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Streetwise Professor

November 26, 2014

Obama: Preferring Micromanaging Failure to Delegating for Success

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

In a sign of the impending apocalypse, I am sorry to see Chuck Hagel depart as Secretary of Defense, because what it says about the prospects for combat operations in the Middle East, and military matters generally. I have been harshly critical of the man as being completely overmatched by the demands of the job. Alas, he was too competent and too assertive for Obama.

The initial story put forth by the administration was that this was planned, something that had been under discussion for some time. Which is patently bologna, given that the administration had no one waiting in the wings to stop into Hagel’s position: a planned transition would be much smoother than this, where the leading candidates are at pains to make clear that they have no interest. (More on this below. Compare this mess to the process of Holder’s resignation and the quick naming of a successor.)

In fact, the real reasons for Hagel’s axing are plainly obvious. He had questioned the coherence of the administration strategy in Syria. He has made statements about the dangers posed by ISIS that patently contradicted Obama’s “JV” characterization and the president’s desired softly-softly approach in Iraq and Syria. He agreed with the uniformed military and imposed a quarantine on service personnel returning from Ebola-stricken reasons. Brought into to oversee substantial budget cuts, he began to support the Pentagon’s position that the military was becoming dangerously underfunded.

In other words, he showed some spine, and pushed back against Obama and his coterie in the White House and the NSC in particular.

I am also quite sure that there is a near insurrection under way at the Pentagon, due to deep differences over the conduct of the campaign against ISIS and funding of the military. Obama wants to reassert control over the building.

Obama has now blown through three SecDefs. Two of those-Gates and Panetta-have blasted Obama for his micromanagement exercised through the White House/NSC staff. Hagel was supposedly similarly frustrated.

And indeed, the very limited nature of the campaign in Iraq and Syria provides compelling evidence of that. No serious military person would carry out this campaign in this way. There are no ground troops  to identify targets and call in air strikes. The number of sorties is laughably small, a small fraction of those mounted even during the relatively limited Serbian operation, let alone in Gulf Wars I and II. Hell, the shambolic Syrian air force is mounting more strikes than the US. (I have seen suggestions that the low number of strikes reflects the fact that the US military is overstretched. If this is true, the budgetary constraints have created a true crisis when a war ravaged Syrian military can operate at a more intense tempo.)

Obama has allegedly expressed frustration that the military has not come up with “creative solutions” to the challenges in Iraq and Syria. He has prevented them from implementing the techniques developed through long experience which have been deployed with great success ever since the campaigns in Europe in WWII, and which were perfected since the mid-1980s’ AirLand Battle concept was introduced. Apparently Obama cannot accept that military realities cannot be wished away to satisfy his personal opposition to the deployment of robust force, and particularly to the deployment of any combat personnel on the ground.

The miserly approach  to the application of force in Iraq and Syria is epitomized by what is occurring in the crucial city of Ramadi. It is a strategic location in Anbar, and ISIS, which already controlled about half of it, has launched an attack to capture the rest. Its assault has reached the government center. The town is at serious risk of falling.

Any ISIS concentration provides  the perfect opportunity to employ air power: this is what has happened at Kobani. But even though the US is only launching 20 or so strikes a day in theater, it can’t spare anything for Ramadi: it launched a single attack on a checkpoint on the outskirts of town while the center was under a serious assault. The embattled Iraqis are begging for air support, but it’s not forthcoming:

“The governorate building has been nearly cut off,” said a Baghdad security official in direct contact with the operations command for Anbar, the province where Ramadi lies. The official said that Islamic State forces had cut roads to the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division base to the west and the road to Habaniyya airbase to the east. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

. . . .

Local security forces and tribesmen initially succeeded in resisting the Islamic State’s newest advance, but commanders on the ground say a lack of continuous air support and reinforcements has made it impossible to hold that territory.

Ahmed Mishan al Dulaimi, a Ramadi police lieutenant, said that coalition airstrikes had been critical to stopping the Islamic State’s initial assault but that the strikes had stopped. “We were told (the aircraft) were occupied” with other fronts.

“If the coalition doesn’t continue targeting the nests of Daash, everything that we’re doing now will just be in vain,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.

For the want of a nail.

And now the Pentagon is leaderless. Ominously, the two leading candidates, Senator Jack Reed and former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy have withdrawn their names from consideration.

And is there any wonder? It is plain that Obama is hostile to and suspicious of the Pentagon. It is equally plain that those sentiments are repaid with interest. Who wants to be in the middle of that?

Moreover, it is abundantly clear that even though his micromanagement has been widely criticized, and that the results of this micromanagement have been nearly catastrophic, Obama is intent on maintaining a tight control over military operations and the budget, exercised through such lightweights as Ben Rhodes and Susan Rice: there are more munchkins in the White House (and the NSC) than there were in Oz. Hagel’s firing shows that Obama will brook no dissent. Only a cipher would be willing to work under these conditions. It is a sobering thought that Hagel wasn’t enough of a cipher to satisfy Obama.

The decline in talent at the upper echelons in an aging, lame duck administration is inevitable: Obama’s management of the Pentagon makes that decline even more pronounced. To think that we will pine for the likes of Chuck Hagel. My God.

Obama clearly prefers micromanaging failure to delegating for success. But perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps Obama believes that letting the military devise and implement a plan that would have a realistic chance of defeating ISIS will lead to other consequences that he considers worse than the current fiasco. I shudder at the thought.

 

 

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November 20, 2014

How Do You Know That Zero Hedge is a Russian Information Operation? Here’s How

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

I have frequently written that Zero Hedge has the MO of a Soviet agitprop operation, that it reliably peddles Russian propaganda: my first post on this, almost exactly three years ago, noted the parallels between Zero Hedge and Russia Today.

A few days ago ZH ran a post that illustrates perfectly how it spews Russian propaganda that slanders the United States and other enemies of Russia, such as Ukraine: “Ukraine Admits Its Gold Is Gone: “There Is Almost No Gold Left In The Central Bank Vault.”

The lurid post highlights a statement by the head of Ukraine’s Central Bank, to the effect that almost all the gold in Ukraine’s official reserve is gone. It states that this is news, a stunning revelation, which confirms a story that ZH reported a few weeks after the triumph of Maidan: that soon after Yanukovych fled, the gold had been spirited out of the country in the dead of night by airplane. It closes by stating the the disappearance of the gold occurred at the time that US State Department official Victoria Nuland was in Kiev. The implication is obvious. The US stole it:

In any event, now that the disappearance of Ukraine’s gold has been confirmed, perhaps it is time to refresh the “unconfirmed” story that a little after the current Ukraine regime took power the bulk of Ukraine’s gold was taken to the United States.

Wow. Quite a tale.

And one that overlooks crucial details. Most importantly, the Ukrainian CB’s “admission” of that the vaults are empty is not news. At all. A mere few days after Yanukovych fled, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenuk disclosed that the country’s gold reserves had been looted:

Speaking in parliament, Yatsenyuk said that the former government had left the country with $75bn of debts. “Over $20bn of gold reserve were embezzled. They took $37bn of loans that disappeared,” Yatsenyuk said. “Around $70bn was moved to offshore accounts from Ukraine’s financial system in the last three years,” he claimed. [Emphasis added.]

The US dispatched  FBI and Treasury investigators to assist Ukraine in an investigation.

Funny how ZH left out that history, which appeared in virtually every mainstream publication at the time, and made it seem for all the world like the Ukrainian Central Bank’s revelation hit the world like a thunderbolt, nine months after Yanukovych’s flight. That distortion of history makes it plain that the ZH story is not information, but an information operation.

Shortly after Yatsenuk disclosed the theft of the gold, stories started appearing on the web, first on a Russian website, claiming that the gold had been spirited out the country: including on ZH, which quoted the Russian web story. This obviously serves a Russian purpose: it presents a counter-narrative that blames the theft of the gold not on Yanukovych, or the Russians, but on the new Ukrainian government and the United States.

This is the classic Soviet/Russian agitprop MO that I noted 3 years ago. A story appears in an obscure publication, typically outside the US or Europe, where it has been planted by Soviet/Russian intelligence. It is then picked up by another, more widely read publication, in Europe or the West. Maybe it works its way through several additional media sources. It then gets disseminated more widely in the west, sometimes making it to prestige publications like the NYT.

In the era of the web, the information weapon needn’t make it that far. Getting into a widely-read web publication like Zero Hedge which is then linked by numerous other sources and tweeted widely ensures that the lie goes viral.

ZH is an important transmission belt moving the story from Russian propagandists/information warriors to western news consumers. It happens a lot. This is a particularly egregious example, but the transmission belt runs almost daily. ZH is as much a part of Putin’s information warfare as RT. If you follow closely enough, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.

So why does anyone take Zero Hedge seriously? And believe me, many do. Many people who should know better.

And what is the US’s counterstrategy? Marie Harf’s Twitter account. I say again: we are so screwed.

 

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November 17, 2014

Obama Draws Another Red Line–On Pluto

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:12 pm

Obama has identified a condition under which he would commit ground troops to fight ISIS: if ISIS gets a nuke.

The headline on the YouTube video is misleading. Read literally, it means that Obama has identified an ISIS nuke as a necessary condition for a commitment of US ground troops. He has instead stated a sufficient condition. There may be other sufficient conditions. Perhaps he would commit ground pounders if ISIS were to ally with space aliens whose ship landed in the Syrian desert. Or maybe if ISIS creates a zombie army. So an ISIS nuke isn’t necessary, exactly.

But it’s clear that Obama is making it plain that he would only contemplate ground troops under the most extreme circumstances. He has drawn a red line, without using the term. And learning from his Assad-uses-chemical-weapons red line blunder, he has drawn this one so far, far away that the probability it will be overstepped is vanishingly small, certainly in the two years remaining to Obama’s presidency. This red line might as well be on Pluto. Which is exactly Obama’s intent.

A reasonable interpretation of Obama’s remarks is that even though nukes are beyond the pale, chemical and biological weapons are not.

Note that the ground operation that Obama envisions is a commando raid to secure the weapon, rather than a persistent troop presence.

Further note the supercilious tone with which he delivers his statement. As if it as a nearly unbearable impertinence for someone even to broach this question.

There is a continuum of ways in which ground troops can be deployed. Obama’s scenario is about at one endpoint of that continuum. Moving close to the other endpoint, no one has seriously raised the possibility of deploying a force even remotely resembling what was on the ground in Iraq from 2003-2011. The deployments that Dempsey and Odierno and others have mooted are not far from Obama’s proposal, but would facilitate the two main pillars of American strategy, such as it is: an air campaign and relying on local troops to roll back ISIS. Ground controllers and special forces are tremendous force multipliers in an air campaign, especially when intelligence is hard to come by and avoidance of civilian casualties is vital and the battlefield is very complex. Moreover, the effectiveness of Iraqi and Kurdish troops would be greatly increased if US advisors were present at the front, at the battalion level and below. Training them in bases at the rear and then having US advisors wave goodbye as they send them off to get their asses kicked, again, is an exercise in futility. Every Iraqi battalion needs American officers embedded, and special forces should deploy with Iraqi troops at the point of the spear. These Americans can provide tactical guidance, buck up wavering Iraqis, collect intelligence, and facilitate coordination between ground units and between ground units and coalition air forces.

But no. Obama’s mulish insistence on no ground troops absent nukes/aliens/zombies substantially hampers the effectiveness of the limited resources he has grudgingly committed to the battle. He has imposed irrational limits on an already limited strategy and operational concept.

It would be reasonable to conclude that he wants to fail, because the constraints he has imposed make failure highly likely.

 

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November 1, 2014

Laying the Groundwork for the Next Phase of Putin’s Novorossiya Campaign: The Price of Pusillanimity

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:04 pm

Ukraine held successful, and remarkably pro-Western, elections last Sunday. The result was a rebuke to Putin, and provided further proof of the adage that you catch more flies with sugar than with gall. Tomorrow, the rump/puppet statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk will hold Soviet-style sham elections, which the Kremlin will duly recognize in violation of the Minsk Protocol signed in September.

Ominously, there are numerous reports of an escalation in the intensity of combat throughout eastern Ukraine (the cease-fire being something of a joke, of course). Further, there are reports of movements of large quantities of new Russian equipment, including SAMs (e.g., S-300s) and MLRS systems considerably more advanced than the scattershot Grads that have been used indiscriminately. There are also indications that the fractious and thuggish rebels are being replaced at key points by Russian regulars.

Something is building here. The timing likely reflects the conscription cycle that led to the faux withdrawal some weeks ago that gave faux hope to those in the west who saw what they desperately wanted to see. Moreover, the passivity of the West, and the distraction of Obama by ISIS (not that he was ever really engaged with Ukraine anyways) give Putin every confidence that another strike would be met with indignant blasts of hot wind from the west, and little else. His prize of Crimea (My precious! My precious! to Gollum-Putin: it’s basically all he has to show for his Herculean labors this year)  is also barely supportable now without access to supplies from the mainland, but will be all but isolated when the slender thread of waterborne transport is frozen shut in a few weeks. Putin needs to open the land routes through the Ukrainian mainland. This requires taking Mariupol, and then continuing to advance west to Kherson.

Russia has markedly increased the intensity of its aerial aggression against Nato countries (including Turkey, which is interesting) and Japan. (Over the summer it carried out mock nuclear strikes on Denmark (!!!) , like those simulated against Sweden and Poland in previous years.) It has bullied Finnish research vessels. (For someone who fulminates about the expansion of Nato, Putin is its best recruiting sergeant.)  It recently tested two nuclear missiles, a Bulava SLBM (which is apparently finally over its serious teething problems) and a Topol ICBM. Putin’s recent rantings in Valdai included sort-of veiled nuclear threats and warnings that “the bear isn’t asking anyone for permission.”

These are all warnings to the west to stand back and not even think about interfering when Putin mounts the next phase of his Novorossiya campaign, likely in the next 10 days-two weeks. These are the wages of the west’s feckless dithering for the past 9 months. This is the price of pusillanimity.

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October 24, 2014

The Madness of Tsar Vlad

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:22 pm

Today Putin appeared at the Valdai Discussion Forum, and gave a performance that raises serious doubts about his sanity.

He ranted against the west, and the US in particular:

“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbours, are groundless,” the former KGB spy declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.

Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.

“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes (on others) have exactly the opposite effect.”

He denied the US is a democracy, and expressed his befuddlement at the electoral college. (Note to Vlad: It’s worked for 225 years.) All that was missing was a rant about hanging chads. He accused the US of organizing a coup in Ukraine and supporting Islamic terrorists. He made not-so-veiled nuclear threats. And on and on and on.

My favorite was his statement that Occupy Wall Street was “choked in its cradle.” He’s just pissed that his influence op fizzled. (I remind you that The News Agency Formerly Known as Russia Today, AKA Putin’s Agitprop Network, was constantly hyping Occupy. As was his pilot fish-or is it more than that?-Zero Hedge.)

It was truly a bizarre performance, chock full with paranoia and resentment.

It follows soon after an interview by former FSB head Nikolai Petrushev that blamed the CIA for everything under the sun, most notably events in Ukraine, which he said was a coup by “self-described Nazis”(!). Fellow ex-KGB mouth breather (but hey, he did sport some bitchin’ flairs back in the 70s) Sergei Ivanov has made similar statements lately.

Thus the question (which I have posed before): is Putin genuinely mad, or is he, pace Machiavelli, “simulating madness at the right time.” Is he pissing purple, or chewing the scenery in an attempt to intimidate a feckless west, who could use his insanity as a justification for leaving hime a wide berth?

Although I don’t discount embellishment, I think he is unhinged at his core.

First, he is under tremendous pressure. Crimea was a bloodless triumph, but the follow on in the rest of Ukraine has turned into a bloody, expensive, and largely unsuccessful mess. Instead of sweeping to an easy victory that would net him all of Novorossiya and subject Ukraine to his control, he has had to fight a nasty campaign that has netted him only the blasted remnants of an already shambolic rump piece of Sovokistan, also known as the Donbas. He has earned the intense enmity of the vast bulk of the Ukrainian population. At best, by freezing the conflict he can prevent Ukraine from developing into a “normal” (i.e., westernized) country (something that horrifies Putin), but he cannot incorporate it into a New Russian Empire, except at ruinous cost.

What’s more, Russia’s already creaking economy is under tremendous stress. Part of that stress is due to the inexorable working of sanctions, which have deprived his cherished national champions of access to western capital, and his energy companies access to needed technology. A bigger part of that stress is attributable to a global growth slowdown that has caused oil prices to fall by about 20 percent. These economic stresses deprive him of the resources needed to underwrite his ambitions. Moreover, they create tremendous divisions and anger within the elite, thereby complicating his task as the chief balancer. If they go on long enough, they will create another front: popular anger, or at least resentment and a piercing of the perception of universal popularity.

Second, Putin comes by his paranoia and anti-US resentment honestly. It has been on display for years, too long and too often to be an act. It comes naturally to a KGB man, and was reinforced by relentless indoctrination in the service: read the Patrushev interview to see a rather comprehensive statement of this world view.

Third, dictators and autocrats almost inevitably succumb to madness and paranoia. They are surrounded by sycophants whose obsequiousness feeds a sense of omnipotence and omniscience. Cults of personality feed this sense even more. They rule by intimidation and fear, and hence hear no dissenting voices. There is no institutional check on their power. All of this means that there is no pushback on crazy, so craziness metastasizes.

Such a man is unlikely to be appeased, and difficult to deter. Reducing the dangers he poses requires chipping away at his capabilities, and confronting him with power that he cannot overcome.

Recently an (incredibly campy) art exhibition in Moscow compared Putin to Hercules. (Given Hercules’ goatish omnisexuality and Putin’s homophobia, this is rather amusing.) But I think another ancient parallel is likely to be more apt: Sampson. Putin is unlikely to go quietly into that dark night, and if he is doomed he is likely to try to bring down everything around his ears. The problem is that backing off will just create a vacuum that he will fill, and just defer the inevitable reckoning. It is unlikely that conflict with him can be avoided, because he will seek it out. How do you appease the paranoid?

As bad as the Middle East is, the real existential threat in the world right now is Putin. (Heaven forfend, but I actually agree with George Soros.) He has 4,500 nukes, and he knows how to use them.

That he’s mad, or at the very least wants to be viewed as being mad, makes that the most daunting challenge the United States and the West face. Given the Lilliputian leaderships in the US and Europe, that is not a comforting thought.

 

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October 23, 2014

Watch This If You Want to Understand Why We Are Where We Are in Iraq

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

As you might guess, I’m usually not a big Frontline fan, given its rather monotonous lefty line on most issues. But I have to take my hat off to Frontline’s Losing Iraq. It presents a very balanced retrospective on events beginning with the fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad in 2003. Given the divisiveness of the topic, this is quite an accomplishment.

It is, unsurprisingly, a depressing picture. The bulk of the program focuses on the Bush years, but the most damning parts address the Obama administration’s willful mishandling of a bad but improving situation.

There are few heroes here. Generals Keene and Petraeus come off quite well. Perhaps because they tell their own stories. Rumsfeld and Bremmer come off terribly, which is only accurate. The picture on Bush is very mixed. His misjudgments and mistakes are discussed in full, and there were many: the de-Baathification and disbanding of the Iraqi army stand out. Yes, these were mainly Rumsfeld moves, but Bush signed off. But he is given credit for his courageous decision to double down-or as Petraeus put it, go all in-on the Surge. This redeemed a seemingly hopeless situation, and created the possibility for a good outcome in Iraq. Good by Middle Eastern standards, anyways. Overall, Bush comes off flawed, but human and earnest, and dedicated to doing the best for the country, by his lights. One odd thing is that Colin Powell is completely absent: I don’t even recall his name being mentioned.

One fascinating part relates to Bush and Maliki. Maliki was the accidental leader of Iraq, dredged from obscurity by an administration desperate for an Iraqi face to lead a government so that America could cede control of the country to the locals. Maliki demonstrated some of the tendencies that would later contribute to the current catastrophe, but through a combination of carrots and sticks, and perhaps most importantly, Bush’s personal attention, he was nudged in a more constructive direction and did not indulge his worst sectarian impulses. He wasn’t great, but by the standards of the Middle East, he could have been a lot worse.

Everything changed once Obama assumed office. The most telling scene in the film is from Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeune a mere 4 weeks after assuming  office. Obama acknowledged that Iraq had become a passably peaceful place. But instead of understanding that this peace had been hard-won,  was incredibly fragile, and required continued American military and political engagement to sustain, Obama asserted that the conditions were now right for the US to withdraw. He treated the peace as an inheritance, an endowment, rather than a tender thing that required continued nurturing.

One could spend much time contemplating why he arrived at this conclusion. It was a convenient excuse for him to do what he wanted-to get shed of Iraq, like yesterday. Moreover, to conclude otherwise would have required him to acknowledge that Bush had been right about the Surge, but as we know, Obama reflexively believed-believes-that everything Bush did was wrong, and perhaps evil.

The documentary points out that everyone in the national security establishment opposed Obama’s decision. Everyone believed that it was imperative for the US to retain military force in the country. But Obama decided otherwise and overruled them all.

The chagrin of the military is vividly captured in the face of Robert Gates when Obama completed his remarks and walked over to shake Gates’s hand. Those on stage during a presidential speech, especially one delivered in triumphal tones, are usually smiling and happy. But Gates’s face was stern and tense. You know he hated  being there. You know he believed that Obama was making a tragic mistake. You also know that Obama made a point of seeking him out first to assert his authority, and to make plain to the world that the defense department and the military were going to salute and execute, even though they believed to a man that the policy was a disaster in the making.

The most damning part of Losing Iraq is the recapitulation of the failed attempt to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement with Maliki. Well, failed attempt is not the right phrase, for the documentary makes it clear that Obama had no intention of getting an agreement. He made a demand-that the Iraqi parliament vote to immunize American troops against prosecution-that he knew-knew-could not be met. He made an offer that Iraq had to refuse, which is exactly what Obama wanted, because he wanted out of Iraq, come what may. Iraq of course did refuse, and we are witnessing what has come.

The film quickly covers the aftermath of the American withdrawal. Left completely on his own, Maliki indulged his sectarian devils. He gutted  the Iraqi military by placing reliable Shia cronies in all major command posts: the objective was not creating an effective military force, but creating one that would not pose a coup threat. Most crucially, he cut off the Sunni tribes in Anbar, thereby undoing what Petraeus had achieved at such cost. Into that chaos, ISIS plunged, to its profit.

This is why we are where we are. Yes, the invasion of Iraq was a blunder of historic proportions. But after doing the typical American thing of doing the right thing after trying everything else, the situation was stabilized and showed some promise. But Obama threw it all way out of arrogance, pique, and ideological blindness.

Losing Iraq is painful watching, but it is necessary watching if you want to know why we are where we are, and why that is not a good place to be.

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The Cultural Context of the War on ISIS: Playing Whac-a-Flag in Kobane

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:49 pm

There is no better illustration of the wildly different cultural perspectives of the combatants in Kobane than what occurred today on a barren hill two miles from the city. The hill of Tel Shair, 2 miles from the town, has changed hands several times in the past weeks. In the morning, ISIS seized the hill from the Kurds. As soon as I read about it, I said to myself: The hill is barren and offers no cover, and is far from any civilians. ISIS might as well hold up huge “BOMB US” signs with arrows pointing to the top of the hill. There is no possible way that they could hold it. Once clear of Kurds, it was destined to be a bomb magnet.

And indeed, that was the case. A few hours after the seizure was reported, I saw a Vine video depicting events on the hill. An couple of ISIS fighters had just planted a flag on the summit, and were walking down the hill: the fact that they left the flag and were hotfooting down the hill  tells you they knew what was coming. And sure enough, when they were about halfway down the hill, two bombs explode. I swear, one hit the f*cking flag: a high explosive hole-in-one. The shot is so accurate that I suspect it was laser guided. Apropos what Norman Schwarzkopf said when describing a video of a precision strike during Gulf War I, the two guys survived, and hence were the luckiest men in Syria at that minute. (Here’s another, somewhat longer, video.)

And ISIS could not hold the hill. Predictably so. Within a few hours, the WSJ reported that the Kurds/FSA had retaken it.

To my eyes-western eyes-this illustrates the absurdity of the battle in Kobane. From an objectively-or perhaps materialistic is the better word-military perspective, it was idiotic for ISIS to expend one fighter to take the hill. They could never hold it in the face of an American bombing, and would just suffer more casualties if they tried. So what was the point?

But as one unidentified American official said in a WSJ article yesterday (or the day before), this is a war of flags. For ISIS, planting its flag is a victory, even if the banner gets blown to smithereens within minutes. It is the Arab equivalent of a Sioux counting coup on an adversary. The Arabs are an honor/shame culture, and the planting of the flag, as militarily pointless as it is to western eyes, confers honor on ISIS, and shames the Kurds and the Islamic Front from whom they seized the hill. I am sure that ISIS will be circulating videos of the planting, if they haven’t already. Stories of the deed will spread around the world, at the speed of Internet. To ISIS eyes, and the eyes of their acolytes, each of these flag raisings is as pregnant with meaning as Suribachi was to Americans of earlier generations.

John Keegan, in his History of Warfare, emphasizes that war is a cultural endeavor, that every war has its cultural context, and different cultures wage war differently and account for victory in different ways. Intercultural conflicts are often particularly chaotic, because each side miscalculates the effects of its actions on its enemy, and actions cause unexpected reactions.

Defeating ISIS requires us to understand their cultural frames. Such an understanding will help us predict what they will try to do, and to design counters. Such an understanding is necessary for us to know how the adversary defines defeat, which in turn is necessary for us to determine how to defeat it, for no victory is truly complete unless the enemy believes, in his own mind, that he is vanquished.

ISIS believes that it’s banners make it terrible. Or, perhaps, that its banners strike terror in its adversaries, because they know what happens under those flying flags.

Kobane has become a matter of honor to ISIS. The absurdity (to western eyes) of the events on Tel Shair demonstrate that. As I noted yesterday, we can use ISIS’s honor against it by making it pay a high price whenever it attempts to achieve honor by engaging in an open fight. But as I also noted, this approach has its limits.  Attrition limits ISIS’s capabilities, but does not defeat it psychologically.

The US needs to see things through ISIS’s eyes to determine how to defeat it. Perhaps the best way of doing so is to exploit the flip side of honor: shame. I can’t say that I know how to do that as I sit here, but that seems to be a more profitable “indirect approach” than playing whac-a-flag.

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October 22, 2014

A Lack of Strategy Makes Kobane Strategic For the US

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

There’s been some chin pulling about whether Kobane is strategic for the US. Methinks that some of this is encouraged by nudges from people in the administration, who really don’t want to be involved there.

Truth be told, it is strategic, but it isn’t. Paradoxically, it is strategic because of the lack of a US strategy.

That’s not quite right, exactly. Obama has a strategy to achieve an objective defined by what he wants to avoid, rather than what he wants to achieve. But he has to do something, so he has effectively fallen back onto the last refuge of the strategically bankrupt, or those lacking the capability (or unwilling to use the capability) to take the initiative and succeed: attrition. When a campaign is focused on body counts, it is likely to be strategically barren.

 

Famous battles of attrition throughout history (think Verdun) have been hideously costly to both sides. US airpower allows it, under certain circumstances, to attrit its enemy at virtually no risk of casualties. The problem is that those circumstances are largely under the control of the enemy. An enemy that disperses and burrows into urban terrain is relatively immune, although by doing so it can hold what it has but can’t take more.

What is remarkable about Kobane is that IS has eschewed those tactics, and has concentrated large numbers of men and equipment, thereby presenting a target to American airpower. Given the American attrition strategy, these concentrations have become a strategic objective by default. It’s in that sense that a lack of strategy beyond attrition makes Kobane strategic, but then only because for some unfathomable reason ISIS decided to expose itself there.

As this Max Boot article argues, using Khe Sanh as an example, this can inflict large losses and keep even an isolated position from falling. But it cannot inflict a real defeat on ISIS (although the morale and propaganda effects of a failure to take Kobane would inflict some damage on it).

There are concerns that going after Kobane is limiting American ability to influence the battle in other, more important locations, like Mosul and Anbar. But this must be a consequence of self-imposed limitations on the resources committed to the theater. To put things in comparison, the shambolic Syrian air force is mounting far more sorties in Syria than US forces are in Iraq and Syria combined. For Syria, this is an existential conflict and it is pulling out all the stops. For the US, this is a conflict entered grudgingly with many strings attached. Gulliver is tying himself down.

ISIS is apparently mounting attacks elsewhere. These provide additional opportunities for American airpower. Outside of Mosul in particular, the US can cooperate with a reasonably competent ground force. But none of this is likely to prove decisive. ISIS has the luxury of fighting and running away with little fear of aggressive pursuit or the loss of territory (much of it desert waste anyways) from troops following in the wake of their retreat. It continues to have the initiative.

So the likely outcome is stalemate. US airpower, working with available local ground forces, can contain ISIS, and inflict some serious casualties. But that’s about it.

Austin Bay’s verdict is about right:

The battle for the Syrian Kurd town of Khobane has emerged as an opportunity to deal the Islamic State a military and political defeat. Maximizing the opportunity, however, requires what has been most grievously missing from the struggle against the terrorists and their so-called caliphate: persuasive, coherent and steadfast American leadership.

Not happening. Not going to happen.

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October 19, 2014

Russian Truculence and a History of Russian Naval Mishaps Colliding in Swedish Waters?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:35 pm

Russia has been hyper-aggressive of late in probing the defenses of neighboring countries, including the US and Canada, mainly by aircraft. Sweden has been a frequent target as well.

Now Sweden may be the subject of another probe, this one from under the sea in the Stockholm Archipelago. Anomalous underwater activity was detected, as have been communications (some encrypted) from a point in the region to the Russian naval base at Kaliningrad. The comms purportedly include a distress call. A Russian tanker (under the Liberian flag with an English name, the Concord) has been circling suspiciously in the Baltic: some suspect it is the mother ship of a mini-sub. A Russian research ship, the Professor Lugachev, has suddenly set sail from Saint Petersburg.

Given history, and current events, the Occam’s Razor solution to this mystery is that a Russian sub, maybe a mini-sub, has run into trouble while probing Swedish waters.

The Russians, of course, deny everything:

A defence ministry spokesman in Moscow told reporters that the Russian navy’s submarines and surface ships were “performing tasks… according to plan”.

“There has been no irregular situation, let alone emergency situation, involving Russian navy vessels,” he said.

Again given history, the best thing to do is to assume the opposite is true. Consider the case of the Kursk:

In the days after the incident, the Navy and the government issued a blizzard of non-information, mis-information and dis-information.  At first, the Navy denied that anything was amiss, acknowledging a mere “technical difficulty.”  The government denied the problem for some time; it took two entire days to even admit that the ship “was in serious trouble,” and then lied about when the incident had occurred.  Indeed, the day after the sinking, the Navy commander told the press that the exercise had been flawless.  Yes: flawless.

They never used the word “sink.”  They claimed the entire crew was alive.  They claimed they were in communication with the crew, and that the ship was supplied with air and power from the surface.  The Navy excused its evident lack of preparation for a rescue by bewailing the weather conditions and strong currents, even though the weather was fine and the currents benign.  All complete and outrageous fabrications.

Enraged by the duplicity, at one Navy press conference, the mother of a Kursk officer, Nedezhda Tylik, launched into a screaming denunciation of official dishonesty.  In an event captured on film, a nurse was seen to move up behind Tylik, and inject her with a hypodermic needle.  Tylik collapsed and was taken from the room.  (A still photo is available here; I have not found the video online for free despite a diligent effort; there is a documentary that has the film that can be purchased here.)  She first claimed she had been sedated against her will, and the Navy said that it had indeed given her a sedative; in an Orwellian way, it acknowledged the “solicitous administration of needed tranquilizers.”

Then, remarkably, in the aftermath of a domestic and international outcry, the Navy denied that it had sedated her, and Tylik also recanted, claiming that she had only been given her heart medication at her husband’s request.  Yeah, sure.  Who you gonna believe?  Them or your lying eyes? (Tylik maintains this version in the documentary.  But why did neither she nor her husband make that statement initially?)

And how can we forget Russia’s dodgy naval safety record? I’ve often mocked how its carrier Kuznetsov, such as it is, never leaves home without a salvage tug bobbing along in its wake. The Russian naval curse even inflicts those dumb enough to buy its cast offs and then spend billions trying to fix them up. The Indians found this out to their cost when they bought the Admiral Gorshkov. Now the Chinese are having problems with the Liaoning, ex-VaryagNo biggie. Just that steam is flooding out of its boiler compartment. But it’s not a boiler explosion, apparently! So there’s that.

Given the combination of recent Russian truculence and the long record of Russian naval mishaps, the most likely explanation is that a Russian naval intelligence operation has come to ruin. Let’s hope that the crew survives-though given the track record one doubts that Putin and the Russian high command give a crap about that. Indeed, they would probably prefer that the crew die undiscovered than survive to be captured. Let’s also hope that the facts come out, and prove very embarrassing to VVP.

But one thing for sure: pay zero attention to what the Russians say about this. Well, that’s not right, exactly. Take what they say, and assume the exact opposite and you might be within visual range of the truth.

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Further My Last

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:26 pm

Following up on yesterday’s Victory Disease post, here are a couple of articles that reinforce my basic conclusion. The Bronk piece in CNN is particularly complementary in its discussion of ISIS’s error in switching tactics, and the Telegraph article provides very current information and detail about how just accurate and devastating US airpower can be.  And lest you think I am a victim of confirmation bias, I did look for contrary information, and couldn’t find anything from independent sources.

The Bronk article reinforces something I was thinking the other day. T. E. Lawrence and other British officers assigned to the Arab rebels during WWI despaired of making them conventional soldiers. Lawrence, per his telling in the grips of dysentery-induced delirium, conceived that their genius was as irregulars who utilized mobility to carry out a war of hit and run attacks on a relatively immobile Turkish army of dodgy morale. Keegan’s History of Warfare states that this form of warfare was the Arab way going back to the times of Mohammed. For the Arabs, there was no dishonor in retreat. Hit weaker forces at a vulnerable point, don’t engage in standup fights, and run when a superior force appears. Keegan draws on V. D. Hanson’s work to argue that the standup, face-to-face fight is a peculiarly Western way of war deriving from the Greeks.

ISIS is most formidable when it fights in the traditional Arab way. (Chechens were also historically guerrillas and raiders.) It does its opponents a favor when it fights the Western way. But it appears that Victory Disease has deluded its leaders into believing that they can ape a conventional Western army and win. That delusion could be a great favor.

 

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