Archive for the ‘Perspectival Culture and COIN’ Category

Afghan Noir: review of Michael Hastings’ “The Operators” in The Daily

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Opinion: Afghan noir

Atmospherics stand in for solid reporting on America’s effort to stop the insurgency

By Ann Marlowe Sunday, January 8, 2012

“The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan”
by Michael Hastings
Blue Rider Press, $14.99

Selfishly, I wish “The Operators” were a better book. Though we come from different places in the political spectrum, Michael Hastings shares many of my views on Afghanistan and has the notoriety to bring them to a wide audience.

Was the surge a mistake, increasing levels of violence? Yes. Has the American effort to train the Afghan army and police been an unbelievably expensive boondoggle? Check. Did the American military’s toleration of thugs like Ahmed Wali Karzai and Border Police Gen. Raziq help fuel the insurgency? Yes. Was former commanding Gen. David Petraeus more concerned with managing perceptions than reality? Check. Was his predecessor Stanley McChrystal an amoral mediocrity in way over his head? We agree there too.

Furthermore, Hastings has the guts to let the chips fall where they may — as he did in the June 2010 Rolling Stone profile of then-commanding general McChrystal that quickly led to his firing.

But “The Operators” is a mess. Someone came up with the bad idea of having Hastings interlard an expanded version of the McChrystal material with a potted history of the Obama administration’s deliberations on the Afghan war. This was made worse by putting the McChrystal sections in the past tense and the history in the present tense — a stale device often advocated by bad editors to bring “immediacy” to dull narratives. The end result is likely to confuse anyone whose bread and butter isn’t Afghan policy — and even they won’t learn anything here.

It would be reasonable to buy “The Operators” for more of the juicy details that made Hastings’s Rolling Stone piece so compelling. Though there’s a lot more verbiage in this 379-page book — Hastings says he taped 20-plus hours of interviews with McChrystal and his team — the nuggets are lacking. Hastings gives us details we don’t need — how the computers were set up in a command post in a hotel, a meeting with a terribly boring hotel hooker-spy, even that he was third off the plane landing in Kabul — in place of those that might have enlivened his characters. As in the Rolling Stone profile, McChrystal himself remains a shadowy figure, as the legendary special-forces operator doubtless intended.

The book’s silly subtitle — “The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” — isn’t Hastings’s fault. But anyone who is really interested in the Obama White House debate on the war will have read Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s War,” and Hastings’ two dozen or so interviews don’t offer any new insights. Hastings strings together others’ reporting — and seems to take it all as gospel, even after correctly condemning the mainstream media’s uncritical acceptance of the military’s views — for want of having logged much time in Afghanistan himself. He might have interviewed the very knowledgeable experts at the Afghanistan Analysts Network and International Crisis Group instead.

Ironically, Hastings is guilty of the same disdain for the facts as the war boosters he justly skewers. Where they wave away statistical measures that suggest more U.S. troops cause more violence, Hastings would rather write off the whole Afghan war as a bad trip than try to explain why some tactics work and some don’t, why some parts of Afghanistan are doing well and others are horrific.

Hastings’ tone edges unhelpfully toward the hysterical when he discusses Afghanistan — he repeatedly mentions his security detail, which will only make experienced visitors smirk, and he speaks of his last trip in the fall of 2009 as one of “extreme violence.” Witnessing the aftermath of a suicide attack on an American base and being present in Kabul when a suicide attack occurs on the Ministry of Culture isn’t actually so extraordinary for a month in a war zone. “Extreme violence” is more rhetoric than accurate observation.

Hastings doesn’t specify the American base where the suicide bombing took place, but he should. It was in a district in Khost Province; I recognized the name of an officer he mentions, because I was embedded in the same district around the same time. Nor does he explain the specific reasons this suicide bombing took place — mainly because the commanders of the 101st Airborne and of the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team made bad decisions and undid much of the good work of their predecessors. They mismanaged tribal politics, and despite some very brave Afghan leaders who died for their pains, Khost has never really recovered.

Hastings also makes confidence-diminishing mistakes. The January 2008 Taliban assault on the Serena Hotel he discusses killed six people, not two, as he claims, and he seems not to know that one was an American, Thor Hesla. This assault, also, didn’t just happen because Afghanistan is a randomly dangerous place. It may have occurred because the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was stupid enough to publish the fact that their foreign minister was staying there. WikiLeaks even suggests that the International Security Assistance Force knew months in advance that plans for an attack were in the works.

Hastings spent a short embed at what he — and no one else — calls “the Kandahar Airfield.” But he somehow messes up his description of the most famous landmark at KAF (as everyone else refers to the base). The Boardwalk isn’t a “pavilion” but a huge, four-sided wooden deck surrounded on its perimeter by stores and restaurants. McChrystal ticked off a lot of soldiers by threatening to close the fast food outlets on the boardwalk — something worth exploring because it suggests an indifference to the needs and pleasures of the lower enlisted ranks. For the reporter who ended the general’s career, Hastings hasn’t dug very deep on McChrystal. I heard that he was just as callous in Iraq, where he wanted to remove TVs from the dining facilities at U.S. bases — never mind that for those without computers or Internet access, TV was the only way for them to get the news. And since we may not have seen the last of McChrystal in the public world — he waltzed right into a Yale teaching job and corporate board memberships — it would be fair to look harder.

This could have been a much better book. Hastings can write, he’s smart and he’s not afraid to stick his neck out. But there is no substitute for spending time on the ground and getting the facts. Hastings advances various good explanations for the press’s failure to “write honestly about people in power,” but he forgets one: They’re lazy. If you’re going to call the military on their facts, you have to know the material better than they do. Most journalists would rather hang out with each other than immerse themselves in whatever country they’re supposed to be covering. Hastings seems to know better than this. But he would rather cloak the war in hipster noir than detail what went wrong. Like American commanders in Afghanistan, he is punching below his weight.

Native Son: How could David Galula have so misunderstood the Berbers?

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Native Son

A Tunisia-born Jew and French officer who fought the Berbers in Algeria pioneered the counterinsurgency warfare still used in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Ann Marlowe|January 5, 2012 7:00 AM

David Galula, a Tunisia-born Jew and French military officer who has been dead more than 40 years, was the greatest single influence on American counterinsurgency practice in Iraq and Afghanistan after Gen. David Petraeus. The idea that winning the population’s loyalty, not winning territory, is the key to quelling an insurgency has roots dating back 200 years to the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, but Galula was the conduit through which the U.S. Army learned it. The notion of active patrolling of hostile cities, of dispersing U.S. forces in small groups rather than stationing them on large bases, the insistence on getting to know the local culture—all these are Galula’s ideas.

His precepts, developed from his two years as a company commander in Algeria between 1956 and 1958, became American doctrine through two books. The authors of the U.S. Army counterinsurgency field manual [1] FM 3-24, of whom the most famous is Petraeus, cite one: “Of the many books that were influential in the writing of Field Manual 3-24, perhaps none was as important as David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare.” But Galula’s other book [2], Pacification in Algeria, written for the RAND Corporation in 1962 and classified until 2005, is the more useful book for the soldier and the more interesting for the military historian.

Pacification gives a nearly week-by-week account of how Galula implemented his theories in a tiny, mountainous area of Algeria’s Kabyle region. The Kabyle is 100 percent Berber, to use the old word—or Amazigh, to use the word Berbers call themselves—and it was a hotbed of the insurgency. Galula admits that the two officers who followed him in command were both quickly killed by the insurgents. Yet he suggests that his ideas were taken up by French generals and resulted in tactical successes in the Algerian war. Of course, France lost that war, but in Pacification Galula emphasizes, correctly, that the Algerian revolutionaries had largely been defeated when Charles de Gaulle decided for political reasons to give Algeria its independence. Given Galula’s importance in recent years, it was only a matter of time before someone would try to revisit the historical record and assess his actual achievements.

Galula in Algeria [3], by Grégor Mathias, takes a deep dive in the French military archives to examine, almost day by day and village by village, what Galula accomplished and how his area fared after he left. (It is such a deep dive that only military historians will want to join in.) Unfortunately, the book is marred by what may have been unclear syntax in the French original, which I haven’t seen, and a sloppy translation. The reader’s confidence is undermined by small errors throughout (“it was to Galula to conduct counterpropaganda,” reads one). In the crucial “Conclusions” chapter, there are sentences that make no sense: “The main criticisms of Galula’s tactics, having never been compared against the archival record and are more focused on the simplicity of its methods with respect to other, more elaborate French counterinsurgency doctrine thinkers.”

Sadly, Mathias is also cavalier with extrapolations from material I know well. He frequently cites a magazine article I published on Galula and my biographical study [4] of Galula for the Army War College, but he loosely interprets and re-transmits the details. To take one case, where I wrote that Galula “apparently met” Samuel Griffith, a translator of Mao: Mathias has “Galula knew Griffith well.” This does not inspire confidence in his use of other sources.

As to the larger points—Was Galula effective? Did he report his results accurately?—Mathias finds that Galula was just as likely to gloss over his failures and trumpet successes as most of the rest of us. He also convincingly suggests that despite some military successes and an impressive decrease in violence, Galula never eradicated the political substructure of the insurgency in his area.

I would suggest that Galula’s inconclusive results stem from an obvious error that the French officer made that neither I nor Mathias noticed. I understand it now because I recently spent a lot of time among Berbers in Libya, where tensions with the Arab majority are similar to those in Algeria. Put simply, the Kabyles don’t like the Arabs very much—and the best way to get them to go over to the French side might have been to capitalize on the ethnic, religious, and linguistic tension between the two groups.

Galula, along with every French commander in Algeria I’ve read about, missed the elephant in the room: If the French had been able to drive a wedge between the roughly 30 percent of Algerians who are Berbers and the Arab majority, they might have stopped the insurgency in its tracks. The potential of this idea is confirmed by the fact that the newly independent Algeria quickly set about oppressing its Kabyle citizens. One of the first acts of the new Algerian government was eliminating Berber studies at Algiers University in 1962. It was forbidden to name children traditional Tamazight names, and the Berber radio station was limited to four hours of broadcasting daily. In a country 30 percent Berber, the study of the Berber language was banned [5] at the national university.

While the Kabyle produced a disproportional number of revolutionary leaders—and casualties—many were marginalized or slain by the Arabs in the 1960s. Meanwhile, the Algerian government built mosques throughout the Kabyle in towns that had never had them, including some that were and are Christian. This campaign was so unpopular that some Kabyle separatist leaders, like the exiled Ferhat Mehenni, openly support [6] recognizing Israel.

Continue reading: Born and bred in North Africa [7]

The “Berber Spring” of 1980, which culminated in a bloody government crackdown, was the point of no return for the Kabyle. In 1994 and ’95, 10 million Kabyles kept their children out of school to protest the Arab-only curriculum. Since 1981, autonomy or even independence for the Kabyle has been a popular, if not successful, cause.

There are at least three obvious points of tension between North African Berbers/Amazigh and Arabs. The first is over the historical fact of the Arab conquest. Every Berber I have met has told me that Amazigh were the original inhabitants of North Africa and that all of that land was once theirs. As one Libyan Amazigh told me, “I’m tired of hearing about the Palestinians and how the Jews took their land. What about how the Arabs took our land?”

There is also the fact that the official language of all the North African countries is Arabic—yet in Morocco 60 percent of the population are Tamazight or Berber-speaking, in Algeria 30 percent, and in Libya perhaps 10 percent. In most of North Africa, the Arabophone majority has suppressed or (in the case of Qaddafi’s Libya) outright prohibited the use of Tamazight, a language that is estimated to be anywhere from 2,200 to 3,000 years old; its tiffinagh script has more than 30 letters, differing somewhat from region to region, and some of them look like ancient Greek.

The third clear point of conflict is religious. Many Amazigh are at pains to distinguish between their moderate Islam and the intolerance sometimes found among their Arab neighbors. This Galula recognized [8] in Pacification:

Of all the people of North Africa, they are the least influenced by Islam. They do observe the main religious rites such as the annual month-long fast, but not in a rigid way. The local Moslem priest has little moral or temporal authority.

Almost all Berbers will readily acknowledge that their ancestors were either Christian or Jewish before they became Muslim. Galula hints at this in a footnote, “St. Augustin was a Kabyle. Kabylia was Christianized before the Arab invasion.”

The French should have pressed hard on all three points of tension. They should have told the Berbers that they would be trampled in a new, professedly Arab and Muslim state, as in fact happened. They should have encouraged identity politics to alarm the Arab Algerians. They should have told the Berbers that the Arabs were fundamentalists and told the Arabs that the Berbers were secularists, both of which are exaggerations with a strong kernel of truth. (Even today the Kabyles accuse [9] the Algerian military dictatorship of covertly supporting jihadi groups within the country while simultaneously telling the West that dictatorship is necessary to keep a lid on al-Qaida.)

Furthermore, Galula had an advantage over most of the other French field commanders in having been born and bred in North Africa. How could he have ignored the ethnic composition of the country in which he was fighting a fierce and protracted counterinsurgency campaign? In part, I would chalk it up to the tendency of French governments to downplay regional differences, to standardize language, and to cultivate a national, secular identity. France had fought a centuries-long battle to eradicate the use of regional dialects—a battle won only around the time of World War I.

Galula himself was not primed to value minority cultures or encourage cultural balkanization. He was an assimilated Jew whose family had embraced the possibilities of metropolitan France and its dominant secular culture. And he grew up in a time of growing anti-Semitism, when Judaism was best kept quiet. What is particularly ironic, and sad, is that Galula was also more or less a Berber himself by ancestry, a fact that he also did his best to efface.


David Galula was born in Sfax, Tunisia, to a Jewish family that claimed to be original to North Africa. One of Galula’s paternal first cousins, Magda Galula, told me that the family was from a town called Galula near the Libyan border, whose residents converted to Judaism 2,000 years ago. In other words, the Galulas were Berbers, or possibly a mix of Roman and Berber blood. They could have been nothing else if they were indigenous to North Africa.

But the Galula family had begun their emergence from centuries of traditional life in David’s grandfather’s time. Galula’s grandfather had been the doyen of the Jewish community of Sfax, and while his family spoke Judeo-Arabic rather than French at home, he sent his sons to French lycées, rather than the traditional Jewish schools common at the time. Galula’s father went out of his way to register David as a French citizen in 1924, when he was 5.

During Galula’s adolescence, anti-Semitism gained force in North Africa as in Europe. It was a time to keep one’s Judaism discreet. There were anti-Jewish riots in Sfax in 1932 and a pogrom that killed 23 Jews in Constantine, Algeria, in 1934. Galula went to the small, insular French military academy at Saint-Cyr, half of whose cadets were themselves the sons of officers, not exactly a philo-Semitic group just a generation after Dreyfus. Shortly after he graduated in 1939 all Jews were expelled from the French officer corps by the Vichy government. Later, Galula ignored his mother’s plan to arrange a marriage with a rich, attractive Jewish girl and married a Christian American he fell in love with while they were both working in China.

Re-reading Pacification in Algeria with Berber identity in mind, Galula’s willful blindness leaps out:

The Kabyles are aborigines belonging to the same Berber stock as the Schleuhs in Morocco.

They have their own language, quite different from Arabic, but it is only a spoken one, for they never developed a writing system.

How could Galula not know that the Berbers had a written language? His home town of Sfax is the nearest big city to Djerba, which is Berber, and to the Libyan coast inhabited by Berbers. (There was of course no “Libya” when Galula was a child.) Galula spent his teenage years in Morocco, a majority Berber country that has been the first to encourage a revival of the written language. Galula repeatedly refers to the Kabyles as illiterate: It is possible that the Kabyles he met had lost their ancient script, but it is also possible that they were literate in Tamazight—the written language Galula seemed to think didn’t exist.

Galula’s attitude toward the Kabyle whose loyalty he was trying to win was ambivalent: contempt leavened with grudging admiration for some features of the culture:

In spite of some intermarriage with Arabs, they have generally retained their distinct physical and intellectual features. Kabyles have a primitive yet definite talent for organizing, which puts them far above the Arabs in this respect. They have also an amazing sense of dialectic, which often put to shame some of my young officers when they thought they could press a fuzzy propaganda line on the villagers.

Perhaps, like the minority group Galula was a part of—the Jews—the Kabyles had had plenty of practice in arguing for their dignity and their rights. But perhaps because Galula was not given to emphasizing his Jewishness, he did not get the Kabyles’ passionate sense of their own identity.

The French blindness to Kabyle identity was tragic. It is arguable that the Algerian revolution worked out badly for all of Algeria, but still more so for the Kabyle. Meanwhile, Galula spun a brilliant theory that resonates with military strategists to this day—yet he ignored obvious facts about his particular area of operations that he was uniquely equipped to exploit, had he been open to seeing them plain. The lesson of Galula and the French in the Kabyle may be: Whatever a leader or a nation tries hardest to suppress in itself is likely to rise up and defeat it. It is too soon to diagnose the parallel issues for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are surely there.

Afghanistan: America’s War of Perception (from Policy Review)

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

In the days before he was forced into retirement by scandal, General Stanley McChrystal was fond of referring to the Afghan theater he commanded as a “war of perceptions.” In February he spoke to the Washington Post:

“This is all a war of perceptions,” McChrystal said on the eve of the Marja offensive. “This is all in the minds of the participants. Part of what we’ve had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this.”

McChrystal’s phrase — which, we will see, is a superficial interpretation of counterinsurgency theory — aligns regrettably well with the zeitgeist, particularly with what I will call “perspectival culture.”

Counterinsurgency theory, or coin, represents the extension to warfare of the same validation of the “eye of the beholder” that has characterized the arts and even aspects of the social sciences in the 20th century. This shift marks a departure from and constitutes a critique of an older, classical understanding of what it means to win or lose a battle or a war — indeed, about the nature of reality itself as externally given and immutable fact, as opposed to a social construction built of competing and shared “perceptions.” Although the critique has ample merit, as we shall see, it also poses underappreciated difficulties of its own.

I will argue that perspectival culture is so dominant today that it has led to a nearly uncritical embrace of “perception” as the heart of coin theory. The essential problem of coin theory, at least in its crude form (such as General McChrystal voices it), is its nonfalsifiability, the impossibility of phrasing it in ways which can be tested and disproved.
The dominance of perspectival culture has led to a nearly uncritical embrace of “perception” as the heart of COIN theory.

When scientists evaluate a new medicine, they want to see if it is better than a placebo at treating a disease. They test it accordingly, and the scientific community agrees that medications that don’t work aren’t brought to market. But coin advocates insist that perception, in this case the perception of the local population in a conflict area, is ultimately determinative of the success or failure of U.S. military operations. If bribing the villagers and spending billions on dubious training programs fails to produce security, coin advocates answer that we need more troops and money. They will not admit the possibility that the medicine does not work. And nonfalsifiable is a very dangerous thing for a military theory to be.

I have argued elsewhere that our strategy in Afghanistan is far from sound, indeed far from a strategy; that we are neglecting the political factors and following a “strategy of tactics” that will inexorably lead to an unnecessary, self-inflicted defeat. I have also argued that the American civilian and military leadership has been unfortunately reluctant to test our strategy by available metrics, insisting instead that we have not had enough time, or enough troops, to make it work. The understanding of counterinsurgency in the “war of perceptions” is a far cry from the unglamorous, common-sense measures that are recommended in the classic works by David Galula, Roger Trinquier, and Sir Robert Thompson that underlie the Counterinsurgency Field Manual supervised by General David Petraeus, “ fm 3–24.”

Or consider this excerpt from General Eisenhower’s 1945 manual, “Combating the Guerilla”:

The most effective means of defeating guerrilla activity is to cut them off physically and morally from the local inhabitants. While stern measures, such as curfew, prohibition of assembly, limitations of movement, heavy fines, forced labor, and the taking of hostages, may be necessary in the face of a hostile population, these measure must be applied so as to induce the local inhabitants to work with the occupying forces. A means of bringing home to the inhabitants the desirability of cooperating with the forces of occupation against the guerrillas is the imposition of restrictions on movement and assembly and instituting search operations with the area affected.

Counterinsurgency operations, like any other military activity, should be judged on their merits. And counterinsurgency has worked in some times and places, though not under conditions acceptable to the current American population (Algeria, the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, the Sri Lankan struggle against the ltte). Even during our own Civil War and Reconstruction, federal commanders treated American citizens with harsh measures that would never have passed muster in Iraq in 2006. In 1868, an Army commander took Ku Klux Klan sympathizers hostage to prevent an assault on Augusta, Georgia. In 1863, Northern troops forcibly resettled relatives of the insurgents in Missouri who were attacking towns in Kansas.

There are ways of measuring whether counterinsurgency operations are working, besides the elusive perceptions of the population. Economists look at the price of transportation, travel data, crop prices, and other variables to try to devise objective measures of effectiveness. They also look at simple measures of violence like ied attacks and assassinations. The problem is that many in the top leadership don’t seem to be interested in what these metrics tell them. The coarse “war of perceptions” gloss on contemporary coin theory encourages a lack of interest in metrics and an emphasis on rhetoric instead.

The metrics of the Afghan war continue to deteriorate under the banner of coin, and yet Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, has recently assured the American public that our strategy is basically sound. While Petraeus is a very capable general who understands the difficulty and subtleties of counterinsurgency as McChrystal did not, he too appears to be trapped in a conceptual dead end.

Understanding the intellectual history and context of coin helps to turn it from an article of faith to the mere doctrine it is, so that it can be criticized, improved, amended, or abandoned as needed. We are, after all, in Afghanistan to win, not to serve a theory.

For the rest of the article, please see: