Streetwise Professor

October 29, 2014

Did Putin Have the Hackers Insert Malware Popups Saying “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:54 pm

Although this has been rumored for weeks (due to the dogged reporting of Powerline), yesterday the White House admitted that hackers, likely Russian (I’m shocked! Shocked!), had compromised the (allegedly non-classified) computers of the Executive Office of the President.

Did Putin have the hackers insert malware that triggered a popup saying: “Who’s Your Daddy?”

But here’s the best part (and per usual, “best” means “worst”). We didn’t discover this ourselves. An “ally” informed us.

It would be so hilarious if the “ally” is Israel. (Germany would be a close second in hilarity.) It would also be so karmic.

But I guess this isn’t possible, because a confidential administration source said the information came from an ally, and we know what Obama, Kerry, etc. think of Israel, and “ally” isn’t the first word that trips off the tongue.

The hits just keep on coming, don’t they folks? But yes, by all means let’s hear some more lectures about how since “you didn’t build that” we need bigger government, delivered by the least competent administration ever.

 

Print Friendly

Who are you who are so wise in the ways of science?

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:23 pm

In his latest disquisition on Ebola, Obama plumbed new depths of incoherence. Which for him is saying something. He  responded specifically to questions about how to rationalize the military’s policy of quarantining returning servicemen and women from West Africa (though they don’t say the q-word), while adamantly opposing quarantining of civilians. He offered two justifications (I won’t call them “reasons”). The first was that civilians and military personnel have different levels of exposure due to the nature of their work in West Africa:

Well, the military is in a different situation, obviously, because they are, first of all, not treating patients.

So let me get this straight. People with more exposure to infected patients require fewer precautions upon their return. Rrrriiiiiggghhhttt.

The second reason is that the military works for him, so they just have to suck it:

Second of all, they are not there voluntarily.

It’s part of their mission that’s been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the commander in chief. So, we don’t expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for civilians. They are already, by definition, if they’re in the military, under more circumscribed conditions.

When we have volunteers who are taking time out from their families, from their loved ones and so forth to go over there because they have very particular expertise to tackle a very difficult job, we to want make sure that, when they come back, that we are prudent, that we are making sure that they are not at risk themselves or at risk of spreading the disease.

Last time I checked, military people were volunteers (and have been since 19-freaking-73), taking time out from their families and loved ones and so forth on extended deployments because they have very particular expertise to tackle difficult jobs. Oh, and in doing so, especially for the last 13 years, have done so in most of the earth’s hell holes at great personal risk.

But I guess they’re not doing God’s work, so they just need to embrace the suck.

If you ever wanted to understand Obama’s true feelings about the military in two paragraphs, now you have it. They start at scorn and go downhill from there.

Don’t think this won’t be noticed, all the way from E-1 to O-10. And there might be some O-11s spinning in their graves.

And of course, there was the obligatory condescending invocation of Science!, this from a guy who despite his resemblance to Urkel never struck me as a guy handy around the Bunsen Burner:

But we don’t want to do things that aren’t based on science and best practices, because, if we do, then we’re just putting another barrier on somebody who’s already doing really important work on our behalf. And that’s not something I think any of us should want to see happen.

And for a bonus Science! lecture, Jocylyn Elders emerged from obscurity to deliver it. (If you guessed “dead” in “dead or alive”, sorry: you lose).

These constant sneering references to Science!, clearly intended to intimidate the peasants into silence, are beyond insufferable. Because whenever Obama speaks about Science!, all I can think of is this:

 

Print Friendly

October 28, 2014

An American Space Disaster, With a Russian Connection

Filed under: Military,Politics,Snowden — The Professor @ 7:48 pm

An Antares spacecraft operated by Orbital Sciences and contracted to NASA to carry supplies to the International Space Station exploded on liftoff in Virginia. A failure for the American space program? Yes. But the major failure may be due to the fact that this craft, like most others operated by US companies, relies on Russian engines. Soviet engines, actually. I mean literally built in Soviet times. They have been refurbed, but Orbital Sciences was supposedly concerned about quality:

The NK-33 engine that powered Antares’ first flight was built decades ago by Russia’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau and is no longer in production. Further, Orbital is uncertain about the quality of Aerojet‘s remaining stockpile of 23 NK-33s, beyond those set aside for NASA’s CRS-1. Aerojet Rocketdyne is Orbital’s primary subcontractor and overhauls the old NK-33 engines into a configuration for Antares, dubbed AJ-26.

The fraught relationship with Russia, and Russian threats (uttered by Rogozin the Ridiculous, true) to cut off supplies of engines to the US has spurred efforts here to develop an American engine. Maybe NASA and the Pentagon should expedite those efforts.

Print Friendly

The Joint Chiefs Lay Down a Big Ebola Marker

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:43 pm

The uniformed military has laid down a major marker in the tussle over Ebola quarantines. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended a 21 day quarantine from all service personnel returning from West Africa:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that all troops returning from deployments in West Africa to combat the Ebola virus be quarantined for 21 days, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, delivered the service chiefs’ recommendation to follow the Army’s lead on the policy of 21 days of isolation, said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

On Monday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, ordered 21 days of isolation and “enhanced monitoring” for Army Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams and 11 other troops who were returning to Italy from leading the initial efforts by the military to contain the Ebola virus in Liberia.

The Army has already ordered a quarantine of its personnel, and Hagel has stated that he will not overrule that decision. Now he has to decide whether to order a quarantine policy for all services:

Kirby said Hagel “supports the decision the Army leadership made” while stressing that Hagel had yet to reach a decision on whether the 21-days isolation rule should apply to all services.

The Pentagon press secretary said there was no timeline for Hagel to make a decision but added that one was expected soon.

Given the administration’s  obvious and almost frenzied opposition to any quarantines or travel bans, this is a major repudiation of Obama policy and judgment. I suspect it reflects a judgment on the civilian leadership that transcends the Ebola issue.

For his part, Obama strode to the WH lawn to tell us that quarantines and travel bans were bad because, Science! And because health workers were doing God’s work. Well, doing God’s work is not incompatible with taking prudent precautions to prevent said workers from infecting God’s children. Quite consistent with it in fact.

Meanwhile we learned some suspiciously suppressed facts about Quarantines are Bad poster nurse Kacia Hickox. Some very interesting facts. Such as that she worked/works for the CDC. And that she was miraculously able to retain a high-powered civil rights attorney almost immediately after being quarantined, and that this said attorney is connected to the White House. There are no coincidences, comrades.

Hickox raised alarms in my mind with her stridency and sense of entitlement, and failure to even acknowledge that as a public health worker, there might be a public health case, rather than a Kacia Hickox case, for quarantining her. How warranted those concerns were. So if you are wondering what Ebola Czar Ron “Flounder” Klain has been doing out of the public eye, wonder no longer.

Back to the JCS. Now Hagel is well and truly between a rock and a hard place. The uniformed military is almost certainly livid over the way the campaign against ISIS is being waged, and the events over the past several years that have led up to it. To have Hagel cave on Ebola to pressure from Obama would only stoke  that anger. Obama has done serious damage to many institutions in this country. Civil-military relations could be yet another.

Print Friendly

Gunvor Cutting Back in Russia: Jumping or Pushed?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 am

Gunvor announced plans to sell assets in Russia:

Oil trading house Gunvor is seeking to cut exposure to Russia by selling assets in the country which had long been one the main generators of its growth and profit before the United States imposed sanctions on its co-founder.

. . . .

Now the company, led by the veteran Swedish oil trader, is looking to rebalance its asset portfolio and divest a significant part of business in Russia to acquire new assets in Europe, the United States, Asia and South America.

“Since a significant portion of our investments are in Russia, over time Gunvor will be looking to sell selectively part of those assets. We do not expect this will have any impact on our existing trading activities in Russia,” the company said on Sunday.

I am somewhat amused by the statement that the company “expect this will have any impact on our existing trading activities in Russia,” because it is well known that it has been cutting back on these activities for some time.

Some obvious explanations include a genuine desire to rebalance its asset portfolio, a need for cash due to persistent suspicions about the company leading to constraints on its ability to access the credit markets, and a desire to put paid to those suspicions by cutting back exposure to Russia.

Knowing the way Russia works, I would advance another hypothesis for Gunvor’s actions. It has been told to sell out, because someone covets those assets, and because after Timchenko’s departure (and Putin’s being cashed out?) the company has lost its krysha. Russia is the country of “nice little port you have here. It’d be a shame if something happened to it. Or to you.” When you have something that somebody important wants, you’d better say da! and accept the price offered without complaint. Just ask Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

One of the assets that Gunvor is selling is its stake in the port in Novorossiisk. Wouldn’t you know who expressed an interest in acquiring a stake in the the port there? Yeah. Igor. And Rosneft has oil trading ambitions, and the Ust-Luga port on the Baltic could fit quite nicely into that.

So keep an eye on who buys. Given that this is hardly a peachy time to sell assets in Russia, given the country’s growing economic isolation and the fear of further sanctions, Gunvor’s announcement is quite telling. The buyer is likely to be Russian, and the set of possible buyers is quite limited, which means that Gunvor is not likely to get top dollar for these assets. If Rosneft or another national champion with close connections to Putin ends up being the buyer, my suspicions that Gunvor was pushed out of Russia will be largely confirmed.

Someone at Gunvor told the FT that Russia was “Gunvor’s heritage, not its future.” That’s definitely true. The only question is why. I strongly suspect this is not totally voluntary, and to the extent that it is, it reflects Gunvor’s judgment that the legal and economic and political risks of operating in Russia are no longer worth the candle.

Print Friendly

October 27, 2014

Who You Gonna Believe? Dr. Barry or the US Army?

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 5:43 pm

From day 1 of the Ebola episode in Dallas, the administration has been adamantly opposed to travel bans and quarantines, especially of health care workers who have been to West Africa. When New York and New Jersey implemented quarantines, the administration leaned on governors Cuomo and Christie very hard: Cuomo relented considerably. The administration argues that imposing restrictions on returnees from the Ebola-stricken region will impede efforts to control the outbreak there.

I’ve expressed skepticism about those arguments, but if you don’t give me any credence, what about the US Army?:

The U.S. general appointed to oversee America’s fight against Ebola in West Africa has been quarantined in Italy with at least 10 other Americans upon returning from the disease-stricken continent.

Major General Darryl A. Williams, who was appointed head of the U.S. command center in Liberia that coordinates the response to Ebola, was isolated along with several other Americans over the weekend, CNN reports.

The General’s “plane was met on the ground by Italian authorities ‘in full CDC gear,’” a U.S. official was quoted as telling CNN.

Williams and the others will now be monitored for 21 days at a U.S. military compound in Italy, according to the report.

To steal a phrase, the US military is pretty much the ultimate reality-based community–except when political pressure gets too hard to bear. But in most matters of life and death involving its areas of competence, the military doesn’t bend to political fashions, especially progressive ones. It balances risk and reward, based on its best understanding of the facts (which is often imperfect, admittedly) and decides accordingly.

So for the Army to decide, in the face of the obvious potential for fierce disagreement with the administration, that quarantine is the right thing to do, you can be pretty sure that decision is the result of a sober appraisal of the situation. Indeed, the willingness to buck administration preferences gives you an indication of the strength of the Army’s convictions.

The US military has always been more serious and squared away and apolitical with regards to biological and chemical threats. It should be assigned primary responsibility in dealing with the situation in the US too, but turf wars have ruled that out. (Hot Zone describes the turf fights between CDC and the Army during the Clinton administration during an episode involving infected monkeys in Virginia.)

The Army action is basically calling bull on the administration’s frantic anti-quarantine position. Between Dr. Barry and the US Army, I know whom I trust more.

That said, there are smart ways of doing a quarantine, and dumb ways. The measures initially adopted by New York and New Jersey seem to be  ham-fisted. The quarantined nurse in NJ has something of a legitimate beef (mixing meat metaphors!), although her claims that quarantines are totally unnecessary for returning health care workers comes off as entitled and clueless, especially given the infections of health care workers here in the US and Europe, and the large numbers of deaths among such workers in Africa. One would think that someone who is  selfless enough to risk contracting the disease in Africa would be willing to take prudent precautions to prevent it from spreading at home.

The Army way seems to be the right way. A special facility, outside the US, where those working in the afflicted region are quarantined  in a comfortable, secure facility before returning to the US.

@libertylynx pointed out to me that quarantine can be a financial burden and family hardship on aid workers, many of whom are missionaries without substantial financial resources. That problem is easily solved, as it involves only money, and not a lot at that. There is a way of balancing the need to attract people to West Africa to fight the disease, and limiting the possibility that they can spread the virus back to the states on their return.

Put differently, the cost of compensating the workers for the burdens of a quarantine pales in comparison with the cost of dealing with an outbreak in the US. Even if the probability that  returnee would spread the virus is small, given the huge cost of a US outbreak and the huge benefit of attracting workers to fight the disease the affected region, it is cheap at twice the price (or much more) to compensate them for the time and hardship a quarantine imposes. Pace Adam Smith: compensating differentials in action.

That said, the Army’s action speaks many volumes. It is saying that from a medical perspective, quarantine is a prudent measure. If the administration is concerned about deterring the travel of needed workers to Africa, the costs of that prudence can be easily paid. Rather than stubbornly fighting quarantines and travel bans, the administration should focus its efforts on designing and getting passed financial compensation measures that balance risk and reward.

Print Friendly

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.

 

Print Friendly

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.

Print Friendly

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.

Print Friendly

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.

Print Friendly

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress