Saturday, September 28, 2013

Starry, Starry Night

--A simple game of chess

Our crusade was such madness 
that only a real idealist could have thought it up
--The Seventh Seal (1957)

Ranger will draw connections among three fights: Lang Vei (Vietnam, Feb. '68), Mogadishu - Black Hawk Down (Oct. '93) and the Battle of Kamdesh at Command Outpost Keating in Afghanistan (Oct. 2009).

The key devolution over 40+ years is that the U.S. is no longer fighting enemy armies but simple assemblies of enemy fighters variously described as militias, militants, insurgents, etc., and while U.S. forces are arrayed to fight battles, they instead get roughly handled by simple street thugs ... people for whom soldierly behavior does not apply.

So, why do we fight for hills, towns and terrains which are disposable and not of worth to anyone except those squatting on that particular grid square, and then pull up stakes and leave? Have the principles of war lost their relevance? This is the Day of the Jackal; you lie down with dogs, you get fleas. Has Clausewitz had his day? If so, what will direct and constrain our present and future conflicts?

From his personal discussions with battle survivor (Lt.) Paul Longgrear, the Battle of Lang Vei was the death of the United States Special Forces A-Camps, which were small and remote fighting camps with mission augmentation. The fall of Lang Vei showed that the US Army could not hold a camp if the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was determined to expend the operational assets to destroy their objective.

If the  NVA could do this at LV with USMC assets a 105 Howitzer distance away, then any SF fighting camp in VN was a potential death trap. The LV Battle was a knock-down fight between two determined armies; after LV and Tet '68, the outcome of the American war in Vietnam was sealed.

And yet, despite that death knell the U.S. continues 40 years on to emplace its soldiers in indefensible outposts which suffer the same dire fate.

Like LV, the Mogadishu battle [Black Hawk Down - "BHD'] was conducted by the finest Special Operations Forces (SOF) -- the 75th Ranger Battalion assets teamed up with SOF Delta operatives. The difference in the BHD scenario was that the enemy was an unorganized opponent lacking a detailed Table of Organization and Equipment (TO& E) and order of battle; in short, they functioned as militias lacking state apparatus. They probably lacked mission objectives beyond killing soldiers and controlling the countryside and cities by armed violence.

But BHD demonstrated that militias with platoon-level weapons (including RPG2 and 7's) could engage and kill prime US war fighting assets IF the militias were willing to take the casualties. It was estimated in BHD that the U.S. killed 1,000+ militia fighters, yet the U.S. mission was ultimately frustrated and abandoned. Somalia is still the same sewer 20 years on.

The book and the movie were an awe-inspiring view of a world-class infantry, but insurgents and militias world-wide re-learned that they can fight any army to standstill if willing to take the casualties. The lessons taken from the '79 Russo-Afghan war have been re-imagined in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001 onward.

The Battle at Kamdesh in '09 for which SSG Clinton Romesha earned the Medal of Honor earlier this year occurred 20 miles away from a similar failure the previous year in the Battle of Wanat. While the U.S. soldiers supposedly killed 100 enemy militants, that is immaterial since the 4th Division no longer occupies any terrain in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan.

An old Counterinsurgency (COIN) metric goes, if we are killing 10:1 of ours, then we are being successful. It is doubtful the U.S. met that metric in LV and it assuredly did not in BHD. And in Kamdesh, with a kill ratio of 8:100 ... ? Did we win?

The New York Times reported the Americans following Kamdesh "declared the outpost closed and departed — so quickly that they did not carry out all of their stored ammunition. The outpost’s depot was promptly looted by the insurgents and bombed by American planes in an effort to destroy the lethal munitions left behind" ("Strategic Plans Spawn Bitter End for Lonely Outpost.")

COP Keating was not a win, and they left like Lee slinking out of Gettysburg in July 1863. The difference was that instead of withdrawing under an enemy army's pressure, they faced a rag-tag group of militia fighters who may have been simple bandits or warlord fighters. Though not a Waterloo or Liepzig, it was a total failure nonetheless.

If U.S. forces were to kill 100:1, they would still be losing in a Low-intensity conflict (LIC) or COIN environment. We no longer talk of LIC, instead pretending that we fight battles, but LIC is the order of the day, and reality demands that understanding. However, that understanding would threaten to upend the profitable military complex as we know it.

 Ranger's unit in RVN, Studies and Observations Group (SOG), is reported to have had a kill ratio of 150:1, but we still lost control of the Ho Chi Minh Trail since we never controlled the key terrain on the ground. An army can hold ground, but that is not equal to controlling the ground.

In the last 43 years, the U.S. Army has lost the ability to control the ground. It may have conquered Kabul and Baghdad, but it never controlled the ground, nor the hearts and minds of the locals. This is the fallow result of phony wars.

The latest wars prove the inability of the U.S. Army to destroy and force U.S. will on insurgencies and militia-inspired insurgencies. They are continuations of LV and BHD on another chessboard. What should we have learned?

Time is not on our side.

[cross-posted @ rangeragainstwar]

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sacred Defense Parade

Iran has been celebrating their Sacred Defense Week commemorating the 25 year anniversary of the end of their war with Iraq.  (*see note 1)

Rouhani was in the viewing stand.  Reportedly before the parade he gave a speech calling for a diplomatic approach to the West.  There are lots of wartoys in this video.  As for me I am fascinated with the four-wheeler ATVs.  Most of them have a standing passenger carrying a shoulder launched SAM or antitank rocket launcher.  I looked for the motorcyclists made famous in the Iran-Iraq War carrying a backseater with an RPG dueling with Iraqi tanks, but did not see any.  What really stumped me was the United Nations contingent.  Starting about minute 3:15 there is a detachment of UN or lookalikes – UN vehicles, blue flags, and some guys with blue berets.  I believe there is still a UN team in Iran.  But why would they march in a military parade?  Or more puzzling, why would the Iranians allow it?

There is quite a bit of armor, most were the Iranian built <i>Zulfiqar</i> named after the legendary sword of Ali.  But I thought I saw an American made M-60 or two.  And it looked like there were a couple of old American made Long Tom 175s.  Rockets and missiles got the biggest chunk of parade space.  There were lots of them, scores of different types that I could not ID.  Can anyone identify the boxy looking missile at minute 13:15, or is that some kind of drone?  The IRIN was well represented also.  In addition to some truck mounted models of an Iranian frigate and a submarine, they showed off several fast patrol boats.  Just past minute 15:55 after the sleek looking cigarette boat type patrol craft they show what appears to be a one-man submarine.  There is a better look at it ten seconds later.   And then there are the big ballistic missiles near the end of the video, where the announcer keeps yelling Walla Walla Akbar (*see note 2).  I am sure that segment  will be enough to make some of the right wing chickenhawks in this country wet their diapers.

This was only one part of the parade.  There are two other segments on youtube with bands and various units marching by the reviewing stand.   Long and boring unless you speak Farsi.  Lots of chanting.  Some of the units were wearing a colorful sash that would have made a 19th century European diplomat proud.  Some of the sashes sported tulips, maybe signifying martyrs?   I saw some yellow flags which could signify Hezbollah, or maybe not?  March steps were different in each unit.  Many had a stomp-slide-stomp-slide step.  Only the Navy that I saw did a goose step.  No women in uniform :-( bummer!

note (*1) The war that George W Bush finally won for Iran when he invaded Iraq ten years ago.

note (*2) just a little Washington State humor.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Crater Analysis

The diplomat added that the trajectory points directly at known Syrian military bases. "There isn't a shred of evidence in the other direction," he said.
Not a whole lot to say except that UN report includes some sort of crater analysis that is apparently a high point of the evidence arrayed against the Syrian government.

Let me be the first to say, I have no idea what happened and this is not an attempt to implicate either party.  It is an attempt to pour some much needed cold water on a hot situation.

I've conducted over a dozen crater analyses in a combat zone and I have a dead enemy mortar team at the end of that.  As a result, I've come to this situation with some skepticism and experience.  There are several questions we need to ask about the analysis that was conducted.

*Note* I also used some pics from this site to see what the alleged chemical weapons craters looked like.

Question 1: was the site tampered with at all?
It's a fact that it took multiple weeks before the team arrived at the crater site.  I've seen some pictures of Syrians around the suspected crater and obviously it was several days since the attack.  The dirt is again packed tightly.  In a couple it's quite clear that the shrapnel was gathered up and stored in a particular site.
That suggests that sites were tampered with.  How do we know that the rocket fins were not moved to a different direction?  Who was there, what was done on site?  Since it's a chemical weapons site, you'd assume there was minimal tampering, but the shrapnel in a pile suggests otherwise.
Question 2: did they actually inspect the site?
It's not possible to do this from a picture.  It just isn't.  I had a sergeant tell me I was 180 degrees off in where the crater was based on some video evidence.  When I told him he could come down to the next crater analysis, he conceded a lack of real interest.
It's very easy to play armchair quarterback on this, but without actually standing over the crater and looking over the exact site, you can easily make mistakes.  Things just look different standing exactly on top of it.  Does it make sense that the round came this way?  Could it have come in anything other than a high-angle arc?  You cannot answer that question from a hotel room or even a TOC through a video feed or pictures.  Get a radar if you are going that route.
Question 3: was there anyone amongst the inspectors who has done crater analysis before?
I can imagine that there were a number of chemical weapons inspectors present.  But how many have actually seen a rocket crater before?  Were they surprised to see so much rocket fin still present in the crater?  Does this particular model carry any HE or is it all chemical gas?  Did the craters appear to be coming from a single back azimuth or was it relatively random?
It's super easy to fuck this up.  I got good at it from a combination of necessity and mentoring.  I imagine most police work is similar.  You just need to learn where to look and how to look before you can find what you need to be good at it.  If they sent a bunch of chemos there, it'd be like giving a little child who's never seen it, a basketball and a basketball hoop.  He may get perfect form on his own, but probably not without someone else's guidance or a lot of time and energy invested.
There wasn't much time or energy invested, so I hope someone from the UN that went there knew what to look for.
Question 4: did the inspectors come with a preconceived notion of where the rockets came from?
I cannot tell you how many times I saw shitty crater analysis because "we know" it's from over there.  Mortars make a V back towards their point of origin (POO), artillery usually does the opposite.  Rockets can do either depending on the type and angle of attack.  But at the end of the day, to the untrained eye it's a hole in the ground.  Give it a week and it really is just that.  Especially if someone digs through it.  It's very easy to see what you want to see, and if someone "helps" you think that, it can seem overwhelmingly obvious.  Especially when you're taking fire.
One of the first ones that I did, I confidently assessed that my predecessor had gotten the POO correctly and we laid some suppressing artillery fire on that spot.  My sergeant, though, had the presence of mind to ignore my ignorance and start combing through the actual crater.  He pulled out the fin a little and I saw to my amazement that I was off by about 90 degrees.  I looked again and it became so obvious that I was wrong and had suppressed the wrong site.  But you live and learn.  You get your hands dirty first.  You investigate from a position of ignorance and assemble facts.

I will remain skeptical of their assessment because I know others who have been really wrong and I have been wrong as well.  I hope that this investigation can overcome its weaknesses

PF Khans

Sunday, September 15, 2013

President Putin's Letter to the American People Regarding the Syrian Crisis

On September 11th, President Vladimir Putin of Russia published an opinion piece in The New York Times. My goal with this post is to provide first an outline of Putin's argument followed with a short analysis from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective.
Let's start out with my assumptions here. Given the political context I assume that President Putin is honestly attempting to communicate with not only the American people but also with our reigning political elite. Second, this is all about international relations which goes far beyond simply Syria and what happens to Assad, so in that sense he is correct when he says Russia is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law". Essentially the stakes go far beyond Syria and this is clearly recognized by Russia. Finally, there is a lot of room for honest negotiation regarding the Syrian crisis and success here would "open the door to cooperation on other critical issues".
Vladimir Putin makes a very clear and compelling argument in this article. He starts in the first paragraph of the piece stating what his intention is as well as mentioning "insufficient communication". This is interesting from a strategic theory perspective, since as the great Russian Clausewitzian theorist Alexander Svechin notes that while tactics can be examined outside of communications, it is precisely communications which makes strategy possible. So Putin's intent is clearly stated as communicating to the American people regarding the Syrian crisis.
A short history of the UN follows, which as Putin points out was a product of US and Soviet Russian determination not to allow countries to simply go to war based on their own political choices, it "should happen only by consensus" which in turn has "underpinned the stability of international relations for decades". While this has withstood crises in the past, the current US move against Syria threatens to "throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance". Putin devotes an entire additional paragraph to expanding this argument, boldly stating that Russia is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law" and "the law is the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not."
Along with Putin's UN/international law argument he weaves the current situation in Syria and the greater Middle East. The conclusion a reader draws from this description is that overt US military involvement not only faces strong international opposition, but is difficult to see as being in the US national interest or even strategically coherent in terms of the forces our military actions would support. The implication is that this aggressive Syrian policy operates counter to the strategic narrative of the Global War on Terror which has dominated US foreign policy for over a decade.
Putin is quick to follow up by questioning the US government's version of the August 21st attacks. This in line with what Russia had communicated to the UN and foreign governments not only prior to, but subsequent to those attacks. His view is simply that there exists a substantial amount of contradictory information to the US official version and that this information "cannot be ignored".
This specific crisis is then placed within the larger context of the US foreign policy emphasis on the use of force which has proved "ineffective and pointless". Not only that, this proclivity has had the opposite effect on nuclear proliferation, since "if you have the bomb, no one will touch you". So with this context in mind, Putin is inviting the US to "return to the past of civilized diplomatic and political settlement", a past which the US was fundamental in building and maintaining.
The Russian president concludes with the hope that the Syrian dialogue that has started will continue and that President Obama is someone with whom he can deal. The final related point which has drawn a good bit of attention addresses US notions of exceptionalism directly:
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
This of course is a repeat of the "law is the law" point, applicable to all recognized states, not the US on the one hand and everyone else on the other. Notions of exceptionalism can actually lead to disaster, as a former KGB officer would certainly know given the history of the former USSR. Foreign aggression itself stems often from a notion of exceptionalism, the exact phenomenon the UN was established to thwart.
So now we come to the strategic theory analysis. The obvious question is what would make this specifically a Clausewitzian strategic theory analysis? Here I consider some specific Clausewitzian concepts which are part of Clausewitz's general theory of war and what I have identified as his theory of politics. First, Clausewitz speaks about a balance of power that exists among states. An aggressor who upsets this balance will likely have to deal with resistance from other interested states that see this aggression as being against their interests. The tendency is for the status quo to be maintained, although there are situations where a political balance is so unstable that maintaining it could require force. Second Clausewitz assumes that the political relations of a given country including their levels of moral and material cohesion are going to influence how they conduct wars. Third, we have the distinction between objective politics (especially domestic political considerations) and subjective policy (which is the political purpose of the war in question). Thus "politics" can play an irrational role in strategy and war making. Fourth, the character of the political leadership has a fundamental influence on not only strategy but in how the war is fought/presented/seen. Fifth, and finally, Clausewitz is along with Max Weber, what we could describe as a "mentalist" in that it is ideas, social action and meaning that defines how we see the world. This is the basis of the Weberian concept of legitimacy which fits well with the general theory. I have been considering this for several days now and have decided on four interrelated points I wish to make.
First, this is an appeal from Russia to the US to start acting once again as a great power. What we see today in US Syrian policy is a policy of strategic incoherence, of a power acting not in it's own interests but in those of other powers which attempt to utilize US military force for their own ends. We have degenerated in terms of strategic effect to the point where the US acts as a "tool" of other powers. In the case of a US attack on Syria, the interested powers include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. It is thus not at all surprising that certain Arab countries have offered to pay the cost of US military action regarding an attack on Syria. Nor is it surprising that AIPAC is lobbying Congress hard to support war.
What has been totally lacking is any coherent argument as to what US interests are in Syria, let alone how military action or even overthrowing Assad's government is in US interests. Instead Americans have been bombarded with the worst sort of jingoism and chestthumping that saturated US airwaves in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. We should be profoundly embarrassed by this, especially given our experiences post 2003.
For the US to start operating once again as a great power would not only be in Russia's interest, but in providing balance to international relations in general, a plus all around.
Second, the US is operating with an incoherent strategic narrative regarding the Global War on Terror. That narrative is a threadbare collection of myth, half-truths, double-think and memory loss that is truly astonishing. Let's start with "Terror". Terror is a method of political conflict, it is not a target or something that can be effectively dealt with by means of force. Political groups use terror (violence used to communicate a message) as a method for a variety of reasons and most instances of terror have historically been conducted by states. So a war against "terror" makes about as much sense as a war against "submarines" or "Psyops". Now "Al Qaida" . . . given what we know about this entity, it should be obvious that it operates with state support, would not be able to effectively survive without state support. Ossama bin Laden was living for years in a compound in a Pakistani city which is also home to their military academy. He could not have survived without state support and would be probably still alive today had the US not raided his compound and killed him. The Al Qaida affiliates in Syria enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states and would not exist to any significant extent without the support of these states as well as Turkey. Al Qaida is thus a tool of foreign state interests to which we are now expected to offer military support, essentially acting as some have claimed as "Al Qaida's air force". Thus the narrative on which our foreign policy has been based is incoherent and pointing this out gets mostly hysterical responses from "true believers" who in many cases have made a career of selling this ludicrous war on terror. In many ways the US finds itself today in the horrible situation of a mentally ill person who after years of treatment must face the choice of accepting the reality of their mental condition, along with all the lost time, resources, opportunities and self-defeating behavior, or fall back into the psychosis and avoid having to deal with that reality.
Third, and related to the second, much of what passes for "debate" in the US today is more the nature of domestic information operations (IO). A policy move is made, a set of associated propaganda themes are decided upon and then ceaselessly projected in the media, which acts essentially as a "ministry of truth". Information which goes against the imposed narrative is dismissed or simply ignored. Anything ignored is labelled as "unsubstantiated" or from "unreliable sources" upon questioning, but any information supporting the propaganda themes is passed on without hesitation regardless of the accuracy or source. Watching US TV regarding Syria it has been difficult recently to get much of any argument against military action at all. This extensive us of IO has also perverted the way our intelligence services are expected to operate, becoming instead sources of propaganda to support political decisions which have already been made. The use of domestic IO regarding the Iraq war has been thoroughly documented.
Fourth and finally, these all fit together to indicate the international political situation of the US today. What is important to remember though is that this process has been going on for some time with the result that the US today has little or no credibility with foreign audiences. This reflects a more general trend in Western liberal states of decreasing credibility but is particularly acute in the US due to our bellicose foreign policy which is seen as self-defeating in terms of US interests. This political situation of not being master of our own house reflects accurately our current political relations where the US government is seen as a "milk cow" for various domestic and foreign interests. Our inability to formulate coherent strategy is due to the dysfunctions of our political relations. The same interests clamoring for war have little sense of the danger of escalation that direct US involvement in Syria could usher forth. Some would see this possible escalation involving Iran as desirable, but how could that even remotely be in US interests?
Thus President Putin's appeal is not only in Russia's interests but in the interests of the American people, as opposed to the current US political elite who seemingly find nothing amiss, as well as in the interest of the international community. A long and at times painful dialogue with Russia is an offer that the American people should respond to approvingly with the intention of cleaning the Augean stables of what has become of US political relations . . .

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Battles Long Ago: Yalu River 1894

Over at GFT. Imperial Japan's first exercise in actual empire-building...
...steampunk battleships, Philo N. McGiffin, Asian rivalry, and dog-drowns-man stories.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Deafening Silence

Are we all waiting for the congress critters?

There are some articles out there pushing a soft power solution for Assad's chemo fascination.  Sounds good to me.  But I am not sure what those soft power solutions might be.

A couple of folks in congress want to give Syria XX number of days to sign the international agreement on the ban of chemical weapons.  But what happens then if XX days pass and Assad does not take the bait?  Or more probably he just stalls ad infinitum?   But that would just be another redline that needs to be dealt with.

As for kinetic options I am still against them.  But have to admit that my inner 17-year-old said 'go for it' when Iran's supreme leader Khameini warned us not to do it - or else.  Hopefully BHO and Sergeant Hagel don't take dares the same way as me.