Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

On the Battlefield

On the Bookshelf: The Wrong War by Bing West

The Wrong War

Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan

by Bing West

As always, Bing West is insightful, informative and on-point. In The Wrong War Bing West tackles the conflict in Afghanistan, combining the dirt-level accounts of soldiers on the front lines, with high-minded analysis of the strategy that drives the doctrines that those soldiers are using. It is this synthesis that makes books by Bing West required reading.

Most of the The Wrong War deals with detailed accounts of operations and campaigns fought by in the rugged terrain of the valleys and passes of  the Afghanistan / Pakistan border region. Bing West uses these accounts to illustrate the various interactions between the Afghan people, the Afghan government, the geography and the Western military forces; and how there is a fundamental disconnect between the situation on the ground, and the strategy that guides Western action in the country. His bottom line is that what we are fighting “the wrong war.”

Counterinsurgency doctrine, or rather the current flavor of counterinsurgency doctrine being used in Iraq and Afghanistan known as COIN, focuses on engaging the people and building their trust through development and security in order to convince them to reject insurgent forces and deny them the safe-havens they require in order to operate effectively. This “nation-building” strategy puts a premium on the COIN theory that “dollars are bullets” and that actual bullets should be rarely used in order to avoid civilian casualties that create political resistance and “accidental guerillas” among the Afghans and poor public relations back in the Western world.

To West this as a horrible strategy. As he sees it, what we have created in Afghanistan is not a nation that can stand on its own against the Taliban, but rather that we have propped up an exceedingly weak, corrupt, kleptocratic, government that enriches itself on Western developmental funds, and a people who see that development as an entitlement they can depend upon and don’t need to work to attain. Worse, through lack of oversight, control and poor policy, we have raised up this innately corrupt government as the preferred alternative to the Taliban. With that in mind, it is no wonder that the Afghan people are reluctant to buy what we are selling.

To West, the “Way Out” advertised in the subtitle of the book isn’t a literal exit from the conflict but rather a prescription for a re-think and realignment of policy and strategy. West argues the main reason we are receiving no real support from the Afghan people is that, despite all of the hand-outs and developmental projects, we aren’t showing them that we are ultimately going to be the winning side of the conflict. West points out that in Iraq the Sunni’s came to our side because they recognized we were The Strongest Tribe and he doesn’t expect the Afghan people to step up until they are convinced of the same eventuality of victory against the Taliban. Until that occurs they will continue to be noncommittal and hedge their bets. However, West also argues that the flaw in U.S. involvement is that we are physically and politically incapable of committing the forces and funding to make that sort of victory a reality, that we have handcuffed ourselves so severely in regards to Pakistan, the Afghan government and rules of engagement, that such a result isn’t possible. In other words, our policy in this conflict won’t let us be the strongest tribe. What then to do? West’s answer is to focus our energies on building up the Afghan security forces and partnering our Special Forces with them so that they can fulfill that role.

Highly Recommended!


The Catch: Augmented Reality / Diminished Reality

Singularity Hub :  New Augmented Reality Software Removes Objects from Video Feeds in Real Time.

“What if you could remove all the ugliness in the world? It’s not a hypothetical question. Researchers at Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany have developed a new augmented reality technique that erases images from real time video. Called Diminished Reality, the software can take any area selected in a video feed and use photo-shop like adjustments to copy the surroundings into its place. Where once you saw an object now you see the object has been removed. A piece of your world has been erased. Diminished Reality records video from a camera and displays the modified result on a screen with only a 40ms delay. To your eyes it’s effectively instantaneous. Watch a demonstration of the augmented reality editing program in the video below. I’m blown away by how well it works in these early examples.”

Talk about giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Most of the applications I have come across for Augmented, and now Diminished, Reality are gaming / entertainment and advertising in the form of virtual pets, virtual LARP-type activities, and virtual advertising banners that can be highly targeted to individual persons. This demonstration seems closer to the espionage application of the really ugly shirt that played a key role in William Gibson’s novel Zero History (my review here) by rendering the character wearing it invisible to video surveillance by triggering a computer program deep in the London surveillance camera system (see questions five and six of this interview with Gibson) . It may not exactly be to that stage yet though it seems to me this is a very long step in that direction.

The Laughing Man is hacking your eyes!Considering this is a potentially very long, twisty, branching and strange road, the ability to modify reality in this way seems to have limitless implications. The 5GW theorist lurking in my brain (and clapping on the sidelines), also has to wonder about how easy it may one day become to seamlessly and unobtrusively cause distortion between perceived Observation and actual Observation before that information feeds into Orientation. Understanding the mechanisms of 5GW may be instructive in harnessing this type of power, it may also be vital in learning to protect against it.

The Catch: The Cognitive Dissonance of COIN

“The Catch” is, from here on, the heading and category for “Recommended Reading” posts here at Red Herrings.

The Catch: Recommended Reading

Recommended reading from Small Wars Journal:

The Cognitive Dissonance of COIN
Right Doctrine, Wrong War
by Jason Thomas

“The psychological investment in COIN is now so deep that the cognitive dissonance would be too great to change course or admit COIN is the right doctrine for the wrong war. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that despite contrary evidence, people are biased to think of their choices as correct. Like climate change, so much has been invested in counterinsurgency with huge reputations at stake, that anyone who challenges COIN in Afghanistan could be labeled a COIN skeptic.  No matter how much we try to win the hearts and minds, no matter how many millions of dollars is spent on development and regardless of attempts to improve governance and eliminate corruption, the socio-cultural ecosystem of Afghanistan does not respond to the doctrine of counterinsurgency. While the pockets can be won the heart and minds in Afghanistan will always remain notoriously capricious.

 There are many reasons to continually question COIN from every angle, but the two this paper is concerned with are i) whether COIN could be the right military doctrine being applied in the wrong campaign; and ii) preparing for the next major unconventional war – as is often the case in political campaigns and war, we tend to find ourselves fighting on the issues, theories or practices in the last campaign.

 This paper will attempt to “play the ball and not the man”  by pointing to the range of reasons unique to Afghanistan on top of self-imposed obstacles that reinforce the hypothesis of right doctrine, wrong war.”

All in all, a thought-provoking paper that is well worth a read even if you don’t agree with the author’s argument. Personally, I don’t think COIN is the wrong doctrine for Afghanistan. At least, not all of Afghanistan. If the Taliban is seeking to create a parallel, non-secular, (Pakistan aligned) government that usurps the government of Kabul. That makes it an insurgency. The problem is using COIN in Afghanistan is that it is being used across the board, even in places where the Taliban isn’t active. If there isn’t an insurgency, you can’t wage a counterinsurgency. Personally, I think the disconnect about using COIN as the go-to doctrine of the U.S. forces, comes from an inflexibility of practitioners to have multiple doctrines. Everything is COIN because counterinsurgency is the sexy buzzword of the moment. However, COIN is not an anti-terrorism or homeland security doctrine. If you are chasing Bin Laden, you shouldn’t be using a COIN doctrine.

Actually, what I found most interesting about the article were the author’s 6 points for adapting COIN for future campaigns. I felt they had a great deal of 5GW resonance.

“The following are suggestions for improving the adaptability of COIN for future campaigns:

1. Stress test COIN and other military doctrines against a range of insurgent scenarios taking place in potential host countries – what is unique about the cultural and tribal dynamics.

2. Anticipate the next host nations and begin a coordinated, international effort to limit the opportunity for the global jihadists to re-base themselves (Australia has done a good job with its intense support of governance, security and development initiatives in Indonesia) – almost an interntional version of COIN.”

3. Develop sophisticated social networking and internet countering-platforms devised by and run by maintstream, globally recognised and respected Muslim organisations.

4. Intesify the global ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to convince young, mobile and increasingly sophisticated Muslims that the West is not a threat to their belief systems. This must be coordinated at an international level across governments and non-government actors.

5. Identify communications strategies and tactics to undermine the jihadists perceived legitimacy in the minds of eye of mainstream media. Every time the insurgents claim ‘civilians have been killed by US forces’ this is treated as fact by the media.

6. Avoid seeking a generic, off-the-shelf, model of COIN devised from previous campaigns to be applied to the next campaign.”

All six of these points are in line with 5GW thinking. First, working to trigger established rule-sets of a target population’s Orientation by feeding them information in specific context, through their own prefered information channels, is the basis of Fifth Gradient doctrines. 5GW is also inherently strategic in scope, meaning that anticipating the next hot-spot and preemptively targeting it with 5GW operations is required. Above all, adaptability is a hallmark of, not only 5GW, but XGW itself. A basic tenet of XGW is to create a specific doctrine for the situation at hand that is X+1 of the doctrine being used by your opponent, there is no such thing as an “off-the-shelf” doctrine.

More Tales of the Sysadmin

Recommended Reading from WIRED’s Danger Room:

Afghan Government MIA at American-Backed Farm

“SHALIZAR, Afghanistan — The rows on the farm were neat and parallel, just as they should appear: red tomatoes that started out as Iranian seeds; bulbous watermelons ripening on the vine; even peanuts. Peanuts aren’t typically a crop grown in Afghanistan, but they’re cultivated here in almost 20 rows. It’s an apparent tribute to the peanut farmer and Virginia National Guard officer who’s sponsoring this Kapisa Province agricultural project.

Only one thing was missing: the Afghan government’s agricultural chief for the province, who was supposed to inspect the crops. And it’s for his benefit that the farm is around in the first place. Consider it another example of how America’s costly counterinsurgency formula lacks a central ingredient: an interested, functional host-nation government.

The farm is the project of the Agribusiness Development Team attached to Task Force Wolverine, the brigade-sized unit responsible for security in Bamiyan, Panjshir and Parwan provinces. The ADTs are a fairly recent initiative that bring around ten groups of National Guardsmen — in this case, 64 reservists, mostly from Kentucky — with farming experience to advise and mentor Afghan provincial officials in agricultural production techniques.”

An Editorial Digression

I’ve discussed before the role of the Agribusiness Development Teams as a sort of Sysadmin in Miniature. Really there should also be Infrastructure Development Teams, Economic Development Teams, and Educational Development Teams among others (though all of these point toward something larger than a military-centric approach. Hello USAID, State Department, anybody?). The type of counterinsurgency effort of the ADTs, especially in the very agriculturally based areas of Afghanistan, should be one of the most effective ways to curb violence and give the people of the region a very tangible stake in the future of the country. Kapisa Province, should be a prime location for this sort of project. It is close to the potential market of Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, cultural hub, and as the entry point for most foreign investment, economic center. It is sad how a project that seems to have so much potential can be almost sabotaged through the negligence or disinterest of one person.

The lesson seems to be that the bottom-up approach to counterinsurgency is much more effective than a top-down approach. It makes sense. In states like Iraq and Afghanistan, the people were kept in line with a strong hand regardless of whether it is secular or religious in nature. Fear is the motivator for compliance and that carries over to the insurgency. First, there is the fear that the invader will be worse (in other words: ‘the devil you know’ argument). Second, that the insurgency is among the people making the threat even more immediate. It will take a long while working at the grass-roots of the population to show them that they can have the power (the farm, the vote, the lifestyle) and prosper, that Afghanistan is their country, that they are not serfs toiling for their masters in the capital. Even more vitally important, that the power they develop cannot, and should not, be taken away from them if they follow the rules of the society. A top-down approach in a failed state with a bribery and corruption problem just wastes resources and continues the narrative that power is relegated to the few of the elite, the gatekeepers, and not the many of the people who are ‘the state’.

Essentially, empowerment of the people is what I see as the role of the Sysadmin in the reconstruction of failed states and the ‘shrinking of the Gap’. Yes, the Sysadmin brings technical, logistical, political and economic expertise of the Core into the Gap. They get the lights on. They establish a communications network. They improve irrigation and roads. With the help of the population the bring the standards of living up to a point where the population can begin to interact with the wider world around them. Depending upon the situation this may take a very long time, decades, even generations. The Sysadmin is in for the long-term but the Sysadmin is not the stakeholder. For the stakeholders, the population, the job is never done and when they decide to stand up for themselves the job of the Sysadmin is to get out of the way.

On the Bookshelf: They Fought for Each Other by Kelly Kennedy

They Fought for Each Other:

The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq.

by Kelly Kennedy

They Fought for Each Other is a dirt-level account of Charlie Company 1/26th Infantry Regiment’s operations in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad during the 2007 ‘Surge’. During this time Charlie Company would suffer more casualties than any other Company since Vietnam including 14 killed. Nine of those were from one platoon, many killed in one massive IED explosion that destroyed a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. One man won the Medal of Honor saving the lives of his friends by jumping on top of a grenade thrown into his Humvee. Those are awful statistics and situations, but what makes it a true tragedy is the effect the losses had on the men of Charlie Company.

In the pages of the book there dwells a profound and compelling sadness. From the shocks and concussions of the IED  explosions that happen so frequently they become routine, to the physical and mental weight of the combat stress each soldier carried, to the resulting PTSD that threatened to overwhelm the survivors, They Fought for Each Other is a haunting portrait of modern warfare. It is a credit to the author, Kelly Kennedy, that she was able to capture the horrific events and the aftermath of those events in a way that conveys to the reader the feelings of the soldiers of the incredibly close and tight-knit Charlie Company and their families without getting in the way of the story. NPR’s Fresh Air had an excellent interview with her back in March of 2010 that is well worth a listen. It includes the first chapter of the book.

As someone with an interest in counterinsurgency theory and practice I found another interesting thread in the story. These soldiers were aware of counterinsurgency practices. They did their best to establish a rapport with the local people. They handed out soccer balls, they tried to place generators to provide electricity to the population (even though they were always appropriated by the insurgents), they tried to establish a sense of security in the absence and/or negligence of the Iraqi Army and Police . They did their best, and they were good at their jobs, one reason a company was patrolling a sector that probably should have required a larger number of troops. However, at every turn they absorbed attack after attack. They lost Humvees and even Bradleys to IEDs and EFPs and were asked again and again to continue the mission, engage the populace with friendly overtures. Eventually they reached a breaking point, an issue rarely discussed in COIN circles: What happens when, in the face of fierce ongoing resistance by the insurgents, the soldiers are unable to continue to engage in non-kinetic counterinsurgency activities with the population?

It is a question that needs further exploration. In hindsight it was obvious that Charlie Company needed to be augmented or removed well before they broke. In hindsight it speaks well of the men of the platoon that eventually mutinied that they refused to go out, not because they felt they couldn’t patrol any longer, but rather that they recognized that they had absorbed so much mental strain that they couldn’t trust themselves to conduct themselves with appropriate restraint if they were faced with an ambiguous situation, and face it, counterinsurgency contains nothing but ambiguity demanding restraint.

Great book. Read it.

WikiLeaks and the Super-Empowered Individual

In the truest sense of the concept, everyone has the potential to be super-empowered. This type of super-empowerment is a product of  technology and connectivity, but its most essential aspect derives from knowledge and the ability to accumulate, disseminate and leverage that knowledge.   

I have had a problem with most characterizations of the super-empowered individual, mainly because it is so often confused with the other closely related concept from Thomas L. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, the Super-Empowered Angry Man. Many theorists who have written extensively upon the topic of super-empowerment tend to focus on super-empowerment leading to the Oklahoma City Bombing, the 2001 Anthrax Letters, Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber or other examples where some angry individual leveraged their special form of knowledge in order to do harm to others. 

Given statements by Admiral Mike Mullen about the potential harm from the WikiLeaks document release, I find it interesting that few, if any, have thought to consider WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and the unnamed individual (speculated to be a 22-year-old Army Private named Bradley Manning) who is the source of the 90,000+ secret documents detailing operations in Afghanistan in the context of super-empowerment.  


WikiLeaks itself creates and enhances super-empowerment. As an organization it is designed to provide anonymity to individuals possessing information, accumulated knowledge, alowing them to disseminate and leverage that knowledge. 

From the WikiLeaks site:

“It is hard for WikiLeaks to protect against “means, motive and opportunity” which are unrelated to WikiLeaks, but to date, as far as we can ascertain, none of the thousands of WikiLeaks sources have been exposed, via WikiLeaks or any other method.  Whistleblowers can face a great many risks, depending on their position, the nature of the information and other circumstances. Powerful institutions may use whatever methods are available to them to withhold damaging information, whether by legal means, political pressure or physical violence. The risk cannot be entirely removed (for instance, a government may know who had access to a document in the first place) but it can be lessened. Posting CD’s in the mail combined with advanced cryptographic technology can help to make communications on and off the internet effectively anonymous and untraceable. WikiLeaks applauds the courage of those who blow the whistle on injustice, and seeks to reduce the risks they face. 

 Our servers are distributed over multiple international jurisdictions and do not keep logs. Hence these logs cannot be seized. Anonymization occurs early in the WikiLeaks network, long before information passes to our web servers. Without specialized global internet traffic analysis, multiple parts of our organization and volunteers must conspire with each other to strip submitters of their anonymity.  

 However, we also provide instructions on how to submit material to us, by post and from netcafés and wireless hotspots, so even if WikiLeaks is infiltrated by a government intelligence agency submitters cannot be traced.”  


Project: Department of the Future?

“We can’t afford just any old future.”

Directive 51 by  John Barnes

Directive 51 is one of those apocalyptic thrillers that, once read, leave me with the uneasy feeling that I should be stockpiling canned goods and firearms. The book is a good read even if it regularly takes some fairly dubious turns away from plausibility and requires quite a bit of the suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, that isn’t what has made it linger in my thinking. Aside from some of the 5GWishness, Resilient Community and Global Guerilla aspects it contains, the most interesting thing about the book is the organization the main character belongs to, a cabinet level governmental department called the Department of the Future. The Department of the Future (or DoF) is further divided into the Office of Future Threat Assessment, the Office of Technology Forecasting and the Office of Political Futurology. Now, I’m not certain that such a government department would ever really be able to exist, or even function if it did exist much less be the centerpiece for national disaster management and response that it is in the novel, but it is very intriguing as a virtual think-tank (or maybe better yet ongoing Blog-tank!) type institution dedicated to looking down the road to the what is not only ont the horizon, but over the horizon.

Any interest out there for such a project?