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January 18, 2008


A Flip of the COIN

Gates Is Right About NATO's Counterinsurgency Deficiencies; Though A Matter of Will, Not Skill

By Steve Schippert | January 18, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced candid concern regarding the counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities and tactics being employed by NATO forces currently in Afghanistan. And while it appears to have ruffled the feathers of some NATO allies the wrong way, Secretary Gates was correct in what he said and also correct in the decision to voice the concerns. In Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, the Pentagon chief said, "I'm worried we're deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations." He has good cause to be worried. And regardless of the angry reactions and dented pride of some NATO leaders, denial will not address the problem.

Many articles have been written about Gates' words, the reactions and the 'controversy' his comments are said to have caused. However, while each article covers with precision what was said and what was rebutted, few if any manage to describe or explain the actual problem at the source of the Secretary of Defense's concerns.

The original Los Angeles Times story comes closest by conveying that "an overreliance on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes" has Defense Department officials and military commanders concerned that such tactics actually may be "contributing to rising violence" in southern Afghanistan. This region is primarily overseen by British, Canadian and Dutch forces who, to their credit, have at least embraced a combat role - something that cannot be said of other NATO allies with troops in Afghanistan.

But it is left at that, stopping well short of explaining to the public news consumer exactly why this approach is often counterproductive. More to the point, in stopping short of a full explanation, the reader also cannot understand the often (domestic) political reasons such less effective tactics are employed by our NATO allies who do accept combat roles in a combat zone. To fully understand this is to also then fully understand why the reaction from some allies was so swift and so pointed.

The problem with "an overreliance on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes" in a counterinsurgency effort is the increased collateral damage associated with such large-blast weapons. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the enemy enmeshes himself within the civilian population without the distinguishing marks of a uniform. When the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists over-run a village and take it over in Helmand Province, driving the enemy back out with heavy weapons also takes its toll on the local civilian population as well, even though extraordinary efforts are taken by Western eyes to identify and isolate an un-uniformed Taliban enemy from Afghan friends. This is an incredibly difficult task only exacerbated by the effects of distance and obstruction by the structures of Afghan villages.

The blast radius of large 'standoff' weaponry - such as artillery - is quite effective and, therefore, often too effective in urban terrain. Such standoff weaponry generally targets an area or structure, whereas an individual soldier within a fire team in close range can discriminate with greater detail. While individual soldiers do call in the strikes after identifying the enemy, the extensive employment of - or "overreliance on" - such weapons and tactics reduces the casualty risk of the assaulting force demonstrably. The relative safety afforded assaulting NATO forces in using such 'standoff' weapons is also politically enticing for domestic leaderships at home in Europe. And therein lies the true rub: Political Will v. Most Effective Tactics. Not "training" or knowing "how to conduct counterterrorism operations."

When Secretary Gates says publicly he is "worried" that "some" NATO allies lack "training" and "don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations," he is being partly honest. For this is indeed true. But such training requires the impetus of policy - and policy, by nature, requires political will. And it is the political will of many of our NATO allies that is failing.

As evidenced in Iraq, successful counterinsurgency operations requires the cooperation of the civilian public. They know their neighborhoods, villages and towns. And they know the enemy who has put himself among them. Increasingly including this population among the enemy casualties is counterproductive to winning their cooperation and support and risks allied NATO forces as being seen as the outsider forces who do more harm to them than good.

Attaining this cooperation - absolutely necessary for a successful counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign - requires a minimal usage of stand-off large-blast weapons and regular usage of combat forces in close combat, where the enemy can be better discerned and the civilian population more effectively - and visibly - protected. This brings with it the necessary increased casualty risk factor for long-term success. It is this risk factor that is deemed unacceptable to those criticizing Robert Gates' comments about "training."

And this is the root cause of the counterproductive "overreliance on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes." It simply nets fewer NATO casualties. In the short term. For it also makes any ultimate success seem well beyond the horizon.

The real or perceived acceptable casualty risk is debilitatingly low for effective and successful combat operations in the long-term against a highly motivated Taliban and al-Qaeda enemy, most of which in sharp contrast seek the glory associated with martyrdom in battle. With the exceptions of Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, this acceptable combat casualty risk factor is precisely zero. This is why so many allies in theater have accepted only non-combat roles.

These realities combined are precisely what Secretary Gates is driving at. Our allies' political leaderships have failed to communicate to their respective domestic populations that the fight in Afghanistan is necessary, requires their nation's collective engagement, and may carry with that a level of combat casualties. Perhaps they perceive their populations will never support this reality or its necessity. Perhaps the political leaders themselves do not support such. Either way, it is less a pure matter of training and more a matter of political will.

The angry public reaction from some corners carries that passion not because of questioned tactics, but because of questioned will.

Secretary Gates has communicated at least the concerns of tactics to allies privately. He said of one such occasion, "No one at the table stood up and said: 'I agree with that.'" It is quite possible that he may have gone a layer deeper toward the source and addressed the matter of political will in private as well.

While Secretary Gates normally speaks with measured words, his military commanders in the field have been more direct in expressing their frustration - a frustration has been simmering for some time.

But while Secretary Gates will publicly refer to 'training' and counterinsurgency 'know how,' the matter at hand is clearly one of will, not skill. Furthermore, it is a matter in the hands of our allies' political leadership, not in the performance of their fielded forces who operate as directed. The commanders know it. Secretary Gates knows it. And the NATO political leaders retorting and taking offense to criticism of "training" and "tactics" know it all too well. They simply dare not say it. Instead, they respond safely within the public cover the US Secretary of Defense graciously provided by stopping short of addressing some of our allies' flagging will.

One thing is for certain. The recent decision to send in an additional 3,200 seasoned United States Marines, who decidedly "know how to do counterinsurgency operations," is indicative of Washington's lack of confidence that there will be any shift in our allies' political will any time soon. Not even against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

January 16, 2008

United States of America

A Dearth of Fresh Ideas

Money & Technology Will Not Save Us: Clear, Original Thinking Will

By Michael Tanji | January 16, 2008

From a security and intelligence perspective, the new year in the long war has started out like previous years. Faced with serious and often overwhelming problems, the government proposes several solutions aimed at improving our security that are almost certain to fail to achieve that objective.

The FBI for example, would like to build a giant biometrics database to help identify terrorists and other evil doers. Additionally, the Director of National Intelligence is about to argue that the intelligence community should gain access to all Internet traffic transiting the US.

Neither of these proposals, or their previously floated predecessors, is earth shattering in originality and there is a good reason to question their ultimate effectiveness. The government's general approach to any sufficiently challenging problem is to throw money and technology at it, as if what is accounted for in a quantitative sense will overcome very real qualitative problems. It apparently goes unrecognized that by trawling through impossibly large amounts of data we will net innocents along with bad guys. Or that searching for original thought for its sake alone results in ventures likely to fail at both their stated objective and in the advancement of thought on these matters.

Take the case of DNI McConnell's new proposal. This image reflects why the government is arguing that it needs more insight into what flows across the wires, cables and airwaves of this country. It's not a question of listening in to the private conversations of U.S. citizens; since much of the world's communications transit the US it is simply a case of listening where the information and communications are.

And there is quite a lot of data. This is not a case of the needle in a haystack problem; it's a needle somewhere in an unidentified field in the western portion of Nebraska. Providing a vacuum like solution where data is collected wholesale, even with significant machine-based filtering, does nothing to resolve the enormous piles of hay that much still be search by an intelligence analyst seeking a single needle or more accurately - seeking pieces of the needle.

A more appropriate strategy in the long war - a significantly intelligence driven war - is to put more boots on the ground in the world's dangerous places and among the world's dangerous people. For the uninitiated it doesn't necessarily follow that more human intelligence (HUMINT) will help solve a signals intelligence (SIGINT) problem. The dirty little secret is that this isn't a SIGINT problem. Widespread surveillance efforts aren't likely to catch those who would do us harm. Experience and a look at realities of our efforts would show that tip-offs from informants, investigations and other human driven methodologies results in a higher likelihood of interdiction when followed by SIGINT efforts to 'refine' the targeting.

If this sounds like déjà vu all over again it is because it is a variation on the theme that played out over the last 15 plus years as the intelligence community degraded HUMINT in favor of technology derived intelligence. It is a by-product of failing to replace cold warriors and 'leaders' who are out-of-step with the nature and scope of the problem at hand. Just as our military has seen transformation enthusiasts who've failed to recognize the nature of the enemy, as they were singularly focused on transforming the military, the intelligence community has become information addicted and often fails to formulate strategies based on the task they are charged with addressing.

Your author is fully aware of the hazards associated with putting American's in harms way, as well as the reluctance to undertake "diarrhea missions." But unless we start infusing some clear, original thinking into our intelligence and security problem-solving efforts, we resign ourselves to old-think, improper solutions, and future intelligence failures.

January 9, 2008

United States of America

Self-Inflicted Ideological Wounds

Why Such a Shallow Bench of Experts on Islam?

By Michael Tanji | January 9, 2008

Readers of ThreatsWatch and related sites are probably not strangers to the controversy surrounding the firing of Stephen Coughlin, late an Islamic law scholar on the Joint Staff. Reportedly he was sacked for his "extreme" opinions on radical Islam, which included such radical ideas as not affiliating with Islamic groups with known, or suspected, ties to terrorist organizations.

The impetus of his ouster was apparently triggered by Hesham Islam, advisor to Deputy SECDEF Gordon England. Based on what little we know about Mr. Islam we are hard pressed to label him an apologist for Islamists and his dedication to this nation and its principles is perfectly clear. Still, Mr. Islam is the driving force behind the Pentagon's Muslim outreach effort, which includes reaching out to some groups with ties to terrorist organizations.

Put more simply: Mr. Coughlin is not a Muslim who is considered an expert on Islam and Islamic law; Mr. Islam is a Muslim, but as far as we know is not a theologian or scholar of Islam.

The fact that Mr. Coughlin's work is not in the public domain is a problem for those conducting outside analysis because we have no way of judging for ourselves the quality or nature of his work. While it may not be a fair assessment, your author viewed a short extract of Mr. Coughlin's work and was not overly impressed.

Not knowing who else Mr. Islam is working with (besides groups like ISNA, which is not exactly a bastion of moderates) and lacking more detailed information on his qualifications are also problems. Like any other bureaucracy, the Pentagon is not immune from picking "experts" using disputable means.

Let's assume for the time being that both men know their business and a reasonable, well thought out assessment of the situation led Pentagon leadership to decide that the best course of action would be Mr. Islam's. All well-and-good except for this one nagging question: why does the most powerful war-fighting apparatus in the world – one that is currently engaged in battle with extremists fueled by their interpretation of Islam – have such a weak bench of expertise in this critical warfighting domain? Why after six years are we bearing witness to a cat-fight between two – TWO – differing opinions on these issues?

Contrast our efforts to combat Islamic extremism with the cryptologic battle against Japan and Germany. We have no parallel to this effort today. Pockets of expertise, yes. But a concentrated, concerted effort to counter the ideology of our current adversaries does not exist as best as can be determined.

The absence of a deep bench of expertise, on Islam and on the jihadiyun's interpretation of Islam, means that regardless who triumphed in the internal political battle; the death or departure of either individual would bring an effective end to our ability to provide any meaningful, real-time guidance to senior defense officials on the Muslim mind, how radical Islamists think and preach, and how we might best counteract their efforts. That's unfortunate in the extreme because at last accounting, radical madrassas weren't hurting for students and radical Imams weren't declining in significant numbers.

Absent a substantial cadre of scholars of Islam's cultural, theological and legal systems advising our defense and intelligence organizations, we cannot hope to win this war of ideas. Rather than abating the spread of hateful ideologies that ferment future generations of would-be jihadists, we will allow myths to perpetrate and falsehoods to go unchallenged. Our best-but-ill-informed intentions will become time and money sinks. Worse: our inability to successfully prosecute this aspect of the war guarantees that the balance of the conflict will have to contain a primarily kinetic component, when we should be striving to take our citizens out of harms way.

January 4, 2008


Compounding Interest of Iranian Terror

As Arab Gulf States Hedge Their Bets on Tehran, US Must Maintain Core Principle

By Steve Schippert | January 4, 2008

In the conflict before us, which transcends al-Qaeda and began in earnest decades before September 11, 2001, it is vital that America as a nation maintain both path and positions based upon fundamental core principles rather than an enticement toward pragmatism. Likewise, it is also vital that we seek clarity over consensus when devising, implementing and adjusting strategies in dealing with state and non-state enemies. Nowhere is this approach more critical than in dealing with the Iranian regime. The revolutionary theocratic mullah regime is the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism and will remain so for as long as it holds the power of governance over the Iranian people and state institutions.

At the Christian Science Monitor, George Washington University professor of political science and international affairs Marc Lynch posits on Why U.S. strategy on Iran is crumbling, noting that the Gulf's Arab states have "moved away from American arguments for isolating Iran," and are now beginning to accommodate the Iranian regime in recognition of its rising power.

"The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are accommodating themselves to Iran's growing weight in the region's politics," writes Professor Lynch. And they are doing so while Iran is extending a diplomatic hand in equal measure. The Iranians have commenced a diplomatic counter-offensive. Lynch continues by citing a string of overtures by both Tehran and Arab leaders, effectively establishing a very real trend and a shift in regional thinking.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional security cooperative comprised of Sunni Arab Gulf states and emirates, recently invited the group's primary state security threat Shi'a Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to directly address the council. Saudi Arabia invited Ahmadinejad to Mecca for the hajj and King Abdullah then held 'cordial talks' with the Iranian president. Iran and Egypt have been nearing a nuclear technology cooperation deal recently in the first high-level talks between the two states in 27 years. The term "Shia Crescent" describing Iran's regional power ambitions from Tehran to Beirut has effectively dropped from the public lexicon.

And, of course, there is the ongoing schizophrenic effect of the latest NIE that has hamstrung nearly all diplomatic efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Lynch mentions this, and notes that "emerging signs of a tentative thaw in the Gulf are not due solely to the release of the findings in last month's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran was no longer pursuing a nuclear weapons program." While that is correct, it still remains a primary catalyst that is incredibly difficult to overstate in this context.

In an otherwise very thoughtful commentary by Professor Lynch, his resulting recommendation that because Arab states have commenced to accept an emerging Iranian regional power, "American policymakers need to do the same" is well off the mark.

First, Iran has long been a regional power in the Gulf. The absence of friends and/or cordial relations among the Gulf Cooperation Council Arab states does not translate into an absence of power. What is emerging is not new Iranian power once absent. Rather, emerging is a recognition by regional states of the fact that Iran is a regional power with or without their friendship and that a lack of regional allies will not deter their acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Second, it is not a unique trait of Arab leaders and governments to straddle fences, awaiting a clear winner to cheer. It is not so much a shift occurring among Arab states in the form of a wholesale policy directional change. But rather, it is the customary 'hedging of bets' with an outcome that is increasingly uncertain as the West flounders within its own internal debates. The Iranian nuclear program suffers no such self-imposed domestic impedance. This is an altogether different reality than a wholesale shift in Arab policies and attitudes towards the Shi'a theocratic regime.

From the other direction, Iran has recognized soberly and intelligently the previously ramped-up American strategy of regional isolation for Iran by its Arab Gulf neighbors. It has thus countered with a 'diplomatic offensive' of its own, extending a hand to the same Arab states and leaders America has sought to unify against Iran. To Egypt, Sunni Islam's center of gravity, it offers nuclear cooperation. To Saudi Arabia, home to the most sacred sites in Islam, it offers an absence of animosity in dialog and economic cooperation. And, considering a very real and permanent Iranian geographic proximity along with the West's continued floundering and general ineffectiveness in curbing Iran, its neighbors are simply hedging their bets.

Considering this, it is clear that Arab states have not necessarily "moved away from American arguments for isolating Iran" as definitively as might otherwise be interpreted. Likewise, the accompanying assessment that "American policymakers need to do the same" is off the mark in equal measure.

To the contrary. To change policy and adapt to a misperception of regional Arab actions by "doing the same" and engage Iran in recognition of its "growing weight in the region's politics" is to admit defeat and hand Iran yet another victory. Rather, the United States should redouble its efforts and revisit the means by which it can curb the Iranian threat - to both America and the regional Arab states.

After all, Lynch rightly points out that "America's containment of Iraq began to collapse in the late 1990s when its Arab neighbors lost faith in the value of sanctions." By the same token, it is not unwise to pause for a second and ask if the sanctions themselves that have failed or whether it is more a failure to effectively implement them. Regardless, what is beginning to be demonstrated now by Arab Gulf states - through hedging - is the same lack of faith in the same failed approach, but this time to an even more dangerous actor in Iran.

So why, in a principled decision, would the US choose to adjust its relations with Iran and cede them a major moral and diplomatic victory rather than first attempting to address "the same failed approach" that is causing Arab states under Iranian threat to hedge their bets?

Let's be sure not to lose sight of the very important fact that Iran remains the world's foremost state sponsor of international terrorism. Our energetic opposition to this is founded in core principle, and this core principle must not be sacrificed by the temporary appeal of what might otherwise be termed "pragmatism" or "realism." The Iranian mullah regime will only grow stronger as a result, undeterred in its chosen path.

The net effect, intended or not, is appeasement. And the interest on appeasing state sponsors of terrorism is significant and compounded daily. We - and our children - will only be relegated to paying a far higher and very tangible price tomorrow for an abandonment of principle today.

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