was in full swing, I generally admitted defeat. Afghanistan had dropped out of the news and the casualties were not severe. At the time, 2004 to 2006, America generally referred to that as the successful war. Rumsfeld basked in the success of the Rumsfeld doctrine. My initial prediction had been wrong.

Except that by mid-2007, after the surge “worked” for in Iraq, Afghanistan emerged from the cocoon of peace. It turns out, we hadn’t created a successful government or quelled the Taliban or even formed an army. This meant that in very general terms I was right in my initial prediction.

I don’t remember if I predicted that we would be in Afghanistan for a long time, in which case I was right; or if I predicted we would simply not “win” in Afghanistan, which remains to be seen.

This is why On Violence avoids making predictions. Anyone making predictions about the future, including me, Eric or any of the hundreds of pundits and politicians out there, should do so humbly. You never know when you may be wrong, or right, or wrong and then right again.

Oct 21

My dad, when he first looked at On Violence, asked me why Michael and I didn’t name it “On Evil.”

The reason is that evil may exist, but it is not simple or straightforward like many believe. Evil, if it exists at all, defies definition. Violence and conflict, though, are readily apperent.

Princess Mononoke, directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, illustrates the difficulty of defining Evil. As Roger Ebert writes, “It is not a simplistic tale of good vs. evil, but the story of how humans, forest animals and nature gods all fight for their share.” The main character, Ashitaka, states his motivation, the driving force of the film, “What I want is for humans and the forest to live in harmony.” Harmony vs. disharmony, chaos vs. order, is the real battle of the film.

There are no “good” characters in Princess Mononoke. Each straddles the line of good and evil. San--the eponymous Princess Mononoke--hates humans and kills ox drivers trying to earn a living for their families. But she does good by protecting the forest and saving Ashitaka's life. Lady Eboshi kill the boar god Nago and razing his forest. But she does so in hopes of finding a cure for the lepers she employs and to save women who work for her from lives of prostitution. Jiko seeks to kill a God, and destroy the forest, for the hope of eternal life; but, even he is kindhearted to Ashitaka at the beginning of the film.

One incident defines this duality. Princess Mononoke has come to kill Lady Eboshi, and Lady Eboshi lays down the main conflict, “If you seek revenge for all the animals we’ve killed, then there are two women down here you might want to meet. They want revenge for their husbands killed by two wolves."

Even within each side, man and nature, things are not black and white. Man fights man. Jiko fights both the samurai and Lady Eboshi. Moro, the wolf god, fights Okkoto the boar god at the end of the film. The monkeys fight the wolves. It is man vs. nature, but also man vs. man, and nature vs. nature. Conflict is the only constant.

The world of Princess Mononoke is filled with conflicting interests, multiple parties with different interests, multiple agendas. What is the solution? The solution comes from Ashitaka, whose only want is harmony. As Jiko asks at the end of the film, “Whose side is he on?” He does kill in the film, but in hopes of convincing both man and nature that they can coexist.

The movie ends cheerfully, if not naively. The villagers, who started the whole mess by pillaging the mountain, agree to build a new town. Jiko, who gave them the weapons that started the whole mess, chalks the whole thing up for a loss and takes off. Princess Mononoke goes off with the wolves to tend to the forest. Ashitaka says he will visit Princess Mononoke, his new love, but must assist the people in building a new town. He must continue to provide balance and harmony.

The film has no “moral” but a point of view about point of views. Let me make my own lesson I took from the film: If Ashitaka had deemed San, or Jiko, or Lady Eboshi "evil" at any point, the film never would have ended in harmony.

Oct 21

I read a online exchange recently between Abu Muqawama and Colonel Gian Gentile that typifies the ongoing debate over the future of warfare. What I find amusing, though, is the accusation some make that the Army is "obsessed" with counterinsurgency. From my point of view, our doctrine has changed but our mindset has not, especially the mindset of Generals and Colonels raised on war with the Soviets.

The proof is in the pudding. In my experience, when units get downrange, they attempt to conduct large scale battalion-sized operations. While the doctrine is clear, hold and build, maneuver commanders never get to the hold or build parts. They continually run “clearing” operations because they are the most similar to high-intensity warfare.

During my deployment, my battalion conducted a monthly Company or Battalion-sized operation called a CONOP, sometimes referred to as a named operation. Our CONOPs boiled down to a series of company-sized air assaults to cordon and search a village. These looked very good on paper, but what did they achieve?

Ostensibly, the purpose of these missions was counter-force--trying to find the enemy and destroy him. We used helicopters to access regions we could not on daily patrols. By reaching out to these areas, where insurgents didn’t think we would go, we could theoretically surprise them.

Keeping in mind I was a PL at the time, I cannot speak to the strategic success of our CONOPs, I can only speak to how they effected my daily patrols. The air assault to and from the objective usually took about 24 to 48 hours. The preparation took 24 hours. Recovery, another 24 hours. In addition, if we were tasked with the quick reaction force mission, we could not leave our base for another 24 to 48 hours. All told, a CONOP could eat up anywhere from five to nine days; up to nine days I could not patrol my assigned area of operations.

In that time, we left the civilian populace open to insurgent information operations, intelligence collection and general influence, all so that we could fly to remote mountain tops. Whenever we resumed patrolling, the locals and police would always ask, "Where have you been?"

The CONOP does have its place when moving into previously violent areas for the first time. This happened several times in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad proper. But when conducted at the expense of daily security patrols, it compromises the mission. Even in the Iraq examples of Fallujah and Ramadi, we proved repeatedly we can clear objectives, then repeatedly proved we cannot hold or build in those areas of operations. Short term successes, but long term failures.

My daily patrols influenced every aspect of the overall mission: developing the government, collecting intelligence, supporting the local population, providing security and more. Simple daily patrols won’t garner awards, win headlines, or make sexy evaluation bullets yet they beat counterinsurgencies in the long run. Battalion and Brigade Commanders still don't understand this core tenet of counter-insurgency, and the proof is the type of operations they conduct downrange.

(After writing on this topic, Tom Ricks caught this excellent snippet that agrees with my argument.)

Oct 19

In earlier posts about my experience in Afghanistan, I answered the questions others asked me the most: What did you do out there? Were you scared? What was it like meeting with the locals?

Today’s question is not a question others have asked me, but one I have asked myself over and over since returning from deployment: Did I accomplish anything out there? What, specifically, was my legacy in Afghanistan?

I earned a Bronze Star Medal (for service), a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and 173rd Combat Patch; I earned the trust of my men and built relationships for life; I faced the possibility of death and the emotional turmoil that brings--all things I am proud of. But the question remains, did I leave a lasting positive in my wake?

When I patrolled the Korengal, achieving tactical victories was a struggle. We had a few minor accomplishments. As we started doing dismounted patrols, we found a 107-millimeter rocket on the side of the road probably a future IED. We also conducted a dismounted patrol that found an ambush site.

But when the rubber meets the road, my lasting accomplishments were achieved in Serkani District.  Mainly, we trained Afghanistan National Security Forces in Serkani, both the Army and the Police. Once we had trained, we then started building an intelligence and trust network with the local government.

For the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), we were not their primary trainers, but we partnered with them on every operation. Despite a rocky start, the Marine Embedded Tactical Trainers (anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest fan of Marines but their trainers were amazingly flexible and resilient) and 4th Platoon taught our ANA Kandak (Pashtun for battalion) how to react quickly, to conduct traffic stops, and, most importantly, how not to accidentally discharge their weapons in our vicinity. 

The other key piece of the security forces was the police. My biggest accomplishment here--and this is the one I am most proud--was gaining their trust. I visited each checkpoint in Serkani at least once a week. I visited the checkpoint in Pashad, the most critical position, at least every three days. Mostly, we drank Chai. In typical Afghan police fashion, their stations would not start work until our convoy pulled up. We also continually urged them to report suspicious activity to us if they couldn’t handle it (which they couldn’t).

While training the ANA and developing the Afghan Police, I also worked to expand the reach of the district sub-governor Mustafa Khan. To gain his trust I offered to take him wherever he needed to go. This approach had definite drawbacks as it showed him reliant on the US. But, as a result of our many patrols, he visited villages and represented the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in places that had never seen the government. We also always included both the ANA and Afghan police so every patrol seemed like a joint patrol, even if our US forces were probably the glue enabling it to occur.

When I came back from the Afghanistan, I generally believed I had accomplished something; I earned the trust of the locals. I am proud of what I accomplished but I still wonder, could I have done more?

Oct 16

(Spoiler warning: This post contains the ending and other plot details of Orson Scott Card’s "Ender’s Game.")

Ender, the eponymous hero of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, has a mantra: “I am not a killer.” His older brother Peter is a cruel bully who tortures small animals. “I am not Peter,” Ender tells himself.

I have bad news for you, Ender. You are killer. You want to be a pacifist but you aren't. You say you don't want to kill but you do, at least three times. Actions define us more than our beliefs, and your actions make you a killer. (A repentant killer is still a killer.)

Despite the author's intentions, the real theme of Ender’s Game is Ender's refusal to work for peace, to take himself outside of mankind's system of violence. Ironically, it is the one paradigm his mind can’t break.

Pre-Battle School

Before Ender even leaves for his military training academy, he kills. When confronted by bullies on the way home, Ender kicks the lead bully to death as he lays prone on the ground. From this description, Ender sounds like a psychotic.

Like much of the novel, it seems as if Ender has no peaceful way out, but this is an illusion. If Ender was so smart, why didn’t he find a way to avoid the bullies? Why doesn’t he see them coming? Why doesn’t he just take his beating--like most pacifists--and then appeal to an higher authority when he got home? Why not kick the boy down, and run? Ender, the smartest being on the planet, doesn’t even try to think of a peaceful way out of the conflict.

A final appeal. Bullies don't deserve to be punished, but not killed. Bullying is not a crime worthy of the death penalty. Especially six year old bullies.

Battle School

Once at Battle School--his military training academy--Ender repeatedly faces moments of intense violence, coordinated by his teachers. First, when Ender runs practice sessions, older boys attack him. Later, a fellow student attacks Ender when he is alone and naked in the shower and Ender kills him.

While the first instance of Violence could have been taken as a surprise, the second attack Ender knew was coming. Why didn’t Ender try and prevent it? Why didn’t Ender talk to Graff, demand that he protect him? Why didn’t his impossibly brilliant mind find a peaceful solution?

Ender kills no matter what he does. Even in a computer game, Ender kills his enemies, even in places where no one has killed before.

The Buggers

The central problem of Ender’s Game is an "us vs. them" problem. Either the buggers--enemy aliens--live and kill all humanity, or humanity kills all of the buggers and lives. Ender unintentionally goes ahead and kills the bugger's home world, and their entire race.

This is, of course, the perfect pacifist parable because, as the last chapter states, the buggers never wanted to fight us. The entire problem never existed. As the bugger queen states, “We did not mean to murder. And when we understood, we did not come again.” But humans did keep attacking without looking for a peaceful solution, just like Ender does throughout the book.

In closing...

If you only look for violent solutions, they will be the only solutions you will find. Just like Ender.

Oct 15

Today, On Violence is participating in Blogging Action Day. The stated goal is simple, "First and last, the purpose of Blog Action Day is to create a discussion. We ask bloggers to take a single day out of their schedule and focus it on an important issue." This year the topic is global warming.

With that simple mission in mind, we asked ourselves: Is Global Warming Violent?

Eric C:

To determine if Global Warming is Violent, we need to answer a series of questions:

First, is Global Warming happening?

Most likely, the answer is yes. I'll defer to the majority opinion of experts and scientists on the subject. (This may seem like I'm hedging; I am. Though I am a die hard environmentalist, I'm also a philosophical skeptic.)

Second, is it "attributable to human activities" (ie. releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere)?

Again, I would say yes. And on this point I am certain. Blame it on Karma or Newton's Third Law, but you cannot release millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and not expect there to be a reaction, most likely a negative one.

Third, will global warming, if it happens, cause injury?

Most definitely. Wikipedia has an entire page about the effects of global warming. Without discussing all the animals, habitats and ecosystems that will be violently destroyed, I'll keep this on the human scale. If sea levels continue to rise, small islands like Tuvalu or the Maldives will sink. Imagine that, entire islands and peoples displaced by rising water. That, I would argue, certainly is injurious.

Most interesting to me are the conclusions of this exercise. First, people can collectively cause injury. Every American who drives a car, who consumes 25% of the world's resources, is injuring the people of Tuvalu. We tend to view Violence as a one on one, or one on many activity. It isn't. Second, you don't have to pull the trigger to negatively affect another human being. All you have to do is leave the light on buy a bigger truck.

Michael C:

I guess when you break it down, global warming (and the impending doom it spells for both humanity and nature) lacks the human element. Sure we could all die, but who specifically caused it? We can't blame anyone individually; this makes it difficult to talk about philosophically.

Global warming lacks the critical parts that would make it overtly violent. First, it lacks the human victim. While many animals have, and many more will suffer greatly, they are not human. Almost all philosophical and religious systems hold the human intellect above the animal and thus ignore global warming. Second, it lacks the perpetrator. The Holocaust had Hitler. 9/11 has Osama bin Laden. The Empire had Darth Vader. Global warming has...car companies? Not a compelling perpetrator.

We would all agree that suicide is a violent act. Suicide satisfies the criteria of both human actors and human victims. And, when it comes to global warming the science is clear: we are slowly committing worldwide suicide. True, the scale is enormous, but it is us doing it. It may lack specific human perpetrators and individual victims, but it is still suicide.

This leaves only one remaining issue, what if humanity survives global warming but in the process wipes out ninety percent of the flora and fauna of our world? Is that Violent? I think the phrase "wipes it out" should speak for itself.

Yes, it is Violent.

Oct 14

Despite my preoccupation with political war (or insurgency), I still think about high-intensity war or maneuver warfare. I fear that as we focus more and more on counter-insurgency operations, we risk losing our ability to use initiative to win in high intensity conflict.

While I believe all our future wars will be political, many will have high intensity campaigns. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a perfect example of a high intensity fight transitioning into political conflict. Unfortunately, it also changed the mindset of the modern U.S. Army. As we transitioned to daily counter-insurgency operations we became dramatically more static as a military. Majors and Lt. Colonels have spent the bulk of deployments behind computers fighting war through email and PowerPoint. In the nine years of counter-insurgency since 9/11, we have trained our officers to be static or complacent.

My battalion serves as an example. We have one human resources officer, a signal officer, a logistics officer, an assistant logistics officer, a operations major, an assistant operations officer, one assistant lieutenant for air operations, one chemical officer, one intelligence officer, one assistant intelligence officer, an officer for fires, and sometimes an extra lieutenant. An executive officer leads this crew and a lieutenant colonel leads this entire staff and the maneuver elements. Brigade staffs have three to four times as many officers. I haven't even mentioned the NCO counterpart to every individual mentioned above. To plan future operations, all of these disparate elements need to come together.

And, this organization applies to every battalion.

Obviously, this process is slow and unwieldy. Frankly, planning quickly is hard with multiple voices. Without rapid thinking and rapid acting, the initiative is lost.

The army is moving more and more towards static continuous operations because that is the life of counter-insurgency. The question is, how will this affect the military when again we have to move towards maneuver warfare? With the training of leaders to think in terms of static positions and running tactical operations centers (training extremely similar to daily garrison operations), our army will have a rude awakening if we do go toe to toe with China, Iran, North Korea or another determined enemy in maneuver warfare. If an enemy can figure a cheap solution to counter our air, ground and sea firepower, we could find ourselves in a precarious situation. Our leadership must remember the value of agility, initiative and rapid decision making; it must also remember that, more often than not, in organizations less is more.

Oct 12

Once on a comment on Abu Muqawama, I made a reference to the costs of warfare. Another commenter said I shouldn't comment unless I was prepared to make the sacrifice myself. Someone else then pointed out that I was an infantry officer who had earned a CIB in Afghanistan.

Naturally, my experience in Afghanistan is a huge part of my exploration into Violence, and foreign and military affairs. That's what I would like to write about today, to clarify exactly what I did and did not do in Afghanistan. Also, I know that many of our civilian readers have a lot of questions about the daily life of our soldiers in Afghanistan.  

I joined my battalion six months into a fifteen month deployment. My late arrival as a mid-tour replacement was a double edged sword. The biggest benefit was that I spent all my time downrange as a platoon leader, the smallest unit of organization an officer can lead. Most officers say is the most fun they ever had, and that time has been the most rewarding experience of my short time in the Army. The bonds I formed with my men during deployment will last for the rest of our lives.

On the other hand, the biggest drawback to arriving mid-deployment is the never ending feeling like you aren’t quite a member of the team. You have to prove yourself, you have to earn your place. I never quite felt a part of my battalion until we returned from deployment; I only knew my company. Both companies I worked with were geographically removed from battalion headquarters so the battalion staff did not know me as Michael Cummings, they knew me as Destined 4-6: 4th Platoon Leader, Destined Company.

My battalion deployed to Konar Province, Afghanistan. At the time, it was one of the most dangerous areas of operation on the planet. The enemy favored small arms and indirect fire weapons to IEDs. When they attacked, they were vicious and tenacious. Our battalion’s story was told in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and on Nightline. Because of this media coverage, our battalion in many ways was the face of war in Afghanistan. (Currently, I would say the south of the country, Helmand Province, has taken that role.) 

When I first arrived, I spent a few weeks learning how to become the Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader. The initial plan was that I would learn how to operate the Battalion Mortars, then transfer to a rifle or weapons platoon. Like all of the best laid plans, this one changed. Before I could take the mortar platoon job, a job in Destined Company--our heavy weapons company--opened up. Before I knew it, I was on a plane flying to the Korengal valley.

As a heavy weapons platoon leader, I deployed to two different areas within Konar Province. In the first area of operations, the Korengal Valley, we were attached to Battle Company. The Korengal Vally had roughly eight kilometers of road. The area of operations spread out on either side by a few kilometers but very little was reachable by Coalition Forces. My platoon operated as a quick reaction force or a pre-positioned support-by-fire element. As a quick reaction force, we assisted a force in trouble by providing additional troops, heavy weapons fire or, if needed, ground based casualty evacuation. For the latter, we pre-positioned our trucks and provided overwhelming fire to units in contact.

Because we dominated the roads, by default the IED defeat mission fell to us. In my terms, we did not conduct counter-IED missions (trying to take down the cells) but anti-IED missions (trying to find the IEDs in the road). A few days before I took lead of the platoon, an IED had detonated and destroyed one of our trucks. One of our soldiers lost both legs as a result. The IED mission, therefore, occupied much of my mental and emotional energy.

After two months in this area, my platoon rejoined Destined Company, our parent company. Captain Rowe gave my platoon the districts of Serkani and Marawara. Instead of providing the specific mission support-by-fire we executed in the Korengal, we controlled an entire AO. This AO included over one hundred square kilometers, at least forty-thousand families, and twenty kilometers of road. Instead of a purely tactical mission focus as in the Korengal, I had to learn the skills of counter-insurgency and try to influence the local government.

In the former AO, I experienced glimpses of the intense fighting my men had endured before I arrived. Because of the tenacious fight, Battle Company and their commander earned many awards and adulation for what they endured. In our second area of operations, Serkani, we generally pushed out the Taliban with our presence. Before our presence patrols they had attacked Afghan police checkpoints and smuggled in goods. After a few weeks of patrolling, they shifted their smuggling routes and the attacks on Afghan security forces ceased.

In Serkani and Marawara my missions were as varied as the terrain. We conducted dismounted, mounted and aerial patrols. We conducted kinetic movement to contacts and support by fires. We conducted presence patrols like traffic control points and route clearances. We conducted soft-skill missions like humanitarian aid distributions, medical civil action projects and economic reconstruction with the local provincial reconstruction team. We also trained three separate Afghan security forces: the Army, the Police and the Border Police.

I was proud of my experience and performance in both the Korengal and Serkani. In the Korengal I saw the fighting and the headlines; in Serkani, I saw real people get real help. In many ways, I saw the different approaches an Army can take to war, both the high-intensity and the population-centric counter-insurgency. Both ways influenced how I think about warfare and nation building.

Oct 09

(Spoiler Alert: This post covers plot details of Bill Willingham’s compelling graphic novel series, “Fables: Animal Farm.”)

“When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her.”  -- Oscar Wilde

Like the best graphic novels (such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman), Bill Willingham’s Fables forces you to re-look at the nature and history of storytelling. Whereas Gaiman borrowed from myth and Moore borrowed from pulp fiction, Willingham borrows from the worlds of folklore and fairy tales.

What sets Fables apart from the aforementioned books (and most other graphic novels) are the overt political themes. While its characters are straight from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, its themes are straight from Dr. Strangelove or 1984. Take the second story arc of the series, "Animal Farm." It is, as the name implies, about Marxist revolution. By making the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks Marxist revolutionaries, in a strange way it universalizes the concept.

Some background. In Fables, characters from folklore, fairy tales and other storybook fables--such as Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, and Pinocchio--have come to America after being forced out of their fantasy home worlds.  Human looking characters live in Fabletown in New York City, while non-human looking characters--like the Three Little pigs, the White Rabbit, Tom Thumb--live upstate on the “Farm.”

This segregation leads to discontent. A number of proto-Marxist revolutionaries--led by the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks--revolt, upset at their forced segregation. This all, of course, leads to Violence.

Though the above plot is, well, absurd, it gets one core thing absolutely right: revolutions are violent, ghastly things.

Two of the Three Little Pigs murder the third for failing to accomplish a mission and put his head on a stick--in a another stated nod to Orwell’s Animal Farm--and then begin a murder spree in an attempt to foment revolution. Any dissent is met with censorship by Goldilocks, or execution by the Pigs. This is revolution. Idealistically, revolution seems beautiful, the overthrow of tyranny, and the promise of a better future; in practice, it is ugly.

Research revolutions starting with the French Revolution and continuing on through the Marxist Revolutions. You will find that they are bloody affairs that rarely end with equality and democracy. Chaos and instability give way to the stability of autocratic rule. The Iranian Revolution led to theocratic control. The French revolution led to Empire and then monarchy. The American Revolution can claim status as virtually the only act of revolution that led to democracy, and even America’s beginning was rocky and stained with blood. It is a theme we will be coming back to.

Oct 08

Yesterday, I described two patrols conducted by my company in Afghanistan. In the first, our humanitarian assistance was gladly received and the mission was a wild success. In the second, an IED killed a US soldier, wounded two others and failed to help the local population. Today, I want to discuss the lessons both military folks, and the public at large, can learn from these two operations.

When we experience failures as a military, like the second MEDCAP, our leadership is prepared to dismiss so-called non-kinetic operations. One failure erases ten successes. This is a mistake. Instead of dismissing civil action projects as useless because of one failure, we ought to see how we can improve their effectiveness. The following are the lessons I think we should take away from these two MEDCAPs and their different outcomes.

(One note as well, I do not hold the platoon leader who ran the second MEDCAP to blame. I respect him for trying to influence the population in a positive way even though he did not succeed.)

First, no mission or area of operations in Afghanistan is simple. A huge number of factors influence every patrol, every mission and every campaign in Afghanistan. Whether it be the Taliban (AAF), coalition forces, the population at large, the Afghanistan National Security Forces, or even the terrain itself; anything can either hurt or harm the outcome of counter-insurgency efforts. Acknowledging the complexity of our mission in Afghanistan leads to a simple conclusion: plan your missions with the best intelligence possible. And even when you've gathered all the intelligence you possibly can, even when you've gone over the plan ten times, and even after numerous rehearsals, keep planning and gathering intelligence.

Second, counter-insurgency missions are still combat missions. Soldiers and leaders must never forget that. Both of our missions show this universal truth. Luckily, most of the US Army has learned this and leaders of all branches try to grill combat thinking into their troops. The Marine Corps understands this truth even better than the Army with their philosophy "every soldier a riflemen" that existed before the war on terror began. (For those who know me personally and believe I have just committed an act of heresy, I'll begrudgingly admit the Marine Corps does have some positives.)

Third, fifteen miles can make a dramatic difference in Afghanistan. I wrote an entire post about this, but members of the military still forget this all the time. Literally, fifteen miles up one valley can mean changes in the culture, the demographics, and the economic capabilities of an area. These changes help the Taliban and inhibit the US because they understand the subtle differences in Afghan culture and we don't. This makes designing operations or choosing between different courses of action extremely difficult.

Fourth,  MEDCAPs--humanitarian or soft demonstrations of power--cannot be forced on a population. Afghans can tell when coalition forces care, and when they are doing what they are simply supposed to. Thus, MEDCAPs should both be run by Afghan Security Forces and actually wanted by the population. Afghan and coalition forces should wait until they are invited into a community, not force aid on villages.

Fifth, American infantry soldiers enjoy fighting. The counter-insurgency fight should really be run by non-profits, diplomats, intelligence officers and police. Yet, we use infantrymen—those who define themselves as “dedicated infantry combat killers.” When we employ grunts to demonstrate soft power, we run a huge risk. For example, the second MEDCAP occurred in a valley that had endured nearly constant fighting for the last year. That close fighting, and the losses associated with it, made it very hard for our soldiers to want to help the population. As a coalition force, we need to run these missions; but we need to staff these patrols with other people besides infantrymen. This may seem to contradict my second point, but the differences are subtle. While every patrol is a combat patrol, and should be ready to fight to defend itself, some people in the Army live to fight and others support the fight. That latter group needs to run humanitarian missions, not the group dedicated to fighting.

As I said earlier, I wasn’t on both MEDCAPs. I can't definitively speak to why one mission succeeded and the other ended in tragedy. Simply put, the coalition tried to help the population, and the Taliban or insurgents in the Chowkay valley decided to attack my company as we left. In a series of days, our company both influenced the local population successfully and suffered a tragic defeat. Whether the attack cost us more than the successful MEDCAP gained is something we will never know.

Oct 07

The following events occurred while I was deployed to Afghanistan. They directly influenced my views on counter-insurgency. Today, I write about what happened; tomorrow, I will write about what I learned.

A few weeks before my company was due to leave Afghanistan, our Company Commander secured the resources to conduct two Medical Civil Action Projects (MEDCAP) within our area of operations. The first MEDCAP would occur in my area of operations in the recently secured village of Pashad. The second would occur two days later in the contentious Chowkay River Valley.

My MEDCAP ended as an unqualified success--we treated so many people our medical supplies ran out. The other MEDCAP ended in an IED explosion: three coalition casualties, a destroyed Humvee and much fewer civilians treated.  

Based on my meetings with village elders, I knew that the village of Pashad lacked any medical facilities. They didn't even have a pharmacy. I have posted about Pashad before and the success of coalition and Afghan efforts in that area. Pashad was special to me, I had connected with the leaders in that village and I wanted to help them.

Before our MEDCAP, I laid the groundwork by continuing my security visits at night to Pashad. At least every three days, my Platoon and I drove down to Pashad and met with the local Afghanistan National Police checkpoint commander Sayed Abdullah. He and I discussed security issues and I started laying the groundwork for the MEDCAP with basic planning. Meanwhile, the newly appointed District Governor Mustafa Khan talked with village elders about the need for a MEDCAP and laid the groundwork on the Afghan side of the house. Somewhere in the middle, the Afghan Army got on board. We also secured a local Afghan doctor and our battalion surgeon to run the medical portion of the MEDCAP.
On the day of the MEDCAP, I led a convoy of eight US vehicles, fifty or so US PAX, eight Afghan Security Force vehicles and an about equal strength of Afghanistan National Army soldiers—the largest convoy I would ever lead. Even though I had told the leaders of Pashad what day I would arrive, I did not tell them the time. I trusted Sayed Abdullah, but even though I trusted him I could never trust who he would tell and what they would do. Fortunately, on our way to the village we we weren't attacked.

When we showed up, the local police had cordoned off an old school. The local Afghans waiting for medicine acted perfectly civil--no pushing, shoving or otherwise inappropriate behavior. Even better, the Afghan police and Afghan Army worked together to secure our perimeter, something that doesn't always happen. Our company's trucks simply provided additional security and, of course, the resources for the MEDCAP. Once we arrived in Pashad, I wasn't too worried about security; a huge crowd was waiting for us and in this region in Afghanistan, the Taliban and other insurgents wouldn't risk injuring civilians. They needed the support of the local population as much as we did. After a short set up, we began treating civilians.

Eventually, a shura began. No one started it, it just sort of accreted out of the ether. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a room in the school eating a meager portion of chicken and rice and beans, a feast in Afghan terms. Whenever you have that many big names in a small village like Pashad, a shura is bound to begin. The locals talked, thanked us for our help, and then asked for more. A typical Afghan shura.

By the end of the day, our US/Afghan medical team treated over 150 children, 50 women and 120 men. Due to their culture, treating women is very unusual in Afghanistan; most get denied medical treatment. This shows both the level of trust we had earned with the locals and their desperation for medicine. Our mission in Pashad proved a humanitarian success, a quality training mission for the Afghanistan National Army, and an intelligence victory for our Tactical Humint Team.

A few days later, a second MEDCAP left from a sister FOB headed out the Chowkay River Valley. VPB Chowkay lay about fifteen kilometers in straight line distance from Camp Joyce or a forty-five minute drive on the roads. A similar force to the first MEDCAP would arrive at VPB Chowkay with both coalition forces and Afghan security forces prepared to treat local civilians. Unfortunately, few locals turned out. The road to VPB Chowkay had a persistent IED threat. When I went into the command post for the nightly update brief, I learned that an IED detonated on the route clearance platoon as my company prepared to return for the day. The blast killed a soldier, wounded two others and completely destroyed a Humvee.

Two crucial missions in Afghanistan, why does one mission succeed in Afghanistan and another fail? Tomorrow I will address the lessons these two patrols can teach us about Afghanistan.

Oct 05

General Stanley McChrystal recently gave a report to Defense Secretary Gates about the future strategy and policy in Afghanistan; an assesment of how the war is going. As the new commander, his opinions will influence the entire country and the outcome of the war. But he never asked me my opinion.

If I could give him one piece of advice, and advice to every general, colonel and lieutenant colonel beneath him, it would be this: forget what you know and start asking the people on the ground. The best source for new solutions and answers to winning in a counter-insurgency battle comes from the Soldiers closest to the situation, the Platoon Leaders (PL) and the Company Commanders (CO) on the ground. Our small unit leaders should guide our future actions and provide the solutions to win in the future.

Platoon Leaders and Company Commanders conduct daily patrols out in their area of operations. In my unit, we pushed out into forward bases remote from Brigade and Battalion headquarters. We were the closest to the people. We conducted numerous patrols to both influence the population and to deny the enemy freedom of movement. We gathered intelligence, worked with local security forces and helped build the government. We knew our ground much better than higher headquarters ever could.

Brigade Commanders and Battalion Commanders are used to a life of (comparative) luxury at larger Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Even small battalion and brigade headquarters feel like paradise compared to remote COPs and smaller FOBs. With this distinct separation comes a distinct lack of context to make operational decisions.

Compared to PLs and COs, Majors, Lieutenant Colonels, Colonels and particularly Generals, simply do not patrol that frequently. They live in the tactical operations center (TOC). ISAF (International Security Forces Afghanistan, the body General McChrystal runs) lives in the relative isolation of Bagram Air Field (BAF). BAF is a super-FOB with Pizza Hut, rare attacks and salsa night. To believe that the officers living in BAF could understand counter-insurgency like the company commanders and platoon leaders on the ground begs incredulity. When the Generals leave BAF they leave on helicopters, how can they understand the grind of daily foot and vehicle patrols?

Only now do we have field grade officers who have deployed as company commanders. Unfortunately, these field grades were usually in the initial invasion of Iraq, a war completely different than our own. As this conflict has evolved in Afghanistan, and as it has evolved in Iraq, the only people who can truly grasp the situation on the ground are those leaders closest to it, the platoon leader and the company commander.

The gap between soldiers on the ground and the theorists at the top means commanders will not have the best information. Gen. McChrystal and all commanders need to not just tour the battlefield intermittently, but try to live in platoon and company bases. They should send their staffs to live on remote COPs and FOBs and force them to patrol for a week to understand the life. Innovation at the platoon and company level should be encouraged, not forced from higher. Finally, if at all possible, PLs and COs recently in the battlefield should be invited to BAF to debrief what they know directly to the Generals and Colonels running the show. Our Generals, starting with Gen. McChrystal, should embrace their knowledge.

Oct 02

Every now and then, we like to drop a collection of thematically similar links from around the web. Enjoy this collection of links highlighting the unique intersection of art and foreign policy.

Relating to our post on violence and context, we have this video from the Onion News Network. One of the commentators says, “But, you have to remember what it was like after 9/11.” Exactly, 9/11 does not justify minotaur attacks. (This last sentence makes sense if you watch the video.)

Connected to Wednesday's post on PowerPoint, we have some good examples and bad examples of PowerPoint in action. This TED lecture by Steven Pinker showcases the documentary approach to PowerPoint presentation, and relates to the discussion in Monday's comments section. This bad one speaks for itself.

For something a bit different, we recommend Daniel Drezner's analysis on the upcoming Zombie apocalypse.

Also over at Foreignpolicy.com, there was a debate on the best films about foreign policy. Begun by Stephen M. Walt, continued by Drezner and finished off by the unnecessarily haughty--and often incorrect--Fred Kaplan at Slate, it is a good, if unfocused, discussion about film and foreign policy. The bloggers all fail to answer, though, the question of what constitutes a Foreign Policy film in the first place.

What are our favorite foreign policy films? In no particular order: The Battle For Algiers, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove and Syriana.

Finally, we have a reading list of Foreign Policy novels (though it excludes Left Hand of Darkness and Hyperion unfortunately).