Tag Archives: International Security Assistance Force

Let loose the twits of war!

I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not but the Washington Post and NY Times both recently had very different articles about enemy forces (terrorists or insurgents) using Twitter and our response to it.

The first Washington Post article is actually a retread of a story (which even I wrote about back in September) about the twitter battle between the Taliban and ISAF. I have no idea how the people at ISAF managed to convince the powers that be to allow them the freedom to use Twitter for a real tool of engagement but a big TwShiloh thumbs up for getting it done.

U.S. military officials say the dramatic assault on the diplomatic compound convinced them that they needed to seize the propaganda initiative — and that in Twitter, they had a tool at hand that could shape the narrative much more quickly than news releases or responses to individual queries.

“That was the day ISAF turned the page from being passive,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura, a military spokesman, explaining how @isafmedia evolved after the attack. “It used to be a tool to regurgitate the company line. We’ve turned it into what it can be.”

And that’s really the key AND the lesson that I predict will be overlooked by just about everyone.  Whether we’re talking about military engagements or terrorist and criminal activity in our neighborhoods, the tendency is to clamp down on information flowing out.  It’s not just the more you say, they more you’ll be liable for being wrong.  I can’t help shaking the feeling that the public (or, the center of gravity, if you will) is still seen as essentially a nuisance if it’s thought of at all.

I’ve written about this subject quite a bit in the past and I think remains a key indicator arguing that very little we do domestically is ‘intelligence led’.  When we refuse to engage an opponent we cede the initiative on that field to them.  Maybe that’s a good strategic move and sometimes is the appropriate reaction but that would require some evaluation process by which consequences are determined and a determination is made.  I’m not convinced most of our ‘decision makers’ have sufficient orientation to issues like this to even ask the right questions.

And so, what have the results been since ISAF began battling with the Taliban over Twitter and loosening up from the standard ‘Latest press release here’ sort of post?

“If you look at the chronology over the past six months, it does look like there have been some changes in their content and claims,” Badura said. “They realize that we pay closer attention and are going to call them on it when we realize there is something completely sensational or inaccurate.”

On the flip side of that is a NY Times article about our reaction to the use of Twitter by al-Shabab in Somalia.

Most of the Shabab’s Twitter messages are in English, not Somali, and are clearly meant for an outside audience. American officials said they were worried that the Shabab might be using Twitter to reach potential recruits in the West.

It doesn’t appear anyone has made any sort of decision about what specific action to take but the jist of the article appears to lean towards strong arming Twitter to shut down al-Shabab’s account.

Because shutting down web sites worked so well in Egypt and Libya.

There is an appropriate time to shut down web sites.  If, for example, you know a terrorist is going to activate a sleeper cell and launch an attack via a tweet or a comment in a web page, it might be worthwhile to shut that page down, disrupting that communication.  But shutting it down simply because you don’t like the content and without a complementary strategy to prevent it fro resurfacing on another account or webpage (either via artful hacking or a well placed drone strike) you aren’t going to be able to do much more than temporarily halt communication.

Otherwise known as whack-a-mole.

It is disappointing, therefore, that there doesn’t appear (based on the article) to be any consideration for engaging in a counter-campaign.

We certainly won’t win or lose a war via Twitter but it costs us virtually nothing to ‘fight’ there.  And, if you believe that, at least in part, we’re fighting over the uncommitted middle (the majority of people who aren’t deeply committed to one faction or the other) and their support, why would we abandon an opportunity to present our message to them?  Especially, when our opponents are spreading their message?

TSA does a pretty good (if thankless) job on their blog in attempting to communicate with the livestock traveling public.  Why don’t more law enforcement/homeland security agencies do so?

Kind of related, in a non-conflict way, is the recent decision by the Swedish Tourism authority to hand over the official Twitter account (@Sweden) to ‘regular’ Swedish citizens.

“No one owns the brand of Sweden more than its people. With this initiative we let them show their Sweden to the world,” says Thomas Brühl, the CEO of the country’s tourism agency VisitSweden.

Think about that for a minute.  Who among us works for a company or agency that would let any employee run their Twitter account (assuming they even have one)?  And why not?  Are our overlords convinced that they’ve hired a bunch of  foul mouthed sociopaths that have been simply biding their time for the opportunity to say offensive things?

What the Dutch experience in Uruzgan can teach us about fusion operations

Dutch forces in Afghanistan.

Image via Wikipedia

This continues my ongoing review of Hynek and Marton’s book on state-building in Afghanistan.

I struggled a bit with what I could say about Sebastiaan Rietjens’ chapter about the Dutch and their experience in Uruzgan province.  For the most part, the Dutch seemed to be stereotypical in terms of how their operations and reactions flowed from 2002 to 2010.  What struck me, however, was the possiblity that the Dutch may have something to tell us about ‘fusion’ operations generally.  I often write about domestic intelligence issues (law enforcement/terrorism) and our fusion centers and think that some of Rietjens’ observations may have some applicability to this field as well.

But first, my comment about the Dutch strategy in Afghanistan.  War is difficult and complicated.  Counterinsurgency is arguably even more so.  Still, the Dutch adopted three major policy positions in the four years they were in Uruzgan which is highly problematic.  According to Rietjens:

While the Master Plan defined four lines of operation and 23 effects, this shifted in the Focal Paper to three endstates and seven lines of effect (with a staggering 91 desired effects).  Finally, in the UCP, three lines of operation were identified, along with nine R&D themes.

And regarding the final plan (the UCP):

The UCP also identified three major lines of operation, which were further subdivided into reconstructionm and development (R&D) themes inm which progress was desired.  These R&D themes corresponded with the eight pillars of the Afghan National Development Strategy, with the exception tha tthe ‘governance’ pillar was further split into ‘governance’ and ‘rule of law’.

Is it me or does this whole thing sound overly complicated?  How in the world would the Dutch expect their commanders to be familiar with such rapidly changing strategies (even if they were marked by overlap)?  Does this support a line of effect or the R&D theme?  What?  It’s Tuesday?  Oh, then we must be supporting lines of operation.  If the strategies are generally similar, one wonders what the benefits were to changing the language every 14 months or so.  If they weren’t, one wonders how on earth policy makers expected commanders and managers in the field to stay on top of all these catagories, effects, etc.

Now, on to what I think are more widely applicable lessons from the Dutch experience.  From the Rietjens chapter:

Rotations of the TFU [military operation] lasted for four to six monts and initially the overall deployment was to last only for two years; it was only later prolonged for an additional two years.  Meanwhile, many NGOs committed themselves for five years or more.

The different time lines matches up pretty well with the tension between traditional, reactive policing and investigations versus ‘intelligence led’ operations and I’m not sure I’ve heard much discussion about the different time lines of various actors as a factor in hindering fusion operations.  How long are senior (and, perhaps junior) sworn law enforcement personnel assigned to such operations versus how long ‘civilian’ personnel are?  Regardless of that, what time frames are partner agencies working off of?  The next headline?  The next fiscal year?  Longer?  How do those mesh (or not)?  If they don’t, what controls can be established to make sure partners share the same objectives and can compliment (if not support) the work of each other?  Who, if anyone, coordinates this whole mess?

The organizational structures of the TFU and the humanitarian organisations were for the most part polar opposites.  The TFU placed high value on command and control, top-down hierarchical organsational structures and clear lines of authority.  The organisational structure of most humanitarian organisations was horizontal and fluid, with significant decision-making authority delegated to the field.

Coincidentally, I was just thinking along these lines recently when talking to an analyst about their fusion center operations.  The center is run by a law enforcement agency that prides itself on its ‘paramilitary’ nature and lives and breaths by its organizational chart.  Partner agencies or even others within the agency who don’t easily fit within the structure (i.e. ‘civilians’) are implicitly encouraged to conform and fit within the rigid structure.  I can’t help thinking, however, that while that might make administrative and logistical tasks easier, it might not be the best structure for conducting good analytical products.  There’s no reason why we should assume that supervisory skill (we’ll assume for this discussion that all supervisors are highly qualified in that role) necessarily translates into analytical competence yet that’s what these rigid structures do.

In March of 2009, the command of the PRT was handed over to a civilian representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from then on the PRT had a civilian director rather than a military one…It embodied the shift in focus of the TFU from security-driven operations to reconstruction and development.  Having a civilian at the top of the PRT, and later also as a co-commander of the TFU, greatly improved the status and influence of the civilians of the TFU.

That’s pretty big and definatly has implications for domestic intelligence.  Anecdotally, I can say that very, very few intelligence centers are run by ‘civilians’ (and no, generally retired law enforcement doesn’t count).  Despite a decade of public pronouncements that intelligence is paramount and analysts are the keystone to our anti-crime/anti-terrorism efforts the lack of actual analysts having leadership roles is pretty striking.  Without knowing the details of this effort I have to give the Dutch a big thumbs up for recognizing its value and giving it a try.  One is also left wondering, if it can be attempted in a war zone and not seen as too risky, why not domestically?  Also, see again my comments about the different perspectives of ‘reactive’ for ‘intelligence led’ operations and replace the terms for ‘security-driven’ and ‘reconstruction and development’ (I realize they aren’t synonomous but they still work in this context).

Going back to Afghanistan, one final point is worth mentioning regarding Dutch domestic politics.  If you’re an American, reflect deeply on this statement:

The [Dutch] government did not fear that the mission of ISAF and that of Operation Enduring Freedom would be mixed up.  Strict legal procedures were to guarantee that prisoners would not end up in the wrong hands and in the wrong places.

That ‘wrong hands’ and ‘wrong places’?  Yeah, that’s us.  Generally not a good sign when your allies have to craft laws like that.  Just sayin’.

For more on the interaction between Dutch domestic politics and relations with the U.S. influenced their policy towards Afghanistan, check out Peter’s follow up post here.

The German experience in Afghanistan


Image by Getty Images via @daylife

This continues my ongoing review of Hynek and Marton’s book on state-building in Afghanistan.

The Germans are the Rodney Dangerfield of the current Afghan War.  They currently comprise the third largest contingent of troops in ISAF (after the U.S. and UK) and yet, at least based on press reporting here in the U.S., the only things that come to mind upon hearing of the German contribution to the war effort are ridiculous national caveats, incompetent police training, and fat, beer swilling soldiers.  Yet, as Timo Behr describes in his chapter on Germany’s experience in Regional Command North (RC-N), it’s much more complicated than that.

While I’m still not yet half way through the Hynek and Marton book it’s clear there are some overarching themes that, I suspect, will be noted by all the participants and while they’ve been said before, it’s worth bringing them forward again because 1) they’re really, really important and 2) by mentioning them up front I can save you (and me) the pain of sounding like a broken record as I describe each author’s work and focus on differences.

I believe it was Gen. Petreus who said that COIN was the ‘graduate level of war’ to which Col. Gentile took some offense saying that all war is complicated.  As I read through this book I think I’m getting a different view of that quote.  In a conventional war you get feedback about how well or poorly you’re doing fairly quickly.  After all, after Stalingrad I don’t think there were too many people in the world saying “Yep, now the Germans have the Russians exactly where they want them.”  In insurgenies (or at least in Afghansitan) such feedback may have been available but it’s much harder to get at than identifying land under your control or comparing factors of combat power.  As a result the coalition went throught three, broad, phases in Afghanistan.  From roughly 2002 to 2006, everyone was in victory lap mode.  The Taliban were beat and the thinking was generally that the role of the coalition would consist of some general mopping up of the ‘dead enders’ and then full swing into reconstruction/peace-keeping mode.  From 2006 to 2009 the realization gradually began to dawn that this was, in fact, still a serious conflict.  Nations began flailing about trying to figure out how to respond but often swinging to combat heavy responses.  Beginning sometime in 2009 was the general adoption of some variation of COIN theory among the partners along with the near universal desire to get the hell out of the country sooner rather than later.  Those two positions really are incompatable (at least as I understand COIN theory) but might allow the partners to cobble together a stable enough country to avoid blame among their domestic constituents when Afghanistan devolves back into the hot mess of civil war and choas it seems headed for.

But, onto the Germans.

Germany was in an interesting political position at the start of the Afghan War.  Consolidating its position as an economic powerhouse of the EU, its WWII legacy had it seriously lagging behind in terms of military power projection. The damage (perceived or real) among many European nations over disputes regarding the Iraq War made many nations desirous of getting back in favor with the U.S. and Afghanistan appeared to offer an ‘easy’ opportunity to do so.  Germany began their mission with an emphasis on development projects and police training, neither of which did much good.  Shockingly (but, not uniquely) the first effort to evaluate Germany’s reconstruction efforts didn’t even get scheduled until the end of 2010, a full nine years after the conflict began.  The Germans also weren’t able to produce large quantities of high quality police officers.  This isn’t really a German problem as nobody has been able to produce large numbers of high quality Afghan police forces but the German strategy was to focus on quality at the expense of quantity while the American strategy was the opposite.

Given German ambiguity towards its military generally and any operation which could be construed as ‘offensive’, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s initial rules of engagement upon moving into Kunduz Province were restrictive and limited to self defense only.  During the initial years of calm after the fall of the Taliban, this seemed like a good strategy.  Unfortunately, that strategy fundimentally misunderstood what was going on in Kunduz and Afghanistan as a whole.  Rather than the country returning to some natural state of peace, insurgents of all stripes were regrouping.

In May of 2007, insurgents conducted a suicide attack which killed several Bundeswehr soldiers.  Behr describes the German reaction as:

…a reduction of Bendeswehr patrols to a minimum and a concentration on force protection.  Patrols only resumed gradually throughout summer 2007, while the emphasis remained on de-escalation and conflict avoidance.

In other words, exactly what the Taliban would have hoped for.

Just how laid back the Germans were in Afghanistan is highlighted by the astounding fact that they did not see their frist ‘official’ kill of an insurgent until August of 2008!  Further, they did not conduct any coordinated offensive operations until July of 2009.

Behr does a nice job of describing how Germany’s domestic political scene is still working through the idea that their military may become involved in conflicts outside of their borders.  Both the government system and the population seem to struggle with the idea through a mix of denialism, wishful thinking and general unease.  Whether Afghanistan represents birthing pains for a new German concept of their role in the world or the beginning of a retrenchment remains to be seen.

Too soon?

Hey, I’m all for historical reenactments but this might be a bit too soon.  A group in Russia is doing a little ISAF (specifically German)/Taliban combat.  I guess this sort of thing would have to be done outside of the U.S.  After all, who would want to play the Taliban?  Whoever would be willing would probably never be allowed to fly on an airliner again.

Looks like some decent scenario based training, however…

State building in Afghanistan – the view from the coalition partners

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Peter Marton (from the Ministry of State Failure) had co-edited a book titled “Statebuilding in Afghanistan:  Multinational Contributions to Reconstruction“.  Peter was kind enough to pass along a copy to review.  As I work through the chapters, I’ll talk about the salient points (at least from my point of view) here.

Two areas that I have an interest in are the current war in Afghanistan and how small nations pursue their foreign policy objectives.  This book, therefore, scratches two of my itches simultaneously and so I was quite excited to read over its contents.  Its chapters cover the Afghan experience of 14 Western coalition countries.  It would be interesting to see a treatment of some of the non-Western coalition partners, but that might fit better within a separate work.

So, the book appeals to me but why should you be interested?  Well, allow me to recommend a few reasons.  I think it’s safe to say that the United States is entering another one of its periods of isolationism.  We may not retreat behind our Atlantic and Pacific moats entirely but the writing seems to be pretty clearly on the wall that there’s a diminishing interest in becoming involved in overseas military ventures.  Even if we weren’t so inclined, the current economic climate means that there will be less money for both military and statebuilding endeavors for awhile.  That, in turn (and in addition to a host of other factors), means that future military actions involving the U.S. are almost guaranteed to be coalition affairs and there will be increased room for organizations like the EU or ad hoc coalitions to form and conduct operations without U.S. participation.  The better we understand how and why individual members work to support (or detract) from the overall mission the better.

The Introduction by Nik Hynek and Peter Marton is a bit dense and not ideally suited for a general audience but worth spending some time with in any case because it sets the stage for the rest of the book in terms of developing central themes and has some interesting ideas of its own worthy of more consideration.  Regarding the first point, the authors identify their goal as asking:

…the basic questions of why there are differences in the share of the burden aong states, how they manifest in different approaches, and how the actual performance of different members of the coalition ought to be assessed.

They provide a nice background to the strategic picture of Afghanistan from 2001-2009(ish) and make the case that despite the rhetortic, the coalition never really got beyond a military focused approach to the country.  Nik and Peter contrast ‘nation-building’ with ‘counter-terrorism’ strategies.  You probably remember the debate here in the U.S. between counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism strategies that occurred in 2009 and resulted in the ‘surge’ of 30,000 troops and a plan for a ‘civilian surge’ to work civil (re)construction issues.  While ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘nation-building’ aren’t synonomous terms they seem roughly comparable in terms of their usage in American political discourse (such as it is) today.

Military entities were only able to conceive of civil-military cooperation as a way to ensure force protection and soldiers of most forces simply weren’t trained or oriented to do much beyond combat operations or traditional peacekeeping tasks.  Nik and Peter write:

…nation-building has in fact never overtaken counter-terrorism in importance.

Which I don’t think was a point made clearly (if at all) during the whole 2009 ‘strategy’ debate.

The quick success in 2001 over the Taliban (plus the invasion of Iraq and later disintegration of the campaign there) led many to think that Afghanistan could be managed successfully on the cheap.  Clearly, that was wrong.  They continue:

Thus ISAF troops had arrived at a situation by the end of 2009 whereby US President Obama decided to announce a largely unilateral but temporary surge of US troops as a strategy for Afghanistan, once again making clear that exit and counter-terrorism remained more important than a sustained statebuilding effort.

They then talk about ways to consider the efforts of coalition partners by looking at two variables:  alliance dependence (how much each partner thinks it needs the cooperation of the alliance to further their own goals) and threat balancing (how much the partner sees Afghanistan as a direct threat to their national security).

In talking about some of the challanges to determining the relative success or failure of the mission in Afghanistan through a cost-benefit analysis, Nik and Peter list a number of factors.  In talking about the importance of considering time as a consideration they write:

…should the West abandon Afghanistan, it would be likely to send a negative message about its capabilities and commitments elsewhere in the world.

I’m not totally sure about that one.  After all, after ten years in Afghanistan without much to show for it, even if we achieved some sort of victory now, wouldn’t one would seriously have to question our capabilities in such conflicts?  Further, at what point can we shed the claim that the West ‘doesn’t have the stomache’ for long conflicts?  Afghanistan now represents the longest war that U.S. has been involved with.  Iraq isn’t that far behind.  It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that any war abandoned short of ‘victory’ is a black stain on a nation’s reputation for commitment I don’t think such a conclusion could stand up to examination.

When trying to determine costs and benefits, they write an interesting observation which I suppose I knew but hadn’t seen put so succinctly:

…a weak state in Afghanistan where Western troops are bogged down works as a militant magnet and deflects threats from Europe, North America and elsewhere in the broader Middle East, even as it paradoxically also leads to threats in other cases in the same locations.

So, conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq attract militants from all over the world to carry out jihad (one of the benefits often alluded to by the phrase ‘By fighting them over there, we don’t have to fight them here.’) and they also encourage people to domestic militant action who otherwise might not be so inclined (your homegrown violent extremists).  I’m not sure if there’s any emperical work done to determine the effects of each of those factors but it’d be interesting to see.

I also really liked his catagorization of coalition partners

All in all a promising start to what looks to be an interesting book.

The more I look to the past, the more I see the present…(Afghanistan)

Map of Afghanistan with flag.

Image via Wikipedia

Afghanistan has been rising to the surface of my thoughts again recently.  Part of this is because I recently was asked to speak conduct some counterinsurgency training for a group of soldiers who are beginning the process of preparing for a deployment to that country.  It will most likely be the last time I get to do that before I retire from the military and I’m get a bit nostalgic about the whole thing.

The other part is due to the fact that I just finished The Kabul Insurrection of 1841-42 by Vincent Eyre.  Simply an amazing book that

you should read for both the reoccurring themes you find with today’s war and also for the remarkable stories of survival that boggle the imagination.  Imagine the events of Black Hawk Down getting stretched out for six weeks minus the reinforcements.  Of special interest to me was the fact that most of the events of this narrative involved areas where I had spent some time.  The area from Charikar to Kabul saw some desperate battles as the embattled British attempted to first reach safety and later just tried to stay alive.

Spencer Ackerman writes a story for wired.com about Stanley McChrystal titled “How Special Ops Copied al-Qaida to Kill It”.  The title is more exciting than the story and I suspect if you’ve been paying even a passing interest in U.S. military policy in Afghanistan over the past couple of years I’m not sure there’s anything shocking here but it is a nice underscore to just how impressive McChrystal was.

This may be totally inside baseball and have no real impact on the battle for the narrative between ISAF and the Taliban  but I have to admit I found the twitter war between the two compelling stuff.  (h/t Abu Muqawama)  While I know ancient armies would taunt each other across the battlefield, has any army ever uttered words such as these:

Re: Taliban spox on #Kabulattack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm’s way?ISAFmedia September 14, 2011 at 0:18

@ISAFmediai dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n ‘harm’s way’ fr da pst 10 yrs.Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout ‘harm’s way’
Really, @abalkhi? UNAMA reported 80% of civilians causalities are caused by insurgent (your) activities http://goo.gl/FylwU

Anyone want to guess when Goodwin’s law will kick in?