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Monday, November 24, 2014

Whatever happened to Afghanistan? You know--Obama's GOOD War?

It's remarkable to not see, hear, or read anything about the conflict in Afghanistan.  I mean from 2004-2009 all the media did was provide a steady drumbeat of casualties, death, dying and blundering on the war in Iraq.  Since January 20, 2009...not so much from Afghanistan.

This was the war, if course that the highly qualified  and deep foreign policy experienced Senator from Illinois declared the good war and the war the U.S. should have been fighting and had to win.

However, in his new book, Bing West, former grunt, DoD official, and author has some interesting insights in this longest of American wars.

First of all, I have read several of Mr. West's books and found them to be pretty good, if somewhat overly kind to his fellow Marines.  What I mean is, in his book The March Up, covering the initial Marine invasion of Iraq in 2003, he glossed over the relief of one of the Marine Regiment commanders by General "Mad Dog" Mattis by stating he was "reassigned" to a flying command post.  Well that's not what happened, but I think in the general afterglow of the fall of Baghdad he wanted to spare a fellow Marine.  Kind, but not really honest writing.

However, that doesn't take away from his next two books on Iraq, one covering the Fallujah campaign of 2004 and the other a general look at the war from 2004-2009, which I thought were both very good.

Now he turns his attention to Afghanistan by examining the tactical level action in the two most lethal places in the country...the eastern border of Pakistan, specifically Nuristan Province, and the cradle of the Pashtun dominated Taliban, Helmand Province. 

He narrative is well-written and shows the challenges that small, often isolated groups of American riflemen faced dealing with a highly corrupt government in Kabul, indifferent and lax Afghan police and soldiers, and overly hostile villagers.  Like many authors providing a critical look at America's decade in this sheep infested hell-hole, West pulls no punches in stating that attempting to nation-build in this country was an impossible task.  From reading his book, I think LTG Dan Bolger would agree. 

What's surprising and shocking is that often the Americans were tactically and operationally out-maneuvered by the Taliban, who not only understood how to cynically exploit the American aversion to casualties and collateral damage by hiding behind women and children, but had a good understanding of using terrain and patience to wear down American platoons and companies in isolated mountain valleys.  Because there were never enough troops to truly pacify an area, or the will to root out Taliban cells regardless of collateral damage, a strange "live and let live" mentality took hold where all the Taliban had to do was not lose...to win...because the Obama Administration from the get-go stated we were leaving Afghanistan no matter what...by 2014. 

NOW of course, we find out that  Obummer lied about that too...seriously is there anything honest this Administration can do?

In a Shift, Obama Extends U.S. Role in Afghan Combat

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

SO, I wonder when CodePink/MoveOn.Org and the Democratic Underground will start marching on Washington chanting -"Obama lied, kids died!"  Yea, don't hold your breath...anti-war movements are only for Republican Presidents, not the coolest, most awesome college professor President EVAH.

But, I digress............West pulls no punches and shows the impossibility of EVER winning in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban could slip across the border into Pakistan and regroup.  One would think that the U.S. would have learned from Vietnam the folly of giving their enemies a safe haven, and we sure as hell should never have trusted those duplicitous bastards in Pakistan that hid Osama for 10 years...but both the Bush and Obama Administrations tried to work with those back-stabbing sons-of-bitches.... practically ensuring that Afghanistan will fall back into warlordism and chaos.

But the American soldier and Marine certainly comes shining through in this book.  Patiently trying to conduct the principles of COIN in an impossible situation, the troops did their best and certainly killed a lot of bad guys...but...in the end...they couldn't overcome centuries of poverty, ignorance, and an ingrained hatred of anyone and everyone who comes from outside their tribal boundaries.

One can almost hear the ghosts of Geronimo and Sitting Bull as the U.S. troops fight a tribal war against the home team...only this time one that is supported by another country.

West also shows the chaos and anarchy at the top as a steady parade of U.S. commanders each fight their own version of COIN, nation-building, whatever, while dealing with an increasingly useless ally in Hamid Karzai, who is so corrupt he probably makes the old Diem regime in South Vietnam look saintly.  The inability to set clear goals and a coherent strategy made the grunt's life harder and ultimately contributed to the loss of support....as people asked.."What the hell are we doing there?" without a good answer.

West's book is pretty good, a quick read, and a harsh analysis of why the war in Afghanistan is going to hell in a handbasket.  While the media yawns, Obama goes into his last two years of lame duckness, and the Taliban sharpen their knives and wait.

Wonder what 'bamy will do when the Taliban ally with ISIS and starting turning their envious eyes toward Pakistan and it nuclear weapons?  Hmmmmmmmmmmm....probably say "FORE!"

Good book, pick it up...West has written a sequel of sorts focusing on a Marine battalion in the so-called Afghan Surge...it's in the queue

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Clausewitz, like eating bacon...never becomes common for me....

One of my favorite websites is The Diplomat.  A wonderful and often controversial collection of short, pithy posts about politics and diplomacy in the Far East, Pacific, and South Asia regions, it is a really excellent source of news and commentary.

And occasionally...military history.  While surfing the site the other day I came upon this little nugget

Now, normally I would be all over this like white on rice---because even more than revisionist history and turkey bacon, I despise know-it-all "strategic analysts" that take it upon themselves to trash my man Karl (or Carl, whatever) and I have lobbed plenty of typeface at them on this blog.

Just Can't Get Away from Clausewitz

Foucault, Clausewitz, Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh, my!

 Of course I calmed down a little when I saw it was written by Dr.  James Holmes, a naval analyst that I do admire and appreciate.

SO, I read the article with an open mind and...was....intrigued. Not by what he said, but because I felt he could have said sooooo much more....Clausewitz is like my favorite buffet at Harrah's in New Orleans...there's always more to digest.

Here is Dr. Holmes basic thesis:

Clausewitz’s masterwork On War proclaims — uniformly — that war is a mere continuation of policy “with other means” (mit anderen Mitteln), or sometimes “with the addition of other means” (mit Einmischung anderer Mitteln). Nowhere in On War or his prefatory notes does the Prussian write “by” other means.

Yet this false quotation refuses to die. “By,” “with,” who cares? Well, any student or practitioner of warfare should. Substituting a two-letter for a four-letter word makes a big difference in how Westerners conceive of war. And as Clausewitz teaches, grasping the nature of war in general — and of the particular war we’re contemplating — constitutes the first, most fundamental, most crucial act of statecraft. Get the basics wrong and grim consequences follow.

Okay, so what?  Is the whole "by" or "with" a big deal....MAYBE....it depends

Dr. Holmes concludes with a pretty good dissertation about Clausewitz' theories on war, statecraft, and diplomacy, but doesn't really drive anything home for me...one of the challenges of a short web article I guess.

Pursuing political objectives “with” other means connotes adding a new implement — namely armed force — to a mix of diplomatic, economic, and informational implements rather than dropping them to pick up the sword. War operates under a distinctive martial grammar, in other words, but the logic of policy remains in charge even after combat is joined. In this Clausewitzian view, strategic competition falls somewhere along a continuum from peacetime diplomacy to high-end armed conflict. The divide between war and peace can get blurry.  
  Okay, I am certainly down with this concept. For Clausewitz, as with all late 18th and early 19th century military men, politics and war were inexorably linked.  Military men and politicians alike considered the PRIMARY duty of the monarch/government  was the conduct of war, diplomacy,  and peace, as it were. Wars were fought with regularity, usual for limited objectives, and were often preceded and followed by intense discussions about this province or that territory forfeited by the loser to the winner. 

This, of course, was one of the reasons that Clausewitz and his contemporaries were totally flummoxed by Napoleon---ol' Nappy went for the jugular and aimed for the total whup ass of his opponent....The last time the French really got the better of the Germans.

To be clear, Dr. Holmes is correct in his assertion that Clausewitz spent most of his magnum opus expounding on the differences between theoretical and realistic war, including his famous "Trinity of chance, reason, and violence"  and his axiom-"Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."  

This was part of Enlightenment thinking I guess...discuss the theoretical, then describe the limits of its application in the real world. The trick to reading Clausewitz, besides reading it at least 4 or 5 times (sigh) is to be able to carefully discern his points separating the theoretical limits of war with the actual application to the human factor...which Clausewitz, being a man ahead of his time, was quick to recognize..unlike his contemporary Jomini who wanted to make everything in war about science and mathematics...use the right formula with the right inputs and WHAMOO victory is assured...only not so much.  

My man Clausewitz well understood the psychological factors in war and was the first to clearly state in his own book that no formula or certainty exists in war.  HOWEVER, he was wise enough to say a good general reads and studies military history....

So, hopefully he will continue this discussion...the theology of Clausewitz, to misuse a term, bears much discussion, thoughtful consideration and constant questioning of assumptions--anything that sparks more discussion of Clausewitz is fine by me.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

The best trilogy of WWII in Europe...period.

I just finished what is...in my opinion, the finest history of World War II in Europe from 1942-1945...period.

Rick Atkinson, former reporter for the Washington Post and 2-time Pulitzer Prize winner (one of them for the first volume in this series) has written what I consider the magnum opus of military history on America's involvement in the liberation of Europe.

This trilogy will become to World War II what Shelby Foote's masterpiece on the Civil War is to the history of that conflict--the definitive must-read account of the greatest and most costly conflict ever waged by the United States.

Ok, enough gushing right? Well, I can't say enough. These books are magnificent on every level: the depth of research, the prose and narrative, the outstanding maps (never to be under estimated, I love maps and hound any history book, especially military history that has poor or nonexistent maps), and the willingness of Mr. Atkinson to address heretofore unspoken aspects of popular or official histories of the war. 

Some of these are expected, even if not previously expanded upon in official histories--the constant bickering and clash of personalities within the Allied high command (British Field Marshall Montgomery comes off as "that British sumbitch" as my father used to call him...and that's being charitable), and Atkinson pulls no punches in describing the often petty arguments that threatened Allied unity.

Other unsavory topics are also honestly discussed, including the often rampant drinking, screwing, and looting of GIs across Europe. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the "Greatest Generation" was not above a bit of seamy behavior...which certainly doesn't diminish their heroism and in fact, makes what they did even more remarkable because they were not mythical supermen, but ordinary men who were both cowards and heroes, and sometimes just wanted a hot meal, bottle of hooch, and to get laid after intense and deadly combat.

To put things in proper perspective, the sheer scale of the combat that many of these men endured is remarkable. Many of these men served for three years overseas and saw combat in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France, often serving for months in continuous combat. Mr. Atkinson does an excellent job of weaving individual stories of personalities into the narrative, relating the march of participants across many campaigns and theaters of war, where often the only relief from combat was serious injury or death.

Even though each volume runs to over 700 pages with notes and bibliography, Mr. Atkinson's magnificent prose makes these truly a joy to read. I know I have written individual reviews of two of these volumes before:

Day of Battle

Guns of Last Light

But I had to take the opportunity to read all three of them together...and wow, that is so much better...you can really get a sense of the progression of the American war machine from the bumbling amateurs of Kasserine Pass to the awesome killing machine of the Battle of the Bulge.

So, if you enjoy well written World War II history, this trilogy should be on your bookshelf.


'Nuff said.