What A Mess Our Military Has Made

Discussion in 'Current Affairs, News and Analysis' started by Skynet, Dec 30, 2009.

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  1. This News Item
    courtesy of The Guardian

    'What A Mess Our Military Has Made'
    Tuesday, December 29, 2009

    Just as in 1914-18, the handling of the Afghanistan conflict reflects a failure to understand modern society's impact on war.

    The US Senate report blasting President Bush's administration for what is going on in Afghanistan provides covering fire for Barack Obama's speech on his Afghan strategy. The report is also a good opportunity to address far deeper failings in the military effort these last eight years. The continued incompetence of the military operation indicates that the generals and the political elites in our societies are no more "fit for purpose" than those that led the disasters of the 1914-18 war. Then as now there was a social-psychological failure to understand the impact of modern society on war.

    If I had to choose one piece of evidence, and the silence about it, to substantiate this charge then it is this. There is no one in charge of the western military operations in Afghanistan. The US-only and Nato forces each have separate generals in charge, and neither is able to give orders to the other. One US general, Stanley McChrystal, commands the Nato force organised from Belgium, where there is a plethora of US and Nato commanders and committees with their fingers in the operational pie. Another US general – David Petraeus – commands US national operations in the country. Afghanistan's woes are compounded by the fact that it is part of this private bureaucratic turf war within the US military. For the US military, Afghanistan is part of Central Command's area of control, although the Nato force is, for the US, part of its European command. At a lower level the different European militaries, especially the Dutch, Germans and Italians, have their own mini-empires – provincial reconstruction teams, which operate with eclectic styles.

    As the website of US Central Command says of US national operations in Afghanistan, they operate in "co-ordination" with the Nato international security force. In the military, "co-ordination" is usually a woolly-minded civilian notion not to be confused with command and control. It is a shame that the self-defeating dual command imposed on the Afghan operation by the Pentagon is never mentioned by the many talented correspondents, Robert Fox among them, with extensive on-the-ground experience. According to some, the result is a confusion that needs an Evelyn Waugh (Sword of Honour), Joseph Heller (Catch-22) or George MacDonald Fraser (Flashman) to do it justice.

    The second example of more than usual blindness is the failure in the west to consider that al-Qaida probably lured the US into Afghanistan with the 9/11 attacks, envisaging that the resulting war with the Pashtun areas would enable them to repeat the empire-destroying victory over the Soviets. The rhetoric of attacking the "far enemy" and the action of killing a key Northern Alliance leader just prior to the attacks support this. Whether or not it was the case is not quite the point. The point is that among the Arab diplomatic corps the idea is almost a given, while in the west it cannot even be discussed. The vulnerability of western supply lines to being cut by the Taliban accentuates the point.

    The third example of cultural failure is that neither the US nor Nato has ever seriously studied the Russian campaign, although the same ground is being fought over with similar tactics. Nevertheless a similar pattern is being played out now as in the 1980s. Mines/IED attacks lead to the call for more helicopters; and the public distress of bereaved mothers characterised the Soviet campaign.

    The "overconfidence" or "complacency" that these issues demonstrate points to deeper cultural and psychological problems. Prior to the first world war, the European military was obsessed with cavalry. It failed to learn from the use of machine guns and barbed wire in the American civil war of the 1860s or the increasingly devastating battlefield casualties of the Franco-Prussian and Austro-Italian wars of the later 19th century. Although cars were being used as taxis in Edwardian London, by 1914 only the Royal Navy was using armed cars with machine guns, in place of horses.

    Today, the idea that a political adversary might lay a military trap is incomprehensible to an ostensibly rational military establishment, as is the west's inability to take the Afghan war seriously enough to ensure unity of military command. A few writers provide a guide to understanding and updating our analysis. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, by Norman Dixon, provides an insight into the problems of authoritarian personalities in authoritarian institutions being unable to "see" the obvious. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, by Wilhelm Reich, explains to a degree why western civilians, especially the liberal interventionists who have become infatuated with the military since the end of the cold war, have such an adulatory and uncritical fixation on the military, to the point that independent analysis is marginal. And of course, Edward Said's Orientalism tells us much of our insistence on portraying often superior strategists as inferior barbarians.

    I have lost count of the number of western strategy advisers who say Osama bin Laden is not smart enough to have used 9/11 as a lure. But then, if Robert Fox's report is to be taken at face value, there is no loss of operational effectiveness when US soldiers wear T-shirts bearing the name of their next target, and for him to report that. Presumably the Taliban can't read, or it is a cunning wheeze to mislead them.

    Finally, there is a cultural problem of vassal states such as the UK and its European partners losing the ability for rigorous analysis speaking frankly in public. Chinese and Russian analysis tends to be sharper than in the west.

    In Britain, we are still cursed with an official secrecy that denies the public an analysis as insightful as that in the Senate report. For example, were Britain's SAS the "handful" of other special forces at Tora Bora? Who was the senior British officer? And what job does he hold today?

    There are two hopeful signs. First, western power is so great that as with the Victorians, a series of minor disasters can be absorbed by the power structures. Second, within the military and intelligence community in the UK and the US, including the White House, there are some – such as the US national security adviser, General James Jones – who do understand these problems. If we are lucky, any statement by Obama on more troops will be a smokescreen enabling withdrawal.

    As one of Fox's "metropolitan commentators", I will consider taking the western military's operation seriously when the US military does so itself.
  2. Little bit different to the analysis provided by call me "Jim" Dutton just the other day. I assume from all this that we will "muddle" through in the end. Ignoring the fact that ALQ appear to have moved their centre of gravity some years ago. Still, it is pleasing that Afghan girls are now being educated. Shame about the low price of smack on Britain's streets though...

    Let's face facts, this war will rage for another five years at the very least, nothing we say here is going to change anything. Generals with little clue how to fight COIN warfare set this whole thing up. Way too many red faces if this were to change 8 years in.

    I am still amazed that so many are willing to give their lives to this project, I haven't the faintest idea what it has to do with security in the UK. Once again, an airliner was nearly brought down by a man educated and radicalised in the UK. I just wonder when our Government is going to do something about the home grown threat here. BTW this chap was trained up in Yemen, precisely fcuk all to do with Afg.
  3. That'll be the Military that carries out the instructions of their civilian masters then?
  4. Well I hardly feel the military (certainly UK) can be challenged over our input when we have somehow controlled Helmand for so long and at such cost and when we have been poorly supported initially by the Government. A government whose representative's initial comments boiled down to:

    "troops were there to help the Afghan reconstruction effort, and "would be perfectly happy" to leave without firing a shot"

    John Reid MP

    Trust the Guardian to write something misleading about the military making a mess when the mission was not clear and depending upon who you ask was a selection of the following:

    Eradicate terror groups (groups that have metamorphosed into the Taliban), find Osama Bin Laden, reconstruct Afghanistan, establish indigenous security forces, secure and assist with the re-building of a hydro-electric dam and all with limited (understatement was always a talent of mine) support from the FCO etc.
  5. And nowhere did anyone state it was actually a COIN op. Too afraid too? Crap intel, or clueless Generals and Government /FCO/DFiD officials?

    Take your pick..
  6. I absolve most of the Generals less those who toadied up to the Government as CDS (actually Admirals and Air Chief Marshalls is more accurate) and who protected the government rather than HM Forces by staying on (Labour) message.

    The Labour obsession with controlling the media and quantifying something under their terms is why we are where we are now...
  7. Counterinsurgency as a mode of warfare has very little to do with the Military. As General Kitson said, "the military side is only 25% of this business." The author of that article (usual Guardian rubbish) mistakenly believes that the military has a free reign to do what it wishes in Afghan.

    The two most important aspects in COIN are Intelligence (both at a strategic and tactical level) and money. While I cannot comment on British intelligence efforts simply due to not knowing enough about it, where we fall considerably is in the resources side. This is not about helicopters, equipment, weapons and CAS, its money that can be put into reconstruction and development for the Afghan people. DfID suffers from a lack of available resources, not to mention the negative institutional mindset that prohibits its employees from working with the military. The Afghans don't care if their new well is sunk by a military unit or an NGO directed by DfID, it was still foreign assistence. This is not understood by DfID.
    The US 101st Airborne Division under Petraeus in Iraq 2007 had no less than $139.8 million dollars for their AO, to be utilised in Quick Impact Projects as they saw fit. They could restore a school in several weeks for less than $10,000. As anyone who has read 3 PARA by Patrick Bishop will remember, DfID forbade 3PARA BG from the simple task of installing a washing machine provided by USAID, which would have taken a day. It was still there come the end of their tour, as the NGO tasked to fulfil the task had failed to do so.

    Development brings a security all of its own. Should we see fit to involve Afghan labour and funds in addition to our own (much more significant) inputs of money and material then battles can be won without firing any weapons...the battle for the much cliched Hearts and Minds.

    On a personal note, I still don't understand why we (US/NATO) haven't focussed much more of our efforts on restricting movements over the Af/Pak border. Yes its a large area, but starving the enemy of provisions, resupplies and reinforcements as we successfully did in Oman would be a more intelligent use of assets in a long term COIN campaign than what we are in danger of doing now; chasing body count figures.
  8. I am sure your last point will be taken care of in the "newly revised" plan for success in Afg. What is really frustrating is that small pockets of UK Mil have been doing just such a thing as you explained in your post for many years. Trouble is, it is hidden behind secrecy. Even back in 2001 when the fight was raging in Afg, a certain military outfit, which shall remain nameless was delivering dental equipment to isolated areas of Afg. I truly believe that our leadership at the time of Helmand deployment did not understand COIN and the difficulties facing the British deployment; as a result many mistakes were made. Hearts and Minds, a phrase which has lost its power, was based on experience in NI, little of which applied to the situation on the ground in Afg/Iraq. There are signs that lessons are finally been learned and this latest plan at least has a chance of success. It is driven by US Military, they have been much more willing to learn by their mistakes. Our military leadership has been guilty of arrogance in this respect.

    But the mistakes continue. President Obama made an almighty howler when he simultaneously announced reinforcements for Afg in one breath, only to announce the phased withdrawal 18 months from now, in another.
    Politicians, the most clueless of the lot.

    I seriously hope Afg is a success. Alas I fear the cost of creating a bloated Afghan army is way too high. In the mean time we get used to atrocity after atrocity. An Afghan soldier murdered an American colleague just the other day and it barely raised an eyebrow. As ever I am hugely impressed by the bravery of our soldiers risking life and limb for the project. I apologise if I sound so cynical.
  9. Nothing like armchair commentators from jurno scumbags who make judgement calls from know very little about ops or the bigger picture...... I am not sure which is a worse the daily hate or gardidung
  10. Yep, but at least we'll get a new type of DPM?????? WTF
  11. I'm reliabily informed that this statement came from the advice that he was received from the Army and was not an assessment he came up with himself.

    Whilst militaries do serve their 'civilian masters' it's a two way process. Governments cannot, and should not, be expected to make military decisions -including the decision to use force in the first place - without significant input from the military.
  12. This may be a bit far fetched, but I sometimes wonder whether the lack of British political direction in both Iraq and Afghanistan is related to the fact that Blair was so impressed by the Army’s efforts in the foot and mouth epidemic a few years ago.

    The Army quickly sorted out the logistics and did much of the dirty work based on plans, reputedly, written on one side of a piece of A4 paper, so maybe he got the impression that he merely had to ask the military to do something, and Lo it was done.

    It does seem that politicians have a great belief that HM Forces will get them out of the sh1t regardless of the circumstances, the complexity of the operation(s) and the fact that there may be violence – vide Reid’s comment.

    HM Forces are between a rock and hard place. Perform badly and they get killed and lose their reputation for professionalism; do well and politicians order them to do more.
  13. Perhaps the military advisers meant that they would indeed be perfectly happy to get out without firing a shot because in their opinion we’d be damn lucky to do so.
  14. As anyone who read Patrick Bishop's book will also remember, DfID forbade the intallation of the washing machine to stop it throwing a dozen washer-women on the dole and leaving their man-less families with no means of support. There was also the issue of there being no reliable electricity supply to the hospital where it was to be installed.

    These decisions are far too complex to be taken at BG level because BGs rotate too quickly. If COs want to be able to make these decisions then they need to volunteer to still be there when any chickens come home to roost. Our current tour cycle means that a thrusting young Lt Col can push through a high-vis quick impact project without thought for the long term consequences and then bugger off with a big tick in his CR leaving someone else to pick up the mess.

    '3 PARA' also related the tale of certain military types being chuffed to NAAFI-breaks about the number of wells they'd dug in their tour. Three years later, the water table'd been drained and drought was suddenly a major problem in the area.
  15. OldSnowy

    OldSnowy LE Moderator Book Reviewer

    Absolutely spot-on. A study of QUIPs and CERPs projects in Iraq showed that they were fine as force protection measures - in that they kept (some, selected) locals sweet and stopped them shooting at you, but they had very very little, if any, impact as regards development. Quick Impact Projects are NOT development, which is probably why DfID are so chary of them. They are another thing entirely - not necessarily wrong, but should not be confused with development.

    The Military - both UK and US - is simply not skilled or set-up to do development, which is not something for amateurs. The problem remains, that the areas that most need it are too dangerous for people to work in. Now that's something that the Military should be able to do something about.