Archive for ‘War’ Category

My first “real” job involved creating a Latin American Studies program for US military and civilian intelligence officers at a military post-graduate institution. One of the factors that contributed to my being hired was that I had familiarity with how Latin American guerrilla organizations fight. When asked at the job interview about how to “counter” them, I noted that the very term “counter-insurgency’ was self-defeating on two levels, one semantic and one practical. That impressed and surprised my  interlocutors, who then allowed me to teach my interpretation of counter-insurgency (COIN) theory to my Latin-America bound students. In return, I got to learn and participate in their business. But that was two decades ago. Since the doctrine of counter-insurgency has resurfaced and been applied in recent years to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is seemingly back in vogue and unchallenged in those settings, I thought I would reprise my argument against its use.

“Insurgency” refers to counter-hegemonic or anti-status quo groups that use armed struggle as the means to the end of political victory. It is not a form of warfare per se, but instead a term used to describe the nature of a particular guerrilla (or irregular or unconventional) group using irregular warfare as the means to their end. Thus one does not “counter” insurgency by fighting, but by ideological means. Hence “counter-insurgency” properly applies to non-coercive measures employed by political status quo regimes to thwart the ideological appeal of (most often nationalist) guerrillas. The term is therefore misused when applied to the kinetic part of asymmetric warfare, which more properly can be termed “counter-guerrilla” or irregular warfare operations.

But even then the practical problem remains: by defining kinetic operations as “counter-guerrilla” or (mistakenly) “counter-insurgency,”  the conventional fighter begins on the back foot. Anyone familiar with guerrilla warfare knows that you do not “counter” it, or merely respond to guerrilla operations. That is because such an approach gives the guerrilla forces the initiative as to how and when to stage their operations. Such a “countering” strategy inevitably allows guerrillas to remain on the offensive and dictate the timing, nature and tempo of armed confrontations. It is, therefore , often a self-defeating strategy doomed from the onset.

In order to be successful, counter-guerrilla operations need to be offensive, irregular and consequently symmetrical to those of the guerrillas themselves. The idea is to fight guerrillas on their own terms but with all of the capabilities afforded to conventional militaries (e.g. air cover, precision-munitions, satellite guidance, signals and technical intelligence). That involves small group operations–such as what the NZSAS is trained to do–acting with excellent and precise tactical intelligence to strike preemptively at guerrilla targets, focusing on leadership and command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) structures. Rather than large group operations that rely on massed force and kinetic friction, the irregular approach emphasizes fluidity and maneuver. In other words, it operates the way guerrillas do.

Therein lies the problem with Western counter-insurgency strategy. It confuses the nature of a guerrilla grievance with a type of irregular warfare, and in doing so legitimizes the grievance in contexts in which the status quo regime is unpopular. In such contexts “insurgents” are awarded popular appeal as symbols of resistance to the unpopular regime and foreign oppressors, thereby undercutting any “hearts and minds” efforts undertaken by the latter. This in turn undermines efforts to obtain precise, reliable and timely intelligence on guerrilla targets, which is a function of the rapport between the civilian population and various armed actors. Instead, the intelligence flow preferably goes to the guerrillas, and what passes for intelligence to the conventional actor is often disinformation.

To that can be added the mindset created by the “countering” posture of irregular operations. Such a strategic posture condemns the countering party to react to the actions of the guerrillas, which although leading to tactical success on occasion, denies the countering side the possibility of strategic victory. So long as guerrillas can avoid confrontations with massed force, they survive to fight another day, another week, and years thereafter. “Countering” strategies also have the drawback of not being fine-tuned to the cultural norms and fighting styles of irregular opponents. Although much has been written about the different approaches to conventional warfare adopted by different nations (such as American, Arab, British, Chinese, Israeli and Russian fighting styles), much less attention has been paid to different unconventional or irregular fighting styles. Not all guerrillas copy the Guevara, Guillen, Marighella or Mao  playbook when undertaking their campaigns, and many hybrid versions of guerrilla warfare exist that are rooted as much in local armed  custom as they are historical examples. A “countering” strategy is less capable of embracing that fact.

I have refrained here from taking a position on the worthiness of the cause (pro or anti-guerrilla) in a given case. Readers can choose sides in any conflict as they deem fit. What I am doing here is briefly explaining why Western counter-insurgency strategy has elementary problems that seriously impede the possibility of success in any context in which its adversaries are well organised and highly motivated, particularly if the latter adopt a guerrilla strategy of fighting prolonged wars of attrition on their home soil against foreign forces that are not as committed to the long-term struggle (or who do not have the support of their home populations to do so).

As the old saying goes, in asymmetric wars, strategic stalemates are victories for the militarily “weaker” side. However, if the militarily “superior” side bases its campaign on erroneous assumptions and faulty strategic logics, then more than a stalemate is within the grasp of the ostensibly “weaker” side. After all, asymmetry in warfare works both ways.

 

PS: I have updated the post. For those interested, here is a link to US counter-insurgency doctrine. The Spec Ops community understands the problem, but as a minority component of a large conventional military, they ultimately are not determinants of the solutions offered.

On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.

datePosted on 20:59, November 13th, 2009 by Pablo

In a previous life I worked in and with the US security apparatus on matter of Latin American regional policy, to include subjects ranging from civil-military relations to counter-insurgency. In the latter capacity I spend a fair bit of time interacting with the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) community who are  primarily responsible for US anti-terrorism operations, and who include elements from intelligence agencies and domestic security agencies as well as the military. Politically controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) via the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and headquartered at the Special Operations Command at McDill Air Force base outside of Tampa, the SOLIC community has analytic and operational wings that are regional, issue and event specific. At a tactical level (i.e. in the field) the community deploys assets as part of Joint Task Forces (JTFs), of which there are a number currently working abroad (the precise number is classified but there is more than one in Afghanistan alone).

One of the best pearls of wisdom imparted to me by an old SOLIC hand is that “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.” I believe this to be true, and that it applies to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. But there is more to the issue than that.

Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, but is a means employed to a strategic end. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive strategy. The object(ive) is to get the subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military. Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. Terrorism can also be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it was the PLO military campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) that eventually brought Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as the Irgun).

Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths.

Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. That brings up an important point in this age of the so-called “war on terrorism:” generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. Under such conditions dictatorial regimes can implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).

State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas  attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Reported Pakistan support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar- e-Taiba (LET) is another example of state-sponsorship of terrorist organisations. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).

Non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite. 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions) . Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play).

The chances of success of the non-state, transnational grievance form rest not on much on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is(or will be)  another. Strong democracies have similar strengths. Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign is also illustrative. In fact, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).

Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically-motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Algeria, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of support and will.

That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser but still significant degree, weak democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also vulnerable to destabilisation by a well-organised terrorist campaign. Conversely, virtually all of the East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. Thus, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. That might explain the move to highly decentralised and often individual attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as the increasing success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is a function of good intelligence in a supportive community).

That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.

There is more to the issue but in the confines of a blog post this is enough. Former students might recognise some of the above from the “Revolutions and Insurgencies” courses taught in NZ and the US, although this is an updated brief on those long-gone but still relevant course materials.

Obama’s prize: why not refuse it?

datePosted on 14:27, October 12th, 2009 by Lew

I was as surprised as anyone else who’s been paying the smallest bit of attention to geopolitics this past year when Barack Obama was announced as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This is one issue on which many of his supporters and critics are apparently united: what has he done to deserve it?

Obama himself professes to agree that it’s not justified:

“I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize,” he said. “I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

So why accept it (essentially on credit) instead of refusing it, requesting that the Nobel Committee award it to someone else, and accept a future prize at a later date when the award can be made on the basis of merit? This course of action would demonstrate that Obama is more concerned with world peace, with the (admittedly flagging) credibility of the Nobel prizes, and more importantly with action than with pretty rhetoric and his own status as a diplomatic celebrity.

Rejecting this award would have caused a stir and some embarrassment among the international diplomatic community, but it would have been an opportunity to silence critics on both Obama’s flanks, the pacifist left and the right. Certainly, some would have found ways to turn it against him (after all, the sun still rises in the East), but I believe it would have been met with near-universal acclaim. It would have been a clear message: judge me on my achievements, not on my identity.

This was a test, and to my mind Obama has failed. It’s a damned shame.

L

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

datePosted on 19:26, July 29th, 2009 by Pablo

News of the NZSAS’s imminent departure to Afghanistan, on its fourth deployment since 2001 but first since 2005, has occasioned a fair bit of commentary in the media. A Herald poll shows public opinion evenly divided on the issue. A broad swathe of Right and Left wing isolationists and pacifists oppose the move. Many believe it is just a sop thrown to US imperialism in order to curry favour. Others think it is about gas pipelines and Halliburton profits. The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan has become muddled by American pronouncements that NZ should do so as a type of insurance in the event it is attacked, or as a down payment on an eventual bilateral FTA. John Key has not helped matters by stating that he does not want the SAS to undertake so-called “mentoring” roles for the Afghan Army because it is too dangerous (as if what they otherwise would be doing is not), and that he would like to withdraw the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province because it costs too much to maintain (this in spite of its widely recognised success as a “hearts and minds” operation that is the essence of international peace-keeping and nation-building missions such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan).  He further clouds the issue by invoking the Jakarta and Mumbai bombings as reasons for the NZSAS deployment, even if the bombings had zero connection to events on the ground in Afghanistan (although I admit the possibility that some of those involved in the bombings may have attended Taleban protected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal regions in the last decade or so). In making these utterances Mr. Key displays an apparent lack of understanding of what is really at stake in this dangerous game.

I have already posted here on the subject (see the Archive, especially here and here), and in recent days have tried to explicate further in the dedicated comments threads in places like Tumeke and Kiwiblog. Yet the rationale for why I believe that sending the NZSAS to and keeping the PRT in Afghanistan is justified appears to be lost in the general discussion. So let me phrase things in a different way, for purposes of clarification: what is going on in Afghanistan is a two-level game.

One one level there is the original ISAF mission. That mission was and is to deny al-Qaeda cadres and militant Taleban safe havens inside Afghanistan so that they do not pose a threat to the local population and cannot use Afghan territory to stage cross-border assaults on Pakistan and other neighbouring Central Asian republics. The concern with the militant Taleban, as opposed to their more “moderate” counterparts (read: nationalist or tribal), is that they have greater ambitions than re-gaining political control of Afghanistan. Instead, the militant Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies seeks to establish a Caliphate throughout Central Asia and beyond. They particularly want to gain control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, but even that is just a short-to-medium term goal. They have, in other words, imperialist ambitions of their own. These ambitions are not only opposed by the US, UN, and NATO. They are opposed by China, Russia, India and all Asian states that see the ripple effect extending towards them. In fact, they are opposed by virtually all of the international community with the exception of failed states such as Somailia and the Sudan (which have now become the new locus of al-Qaeda activity).

Worried about the repercussive effects that a Taleban victory in Afghanistan would have throughout Central Asia, the NATO-led, UN sanctioned ISAF mission has been successful at eliminating al-Qaeda as a military threat in the country, and is essentially now engaged in a grand scale pincer movement along with the Pakistani military that is designed to push Taleban on both sides of the common border into geographically defined kill zones from which they cannot escape. In parallel, ISAF and UN-led civilian assistance groups are attempting to engage moderate Taleban elements in order to establish a durable cease-fire that will permit the second level of the game to be played.

The second level game is oriented towards establishing a moderate Islamic regime with centralised authority over Afghanistan, one that will balance secular rights with religious freedoms and traditional privileges in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This a minimalist construction of the game; that is, it pretends to go no further than what is stated. It does not imply that the objective is to establish a secular democracy in the country. It does not pretend that centralised authority will mean central government monopoly of organised violence in the tribal hinterlands. It does not propose the blanket elimination of traditional forms of authority or social mores. Instead, it merely seeks to create the structural and political conditions for the establishment of peace, a peace that in turn will deny Islamic extremists the fertile territory for recruitment and sanctuary. It involves promoting electoral forms of political contestation, but more importantly, it pursues infrastructural development, to include educational, health and nutritional programs as well as the civil-military engineering projects required for their implementation and expansion.

To be sure, endemic corruption, the Karzai regime’s limited legitimacy outside of Kabul, the persistence of the opium trade, the ongoing presence of warlord-dominated fiefdoms, and the abject primitivism of many parts of the country make the second game seemingly impossible to achieve, and greatly complicate the achievement of the first game. Yet just because other foreign incursions have been defeated does not necessarily mean that this one is inevitably doomed to fail. For one thing, this is an international effort, not the expansionist project of a single imperial state. For another, because of its developmental and humanitarian focus, it does have a fair bit of internal support as well as that of neighbouring countries, factors that did not obtain in previous instances of occupation.

These two games are now being played out simultaneously, in overlapped fashion. The first is needed for the second to be successful (i.e., the combat work of such as the NZSAS is needed for PRTs to be successful). Yet the second is needed for the first to advance sufficiently so that an “exit strategy” is feasible. That will take a long time, at a minimum at least another five years and probably more. Any upgrade or renewal of the NZDF commitment to Afghanistan must take account of this fact.

Thus, when considering the “why” of NZ’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan, the debate should focus on the two levels of the ISAF “game,” and whether NZ has a stake in either. I have already stated that I believe that there are moral and practical reasons why NZ should, as an international citizen, contribute to the ISAF mission on both levels. Others disagree on either or both counts.  The main point, however, is that Mr. Key and his advisors in the MoD and MFAT develop a clear and comprehensible rationale for why NZ should put its soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, which in turn is as much a function of informed public interest as it is of diplomatic necessity.

Chosŏn Realism

datePosted on 12:37, May 28th, 2009 by Lew

(This and the last are posts I’ve been meaning to put up all week, having been prevented by a migraine and a deadline.)

This week seems an opportune time to link to a small but superb collection of North Korean propaganda posters reproduced (with two brief and fascinating contextual notes) from David Heather and Koen de Ceuster’s book North Korean Posters.

ess_north_korean_39
(“Let’s extensively raise goats in all families!”)

Discussion of the second test in the media has cast a great deal of heat and not very much light on the issues at stake, including one alarming statement in the NZ media by Tim Beal of Victoria University that the USA could defeat the DPRK militarily “without losing a single soldier” (audio), which runs contra to the understanding of the situation I had when I lived there. My understanding, admittedly mostly from pub discussions with officers in the South Korean and US defence establishment, was that the reason there’s a stalemate is a sort of mutually assured destruction, because while the forces in the South clearly have the strategic advantage, the DPRK has an unknown but very large number of well-protected and hidden artillery pieces and conventional rockets in the mountains just north of the border, within easy range of Seoul, and the few dozen hours it might take to destroy them all could result in catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure in that very densely-populated city.

Tough call.

L

Blog Link: Reorganizing (the) Defense

datePosted on 16:15, May 15th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent announcement that a Defense Review Board has been convened with the charge of issuing a Defense White Paper in 2010 (13 years after the last one) is the subject of this month’s “A Word from Afar” column over at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0905/S00152.htm . Lets just say that there are some troublesome aspects to the issue.

On the Torture Memos

datePosted on 20:29, April 23rd, 2009 by Pablo

At long last the paper trail authorizing the use of coercive interrogation techniques, to include tortures such as water boarding ( a simulated drowning technique) has been made public. The bottom line is that it reveals that high level Bush administration officials, to include John Ashcroft (Attorney General at the time), John Yoo (Deputy Attorney General), Alberto Gonzalez (White House counsel, later Attorney General) Dick Cheney (Darth Vadar) and Condoleeza Rice (Nurse Ratched), should be indicted for criminal offenses under both US and international law. What is worse, their authorization of criminal acts–no matter how Mr. Yoo’s convoluted legal arguments may wish to paint them as something less than torture and permissible under doctrines of Executive authority anyway–flew in the face of expert opinion that torture is an unreliable method for extracting reliable intelligence and could, in fact, be counter-productive both legally and practically. There are several layers to the story, so I shall briefly run through them.

The techniques used were derived from the SERE school practices. SERE is a program run by the US military to simulate the conditions of a prisoner of war camp in which US aviators and special forces operators might find themselves. It is modeled on 1950s Chinese prison camps. Under controlled conditions, SERE operators subject US personnel to what they admit are “torture techniques” (such as water boarding) in order to teach the US personnel how to resist coercive interrogations. Thus, the Bush White House and Justice department took techniques that were capable of being overcome by determined prisoner resistance and authorized their use, without fully exploring their history or the controlled circumstances of their SERE application, on suspected jihadis whose idea of glory comes in the form of martyrdom. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is just arse-backwards.

In fact, once SERE camp administrators heard of the (mis) application in 2002 they wrote memos to the Defence Department protesting against the use of SERE techniques. They explicitly warned about the unreliability of the confessions extracted and the risk of accidental death. These memos were ignored by the Rumsfeld cronies who ran the Pentagon at the time and were apparently never passed onto the White House and Justice Department (or if they were, they were ignored). What is important to note is that the people who pushed for the use of these techniques were Republican ideologues who had no actual experience with interrogations. Most interrogators are US military counter-intelligence personnel, who are fully aware of the legal and practical pitfalls of using torture to extract confessions. These include the unreliability of the information extracted, the uselessness of such information for strategic intelligence purposes, the problems of garnering actionable information from atomized cells in a decentralized guerrilla network like al-Qaeda–in other words, the complete disutility of using SERE-type techniques for anything other than immediate tactical purposes (if that). Since these forms of punishment were being meted out in “black sites”  thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Iraq (Abu Ghraib was more of a test case rather than a systematic application of the Yoo doctrine) and Afghanistan (although the prison at Bahgram Air Force Base outside of Kabul is reported to contain a “black site’), or in Guatanamo, even the tactical intelligence obtained was mostly unactionable. Hence, professional interrogators such as Special Forces counter-intelligence officers did not conduct the interrogations, but instead were replaced by CIA operatives or private contractors. The can of worms that opens almost defies belief.

In a nutshell:  the Bush administration authorized unproven and unreliable torture techniques against the advice of those who were best informed about the use and results of those methods, then replaced seasoned interrogators with civilians and private contractors to do the dirty work. Presumably this was to gain some of distance on any potential legal repercussions down the road. When one looks at the results of the Abu Ghraib case, where two enlisted soldiers served short jail sentences, two field officers were reprimanded and demoted and one flag rank officer demoted and  forced to retire, it easy to see how Bush administration officials believed that they would never be held responsible for anything that happened in the “black sites.”

Bush administration defenders claim that the coercive interrogation program obtained results in the form of preventing terrorist attacks but are unable or unwilling to offer a single instance of such a success. They claim that revealing the torture memos jeopardizes current and future intelligence operations and demoralizes the CIA. The answer to these claims (other than to laugh when Dick Cheney makes them), is to say 1) provide a single shred of evidence that an attack was prevented by the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture; 2) prove that any information obtained that was useful could not have been obtained using other (non-torture) techniques. Let us be clear: getting the names of other cell members, or of liaison contacts, or of the early outlines of a terrorist plot is not “actionable” intelligence that could not have been obtained by other means (say, by good human intelligence in the field). Arresting some of the Guantanamo detainees was enough to disrupt the most grandiose of al-Qaeda plots, so once their role was ascertained and their backwards linkages traced, use of torture was just vengeance, not intelligence-gathering. If the claim is going to be made that the use of terror was efficient, i.e., that it actually prevented an imminent attack, then it needs to be supported with proof. After all, the “informants” are not going anywhere so need not fear retribution and whatever intelligence penetration of terrorist networks has occurred should not be vulnerable to exposure if the truth of the matter is revealed (otherwise it is simply shoddy workmanship on the part of US intelligence and its allies).

The best way to verify such claims is to grant immunity to interrogators and lower-level CIA and military officials who oversaw coercive interrogations in  order to find out not only whether the techniques were as necessary as the Bush defenders say there were, as well as their results. More importantly, the main purpose of the grants of immunity is to determine the chain of command responsible for authorizing the use of torture, and on what grounds. The last point is important because as it stands, the Bush administration will hide under the doctrine of “plausible deniability” where subordinates get blamed for the physical acts but no evidentiary link can be conclusively made to the orders of high level officials. That deception can be countered with a “due obedience” approach whereby legal immunity to lower-ranked officials is exchanged for their testimony on who gave the orders and how did they do so (as well as how they tried to conceal those orders).  That is the key to getting indictments of Bush administration officials. John Yoo and his chief lieutenants, in particular (the former now happily ensconced as a Law Professor at UC Berkeley, of all places, the latter now anxiously realizing that private legal practice does not afford them any cover in the face of a federal indictment), need to be held to account because they apparently took an untoward interest in specific techniques and were the keenest to authorize their use. Getting these toadies to turn under the threat of imprisonment could in turn be the key to finding out what exact roles were played by Cheney, Bush and Rice in opening the Pandora’s box embedded in the torture memos.

Of course, being a cautious and pragmatic person, Barack Obama may pull the plug on any prosecutions in the interest of political security (his own and of the Democratic Party). If so, it will be up to the International Criminal Court to seek the truth of the matter, so that even those who rule a seemingly unassailable superpower realise that they too are not above basic standards of human rights and international justice. I shall not hold my breath waiting for either to happen. What is certain is that, until something dramatically different is revealed to counter what is known so far,  from a moral-ethical as well as an efficiency-practical standpoint, the US use of torture in the fight against terrorism has been a failure more than a success.

Blog Link: On Denuclearization.

datePosted on 13:24, April 16th, 2009 by Pablo

In the comments thread on my earlier post about whether the US was in decline, as well as in the comments thread on Obama’s Prague speech over at kiwiblog, and during an interview on Jim Mora’s show, I found myself correcting people with regard to US strategic doctrine. That got me to thinking about Obama’s promise to pursue global denuclearization. I decided to write up my thoughts as this month’s Word from Afar column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0904/S00148.htm. The bottom line is that there are many reasons to believe that the promise, while apparently sincere, has many obstacles to overcome, and not all of them are located in Iran or North Korea.

`progress’ in Afghanistan

datePosted on 18:12, March 10th, 2009 by Lew

deadafghani

WikiLeaks has published four internal NATO briefing documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan – including the Master Narrative which sets out the operational and strategic and symbolic parameters which guide ISAF’s media posture.

This guidance document is designed to assist all those who play a part in explaining the situation in Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, but especially those who deal with the media.

You can get the documents here. Interesting and revealing stuff but possibly more mundane than you might expect. If I get time over the next few days I’ll post a few observations (and if anyone else wants to do so, be my guest). In an epic security fail, the documents were distributed using Microsoft SharePoint, and protected with the absurd password `progress’.

What significance the image of an ISAF sniper posing with the corpse of an Afghan, you ask? This is the amazingly political choice of image on the WikiLeaks editorial which announced this particular leak – saying it’s misleading doesn’t go far enough, it’s an outrageous association to make. But it’s also the polar opposite of the media agenda which these ISAF documents explicate, and in that regard it’s a crafty bit of work.

(Via Bruce Schneier.)

L

Commander-In-Chief

datePosted on 21:50, March 1st, 2009 by Lew

How about this for a photo:

85132251LM001_OBAMA

He’s telling them the Iraq war is over in 18 months – later than the campaign promises, and with more of them in-theatre than expected, but sooner and fewer than the alternatives.

Do they believe him? Do they approve? Does it register?

(Hat-tip: BAGnewsNotes.)

L

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