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June 2010

Great news!

If you act immediately, the Google Ad on the right sidebar has a great deal on "Morocco Foreign Policy." Having just paid full price, I was somewhat disappointed. But if you procrastinated on purchasing your foreign policy, you can save something like 97%. If only they had a sale on national security and sovereignty...

I have no use for Google Ads as all they gave me was left-wing ads like Hillary Clinton campaign spots and George Soros-linked human rights group ads.

Roundtable: Corruption and Culture

We spoke with Major General Mike Ward about efforts to develop the Afghan police.  (Transcript here.)  It was an interesting conversation, because it points at one of the trickiest aspects for Western powers operating in a traditional culture:  our tendency to read organic, family- or tribe-based authorities as corruption.

An example, to clarify what I mean:  Once upon a time in Iraq, we had a microgrant program aimed at a very poor area south of Baghdad.  Just as the microgrants were paid out to start up several small businesses, word came that a local chieftain -- not really a blood sheikh, but the ranking member of the tribe in the area -- had simply collected all the money from the people.  

This was read as corruption, and our rule-of-law people went down there and forced him to return the money for its intended purpose.  Yet it proved to be the case that he had collected the money for a good reason.  The area was poor in large part because there were a number of tribal feuds in the area, and the money he had taken was to pay off a reconciliation claim (diyya).  That would have resolved one of the feuds, which he felt was a more pressing matter than starting businesses that were likely to be burned down if the feud continued.

Our system of law, rules and accounting found all of this completely opaque.  His authority to "tax" was read as thievery; the tribal customs, or laws, governing reconciliation were not part of the book-laws of Iraq.  We applied our rules to their culture, inflexibly, because that's what we do:  we apply written law.  The oral, tribal culture doesn't fit into our line diagrams.

I'm afraid I pressed general Ward very closely on this issue.  I meant no disrespect to him or his companions, who are working very hard on these issues.  However, it's a mistake we can little afford to make in Afghanistan, where there is even more oral and customary "law" at work, and even less written law.

A useful thought exercise, as you read the transcript:  if a lot of the traditional "police" corruption is, instead, the traditional operation of the culture, then should we not expect the most "corrupt" to be the ones whose recognized authority is greatest?  Are they not in their position because they are tied to tribal or family leadership, in other words?  Shouldn't we expect those complaining most loudly about the "corruption" to be people who have no authority in the traditional culture, and who are hoping to leverage us as a means to advancing themselves?  Which ones make better partners for building stability:  those who have recognized, traditional authority locally, or those whose authority comes only from us?

A lot of this local corruption may be a primitive tax system, whereby the police have to pay what we are reading as "bribes" to higher authorities for their jobs; they collect these bribes in fines of various sorts on the backs of the people.  That reads like serious corruption to us, but it happens also to be exactly the system that King Richard the Lionheart used:  sheriffs paid the crown for their position, and were expected to extract their sustenance from fines gained by enforcing the law.  

That kind of system can certainly be abused, as witness King John (of the Robin Hood myth, and who provoked the Baron's revolt that led to the Magna Carta):  he did the same thing, but harder.  The difference between the system working well, and the system working badly, is not the fact of this form of proto-taxation.  It's the question of whether the proto-tax is being applied within the accepted limits of custom and tradition.  If it is, you're a good king.  If not, you're a tyrant, and are likely to provoke a revolt.

Judging whether you are seeing proto-taxation or actual corruption, in that case, requires knowing what the traditional and customary limits actually are.  It's the sort of thing that will not be obvious to outsiders:  it will be opaque to us, especially if our own notions are informed by book-written laws that are not relevant to the local culture.

This is even more of a concern given that these cultures view policing as less honorable work than soldiering, as we discussed in the call:  in Afghanistan as in Iraq, the best young men want to be soldiers, and those who want to be police are a little bit out for themselves.

But read the transcript, and let's discuss it.

Medal of Honor history: Herda and Shields

faherda42 years ago in Dak To, Vietnam Specialist Fourth Class Frank A. Herda's heroic actions earned the Medal of Honor:

... He fired one last round from his grenade launcher, hitting one of the enemy soldiers in the head, and then, with no concern for his safety, Specialist Fourth Class Herda immediately covered the blast of the grenade with his body. The explosion wounded him grievously, but his selfless action prevented his two comrades from being seriously injured or killed and enabled the remaining defender to kill the other sappers. ...

Read the rest of Herda's citation here

And on 10 June 1965, in a special operations compound near Dong Xoai, Marvin G. mgshieldsShields became the only Navy Seabee to earn the Medal of Honor. Shields had already been fighting for numerous hours, and had saved a critically wounded man by dragging him to safety.

... When the commander asked for a volunteer to accompany him in an attempt to knock out an enemy machinegun emplacement which was endangering the lives of all personnel in the compound because of the accuracy of its fire, Shields unhesitatingly volunteered for this extremely hazardous mission. Proceeding toward their objective with a 3.5-inch rocket launcher, they succeeded in destroying the enemy machinegun emplacement, thus undoubtedly saving the lives of many of their fellow servicemen in the compound. ...

Shields was mortally wounded as he returned from the assault. Read the rest of Shields' citation here

Emasculated ROE will likely continue under Petraeus

While some here maintain that McChrystal's emasculated ROE are the "right rules," I would like to hear how the Karzai 12 have made any positive contribution to the war.

If I was in command, and my subordinates translated my directives in such a way that promised artillery and air support was not delivered - even though a unit was taking casualties; or when illumination rounds are denied; or when smoke rounds are eventually approved, only to have the rounds purposely land thousands of feet away; or when our air support is so useless that our enemies no longer run; I could go on and on... I would correct any misconceptions IMMEDIATELY. Petraeus was McChrystal's boss, and he could have changed the ROE if he wanted. But he didn't.

How many Americans have died due to these Mickey Mouse rules? If our troops weren't muzzled, I guaran-damn-tee that they would be far more furious than they already are, and rightfully so.

Sun Tzu said that if an order is given, but not understood, it is the fault of the COMMANDER. If the order is understood, but not followed, only then it is the fault of his subordinates. If these ROE were misunderstood, it would have been corrected.

And having brought up Sun Tzu, if we applied our current conflict to the Art of War, how do you think it would measure up?

Replacing one perfumed prince with another will change nothing. Our troops are fighting not only the enemy, but our own rules.

Petraeus on ROE for Afghanistan

Gen. Petraeus is busy wasting time today explaining himself to one of the least impressive collections of military strategerists on Earth, the Senate Armed Services Committee. He has to do this in order to accept his new role as Commander in Afghanistan. One of the things under discussion is the Rules of Engagement (ROE) there and many are wondering what Petraeus will do about them. One thing that has been a bone of contention for a while is whether the ROE Gen. McChrystal put in place were overly restrictive and put our troops in too much danger. Petraeus has said he will "look very hard" at them, but let's keep one thing in mind. He has already done that. He was McChrystal's boss and could have had these rules changed any time in the last year. He hasn't, and for a good reason. They are the right rules and he agrees with them. By the way, congrats to my favorite Juicebox Mafioso Spencer Ackerman for his new gig at Danger Room.

Now what he will do is issue some new guidance about how they have been interpreted and implemented, but he is not going to make any wholesale changes and unleash the dogs of war. The reason for that is that we can't achieve our goal by simply stacking dead tangos and the civilians they hide amongst like cord wood. Trust me, if that was a productive strategy, I would be the first to shout for it from the highest mountain. But it isn't and if we want to turn the tide in Afghanistan, we need the people there to believe we are doing our level best to avoid killing them. They are the ones who can tell us who the bad guys are, but they have to trust us the the Afghan security forces and government first.

There have been a number of anecdotal accounts of our troops being hamstrung by the ROE. In virtually every case I have heard of, the problem was a lower level commander taking an overly-restrictive implementation of the ROE. It is quite likely that Gen. Petraeus will reinforce the stated point that these rules do not restrict our troops from calling in fire to protect themselves, and since he is pretty savvy that will likely be announced publicly. He will also reinforce the idea that we should do all we can to avoid civilian casualties. Those are not mutually exclusive goals and the bottom line is there needs to be a proper balance between them. 

So expect some cosmetic changes to the ROE, but remember that Gen. Petraeus is deeply committed to population-centric COIN. That means taking care of the populace, giving them some skin in the game e.g. local projects and local security forces, and putting the responsibility to maintain this in the hands of the Afghans themselves, where it belongs.

Muslim leader: 'Islam is not a religion of peace'

UPDATE: Fixed video link below

But don't listen to me, listen to what Muslims themselves say.

“You can’t say that Islam is a religion of peace. Islam does not mean peace, Islam means submission. So a Muslim is the one who submits. You know, there is a place for violence in Islam. There is a place for jihad in Islam.”

“The Qur’an is full of – you know – jihad is the most talked about duty in the Qur’an after tawhid (belief). Nothing else is mentioned more than fighting.”

On the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London that killed 52 and wounded hundreds:

“For the people who carried it out, it was legitimate. If you look at the will of Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, they would be justified. And there are many verses of the Qur’an and many statements to say that’s the Islamic argument. And that is a difficult Islamic argument to refute. And there are many scholars who support that argument as well.”

- Anjem Choudary
Leader of Islam4UK

Video here

War & Restrepo

If you ever wondered what it was like to be an American soldier fighting the Taliban in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, you now have an option besides enlisting. You can start by reading Sebastian Junger's book "War", which Matt reviewed here. When I first saw the title I thought that was a mighty bold statement calling it simply War. As if one book could really shed much useful light on a topic that broad and deep. After plowing through it cover to cover non-stop, I think it did just that. It is not a ponderous look at war and its effects on societies, grasps for power, geo-politics etc. It is a look at what happens to a group of men when they go to their own small piece of war in a god-forsaken, chunk of Hell in Afghanistan.

After the initial invasion of Afghanistan, there was not a whole lot of fighting there for the next four years. The Taliban had run to Pakistan and those that stayed were not very active. The Pakistanis tried a couple of times to take military action against the safe havens in their border provinces but in the end just made a number of treaties with the Taliban there. This allowed them to refit, recruit, retrain and eventually re-infiltrate into Afghanistan. When they did so the Korengal Valley was a major effort and a major route into the country. The 2nd Bn. 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne was sitting right there and over their 15 month tour they saw more combat than any unit during the war on terror. During 2007/8 more than 20% of all the combat in Afghanistan was these 1,000 or so guys fighting the first large scale efforts of the Taliban to return to the country.

Over that 15 month period, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington made a number of trips to embed with the 2nd platoon of Battle Company. They spent a total of 5 months with them and came out with two tremendous pieces of work detailing what that combat tour was like for those men, Sebastian's book "War" and their award-winning documentary "Restrepo" (you can see the trailer here). Taken together they are the closest thing to a virtual tour of the war in Afghanistan you are going to find. There is a tendency for journalists writing about their time in a war zone to put the experience through the lens of their own perspective. Sebastian does add some of his own thoughts and feelings about being there, but always manages to get out of his own way and focus back on the guys with the guns.

It is de rigeur to say this is a rough and raw tale. But that is why it works, everything that happened there was rough and raw and so were the actions and reactions of these men. All of the things they did to cope with the rigors of the terrain, the always lurking possibility of dying, and the crushing boredom when neither of those was in play came through clearly. There was no gray; there was life or death, friend or foe, exhilarating fire fights or stunning silence. When it ended, I was mad, yet happy for them that they were done. As the book told, many of them felt the same way.

The movie Restrepo was stunning.The filmmakers managed to absent themselves from it so completely it was as if you were watching events unfold yourself as a silent observer. Humping up ridiculous mountains, blazing away at elusive enemies who always seemed to have the high ground, dealing with recalcitrant villagers, trying to sort the bad guys from the not quite so bad guys, wondering if you were actually making a difference, wondering if you were gonna make it home. We saw these guys experience all of that and I think almost everyone in the theater had a cold sweat and chills for most of the film.

Just as striking was the commentary from the men after they had returned, which was interspersed throughout the picture.  There was no feeling that they were broken, but certainly bent, and scarred and thoughtful. All they had seen and done weighed on them, but they seemed determined to use it rather than allow it to use them. One man talked about never wanting to lose the memory of a friend who was killed. He didn't want to block it out even though it was brutally painful. He said it reminded him of why he was happy to have everything that he still did. That seemed like a perfect metaphor for the experience of all those men. Yeah it hurt, but I'm still here aren't I? So be it.

I don't think I have to say read the book and see the movie and then read the book again. Just do, and then be happy for everything that you still have and thank these men and the rest of our troops for always marching to the sound of gunfire.

McChrystal to retire

In a move that surprised no one, General McChrystal has told the Army he will retire.  I never met the man, because he commanded 2nd Ranger Battalion before I left and, truth to tell, I doubt we would have been buddies if we were in that unit at the same time.  But from what I've seen and heard he was the kind of officer men were proud to serve under, and a very capable commander.  Thank you for your service, General McChrystal.  Very few have ever done it as well.

-- Uber Pig