Monday, April 25, 2011

Doomed is so much fun to say

Are the rebels in Libya doomed? Were they doomed from the start or did they just become doomed when despite having Western air power they still couldn't prevent pro-Gaddaffi forces from entering Misrata?

Perhaps they are doomed because they are using really old and crappy weapons, or at least running around and showing off those weapons.

Interesting note in the linked article: the rebels aren't using forward observers in conjunction with the limited artillery they have which means they are essentially firing indiscriminatly...something we condemn Gaddaffi's forces for doing. I love the double standard.

However, despite having horrible tactics and even more horrible weapons I'm not about to count the Libyan rebels out just yet. If nearly 3 years in Iraq taught me anything it's to never count any organization out. If the rebels start to act like an insurgency (which they should) they might have a shot at bringing in a new government. Avoid the stand-up fight, hold on to as much territory as you can in the east, and keep asking for weapons and assistance from whoever will provide it. Saturating any territory that pro-Gaddaffi forces enter with IEDs wouldn't hurt either.

Doomed or not, following the situation in Libya has been professionally entertaining for me.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hemorrhaging officers: Part II

Back in January I wrote a quick paragraph based off an article from the Atlantic that discussed why junior officers such as myself were leaving the military, and the Army specifically. The author essentially stated that officers were leaving due to a broken personnel system and frustration with military bureaucracy.

A study from Harvard states the same findings and backs them up with data. I think I may even participated in this study, which I don't expect you to read (I skimmed it). The folks conducting the study sent out surveys to officers currently serving and who have recently left the service focusing on 1st lieutenants, captains, and majors (or their Navy equivalent) in all four branches of the military and found the top 3 reasons for a decision to leave the military were:

1) career control (or lack thereof)
2) quality of life
3) military bureaucracy

I have to say that I agree completely with the results of the study. When I was filling out the survey back in January I determined there were 4 elements for me that led to job satisfaction:

1) enjoyment of the job/position (both overall as an MI officer and the current position/job held)
2) respect for my boss/superior (I don't have to like you, but I should at least respect you)
3) work environment (preferably not hostile)
4) ability to have some say in next position and/or duty station

I would argue that my #1 correlates to both quality of life and bureaucracy, #2 and #3 are quality of life issues, and #4 is obviously related to career control.

My own ability to control my career has been a case of blind luck. I was originally assigned to FT Lewis which I grew to love and was able to leave 502nd MI BN after only a year due to the personnel shifts that occur after any deployment and my stated desire to move to one of the stryker brigades on post. I had no say in the positions assigned to me in 3-2 SBCT but was able to return to FT Lewis due to the officer incentive program initiated when the Army realized it would likely lose more captains than it could afford if it didn't offer incentives to stay. I added two years to my contract in order to return to Lewis after the career course and luckily had some say in my next position, intel officer for the cavalry squadron in 3-2 SBCT. Of course when it was time to leave Lewis again my branch manager completely ignored my duty station requests and sent me to Huachuca, and then when I got here I was placed as a cog in the bureaucratic machine instead of becoming an instructor like my branch manager said I was going to do.

In terms of my other 3 elements, in my nearly 8 years in the Army there have been only a few times when enjoyment of my job, respect for my boss, and a non-hostile work environment have lined up. I won't go into dramatic detail but my time in 296 BSB, the short few months after my last deployment with 1-14 Cav, and my currently position are the only times when the stars aligned. There was a time when I thought tossing tables and screaming at subordinates for minor slip-ups was a required Army leadership trait.

Those "traits" have led to many an inside joke among my former co-workers though.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Marines doing it better

One of my favorite authors on counterinsurgency practice and theory, Bing West, recently had an article in the Wall Street Journal. It's a short article that discusses a patrol that West went on with a Marine squad in Afghanistan while West was imbedded with the platoon. The tactics of the squad reminded me of the tactics used by CAPs in Vietnam which West wrote about in The Village. (I discuss the book and my thoughts on the tactics used here.)

There are a few differences that I see in the Marines' tactics in this particular case and those used in Vietnam, namely that the Marines are conducting their patrol during the day as opposed to night. The Vietcong tended to do their business at night (I'm assuming, based on my limited reading of the conflict) whereas the Taliban apparently do theirs during the day (Iraqi insurgents in 2009-10 operated in much the same way). Another difference is that the article makes no mention of any Afghan security forces embedded with the platoon and even specifically mentions the squad has no interpreter.
"With no...language capabilities, the platoon knew who was an enemy only when he opened fire."
I am impressed though that the Marines are focused on patrolling on foot instead of driving around in HMMWVs or MRAPs which rarely accomplish anything. I'm also impressed in their restraint; the locals appear to be very hostile and the group on the motorcycles were very likely Taliban fighters, but the Marines didn't engage. This keeps colateral damage to a minimum and also prevents a situation which the Marines in the area may not be able to fix. What if the men on the motorcycles were not Taliban, but instead just a local militia or village protection that were just making their presence known to the Marines? Opening fire on them would only drive a massive wedge between the locals and the Marines.

Not going into the empty house suspected of having an IED inside was also a smart move, a lesson likely learned painfully. In 2007 my battalion (1-23 IN) lost 4 soldiers and an interpreter when searching an empty house suspected of being booby trapped. The entire house collapsed on them when one of the soldiers accidently set off the triggering device hidden under a rug.

Given enough time and resources...namely interpreters and some local security forces...the Marines in this area of southern Afghanistan will likely have some pretty good success in defeating the Taliban. Time is not something the Marines have, however, and unless similar tactics are being used in eastern Afghanistan by the Army then the efforts by this platoon may be for naught. Best quote of the article has to be this one:
"Marine tactics, like Ohio State football, have the subtle inevitability of a steamroller."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Budget crunch? But I need my Burger King!

Nothing in the news has really caught my eye in the past several days and I'm out of ideas for blog posts on situations of interest from one of my deployments so I figure I'll write a quick couple of paragraphs on where the government/military can save some money, since that seems to be what everyone is talking about these days. It doesn't help that the NHL playoffs start tomorrow which is just distracting me even more. But enough about distractions, where can the military possibly save some money with two occupations going on and the possibility of an expansion of the conflict in Libya?

Getting rid of this absurdity would be a good start...

That picture is from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Do they really need a T.G.I. Friday's at KAF? Are the dining facilities that miserable, surf and turf night that brutal, that soldiers/sailors/marines/airmen need this? I find it utterly ridiculous that the US government spent the money to build a facility and bring in a crew just so the troops on KAF can have a little "Americana". Even if TGI Friday's spent most of the money themselves (which is likely), I still find it absurd. You're supposed to be fighting an insurgency, not killing time until happy hour with your coworkers. Camp Victory in Iraq has a fraking bowling alley. What did that cost?

Now don't get me wrong, I don't blame the troops who are stationed at these large bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, I even understand the need for them. You can't expect a Corps or Division level staff to operate out of a small forward operating base and it would be amusing to base a squadron of F-16's out of a combat outpost. I can even kind of see the logic behind an American style restaurant or a recreation facility like a bowling alley. However, money is best used elsewhere. If it is deemed necessary to have food available (that soldiers pay for) that is an alternative to the dining facility, then bring in some locals to operate an establishment.

On tiny COP Cobra we had two places, one was a shwarma stand and the other was a chicken and pizza joint. They cost money but helped break the monotony of the dining facility. It may even seem a little hypocritical to be griping about the amenities on places like Victory, afterall, I spent my first two deployments on large FOBs. My first deployment was even on Victory (no bowling alley or Friday's there yet though) and my second I spent 7 out of 15 months on bases that made up the Victory Base Complex. But my last deployment, as I've mentioned, was at a tiny combat outpost far from anything...and I am better for it. Being away from "the flagpole" in my opinion was far superior to spending a year on a base that might was well not even have been in Iraq.

War, for the most part, is dull. Soldiers and Airmen will be bored, but they get bored back in the States too. Get as many soldiers as you can off those massive bases and on to combat outposts and patrol bases. Those that have to be on the large facilities can go a year without some babyback ribs. Put money and resources into elements that will help defeat the insurgency.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Big booms continue in Iraq: Part II

Bit of an update on the attack in Tikrit on March 29th that targeted the provincial council. To the surprise of no one, the Islamic State of Iraq (aka Al Qaida in Iraq by another name) has claimed responsibility. In their statement they proclaim that the attack occured "in response to the ‘crimes’ committed in Tikrit’s Prison", but of course do not mention what those crimes are.

I haven't been paying enough attention to understand what is going on in the Iraqi prison system but it wouldn't surprise me to learn of harsh treatment or even torture. However, claiming "crimes committed" as the reason for a violent suicide attack targeting a provincial council strikes me as grasping for excuses by an organization desperately seeking to gain the approval of the population. It also may shed some light on who provided assistance to the attackers in order for this attack to be successful. I may be reading too much into this, but if I were to guess, I would say that a local tribe or tribes assisted or allowed the attack to occur. If a tribal member or members, perhaps even a sheikh, were held and felt mistreated then it would only make sense that this tribe would then enable ISI to conduct the attack in order to regain honor or satisfy the need for revenge.

Like I said, this is only my guess but it's based on my experiences in Iraq.

On a related note, the Chairman of the Security Committee in Diyala Province's Council is claiming that the attack occured in Salah al Din province because security forces in Diyala had foiled a similar plot in Baqubah so ISI was forced to attack elsewhere. I'm skeptical, mostly because I'm not sure the Diyala Emergency Police are capable of foiling anything except roasted lamb and chicken; but I'm really skeptical because I don't believe ISI/AQI is that coordinated in Iraq right now. If you disrupt the network in one city or province, they just are not capable of switching the attack to another city/province. At most suicide bombers would be shifted but from what I saw in Iraq in 2010, even the suicide bombers were local to the area in which they conducted an attack. The attack was conducted in Tikrit because local (or at least provincial) networks and cells planned and coordinated the attack, not because the network was disrupted in Diyala.