Jan 15

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

If a counter-insurgency lesson happens on a hill-side in Afghanistan, and Americans don’t care, did anyone ever really learn it?

As the most popular memoir and film about Afghanistan, Lone Survivor now has the subtle distinction of being the single most popular piece of media about Afghanistan...period. (To everyone who comments, “Why are you still writing about this?” That’s one reason why.) Since Lone Survivor has lots of subtle (and not-so-subtle) counter-insurgency lessons embedded in the narrative, the book and the movie will have a profound effect on American’s understanding of counter-insurgency warfare.

Most viewers of Lone Survivor won’t realize that sound counter-insurgency practices actually saved Marcus Luttrell’s life on that hillside on that fateful June day. While I don’t fault Peter Berg for trying to tell a tight story centered almost entirely on the battle, this focus skews Americans’ understanding of COIN. Worse, some of Berg’s decisions (like the final battle) will irrevocably mislead Americans on how politics works in Afghanistan.

Here are some counter-insurgency lessons largely missed in the both the Lone Survivor film:

1. The villagers who rescued Luttrell--including Gulab--did so as much for politics as for pashtun-wali.

To be clear, Gulab’s adherence to the Afghanistan cultural behavior commonly called in the West “pashtun-wali” motivated Mohammed Gulab to shelter Marcus Luttrell. However, another key motivating factor was the extremely local politics in the extremely divisive Kunar province.

As Ed Darack describes in Victory Point:

The people of the Shuryek Valley, into which the gulch fed, had traditionally been at odds with villagers of the Korangal Valley, particularly those of Chichal, bumping heads over grazing-land boundaries. And while not overly friendly to American forces, people on the Shuryek side of the Sawtalo Sar hadn’t proved nearly as supportive of anticoalition militia forces as those of the Korangal.” (page 148)

To make a very crude analogy, after getting in a firefight with the Bloods, Luttrell was rescued by the Crips. So yes, Gulab rescued Luttrell because his honor, but it didn’t hurt that Gulab could hurt his political rivals in the process. If Luttrell had fallen down the other side of the mountain, even pashtun-wali wouldn’t have saved his life.

Even that depiction, though, is too simplistic. Afghan politics, riven for years by civil war, are incredibly complicated. One paragraph won’t do it justice.

Neither will a two hour film. Most media portrayals boil the politics of Afghanistan down to Taliban/evil versus America/good. Most people in Afghanistan don’t fall neatly into one side or the other. Instead, almost every villager I met with also met with insurgents. A simple “good versus evil” story fails to capture this nuance.

2. Salar Ban had an excellent relationship with coalition forces in the region due to a sound counter-insurgency strategy executed by the marines in Kunar.

The marines stationed in Kunar--specifically Camp Blessing--went above and beyond to develop positive relationships with locals. (I don’t have time in this post to tell the entire story, so read Victory Point pages 148-154 for the details). They expanded the “soft” side of military operations, including Medical Civil Action Patrols. While the Korengalis weren’t receptive to this outreach (as they have been historically hostile to outsiders), villagers in the Shuryak valley were. One of these villagers was Mohammad Gulab, who eventually rescued Luttrell. As Victory Point describes it, by using positive outreach relationships took a “quantum leap forward”.

This explains why he was out in the hillsides following the attack in Operation Red Wings. He was looking for Luttrell to help out the Americans. As Gulab himself told it on the Today Show:

Gulab said he had been trying to warn Luttrell.

“I was trying to tell him I wasn't Taliban. I know that many enemy was looking for him in the mountains," he said through a translator. "And I was trying to warn him that you must be careful."

Frankly, the gains the marines made were incredible, and laid the groundwork so that, when Gulab saw a bleeding and dying Luttrell, he would remember the goodwill Americans in the region had extended him. Any scenes involving marines working in day-to-day counter-insurgency obviously didn’t make it into the film.

3. Ahmad Shah deeply understood local politics and understood counter-insurgency theory.

The film makes Shah out to be a one-note, blood-thirsty tyrant. Lone Survivor (film) introduces Shah to viewers by having him march into Gulab’s village and chop someone’s head off. (Screenplay page 3a-5) The screenplay even describes him as a villain from the Wild West. No, literally,“This Shah and crew feels like an old school western bad guy moving through a cow town.”

Now, compare that description to Marcus Luttrell’s memoir:

The Taliban moves around these mountains only by the unspoken approval tacit permissions of the Pashtuns, who grant them food and shelter.” (pg. 284)

The jihadists seem to have a some kind of hammerlock on tribal loyalties, using a whole spectrum of Mafia-style tactics, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with money, sometimes with promising protections, sometimes without outright threats. The truth is, however, neither al Qaeda or the Taliban could function without the cooperation of the Pashtun villages.” (pg. 311)

This armed gang of tribesman, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish. Armies need food, cover and cooperation, and the Taliban could only engage in so much bullying before these powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.” (pg. 341)

In reality, Shah was more politician than gangster. As the above quotes show, he had to work with and court the support of the locals in the valley.

Unlike the decision to leave out the marines, which I understand from a plot standpoint, this decision was made to paint a simpler, and less realistic, story. Just imagine another, more realistic scene. A Taliban shura. Gulab is there as are dozens of village elders, drinking tea. Shah makes his case that he could keep out the Americans and hunt any who come to the Sawtalo Sar. This scene would capture the “essential experience” or the “truth” of Operation Red Wings better than the scene in the film. Yet, Peter Berg chose a deliberately provocative and relatively rare phenomenon over a mild-mannered and realistic shura scene.

Worse, the true life events would have worked fine in this film. Imagine...

- a scene where Gulab explains to Luttrell why Ahmad Shah couldn’t enter the village.

- a scene where Gulab discusses why Shah needs local support.

- a scene where Shah explains to his own men why he doesn’t simply march in and kill everyone in Salar Ban. (Which would also make him three-dimensional and realistic.)

- a scene of Shah evacuating to Pakistan within days after the attack….like he did in real life.

Any of those scenes would have been radical and extraordinary. But keeping Shah as a blood-thirsty tyrant/terrorist fits with American stereotypes much better.

4. Ahmad Shah would never have attacked fellow Afghan villagers.

In the film Lone Survivor, Ahmad Shah attacks the village of Salar Ban in one last attempt to grab Luttrell. In real life, he didn’t.

What matters isn’t that Shah didn’t attack; it’s why he didn’t attack. Ahmad Shah didn’t invade the village of Salar Ban because he knew that he would lose support of the local people and the valley if he hurt the villagers. As Luttrell himself writes:

And then we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.

“There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from these tribal villages up here in the mountain.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…

“These lunatics…[were] firing randomly into the air and aiming at nothing…” (pg. 339)

“...they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating the people and, in particular, the village elder.” (pg. 341)

All armies fight under political constraints. Some have fewer constraints than others, but they all have limits on the violence they can inflict in war. This applies to insurgents in Afghanistan. While Shah certainly would have killed Luttrell had he surrendered or not (a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime), he still prevented his men from attacking other Afghan villagers, because this would have cost him support.

You won’t learn any of these lessons from the film. Lone Survivor (film) ends with a gigantic battle as the Taliban invade Gulab’s village. This doesn’t make sense (nor happened). As Luttrell explains above, such an attack would verge on suicidal for Shah. To get back to the theme of these posts--why accuracy matters in the Lone Survivor film--there isn’t a compelling reason for including the final firefight. It didn’t take place in real life, and it doesn’t somehow capture Marcus Luttrell’s experience any better than not including it.

And it permanently misinforms viewers of the film.

Everyone keeps saying that Americans don’t understand the wars that we’re fighting. That so few people were in the military, and we can’t relate to their stories. But Lone Survivor (film) had more advisors than a medieval prince. Yet none of the SEALs on set pointed out these nuanced counter-insurgency lessons to Peter Berg.

(That, unfortunately, probably has more to do with the state of counter-insurgency theory and its adoption in the special operations world than anything else.)

Jul 17

(In the ongoing, never-ending and ceaseless debate over counter-insurgency, Michael C has a unique take: the Army/Pentagon/military never truly embraced COIN and is actively running away from it. Today, he presents another piece of evidence. Click here to read the rest of the series.)

After reading the first draft of my post on building more urban training centers, Eric C called me up and asked, “Michael, what about the freeways? Did the U.S. Army build any of those to practice on?” I told him, “Of course not, America won’t go to war with countries that have freeways.”

Except for...



Libya, who will soon be a part of the Tripoli-Cape town Highway:


Oh, and Iraq has some freeways in it too, including Route Michigan or “IED alley”.

(Honest to God, we looked up North Korean freeways and couldn’t find them. Apparently, America is training for war with North Korea.)

As Eric C rightfully pointed out, we don’t just need urban training centers, we need combat centers with fake freeways and roads. Preferably, freeways and roads that mimic messy urban centers.

Because you train how you fight. The fight will be on freeways.

Jul 15

(In the ongoing, never-ending and ceaseless debate over counter-insurgency, Michael C has a unique take: the Army/Pentagon/military never truly embraced COIN and is actively running away from it. Check out the articles below for the proof:

- Exhibit A.1: Where Are the Mock Freeways?)


Listening to Colonel Gian Gentile and John Nagl debate American counterinsurgency, I cannot figure out which side I belong on. I disagree with Gentile that China or Iran or fill-in-the-blank actor will destroy the US in some future conventional war because we trained for counter-insurgency during the last ten years. I also don’t think we can credit counter-insurgency with victory in Iraq or Afghanistan, as John Nagl has argued.

I fall somewhere between this divide, because I don’t think the U.S. Army (stand in for all forces in Iraq/Afghanistan) ever embraced COIN. Can I prove that the Army never embraced irregular warfare in a single blog post? No, I can’t. (Just the way a single blog post couldn’t, say, deconstruct Carl von Clausewitz’ entire legacy.)

But I can present a single piece of evidence. (With more to follow in future months.)

Exhibit A: The Lack of Urban Training Centers

Army commanders love to repeat the maxim that, “You train how you fight.” I agree. If you slack in training, you’ll slack in war. If you practice shooting when you are tired and exhausted, you’ll shoot better when you are tired and exhausted. So if your Army trains in forests, grasslands, mountains and jungles, you’ll be prepared to fight in forests, grasslands, mountains and jungles.

But you won’t be able to fight in cities. The U.S. Army doesn’t train to fight in cities because it doesn’t have large, quality urban training centers, and it never built them. Consider:

- My last duty station, Fort Campbell, houses a light infantry division headquarters, four maneuver brigades, a Special Forces group, two helicopter brigades, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and a variety of supporting battalions. Its largest urban training center? 64 buildings (as of 2011). My neighborhood in Clarksville alone had more than 64 buildings. It has a few other urban training centers, but they are mostly made out of container units, which don’t truly resemble any urban area on the planet.

- Fort Benning, the eponymous home to “maneuver” training, has slightly superior facilities. When I trained there in 2007, they only had a single village with about two dozen buildings. Driving around it required all of two minutes.

- The Army’s largest training centers--Fort Irwin, Fort Polk and Hohenfels, Germany; homes to NTC, JRTC, and JMTC respectively--aren’t much better. Since 9/11, they all invested in building expanded mock urban cities. None, as of the time I left the Army, had mock cities larger than 100 buildings. Again, even 100 buildings is an excessively small city.

- Ranger School has a forest, mountain and jungle phase, but no urban phase. (They also cut out a desert phase in the 1980s because we’ll never fight a war in the desert again.)

How did this situation get so bad? First, building fake cities is expensive. (Using contractors with cost-plus contracts doesn’t make it any cheaper.) As a stop-gap, units use portable container units, which replicate cities, but don’t replace good mock buildings.

But costs aren’t really the problem. (I mean, how many buildings could you build for the 150 million it costs for one F-22?) In reality, maneuver officers don’t like cities. Cities bring civilians, and that limits the ability to use overwhelming fire. Armor units like hanging out in wide open plains or deserts; light infantry loves hanging in forests. As a result, the Army built bases in the plains, jungles or forests of America, well away from urban centers. (See Fort Riley/Fort Irwin for armor; see Fort Benning/Fort Polk for the infantry.)

Even though having mock cities seems vital to training for urban insurgencies, like Iraq and parts of Afghanistan, the military still didn’t build them. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were always just passing fads, the Pentagon never wanted to invest in counter-insurgency cities.

Worse yet, this isn’t really counter-insurgency versus maneuver warfare issue. Whether we fight a counter-insurgency, civil war or conventional war in the future, we aren’t prepared to fight on the right terrain. The world is becoming more urban; refusing to build legitimate mock cities is madness. Future wars will occur in cities--urban environments--and the US Army isn’t training for this fight.

I’ll end with my solution. The U.S. Army needs to build a legitimate, 1,000+ building, mock city on every base with four plus brigades. Preferably, we need to build multiple cities, and design them after every continent on the globe: a European city, an Asian city, an African city, and a South American city. Streets should be designed so vehicles can’t maneuver easily on them. Cities should be designed haphazardly, like real world cities. Battalions should practice conducting regular patrols in mock insurgencies in cities large enough to mimic the real world.

In other words, the Army should train how it fights. And how it will fight in the future.

May 13

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

We’ve criticized Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s Lone Survivor so many times, in so many different ways, it may feel like there is nothing else left to say.

Au contraire. We’ve yet to tackle the most relevant topic to On Violence: fighting and winning counter-insurgencies, particularly the one in Afghanistan.

While Lone Survivor doesn’t pretend to be a counter-insurgency manual, Luttrell frequently offers counter-productive (and even dangerous) advice about how to fight counter-insurgencies. No soldier or marine should ever look to Marcus Luttrell for guidance.

Here are the worst parts from Lone Survivor relating to counter-insurgency:

Issue 1: Identifying the Enemy

You can't beat an insurgent if you can't identify them. As we noted in our post on the mistakes in Lone Survivor, Luttrell, describing his experience in Iraq, lumps "al Qeada or Taliban, Shiite or Sunni, Iraqi or Foreign, a freedom fighter for Saddam" together. Reread that. He thought he was facing the Taliban in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, he doesn’t distinguish between the various groups like the Taliban, Haqqani network, Hezb-e Islami Gulbadin (HiG), or Al Qaeda. He claimed his arch-nemesis Ben Sharmak (aka Ahmad Shah) was a serious Taliban bad guy, when in reality he was more closely identified with the HiG group. In two places, he links the Taliban with 9/11, which stretches the truth. He writes, "Taliban fighters were nothing like so rough and dirty as Afghan mountain peasants. Many of them had been educated in America," a more accurate description of Al Qaeda than the Taliban. He then says that Kunar was "the place where the destruction of the WTC was born and nourished". That’s just flat wrong. (Most of al Qaeda’s training was based around Kandahar, which is in the south. The Taliban barely controlled Kunar province.)

In maneuver war, firepower wins. In irregular wars, intelligence wins. Lone Survivor doesn’t convey that nuance.

Issue 2: Empathy

No army loves its enemies. But you do need to understand them. And even empathize them.

The best counter-insurgents and insurgents can at least empathize with the people they work for and live with. Lone Survivor misses this. Luttrell describes Afghanistan as "the place where a brand of evil flourishes that is beyond the understanding of most Westerners." Or thumbing his nose at a place that is, in his words, "Primitive with a big P." Hard to empathize with people you consider savages. Or people Luttrell calls, “hate-filled.” If you can’t empathize with the population, you will never be able to separate them from the insurgents.

Issue 3: Hardcore Terrorists and Accidental Guerrillas

In addition to exaggerating the number of insurgents he faced, Luttrell exaggerates their importance. He identifies every Taliban fighter as a hardcore terrorist. The real world isn't so simple, though. Many insurgents, as described by David Kilcullen, are temporary fighters fighting for local causes, like honor or against a perceived invader. Most likely the ambush facing the SEALs was not an expertly trained, company-sized element, but a small group of insurgents (allied with the HiG) bolstered by local Korengalis fighting for their honor.

I say again, intelligence versus firepower.

Issue 4: SEALs as Counter-Insurgents

Special Operations troops, like Rangers, SEALs and Delta Force, fill a vital need in counter-insurgencies, conducting direct action missions. But that doesn’t mean all special operations troops are good for all counter-insurgency missions.

For instance, in one mission, Luttrell said it "required interrogation, a skill at which we were all very competent." But he was never trained in interrogation (we know because Luttrell goes over every single piece of training he ever received), so how could he competently interrogate someone? Or even do so legally since interrogations on objectives have to be approved by an officer equivalent in rank to an Army Colonel or Navy Captain? And, again legally, interrogations must be performed by trained human intelligence professionals. So how did Luttrell do them?

The idea of SEALs as counter-insurgents bothers me because it shows how much Luttrell doesn’t know about his role in the larger war machine. If he thinks he can do intelligence, direct action missions, and reconnaissance, (plus who knows how many other missions) and if he thinks his SEALs will win the war by themselves, then he needs to learn a lot more about working with regular units.

Unfortunately, Luttrell’s attitude is all too common in special operations in general. (Check out this organization chart from Thomas Ricks’ blog to get an idea how little special operations and conventional units work together.)

Issue 5: Fighting the Right War

The way Luttrell talks about warfare, you would think he was fighting World War II, not battling insurgents in an irregular (political) war. For instance, Luttrell describes the Taliban crossing from Pakistan into Konar as, "this was a border hot spot, where multiple Taliban troop movements were taking place on a weekly, or even daily basis." It sounds like he is describing the Germans moving into Poland, except that isn't how the Taliban operates. They move in small units when possible, and live off the population. Saying "insurgent cells crossed the border" makes way more sense than saying the Taliban conducted "troop movements".

But this thinking makes sense for a commando who wants to fight the enemy straight up. You can see this when Luttrell describes his mission, “[al queda and taliban remnants] were preparing to start over, trying to fight their way through the mountain passes...And our coming task was to stop them." Why send in SEALs? “In general terms, we believe there are very few of the world’s problems we could not solve with high-explosive or a well-aimed bullet.”

In reality, a well-aimed bullet is only one tool amongst many needed to defeat an insurgency.

Which is a shame because Luttrell almost gets it.

Just because the bulk of Lone Survivor misunderstands counter-insurgency doesn't mean that Lutrell/Robinson didn't slip in one good nugget of counter-insurgency wisdom. In one sentence, they sum up how to defeat an insurgency: "the key to winning was intel, identifying the bomb makers, finding the supplies, and smashing the Taliban arsenal before they could use it."

He identified that the key to winning is intelligence. As I said several times in this post, in an irregular war like Afghanistan, intelligence, not maneuver, wins the day. Yet the rest of Lone Survivor fails to mention where the SEALs got their intelligence (Marine Corps daily patrols), the value of winning over locals (Luttrell seems stunned the local tribes protected him) and building up the Afghan security forces (Luttrell’s mission is U.S. only). Instead, he talks about the value of direct action missions (”there are very few of the world’s problems...”) to the exclusion of all else.

Again, Lone Survivor isn’t a counter-insurgency manual. But far more Americans have read/will see Lone Survivor and will learn more about Afghanistan from this book/movie than any other source. It is a shame they will come away with the exact wrong ideas about how to wage this type of war.

Apr 30

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)

When we first brought up “Gratitude Theory”, I had a basic question, “Does giving people things change their behavior?”

According to many military theorists, not one bit. Since General Petraeus popularized this theory, a number of officers, academics and bloggers have pushed back. To summarize their thoughts, “We shouldn’t just give things to Afghans or Iraqis, and it certainly won’t win over their respect!” Take this misinterpretation of population-centric counter-insurgency from Slate:

“When people hear about the U.S. military doing development work in Afghanistan, they think about ‘winning hearts and minds’ through humanitarian aid or building schools. The idea is that if Americans do nice things for Afghans, they will be so grateful they will begin to support the counterinsurgency.”

Author Bing West--who regularly opines on this topic in conservative outlets--hates this philosophy because he knows it won’t work. He wrote an article titled, “We Were Too Nice To Win in Afghanistan”. As The New York Times described his book The Wrong War:

“He flatly says that the counterinsurgency strategy behind the war — trying to win over the Afghans by protecting them from the Taliban and building roads, schools and civil institutions — is a failure...In Mr. West’s view, counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its “core competency” — violence.”

An Australian Brigadier General sums it all up much more simply, “more killing, less good deeds”.

As all the above examples make clear, giving things to people doesn’t work. It’s a strategy doomed to fail...unless you’re president, in which case, it works fantastically.

Why did Mitt Romney lose last November?

Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.”   

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what...there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…”

“It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

“In a conference call with fund-raisers and donors to his campaign, Mr. Romney said Wednesday afternoon that the president had followed the “old playbook” of using targeted initiatives to woo specific interest groups — ‘especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people’.”

To sum up: Iraqis and Afghans don’t care about free things, but dumb American voters? They don’t stand a chance. The irony is many “COINtras” are Republicans who think that “giving people things” didn’t work in Afghanistan, but then argued that they lost the election because the President gave away too much stuff. Can giving things away, from building schools to providing free health care, change public opinion?


FM 23-4, the counter-insurgency manual written by General Petraeus, understood this, and therefore advocated that soldiers should provide security for locals while doing reconstruction. (Reconstruction without security, the manual says, won’t work. It also reiterates the need for both offensive operations and security operations, which are vital to defeating an insurgency.)

Kill-centric advocates don’t just under-value reconstruction, they loathe it. COINtras want a simple war that only involves killing an enemy in a uniform. Counter-insurgencies against the U.S. military don’t have that simplicity. They do feature people, and all things being equal, people do like getting things...which is a pretty good argument for doing reconstruction in war torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Apr 08

A few months back, the founders of a Facebook page called “RoE.USMilitary”--a page ostensibly dedicated to “exposing” the truth about rules of engagement (which has slowly descended into calls for the military to arrest President Obama on charges of treason. No seriously, they advocate that.)--sent us an email about ROE. Reading their Facebook page, I got dragged back down the ROE rabbit hole. I could write post after post explaining the logic and necessity of strict, well-followed rules of engagement, rebutting the weak arguments presented on that page.

To save myself the time, I want to limit my response to one question they asked me:

“Of course we shouldn't ‘torture’ prisoners but why are we taking so many prisoners? Are you aware that our troops can catch someone planting a BOMB and they cannot engage?”

This sentence is even more dramatic if you shout “bomb” (BOMB!), since it is in all caps. Oh, and it is completely, 100% wrong.

Like most anti-ROE rhetoric, the above flight-of-fancy completely ignores common military sense and exaggerates the harms of the rules of engagement. In only two sentences!

1. This isn’t a true statement. Let’s just get that out of the way. Rules of engagement are classified so that the enemy cannot plan attacks directly around them. The sources of Barbara’s information are probably misreading those same rules of engagement. I know this because drones, planes, snipers, and ground forces can all engage insurgents burying IEDs. However, even if this were the case...

2. Commanders on the ground control the fire of their men. Otherwise combat would be chaos. Are anti-ROE advocates arguing that squad leaders, platoon leaders and company commanders cannot issue shoot or don’t shoot orders? In a world without ROE, that is exactly what would happen.

The results would be disastrous. If soldiers could--and they would if they could--fire every time they felt threatened, the number of friendly fire incidents would increase dramatically. (I might have to write up a personal experience post where, during a training exercise, I watched this happen.) In short, leaders at every level--up to theater commanders--have the ability to control the fire of their men. This is basic military 101 and it applies to U.S. forces and insurgents.

3. In an intelligence war, capturing insurgents makes more sense than killing them. Pirates of the Caribbean is right, “Dead men tell no tales.” Captured insurgents provide a wealth of intelligence and opportunities. Instead of capturing an insurgent, the military should trail him back to his house, then track the insurgent who pays him. In maneuver warfare, firepower defeats the enemy. In an insurgency, intelligence does.

As our military learned over the last ten years, bomb planters are not the issue. With unemployment in the 30-40% range, finding someone in Iraq or Afghanistan to dig a hole for five dollars is a cinch. The key is finding the bomb makers, insurgent leaders and logistics hubs. Of course, if you kill every single bomb planter, you can’t interrogate them to find out who they work for. Which will help you lose the war.

4. Anyway, we can’t respond to every IED with overwhelming firepower. Using massive firepower to respond to every single IED incident caused the insurgency in Iraq. Far from “inspiring fear” or “enforcing our will on the enemy”, these heavy handed tactics inflamed the local population. (In general, people dislike firefights, especially firefights involving foreigners.) So we can’t engage every bomb planter with every weapon available...that’s a form of ROE.

5. More than anything, though, this story doesn’t even make sense logically. While it seems bad on the surface--”My oh my, we can’t engage people planting bombs.”--who really cares about a buried IED we already know about? The most dangerous--actually the only dangerous IEDs--are the ones the U.S. military doesn’t know about.

In the real world, the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan spotted plenty of people putting in IEDs. It either killed or captured them. Either way, an IED the coalition forces know about is much less dangerous than one we don’t. Dramatically so.

At their core, rules of engagement are orders that leaders give to their subordinates to control their actions in combat. Phrased like that, they don’t seem so bad, do they?

Mar 25

Before Eric C and I started blogging, we didn’t realize how often we would be misread. I’m not talking about disagreements on points of debate; we expected those. No, I’m amazed how often people extrapolate wild positions based on one or two lines. In our N.Y. Times guest post “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, some readers assumed I wanted the U.S. Army to force its soldiers to follow Christianity. (I definitely don’t.) The greatest example ever came from our (hopefully ironically-titled) post, “Join the Taliban...the Americans Will Kill You Anyways” when one reader assumed we were recruiting for the Taliban. (We weren’t.)

It happened again in “A New On V Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!”. I had a bit of fun at Marcus Luttrell’s expense for thinking growing a beard--in Army parlance “relaxed grooming standards”--would help him blend in with the locals. (In his exact words, “look like an Afghan fighter”.) The primary point of the post was to show how patently false this argument is.   

What I didn’t mean to argue was that soldiers shouldn’t let their hair fall down to their backs. As many commenters pointed out, beards help build rapport with local populations that, like in Afghanistan, that respect facial hair. Since I’ve never been much for uniformity in dress code in the first place, I’m not opposed to relaxing grooming standards; I just don’t think operators should grow beards under the mistaken belief they help them “blend in”.

If you want to build rapport go ahead. But do it right. While growing a beard may help build rapport, it’s one of the least effective ways to do it. A beard on someone who doesn’t speak the language is worth less than someone with a clean-shaven face who speaks Pashtun, Dari, Arabic or Farsi. (Also, the rapport reason is definitely abused by the special operations community. Most special operations units have relaxed grooming standards even if they don’t partner with local units or work with the local population.)

Here are a few even more effective ways to build rapport:

1. Learn the language. I deployed with a Special Forces battalion to Iraq. They used more interpreters than a regular Army battalion. The SF teams also spoke virtually no Arabic. Despite the widespread myth that Special Forces soldiers are fluent in multiple languages, most Special Forces Groups have not maintained even base proficiency in their assigned languages. (This applies even more for Special Forces Groups not aligned with the CENTCOM AOR.)

2. Live with your embedded troops. Even before the spate of “Blue on Green” attacks, most deployed military units lived in separate compounds. When I was deployed, this meant that U.S. troops shared a base with Afghan troops, but we lived in separate, walled off areas. How can you really build rapport if you don’t sleep and live together? You can’t. A beard won’t bridge the gap.

3. Invite Afghans to lift weights with you. Most Special Forces troops pride themselves on their huge muscles. If you don’t believe me, well, google “Special Forces workout”. (Or worse, “Navy SEAL workout”.) Yet I never saw Afghan or Iraqi soldier in a U.S. gym. If you want to build rapport, train and live together. (I also advocated in the last post that U.S. forces should work on slimming down. Sure you might have a beard, but giant muscles say to Afghans, “Remember, we’re different.”)

4. Use local weapons. Wear local clothes and Afghan military uniforms. Again, train as you fight. So why don’t our Special Forces use AK-47s, RPGs and the other weapons used by the Afghanistan National Army? Or wear the exact same uniform? It's about rapport, right?

5. Don’t wear your fancy Oakley sunglasses. If you want to build rapport, why not look the locals in the eyes without your glasses? Not making eye contact is disrespectful. And it lessens the perceived financial gap between our soldiers and Afghans. (This goes for your backwards baseball cap too.)

6. Recruit older Americans to meet with older Afghans. One of the completely offensive ways Americans interact with village elders is by having 20 to 30 year-olds fresh out of college leading meetings/shuras/jirgas. This is a personal bit of hypocrisy, because I led these meetings as a 20-year-old fresh out of UCLA. Of course, this means completely overhauling the U.S. military recruitment system--as Rosa Brooks recommended here--but it might have helped the U.S. win our last two wars.

7. Recruit more ethnic soldiers. Specifically, Pakistani, Iranian and Indian immigrants. This would cause a security clearance nightmare, but that probably says more about our security system process (developed during the Cold War) than reality.

8. Most importantly, don’t do anything that antagonizes the locals. I mean, will a beard help our troops one iota if the Afghans can see your “infidel” patch at the same time? Also, don’t talk about how uncivilized Afghans are. Don’t call all the locals terrorists. Hell, follow all the guidance in this post too.

Interestingly, when our last post went up, numerous special forces soldiers endorsed growing a beard, but not one advocated the entire military adopting relaxed grooming standards. If anything, most special operators who chimed in claimed I was jealous. I’m not jealous; I want our military to adopt effective fighting methods to win its wars. If growing a beard is so effective, every soldier in Afghanistan--not just Special Forces troops--should grow one.

Since every American unit in Afghanistan partners with Afghan units, every unit should reap the benefits of relaxed grooming standards, not just the special forces. And they should all follow this guidance before they start growing those beads.

Mar 12

Eric C and I are NPR junkies. (He started it.) And one of my favorite shows is Intelligence Squared US. Host John Donvan throws down an Oxfordian challenge to two sets of debaters to argue topics ranging from banning college football to genetically engineered babies. I love it--especially compared to cable news coverage--because the panelists go very deep into topics I often don’t know much about.

That was not the case for their topic last fall, “Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators”.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t listened to the above episode and actually care about who wins and loses, don’t keep reading.)

When it comes to the Arab Spring, I have pretty strong feelings. That’s why we spent weeks discussing this topic in January. To be clear, I am wildly for the proposition; elected Islamists are better than dictators. Always. I believe that everyone around the world is entitled to democracy, not just America.

As I listened to the debate, I started to get worried. My side let the other side set the terms. The opponents then leveraged the politics of fear to their advantage. I kept yelling at the podcast, “No, you should have said this! Don’t concede that! Say that’s a lie!” Since they didn’t...

My side lost.

But my side didn’t just lose, they got trounced. They started off with more supporters (38% of the audience), but only ended up with 44%. The opponents went from 31% of the audience to a whopping 47% supporting their side. For Intelligence Squared, that’s a walloping.

Which really hurts because this topic is probably the neatest summation of the entire “Arab Spring” issue. I mean, you could say, “Arab Spring, good or bad?”, but phrased this way, it really captures the nuance of the various positions. Considered among other foreign policy topics--the rise of China, Russia’s ongoing stuff--- this is far and away the most important change going on in the world.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I hate losing political arguments. (If I haven’t said that before, well I do.) So today and Wednesday, I want to set the record straight. On Wednesday, I will critique the arguments my side made during the debate. But first, four key points explaining why elected Islamists are better than dictators that my side left out:

1. This is about the long game. As long as the U.S. pursues short-term interests (which means installing dictators) over the long term (advancing democratic ideals), it will always have fractured relationships. This was true in the Cold War, and it has been true since 9/11. Pursuing a short term strategy will always keep America in danger.

The best example is the CIA’s involvement in Iran. The elected Iranian government in the 1940s started nationalizing oil, so, with Western help, the Shah took over. Ever since, the Iranians have resented American meddling in their country (including Western support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war). In each case, the US favored actions that benefited us in the short term, but have kept the problems with Iran continuing.

2. Let’s drop the “isms” argument. The opponents, as I’ll describe on Wednesday, managed to connect Islamism to fascism and Hitler. Well played, though totally inaccurate. On its face, this motion scares Americans with the dangerous sounding, “Islamism” and its connection to terrorism. This is on its face absurd, and I would make that point much more clearly.

3. Elections trump dictators absolutely. If I were debating on Intelligence Squared, I would have told a story that personifies this for the audience. I would have emphasized what it was really like to live under a dictator, asking the audience to imagine themselves with relatives disappearing to secret prisons and living under the crushing hand of dictatorship. If the other side wants to use fear, then pound them back with tragedy and horror.

4. Emphasize the hypocrisy. The problem with American foreign policy is that, to pursue American interests--variously either pro-American business policies or protecting American lives--American foreign policy often asks other people to sacrifice their liberty. In essence, to keep Americans free, we ask that others live in tyranny. Otherwise, how could any American argue that dictators are good for the people of those countries? This hypocrisy is the primary criticism of American foreign policy around the globe, and the primary driver of hostility towards Americans.

More than anything else, supporting the “Arab Spring” is a moral issue. Any American who believes in freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--for all mankind as the Declaration of Independence clarifies--must support the Arab Spring. You cannot rail against tyranny in America while supporting tyranny abroad. Doing so is either the height of arrogance, hypocrisy, ignorance or all three.