No Fly Zones

I’m reasonably ashamed to admit that most Sundays I buy a copy of the Sunday Express (a conservative British newspaper, only slightly less right wing than the Daily Mail). Although I only buy it for the general knowledge crossword (if anyone can suggest a less inflammatory newspaper from which I might procure an hour or so of entertainment on a Sunday morning, I’d be grateful) I had a flick through the paper itself. There was a cartoon that made me chuckle.

It is entitled “No Fly-Zone” and features David Cameron holding a can of “United Nations Approved” fly spray and a fly swat chasing off a disgruntled, winged Gaddaffi. It made me laugh because it so clearly depicted how easy Western powers thought defeating Gaddaffi would be.

I think it’s best summed up, in this instant, by Think Strat’s Facebook status from a few days ago, which reads:

So, our strategy seems to be: 1) Pass a UNSC resolution > 2) ? > 3) Gaddafi gone! A new Libya!

That seems to sum up the thinking. But, the last time that NATO forces tried to win a war by bombing was in the Balkans, and even there success (defined by long-term stability) has been patchy.

Just Once, Let’s Know How We’re Getting Out, Before We Get In.

I was in a seminar a week or so ago, when the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya had just been “put on the table.” One of the main arguments against the NFZ in the seminar was that, it should not be imposed until the rebels come up with a viable alternative. At present, it seems that Think Strat’s assessment (see above) still holds. We know that we the Libyan people don’t want Gaddaffi in power any more, but (to the best of my knowledge, which is limited) we don’t know what they want instead.

I have never advocated it and, in fact, agree wholeheartedly with Patrick Porter’s assessment of 9th, March. Namely, “[a] widely touted no-fly zone over Libya would probably not be a surgical intervention that would trigger the overthrow of Gaddafi, but the first step towards entanglement, further escalation, and deeper conflict.”

So the question remains: Where does this end? And I don’t mean that it a crazy conspiracy theorist kind of sense. Rather, I mean, how do we know when we can stop bombing Benghazi, and lift the no-fly zone?

Answers on a postcard (or, if you’d prefer, in the comments), please.

Star Wars and COIN

No, not Reagan’s map-cap scheme. The excellent George Lucas trilogy. I just finished watching the original Star Wars trilogy with my wife, and was struck by two things about the final scene of Return of the Jedi. First, how effective unconventional tactics are against a technologically advanced enemy. And second, how Star Wars lied to us about the outcomes of these sorts of protracted conflicts.

The Empire and the Rebel Alliance have been at war for some time, we are given to believe. In the first two films, the battles are straight up fights, more or less. (Excepting some cosmetic deficiencies.) In the final battle scene of the series, on the forest moon of Endor, the Ewoks mount a commendable insurgency against the massively technologically superior Imperial forces.

Ewoks to the Wescue

Their use of unconventional tactics—stealing the speeder, commandeering the AT-AT walker, tripping walkers with ropes, rolling logs down a mountain-side; you know the drill—is simply second-to-none.

Also, as Katy pointed out, “they definitely know the terrain.” It gave them a huge advantage, even though they were possibly outnumbered, and definitely out-gunned.

Those Damn Lies

Star Wars lied to us about insurgencies. It teaches us that insurgencies have a simple end: The Emperor is dead. Darth Vader is dead. The Death Star is destroyed, along with the Imperial fleet and its command. Everything is happy across the galaxy.

In Star Wars, the end-game, the exit strategy is defined and simple. In real life, “we have no idea what we’re working toward, so we end up working toward nothing.”

It’s not all George Lucas’ fault, but maybe it has something to do with it. What do you think?


If you liked this post, please spread the word via Facebook, &c.

If you want to interact with me, and other people all over the world, you should follow me on Twitter, here.

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?

Stephen Walt on Afghanistan

Stephen Walt has a fantastic piece at Foreign Policy, discussing the current American ‘strategy’ in Afghanistan.

His argument is that there seems to be little connection between the strategy, as laid out in FM 3-24, and what is happening on the ground. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything he has to say.

My biggest issue with the current strategy, as I see it, in Afghanistan, is that there is too much emphasis on the protection of NATO forces, not enough on the protection of the locals. The indigenous population is the central focus of counterinsurgency. (It’s also the central focus of fourth generation warfare. See Thomas Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century) However, as recent operations have shown (see Joshua Foust’s indictment of the destruction of the village at Tarok Kolache—and, crucially, the American reaction to it), there seems to be little, if any, respect from the American soldiers for the livelihoods of ordinary Afghans—the very people they are there to protect, reassure and nuture.

As Josh points out in his piece, “war is hell. … But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable.” Personally, I was concerned when I learned that the US were taking over operations in Southern Afghanistan last January. Their penchant for “high tempo, kinetic operations” (read: shoot now, ask questions later) smacks of an inability to comprehend the fundamentals of counterinsurgency.

However, a recent piece from the British army’s PR machine “Helmand Blog” (which I briefly mentioned here) tells the story of a village painstakingly de-mined. The result, a much happier populace, returning to their homes. Josh Foust’s response suggests that this is a model of “how you demonstrate good faith, good intentions, and a desire to delegitimize the Taliban (as opposed to merely destroying whomever you can identify).”

Granted, the American army, at the end of the Cold War, developed into a terrifically unwieldy beast, by the nature of its vast size, and training for Cold War-style, World War Two-style, set piece battles. It’s having trouble ‘training down’ to fight counterinsurgency effectively.


On a side note, has anyone else noticed a similarity between the fighting in Afghanistan (as represented by the documentaries Battle for Marjah and Restrepo) and the Spanish Civil War (as represented by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)?

Doing It The “Right” Way

I’ve not been following the activities of British forces in Helmand, but in light of Joshua Foust’s piece on Barok Taloche, a couple of months ago, this story from UK Media Ops’ Helmand Blog is very much reassuring.

It concerns the actions of 2 Para and an 80-strong counter-IED team in the Afghan village of Char Coucha. The only information about the action is from the blog. The team dismantled nine devices and recovered a large cache of other weapons and component parts for IEDs.

IEDs are a valuable tool for the insurgents in Afghanistan. They slow down (and necessitate) clearing operations. They are crippling for the all-important ‘momentum’ that NATO forces are trying to maintain.

The painstaking work undertaken here meant that the villagers were able to return to their village. This is perhaps a more appropriate way for counterinsurgency operations to go about securing ‘hearts and minds’.

Complexity, Confusion and Frustration

Ok, so there’s something that I need to get out, before I can get back to my ‘manuscript’:

I don’t have a clue what is going on!

There, I said it.

Every time I read something, there is something (a paper, a blog post, a photo essay, a news article, a book, the list is endless), somewhere else with a different, equally valid view, an equally valid opinion. And at that moment, all progress on the work that I am trying to complete grinds to a halt.

There is no right answer. But I feel like, to admit that in a Master’s thesis (or a Ph.D., if this thing doesn’t drive me bonkers) is to loose some credibility as an academic. After all, we’re prized and praised for stoic defenses of this position or that. But when it comes down to it, no one knows the right way to do things. There is no way to account for everything.

But back to my original question: How do you reconcile all these different points of view?


There are roughly 200 succinct(-ish) words of procrastination. I think that they neatly sum up the final conclusion of this New Yorker piece on a new book, The Thief of Time, about procrastination:

In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

Perhaps now I can get back to work.

Post Number One

I just read the latest ICOS report “Afghanistan Transition: Dangers of a Summer Drawdown.” [pdf]

Overall, it seemed to me to be rather negative, concerning the situation in Afghanistan. Two things in particular caught my attention. First, the critique of the ANSF seems unnecessary. Second, the statistics surrounding the Afghan people’s knowledge of why NATO forces are in their country.


However, the result of training as many ANSF as fast as possible is a flood of advanced weaponry into the hands of tens of thousands of mostly young men, whose allegiance is often fluid under the pressures they face. There is a risk of trained ANA or ANP switching alliances or fighting for the insurgency instead of for the Afghan state.

This section in particular, based on my understanding of the situation, seemed a little off-base. To threaten defection because of "fluid" allegiances is misleading. Moreover, it detracts from all the positive work that is being done with regard to the ANA and ANP.

It might well be the case that defection from the police is a serious issue in Afghanistan, but without any kind of policing, nothing long-term will be achieved. Of course announcing a date for the withdrawal of NATO forces was unwise, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have noble intentions. Of course we should be saying "end-state not end date." But there has to be room for development, and mistakes.

Omelette and eggs, I think.

A Tale of Two Statistics

I’m wary of quantitative data. Without extensive context, they are difficult to use for any real purpose. However, there were two pieces of data which—if they based on reliable informants and have not been skewed or otherwise manipulated—got my attention.

The first: only 8% of the 1,000 men of Helmand and Kandahar were aware of the "event which the foreigners call 9/11." Really, that speaks for itself.

The second: "in October 2010, 40% of interviewees in Helmand and Kandahar believed that foreigners were in Afghanistan to occupy or destroy the country, or to destroy Islam."

I was under the impression that extensive propaganda campaigns were engaged in at the start of the conflict (2001) to inform and reassure the Afghan people.

Was this not the case? If so, where do you think the disconnect between this information and the Afghan people lies?

I’m interested to read your thoughts.