Seven PMCs Are Going Home

I don’t claim to be an expert on, well, anything, but particularly Private Military Companies (PMCs).

However, this piece from the Associated Press made me think very good thoughts. Firstly, they have a patchy reputation. Think Blackwater, the PMC that just won’t go away. There are apparently links between Raymond Davis and Blackwater/Xe. PMCs also have a reputation for being trigger happy.

But secondly, and more importantly, this is a great day for wider Afghan development. The article makes reference to Hamid Karzai’s desire to take control of the situation. Karzai “charges that they slow down the development of Afghanistan’s own security forces,” which is probably quite true.

Think about it this way: You are trying to learn a new skill and every time you get to an impasse, someone is there saying “that part’s a bit tricky, let me take care of that for you, I’ll give it back when it’s done.”

And also, it’s allowing the Afghan government to further “our commitment to transparency and the rule of law.”

As a first civilian step in demobilizing foreign forces in Afghanistan, I can only see this as a good thing. It will force the Afghan police to step up and take responsibility, knowing, I think, that if bad things start happening, there’ll be a foreigner there, with his foot up someone’s backside, telling him to get it together.

What are your thoughts?

How Can We Go About Changing the Supra-National World Order?

… Or: NATO Might be Dying, the UN Might be Impotent, But Might There be Another Way?

I was inspired by a quote in this post with the thought that in future, interventions should be unilateral in undertaking, multilateral in mandate.

The quote from Stephen Walt that triggered the thought was this:

If the Afghan war ends in a defeat or even some sort of messy compromise, then more people will ask if the Alliance ought to be in the nation-building business at all.

I’ve been following the “Decline of NATOdebate, off and on, for a while, since researching a paper on the possibility of the EU becoming a military superpower.

It’s been difficult for NATO to maintain a coherent and cohesive message (something that is vital in counterinsurgency) throughout its mission in Afghanistan. The mission is, according to Bob Woodward’s account of the debates within the White House around the situation in Afghanistan, becoming increasingly ‘Americanized’. Were it not for America’s ability to be largely self-reliant in terms of manpower, weapons systems and, crucially, strategic lift, there would be more call for NATO writ large to have a presence in Afghanistan.

As it is, according to NATO/ISAF’s ‘Placemat’ which gives the locations (by province) of ISAF deployments, helpfully very recently published, US troops out-number their British counterparts (who have the second most troops deployed) by almost 10:1, and account for 69% of all international forces in Afghanistan. Certain nations contribute infinitesimal numbers of troops, Austria (3), Iceland (5) and Ireland (7) to list just a few. Their commitment is clearly not present. I’m not suggesting in any way that this is a bad thing, or meaning it as a slight against them as nations. But counterinsurgency requires the full commitment of a large number of troops, operating under on exclusive mandate, and set of instructions.

Cultural Difficulties, Added Complexities

This hasn’t been happening. There are plenty of stories of the differing attitudes of the soldiers of NATO countries, embodied in this Telegraph article:

The Dutch approach to the war in Afghanistan is focused more on winning hearts and minds through development and diplomacy than on killing insurgents linked to the hardline Islamist Taliban regime, which was ousted in 2001.

That can make life a little complicated for the troops, some of whom suggest only half-jokingly that they envy US soldiers who, they believe, have more licence to “kick ass”.

Further to these individual cultural differences, there are also more institutionalized cultural discrepancies between NATO’s member states. They are known, rather charmingly, as “caveats”. They are limitations on the activities in which a given nation’s troops may be put to task. This piece (PDF) puts the problem very well. David Auerswald and Stephen Saideman suggest that “caveats have shifted the burden-sharing debate within NATO from budgets in the 1980s to body bags in the 21st century.” And Arnaud de Borchgrave points out in this article for UPI that the Americans, “British, Canadian and Dutch are the only national contingents under NATO command that are not handcuffed.”

Some of the caveats are inconsequential. Some of them are more serious in terms of the mission in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most pressing is that expressed in the concerns of former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General John Craddock, quoted by de Borchgrave as saying, “[s]ome governments say their troops cannot take part in any counter-narcotics operations.” This, of course, hamstrings NATO’s efforts as a whole in dealing with a problem that supplies the Taliban with “about $400 million a year from its opium poppy crop.” While insurgency is, according to Robert Taber at least, only occasionally economically focused, the narcotics trade still constitutes a large part of the problem in Afghanistan. Also, it is one that is specific to that country. Without these cultural differences (indeed, the nuances of individual countries should decide how they are deployed to intervene) contained within one entity, like NATO, a great deal of unity of direction could be achieved.

Imagine if the job of assigning interventions was multilateral, thereby offering a check against imperialism. Imagine if the job of intervention was then strictly unilateral, thereby discarding any issues of ‘caveats’ or ‘cultural differences’, even the language barrier would disappear. (Although the latter problem was delightfully parodied in No Man’s Land.)

With this thought, bringing together many of my other thoughts, the myriad pieces of the puzzle, I might be formulating something of a TPMB Grand Strategy. It is just the germ of an idea at present, and I don’t know that it would work. I would love to have you spread this idea around and pick holes in it, make it stronger and see if it doesn’t gain some traction.


As a brief post-script to this, I didn’t have time to read it before I posted this piece, but I remembered the headline: Sweden Plans to Start Withdrawal of Troops in 2012. When the Obama administration has announced a date of 2011. Is this not a clear case-in-point of the problems that exist in a multilateral occupying force? Surely for the draw-down date to be believable, although it is not really feasible or sensible, there must be agreement on when it will take place?

Civil-Military Relations

A friend pointed me at this post by Kings College lecturer Patrick Porter. He talks about how Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne is—ironically, since he is lamenting it—stuck in the Cold War mentality of fighting “the Russians on the north German plain.” Porter’s argument here however, is that “we are not ‘extremely well prepared’ for a brawl with Russia in Europe. Post Cold War spending has seen to that. The British military is a small fraction of its former size. It is flat out sustaining a Battlegroup in Afghanistan, let alone a Brigade.”

While the notion that the British army is “flat out” in Afghanistan is interesting for the Afghan Outsider, something more interesting is another of Porter’s posts.

It addresses something that has been a hot topic, not least with the release of Bob Woodward’s new book, the relationship between military and civilian leaders and commanders. It’s a problem with which US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has recently expressed concern.

Barack Obama is not the first US president, or leader of a modern nation state for that matter, to be engaged in a war. That sounds flippant. What I mean is that he is a civilian in charge of military matters. It’s not something that has been done well since kings stopped leading their men from the front.

As Lt. Gen. David Barno at CNAS says in a review of Woodward’s book:

The president is the commander-in-chief—and as such, he is ultimately responsible for U.S. military actions overseas. He not only issues the orders that commit troops, but also frames the national policy that those deployments will support. He owns the policy decision “ends” at the strategic level, but must also understand and approve the broad “ways” by which his strategy will be carried out in the field. Further, he must balance the resources required to carry out these decisions—the “means” of people, time and dollars that will always remain precious commodities. The military influences that process, often in outsize ways—but the President owns it.

During the Crimean War, leaders were accused of meddling simply because they could.

The Crimean War also saw the first tactical use of … modern inventions such as the electric telegraph, with the first ‘live’ war reporting to The Times by William Howard Russell. Some credit Russell with prompting the resignation of the sitting British government through his reporting of the lacklustre shape of the British forces deployed to the Crimea. Additionally, the telegraph reduced the independence of British overseas possessions from their commanders in London due to such rapid communications. Newspaper readership informed public opinion in the United Kingdom and France as never before. It was the first European war to be photographed.

The American Civil War began two years before (in 1861) and ended two months after (in April 1956) the Crimean. Porter uses the example of Abraham Lincoln as a commander in chief who had a “brief spell on a quiet garrison during the Black Hawk war” which “can hardly have been a good preparation for steering the country through fratricide and crisis.”

The relationship between civilians and the military, especially in the über-instant globally connected world (where superficial, virtual interactions allegedly don’t really lead to change), has always been strained. It has also always been important. It is important in the modern age as well. Arguably more so.

To get back to the original point of this post, I think that, while it is ultimately the civilians’ decision whether or not to go to war. “[T]he President owns it,” as the Lieutenant General said.

The Rolling Stone article that allegedly got General McChrystal fired shows how intimately linked, in the modern, connected world, soldiers are to their civilian superiors.

Noah Schachtman at Wired suggested that “[k]eeping General Stanley McChrystal in place would have shattered the chain of command, obliterated the authority Obama had with the military, and undermined any hope of waging a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.” The authority of the civilian leadership over the military is vital this post-Cromwellian era. Private armies are not desirable. Renegade commanders are dangerous; Peter Sellers showed us that.

It’s definitely something for the Outsider to consider. Civilians always run the risk of being Outsiders to military affairs. Vice versa, in many instances. McChrystal’s poor handling of public appearances is some kind of testimony to that.

Can these barriers come down without collapsing into some kind of Cromwellian mess?

Don’t Call Me Counterinsurgency, Baby!

Two things inspired this post. A conversation with a friend over dinner, and this piece at Danger Room.

Scrubbing of Systems

First, the article: The US military establishment is doing away with the term ‘counterinsurgency’. They are scrubbing their “systems, practices and institutions for lameness.” Among the other elements to be jettisoned are the frequently maligned Power Point presentations, and the notion of brigade level command.

The excising of ‘counterinsurgency’ (there’s something disturbingly Orwellian about that notion; here’s the latest from MiniPax (TPMB’s idea is used with the greatest respect. I love his idea of the “Department of Everything Else.” I am an unashamed TPMB Fanboy)) from the US army’s lexicon is the brainchild of General Martin Dempsey.

“His beef is that the term is reactive, defining an Army task in terms of a type of enemy, rather than describing something that the Army does affirmatively.” Dempsey is wrong. Counterinsurgency is a highly active form of warfare. It has to be.

It might not be shouty and tanky and running aroundy and overly shooty, but it is by no means passive. This is where the problems lie in the popular American understanding of counterinsurgency warfare. From the start, one might be forgiven for thinking that Americans expected the Taliban to stand up and fight; like they fought the Germans, and like they were preparing to fight the Soviets. That’s what they have been preparing for over the last 60 years or so. Witness Operation Desert Storm. The Iraqi army was ridiculously outgunned, but the Americans were unsuccessful in achieving anything substantial, in part I believe, because they were anticipating a 1945-esque capitulation on the part of the Iraqi Defense Force; this scenario was repeated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which promptly dissolved into a violent insurgency.

In the immortal (and mortal) words of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The IDF refused to give up as ordered. The American military establishment was not prepared for this kind of indolence. The same thing happened and is happening in Afghanistan. A softly-softly approach, with a good dose of ass-kickery to those who need it (there are more subtle ways of dealing with those who deserve ass-kickery: the story of Tanjong related by John Nagl in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 89, is a great example), is the order of the day in counterinsurgency.

Linguistics and Reification

The conversation I had revolved around the central premise that ‘counterinsurgency’ is just a word. It is an abstract noun in the most abstract of senses. It’s entirely invented. It’s a set of instructions which work a lot of the time. It’s not a map. It’s not flat-pack directions. It’s not the answer. There isn’t an answer. My friend’s key point, and one that I push hard elsewhere, and plan to make a key to this blog, is that whatever the end point is, there is no way that we can have any idea as to what it might be. It will just be what it is at the time.

Counterinsurgency itself doesn’t exist. You can’t just go about it and hope to get results. Instead, it’s a set of principles which, if adhered to, give one a platform to achieve ones aims. It’s abstract in the same way that ‘war’ is an abstract term. ‘War’ is organized violence. Beyond that, there’s no saying what will happen, or how things will pan out.

We’re Never Gonna Leave

General Petraeus seems to get it. Maybe it’s more difficult to get others to tow the line. The New York Times point out that “military officers, who support General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy and say he readily acknowledges the difficulties ahead, caution that the security and governance crisis in Afghanistan remains so volatile that any successes may not be sustainable.” This is true. It will likely ‘always’ be true (whatever always means, that’s another post for another day).

Is there a way out? Is there a way out of Germany? There have been American troops there since the end of the Second World War. Maybe there will always be some American troops in Afghanistan. The challenge then would become changing the global perception of those troops from occupiers to friends and supporters. And therein lies the crux of counterinsurgency.

Doing away with the term, reified as it is, won’t achieve anything. Humans’ desire to know what things are, the basis of language, will simply lead to another term. (Hint: this can’t be peacekeeping; peacekeeping is a passive activity.)

This I Believe

My head is buzzing.

This morning, a propos of nothing, I received in the post a book from a friend. That book is This I Believe. It is a collection of short essays by various people. Sportsmen and writers. Nobel laureates and housewives. Essays on what they believe. Their life philosophies and guiding principles.

I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. I have only ever done that with one other book, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Immediately after finishing that book, I wrote the date and address where I read it inside the front cover; I wanted to keep it and know where I was. It’s fair to say that This I Believe has had a similar effect on me.

Never have I been brought to tears so many times by a book. Granted the stories are short, and likely to be powerful and poignant. But reading that much thought about the human condition, what it means to be alive, what happens when we die, or the virtues of feeding monkeys on ones birthday, made me think about the various things that I have thought about doing with my brief second on this rock.

I have tried starting many blogs. (This is about my fifth, I think.) I spent two years at a music academy fostering dreams of musical fame and fortune. I then worked as a wage slave for eighteen months. That time inspired me to go to university, where I studied war for three years. Having recently graduated, and preparing for a post-graduate research degree, beginning in January of next year, I have a few months in which I plan to grow.

This blog is safe, it will continue to grow. But reading that book, along with a conversation I recently had with my parents, has made me think about my own life philosophy. This post will be too long to be considered for the ever-expanding collection of ‘This I Believe’ essays, but perhaps I will one day write my thoughts down, succinctly and thoroughly.

The Outsider’s Lot

The Outsider’s Lot

The Outsider’s Lot is a difficult place to be. It’s all too easy to see how things should be done. All the books you’ve read tell you that this is the way to do something. All the news you read suggests that the theory, which seems sound, is being ignored. What’s to be done?

Crows Aren't Seagulls
Pic – “Outsider” from Tom’s Gallery

It’s difficult, in those circumstances, being an educated, informed, empowered but inexperienced individual, to draw a line between what you know and how that plays out in the real world. It’s just part of being human I suppose. The only thing to do is to learn from it, and try not to make the same mistakes again. I’ll offer you an example from my own past, so that you can understand what I am talking about, when I say that, sometimes, inexperience shouts itself from the rooftops.

Sign on the Line

In my early days on the Internet, I made the mistake of openly criticizing a soldier in a blog that I wrote. I have no experience of soldiering. The only thing that I really understand about it is that it is definitely something one can only fully appreciate when one has it experienced first-hand. So my criticism was unjust. At the time, a friend counseled me: “You have to be very careful criticizing soldiers. They’re willing to lay down their lives for you. And at the moment, I’m not prepared to sign on that dotted line.”

Throughout school, I wanted to join the army. I still think about it sometimes. I think it would be very helpful for me, in terms of understanding what is going on in a lot of situations. However, there were a lot of reasons why I didn’t join up, most of them took the form of my mother. I remained interested in military matters and that is what drove me toward my choice of War and Society as an undergraduate degree. While I do still think about it, for me, it’s too much of a commitment. I will just have to remember that sage advice: “I’m not prepared to sign on the dotted line.”

The Ivory Tower

One thing that I have always sought, is to remove myself as far as possible from the Ivory Tower. For now, my place is here, in my Ivory Tower. I want to interact ‘on the ground’ with the things I am interested in; I hope that the research for my PhD will take me to Afghanistan. Someday I will engage in fieldwork, someday I will know what it’s like to be out there, amongst it. But for now, I think that it’s important to start this dialogue with the rest of the world, and to ensure that other Outsiders know how important it is that we continue to support the mission in Afghanistan, but that this should only be done under the strictest of parameters.

Inspiration and Learning from Others

I don’t know that there’s an answer here. Something to muse on, I think. The “civil-military” relations thing is fascinating. People like David Kilcullen and John Nagl are great inspirations to me. While it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever experience combat, it is very useful to read people like these who have the military training to see them through battle, and the intellect and academic training to allow them to coherently, fluently and prosaically discuss their experiences. As an under-studied follower of the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, I am aware of the power of role models and the examples they set. Throughout the writing of this blog, I will rely on reports from the field. News reports, while coloured by so much adherence to house guidelines, blogs (similarly censored, I’m sure), freelance reportage, and other primary sources and first-hand accounts will be very valuable to me.

In many ways, and like most of life, it’s a situation where one can never know the true feelings, intentions, story, of another individual. This situation crops up in all areas. The debate within the air force at the moment, about the position of drone pilots within the ranks, alongside fighter pilots. From my studied view, it seems that drones have their place in all branches of the military. The army can, and does, use them for local reconnaissance. The navy, ditto. The air force needn’t control the whole fleet of drones.

Ringing the Changes

This stubbornness in the face of what seems an inevitable shift to unmanned recon is indicative of the nature of large, strictly hierarchical institutions, such as armies. They are inherently inflexible. John Nagl’s treatise on the British and American armies as ‘learning institutions’ during their respective experiences dealing with insurgencies during the Cold War clearly demonstrates this. He suggests that it is “essential that the army leadership be willing to accept, or at least consider, even what at first appear to be heretical ideas.”[1] I used this exact quote in my dissertation, (which I will post in PDF format here, as soon as it’s back from the markers). This is what the British army had to do in the First World War. Great shifts in strategic and tactical thinking took place in those bitter four years. But the army changed, adjusted itself, from a rigid, hierarchical system, based on one-way communications traffic, to a flexible, adaptive force, with commanders willing to learn the lessons demonstrated to them by the soldiers on the ground.

Afghanistan is exactly this sort of situation. It is vitally important for the commanders to allow their officers to take control of situations and, within the confines of an overall mission structure, to adapt as they see fit the tactics used to achieve that end. As long as the ends justify the means (the soldiers must, if only for the sake of good COIN, obey certain standards of ethics and morality) and they are always seeking to improve relations with the locals, and encourage the locals away from the Taliban.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

However, as I said at the start, from the outside, it’s all too easy to see the way things should be done. When it comes to actually doing it, things tend to change a little more slowly. What’s most frustrating about this, from a counterinsurgency point of view, is that COIN itself takes a long time. In this age of faster, sooner, now, the West would do well to take a step back, let things happen and see what occurs, rather than frequently pressing the issue, always seeking innovation and new ideas. They may do better to look at what is working and try to replicate it across the country. This could lead to more effective methods being employed.


[1] John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2005), 10. Frustratingly, many of Nagl’s “Lessons” were learnt in similar manner and applied effectively during the First World War. However, his study of armies as “Learning Institutions” demonstrates why this happened.

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