What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Friday, August 22, 2008

SOP-based epistemology and the soldier/air strike trade-off

Via Registan: The US Institute of Peace has published an overview of how air strikes cause civilian casualties in Afghanistan. It's a good read about the basics, one that's worth going through. One should also read the Reuters excerpt pointed out over at Registan by Joshua Foust, and another article linked in there as well, that by now almost everyone busy blogging on Afghanistan has linked to, this one. The latter shows how Canadian Forces travel around town in Kandahar maximising force protection even from lawsuits: they carefully document each car in front of which they shoot warning shots, so the owner can't claim damage done later on. It all makes sense, in a totally insensible sort of way. CF are acting as though they wouldn't have left the base. Of course they can't maintain the same protection for themselves that they have within base perimetres, but at least they use that as a kind of dream standard that they should always strive to get close to, whereever they are. They try to patrol as though the walls of the base could be moved along as well. They move out but they remain isolated. They want to meet people, yet fire warning shots not to meet them. They would like to see and know Kandahar, but instead they only see the abstraction of people and objects engaged according to standard operating procedures. Call it, say, SOP-based epistemology.

This is at least as big a problem as the troops-in-contact air strikes, highlighted by the USIP report.

Getting back to the issue of which, I'll make just one critical point: the authors of the USIP report, Alexander Thier and Azita Ranjbar, mistakenly write that "Troop levels in Afghanistan have been insufficient given the geographic and demographic scope of the challenge, resulting in increased reliance on air power." Troop levels are insufficient, of course, but it's not that aerial power is substituted for the non-available manpower really. Aerial power saves manpower instead in a different sense: in a direct sense. The available manpower is saved time and again by it. Thier and Ranjbar point out elsewhere themselves, that when one meets overwhelming force, the best from a counterinsurgency perspective is to withdraw, not to call in an airstrike. In fact the problem is greater than that. Troops will usually come under fire when ambushed. In that case, the site of the ambush is likely to have been carefully selected by the attackers. They will be shooting from higher ground, or from the protection of walled compounds, and usually from several locations, not from just one position. In this case, to kill them without air strikes would only be possible if one would be ready to sustain casualties. A hundred soldiers pinned down behind APCs spraying M-16 bullets in the general direction of walled compounds cannot necessarily be that much more effective than ten soldiers doing the same thing. Adding more soldiers on the ground will therefore not mean less air strikes.

I'm no military expert, I'm just trying to use my logic - if somebody can explain to me where I'm mistaken with this argument, I'd be happy to hear that.

But more soldiers interacting with communities (if they do) and providing security (for everyone), pulling off a real ink blot strategy instead of a rhetorical one, can prevent the infiltration of areas in the first place, and that's one of the best ways to avoid some air strikes.


Joshua Foust said...

Why, it almost sounds like you think there should be a top-down revisit of strategy in Afghanistan, which would include NATO and US forces actually doing the counterinsurgency techniques they say they learned so well from Iraq.

How stunning :-)

Péter MARTON said...

Yeah, exactly.
The car bomb threat is really bad, though, so it's not really comfortable for a civilian to argue things like this.
Like I said, I don't think I can speak on issues like this with authority, but these patrols will not be able to do better unless the town is better secured - with more troops. Kandahar is not Baghdad, but perhaps this is not a bad time to refer to what worked in Baghdad. Instead of isolated bases...
With the amount of intel these guys have about Kandahar (see the Sarpoza incident as illustration), they might as well be stepping onto an other planet when going out on a patrol. It must be scary.

fnord said...

The problem here comes in the time-frame question, as well as in the logistics. If this was five years ago, or even three, I would be in total agreement with you because the locals had not yet soured on us, but in order to pursue a succesful COIN strategy now you would need a massive increase in manpower. And massive increase in manpower equals massive increase in logistic capacity, wich means massive increase in targets for the hostiles. MoonofAlabama did some math on this here: http://www.moonofalabama.org/2008/08/fuel-for-war-in.html

So I am waiting to see what the plan is to answer the Mujahedin resurgence. Because its not just Taleban anymore, now it seems to me that we are slowly activating a lot of the old tribal cells that so far have remained neutral/beligerent. Lots of Quwam-netwerks being pushed into action... (Did I spell that right?)

Péter MARTON said...

Indeed, a massive increase in manpower is what would be necessary, and the logistics issue is more than a bit of a hindrance - I just brought up the latter issue myself as well the other day.
The West doesn't have many options.
As to the concept of quwam or qawm (transliteration would mostly be dependent on dialect I think), I'll link here regarding the basics - there it is told much better than I ever could.
A basic interpretation of qawm could be that people draw on their most reliable contacts, their social survival web, when they can't survive on their own, in a turbulent environment. Therefore any major figure may draw others with him when his status is threatened.
Hell, it seems like even a petty local offical can add to insurgent numbers these days.
In a nutshell, that's the story of the neo-Taliban insurgency, Giustozzi is correct about that. Look up the grievances of those local tough (and smart) guys who were on the losing end in a given area after 2001, and that's how it started - just don't fail to add to this a fuming Taliban leadership willing to kick back plus Pakistan's geopolitical maneouvring, in the process of which the latter have long since lost full control, and that's the rest.