Monday, October 24, 2011

Is an arrest in Iraq ever just an arrest?

Update: Over 615 Sunni "Baathists" were arrested over this past weekend. Yeah, this isn't political at all. How long before we reach the "Sunni red line" and the Sunnis say a collective "fuck it" and through their full support to AQI and JRTN?

On Sunday Iraqi security forces detained 47 people in the provinces of Kirkuk and Diyala including 21 people in my old stomping ground in northeast Diyala. Those arrested included former Iraqi Army officers and members of the old Baath Party.

Are these arrests an indication that Iraq is getting serious about the Baathist threat as American forces withdraw or were these arrests merely a political action designed to remove rivals to the ruling party?

My guess is that it's the latter.

The widrawal of US forces from Diyala today has absolutely nothing to do with the timing of these detainments I'm sure.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

More movie comments...Armadillo

After several months of waiting Netflix finally has the documentary Armadillo available and I managed to find a free couple of hours in my incredibly busy schedule (ha!) to watch it and take some mental notes. If you are not familiar, Armadillo came out in 2010 and is about a platoon of Danish soldiers stationed at FOB Armadillo (later renamed Budwan and since closed) in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. The movie documents the lives of the soldiers from the days prior to deploying and through their 6 month deployment. If you haven't seen it and have an interest in the challenges, as well as the daily life of a soldier, I highly recommend it along with Restrepo, a documentary that also came out in 2010 and follows a platoon of US soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.

That's not the look of an actor folks, that's true emotion

There were a number of interesting things I picked up while watching the movie which I will of course share with you:

- Danish soldiers act very much like American soldiers (I'm not sure why this surprised me). They hire strippers before they deploy, bitch about the deployment, and on their free time they do PT, play video games, and watch porn. If they weren't all speaking Danish I would swear they were American.

- They were authorized to grow beards. Several of the soldiers, including the officers, grew facial hair and kept nice, clean beards. This is something I wish US forces who have consistant contact with locals in Iraq and Afghanistan would be allowed to do. Having facial hair is a sign of wisdom and respect in Afghanistan and Iraq (at least in the less urban areas) and virtually all the elders grow beards (or bushy mustaches in the case of Iraq).

- The patrols were conducted by foot with a vehicle nearby in overwatch. This allowed the soldiers to interact with the locals and get to know them as well as have the protection of heavy weapons close at hand.

- Several of the soldiers spoke the local language. Clearly language training was pushed hard by the Danish military thus eliminating the need for (potentially unreliable) translators.

- After each patrol an after action review (AAR) was least that's what the documentary led me to believe. I know at the beginning of a deployment and during training AAR's are conducted by the US Army but those tend to fall by the wayside after a few months. You always have something to learn and improve on, AAR's are part of that process.

- On the first patrol out, the platoon leader talked with the locals but asked very basic questions (Is the Taliban here? Where are the Taliban fighters? Etc). I know it's their first time out but come on. The look the civilians gave eachother was priceless, something like "ugh, not this shit again. Damn rookies."

- The company had a Raven UAV and used it. Too many times have American companies deployed with their Raven UAV only to keep it locked away in a storage container and then bitch at the S2 for not getting them enough UAV coverage (I'm looking at you Crazyhorse troop!).

- Spoke Danish with eachother but English over the radio. This was likely done to standardize comms. They were on a British FOB and the company fell under the command of a British battalion so this just makes sense. I still found it fascinating though.

- The company commander or platoon leader briefed each patrol before it went out making sure the patrol understood what its mission was and the purpose for going on the patrol. Ask an American private patrolling in Afghanistan and I am willing to bet he has no idea of the purpose of that patrol. You don't leave the wire just for the sake of leaving the wire.

- The Afghans asked soldiers what religion they were, specifically if they were Jewish. Not sure what was going on there but no Iraqi ever asked me what religion I was, it just wasn't brought up. My ignorance of Afghanistan is pretty high but I have to wonder if this indicated a high level of extremism in the area.

- At one point in the movie the Danes witness (using that wonderful Raven) 3 or 4 suspected Taliban either burying weapons in a compound or about to set up a mortar system (wasn't quite clear to me) so they call in an artillery strike. Boom. Suspected insurgents dead. The Danes go to the compound later and talk with two elderly men who claim animals were killed and would like compensation. The platoon leader tells the men if they come by the FOB the next day they can be compensated. The men say that if they go to the FOB the Taliban will likely kill them. This goes on for a bit and the Danish officer tells the me something along the lines of "we all need to work together". The two elderly men exchange a glance that I have seen time and time and time and time again. They are caught between an invading force who they don't like and isn't around 24 hours a day and an extremist group who they also probably don't like but who will kill them, or make their life hell, if they cooperate with the "western invaders." That's the bitch about an insurgency, you aren't going to kill the locals if they don't cooperate (or you shouldn't be killing them anyway); the insurgents WILL kill the locals if they cooperate with you.

- Where was the Afghan Army or Afghan police in all of this? Why weren't they imbedded with the Danish soldiers?

When the Danes came home after 6 months the local town threw them a parade. Good for the Danes, even if they didn't agree with the war they celebrated their soldiers and welcomed them home.

We never got a parade...but I'm not sure any of us in 1-14 Cav or 3-2 SBCT really wanted one.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Counter insurgency lessons from Pan's Labyrinth?

So I watched Pan's Labyrinth last night for the first time and I began the movie knowing virtually nothing about it other than it was some kind of fantasy story directed by Guillermo del Toro. Color me surprised when I found myself not only enjoying the film, but discovering some interesting lessons in conducting an insurgency and fighting one.

The movie takes place at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1944 with a company of pro-fascist/Franco soldiers hunting down a band of communist guerrillas. I'll do my best to avoid ruining the movie but there are some spoilers so if you plan on seeing the film you might just want to stop reading.

The company is led by a sadistic captain whose actions and cruelty lead not only to his downfall, but the complete destruction of his company. However, a few of his decisions and tactics would be successful to combat an insurgency if combined with less violent techniques.


- CPT Vidal used horses for the movements of his small patrols. The terrain around his headquarters was wooded mountains and using armored vehicles would have been useless since they would have been restricted to the few roads in the area. Now it is entirely likely that all he had at his disposal were horses since this was 1944 Spain just after a civil war, but the use of horses was still a wise one.

-The use of small patrols. Instead of using the entire company for large (and generally pointless) "clearance operations", CPT Vidal sent his men out in groups of 10-15 soldiers when investigating signs of the guerrilla band.

- Use of ration cards to control access to food/supplies. The company commander had all of the local village's food and supplies located in the barn at the headquarters building. The villagers had a ration card per family and had to go to the company HQ to get their food for the week. This helped (or should have helped, but we'll get to that later) limit the amount of food and supplies the villagers could supply to the insurgents. When the villagers were getting their food, a soldier from the company would then distribute propaganda to the locals (get your message to the people!). While this measure may seem overly controlling, the British did have success with this sort of tactic in Malaysia...although the British did it better by sealing off the villages.


- pretty much everything else CPT Vidal did. I'll start with the placement of the company HQ. It was a farmhouse near where the guerrilla band was hiding and operating. He should have placed it in the village instead (I'm assuming there was a village, you never see one in the movie) so he could better control the population and prevent the insurgents from having access to the village. If the insurgents can't get into the village, they can't get food, supplies, or new recruits and will eventually wither away. By placing the HQ in the farmhouse, CPT Vidal was only prolonging the fight. He may believe he is taking the fight to the enemy, but he is only going to cause more casualties to his soldiers and may not gain success agains the insurgent band who more than likely will just move to a different location.

- near the beginning of the movie CPT Vidal's soldiers bring him 2 men they suspect of being guerrillas. They claim to be only farmers and were out hunting rabbits. They have some communist propaganda on them so CPT Vidal kills them both. Rabbits are then discovered in the farmers' bag and CPT Vidal chides the sergent for not doing a proper search. By killing these two suspects CPT Vidal gives the locals a reason to hate him (or even more reasons) which plays right into the hand of the local guerrilla forces.

- killing wounded insurgents. Dead men can't give information so by killing a wounded insurgent you eliminate any ability to question him, either right there on the spot or later when he recovers. It also highlights your cruelty which once again enables insurgent propaganda.

- torturing prisoners. One occasion where CPT Vidal's soldiers did capture an insurgent CPT Vidal personnally tortured the prisoner in order to gain information. Torture does not help your cause, will likely lead to false information, and further alienates the population against you. But CPT Vidal was a fascist, so he likely didn't give a damn.

- over extending your forces. When the insurgents conducted an attack against a train CPT Vidal for some reason sent nearly his entire company to investigate the incident. The attack was a diversion and once most of the troops were away, the insurgents attacked the headquarters building and with the help of an inside informant, captured most of the food and supplies located at the HQ. CPT Vidal should have sent a smaller force to the train who could then call for reinforcements if needed.

The communist guerrillas in the movie conducted themselves brilliantly (it helps to have a script writer). They had informants at the farmhouse who could get them news, mail, and some supplies; they avoided attacking a large force; used diversions to distract the fascist forces before conducting a raid; ambushed smaller fascist elements which eventually enabled the destruction of CPT Vidal's company.

My favorite line in the movie:

CPT Vidal: "Tell my son the time that his father died. Tell him..."
Mercedes: "No. He won't even know your name."

Damn good movie, but I was distracted for part of it as I pondered which side of that war I would have taken...communist or fascist. Both are equally horrible in my opinion. Eventually determined I would go with the communists because perhaps you can encourage a socialist democracy/republic be created. I could live with that.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Computer viruses happen to the best of us

I mentioned in my last post that my laptop computer was hit with a nasty little virus that I couldn't seem to get rid of. Not much of a big deal since I hate that computer anyway and only use it when I travel; but when I read the other day that the Air Force's drone fleet has been hit with a virus that they can't rid of as well I was a bit relieved. If it can happen to them then i don't feel as bad.

Apparently the virus that has affected the Predator and Reaper UAV systems is a "keylogger" and hasn't affected the flights of the drones...yet. The primary issue is that the IT guys just can't get rid of the bastard. Every time they remove the virus it pops up again. Makes me believe that somebody keeps uploading games onto the computer systems using a thumb drive.

But anyway, it doesn't appear at the moment that this virus was put into the system by any foreign government or experienced computer just got there on accident. In a few months it will probably evolve to displaying pop up ads for penis enlargement while you're trying to view the feed...

Do I want a bigger Hellfire? Well now that the nice ad mentions it...

There is one other little "oops" with all of this. Apparently Creech Air Force Base, where the "pilots" of the drones are located, didn't bother to inform the Air Force's cybersecurity unit of the virus. The cybersecurity guys found out about it from Danger Room. That's some egg on your face. Kind of like when I found out from CNN during my second deployment that I was extended for another 3 months instead of hearing it first from my chain of command.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Kurds, Ke$ha, and Kinetic Strikes

I was in the Maryland/DC area this past weekend for a wedding and also visiting some friends. I had planned to do a quick post on some recent interesting stories, however my laptop picked up a nasty virus that I couldn't eliminate so that plan went out the window. That may be a sign that I should switch to an iPad...we'll see. DC has also managed to find itself high up on the list of places that I will job hunt in, it's in a tight race with Seattle/Tacoma of where I should settle for the next few years. The decision is really going to be decided more by where I can actually get a job as opposed to where I want to go. I will say this though, if Seattle were to snag an NHL team it would be the clear winner, but then again, I've never heard Ke$ha being blasted from the Space Needle, whereas the Treasury building is apparently hoppin late at night...

The Treasury Department knows what it's like to wake up in the mornin' feelin' like P. Diddy

Anyway, Joel Wing over at Musings On Iraq has an interesting article on the Kurds deploying two more Peshmerga battalions into the Diyala province back in August. The Kurdish Regional Government appears to be seriously maneuvering in order to annex the Khaniqan District (and the Kifri District along with it) into Kurdistan taking advantage of the withdrawal of US forces who at this point can do nothing other than escort the new units into their positions. I'm interested to know how the Sunni Arab pro-Saddam Kurwi tribe that controls the town of Jalula and the surrounding area are handling this news. I'd really love to know how they will react if the Kurds are successful in annexing the district. I suspect an increase in activity by JRTN and a resurgence of Ansar al Sunna and Jaysh al Islami will occur. If the KRG and the Government of Iraq were smart they would redraw the district boundaries and allow the Kurds to have Kifri and Khanaqin while Diyala kept the majority Arab towns of Qara Tapa, Jalula, As Sadiya, and the oil town of Naft Khana. That just might be enough of a compromise to make everyone happy.

As you may already be aware, an airstrike likely killed Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen. Awlaki was an American born cleric who was an operational commander for Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and was also responsible for the English language propaganda newsletter "Inspire". Does the killing of Awlaki strike a blow against AQAP? Most likely. Am I completely happy about the strike? Not exactly. I'm not really comfortable with the US government assassinating its own citizens without a trial. However, Awlaki was in a combat zone actively fighting against a US ally and calling for attacks against the United States and its interests. I'm not exactly shedding any tears here.

If you have any interest in reading about the legality debate about the strike, Danger Room has a good article on it.