Of the Brotherhood and the Taiping

Earlier this year I read Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen Platt. The book, which is excellent, is the story of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) which took place in southern China during the waning days of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. The Taiping heavenly king, a failed Confucian scholar named Hong Xiuquan, led a rebellion among the dispossessed of the Southern Chinese Han and Hakka peoples against the ruling Manchurian dynasty. What makes the Taipings interesting to Westerners, and this is the focus on Platt’s narrative, is that they were Christians, of a sort. The impact of British, American, German, and Swedish protestant missionaries from the”treaty port” city of Shanghai had a notable influence on the Taiping movement, which held  Hong Xiuquan to be the brother of Jesus Christ, and which had elements of Protestant teaching, Western meritocracy, Chinese political classicism, and rural millenarianism. The Taipings were also initially very friendly to the Western powers and their merchants, notably Britain, which was at the time in intermittent open warfare with the Manchu Dynasty in the North.

The Taipings were treated as something of an odd curiosity in Britain’s parliament, with some MPs vigorously attacking and some defending the movement, but the prevailing attitude, even with the detailed reports of Protestant missionaries, remained that the Taiping were a party to be tolerated as long as they remained friendly to trade, but not treated as legitimate (an interesting parallel to the struggle for Southern secession in the contemporary US). The reports of British potentates in China, who were soured against all Chinese and did not make the distinction between the xenophobic Manchus and the more welcoming Taipings, ultimately led the British to fire upon and repeatedly attack Taipings who came with overtures of friendship. As the Taiping ultimately established quasi-religious but fairly absolutist doctrines, the British came to reject them, and this continued reaction ultimately sidelined the Taiping moderate reformers in favor of the active generals who were more openly antagonistic to foreign powers.

The British government ultimately would decide that the Manchu leadership was (despite demonstrable cruelty and hostility) the side to back, and Britain went from burning down Beijing in 1860 to sending military advisors and building steam-powered vessels for their former enemies only a year or two later.  With this aid, the Manchus crushed and brutally extirpated the Taiping, though they never grew to trust the West and threw in their lot with the violent anti-Western Boxers only half a century later (before finally being dethroned in 1911).

Prime Minister Palmerston,  whose policy hinged uncomfortably between armed intervention and neutrality across the world. Sound familiar?

Prime Minister Palmerston, whose policy swung uncomfortably between armed intervention and wary neutrality across the globe. Sound familiar?

Yesterday, it was announced that the White House had agreed to unfreeze arms exports and military aid to Egypt’s government under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who as Defense Minister of the Egyptian Army overthrew the democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimūn) in July of 2013. Morsi, the first democratically elected president following the 2011 resignation of Hosni Mubarak after waves of popular protest rocked the Arab world, presided over a openly moderate, but very religiously conservative movement. Since Morsi’s arrest, Sisi, who was elected to the Presidency in 2014, has overseen an outwardly secular government, but a very repressive one.

The decision to renew arms shipments received bi-partisan support in Congress, and was widely hailed as a important move, especially as Egypt is joining a coalition of Arab nations attacking the Houthi Shi’a rebels that have taken power in Yemen (and initiating a proxy war between the Sunni Arab states and Iran). Arms shipments were originally frozen in protest over Sisi’s coup, which overturned the Democratic process.

The reason I bring up the parallel to the Taipings, which is not a perfect one, is because the United States has just signaled, very loudly, that the might of military force makes right in the authoritarian states of the Middle East. The force of popular democracy in Egypt after Tahir Square ushered in, admittedly by only a slight majority, what had been an oppressed and growing fringe party of Islamic conservatives. Americans of every stripe do not care for the Brotherhood’s politics, which are admittedly what could be defined as anti-liberal and infringing on the civil rights of Egypt’s citizens, especially women and its religious minorities. However, popular democracy was something that America demanded when Sec. of State Hilary Clinton insisted that Mubarak must bow to the will of his people and step down. The Administration ultimately followed through with the idea that the Coup’s leaders ought to be accountable for usurping popular democracy by restricting, however incompletely, military support. Of course, Brotherhood rule was not particularly something America could look forward to, but in a way, America had set the conditions and supported the rhetoric of the Arab Spring, which sought to replace autocrats with democratically elected governments. In other words, we owned it, at least partially.

Now, however, Washington has signaled that it ultimately accepts Sisi’s usurpation, and perhaps welcomes it. Like Britain’s military aid to the Manchus, the decision is partly a boon to the troubled defense industry. Freezing American aid and foreign shipments to the Egyptian Army, a regular and good customer (over $1 billion in government-approved Foreign Military Sales delivered in 2013), has seen the Egyptian marketed targeted by the French and Russian defense industries. France just sold 24 Rafale Fighters to Egypt, no doubt alarming the American aeronautics industry who saw Egypt as their market during a budgetary reduction in the United States. There are very specific parallels to Britain’s insistence on selling an entire fleet to the Manchus (though technically remaining neutral, just as the Administration claims it is doing) in order to edge out the Russian and French and to boost British shipbuilding.

So too did the British authorities in China associate the Taiping with banditry because they were a fringe movement, even though Taiping armies reportedly enforced sobriety and maintained better discipline when treating the average Chinese peasant then the Manchu Armies. Similarly, our commercial interests and desire to be geo-strategically engaged with the right people trumped Arab Spring democracy, which saw popular elections elevate in a group which was too religiously conservative for our tastes, but historically well disciplined and devout.

The Sisi government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has seen many imprisoned and hundreds condemned to death after show trials. A year ago, the Government sentenced 683 people to death in one trial, unofficially due to their connections to the Brotherhood. The number of death sentences have actually been carried out is debated, but still analysis from the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace warns us of an increasingly hyper-nationalist and anti-democratic movement which has repressed dissent, brutally.


So where does this leave American interests? On the one hand, this is a moral abnegation of what seems like an American Exceptionalist responsibility to defend the first principles of democracy. As Steven Cook writes in an article for Foreign Policy “How do you give more money to a leadership that has jailed tens of thousands, killed between 1,000 and 2,500, restricts freedom of expression, and forces dissidents into self-imposed exile, much of it in the name of counterterrorism?” This is a question Washington has had to ask itself time and time again, especially as we ally with one reprehensible authoritarian power after another in the name of defeating terrorism (while often suffering from terrorism that power either turns a blind eye to or actively sponsors). This is where the horrendous credos of the jihadist movements of Dr. Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden have resonance to the religiously conservative Sunni Arab populations of the Middle East: the unashamed negation of supposedly Western virtues in order to serve what is easily misconstrued as semi-Imperial undermining of Islamic religion and jurisprudence. While democracy and illiberal Salafism don’t necessarily mix, that hardly matters to Egyptians who saw democracy defeated without a bang, or even much of a whimper, from the US.

At the same time, the new nationalist and secular Egyptian government has been a working partner with Israel, a good arms customer, and now a very active enemy of Iranian backed Houthis and ISIS offshoots in the Sinai and Libya. Dedicated and aggressive counterterrorism among Arab allies is the kind of action Washington has sought from the beginning of the new millennium, so it is hard to turn your back on it when it is going forward so vigorously, especially when the American defense industry gets a sizeable opportunity as well. When the editors of the London Times spoke of the Taiping in 1862, and when Palmerston defended British assistance to the Manchus, whose official policy was to take no prisoners in a way that makes Sisi’s government look humanitarian, the commercial interests of Britain ultimately won out over any sympathy for those fighting for Christian and pro-Western principles (easily dismissed due to the un-examined prejudices of bigoted individuals).

This is a morally hazardous paradox of security, both economic and physical, in our attempts to counteract the rise of regimes friendly to Salafi ideals which may prove willing to aid and abet anti-American actions. In all of our love for American exceptionalism, it is often only tacitly acknowledged that democracy can be dangerous because it allows popular sentiment to rule, and not everyone thinks the West is great or the ideal to be reached for. America has had its own problems with checks and balances on popular sovereignty and civil liberties, and some Princeton scholars recently argued that democracy in our own nation is now largely a fiction. While I wouldn’t go that far, there is undeniably some double standards in our conduct. This is, as Reinhold Niebuhr would explain, a moral casualty of our world power, and in a purely realist approach, it is a hazard worth taking to secure our power and influence in the region at this critical juncture.

However, like Britain in China, we should be aware that there may come risks from such support, especially with a little reinterpretation of history. The Taiping have been seized on by nationalists and communists alike as a force of native resistance to Manchu authoritarianism and a demonstration (which, historically,the  Chinese do not require more of) of the predatory policies of avaricious and faithless foreigners. Winning over Egypt’s current authorities may be a pragmatic move, especially as we seek to shield Israel and counteract Iran, but it ought to be remembered that arming Egypt’s military will simply reinforce much of what our enemies may say about us, and we must accept for that a historical point of contention which may turn against us. When the Boxers rose up to slaughter Westerners, the Manchus were not far behind, no matter what Britain did to aid against the Taiping. We must understand, implicitly, that we just negated our own liberal preference for popular democratically-elected governments (the same logic with which the Bush Doctrine justified the Iraq War), and, even as we spin what we have done, understand that the consequences down the road may be substantial.

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The Challenge of American Military Logistics


“Plan properly, or die”

-Julian Thompson, The Lifeblood of War 

If there is one military truism which is as universal as it is unsexy, it is the fact that the limits of warfare are defined by the logistics that power it. If we think of strategy as the art of directing our means to our ends or vice versa, then logistics is the most essential underpinning of our means, which is to say that everything from feeding troops to ensuring regular deliveries so there are enough lugnuts for our mechanics to keep our vehicles together falls into the realm of logistics. “He conquers who endures” as the Roman writer Flaccus said, and logistics is, at its core, the art of making the entire military function not only effectively, but consistently.

The last two centuries have seen the entire enterprise of logistics evolve into a more wholesale and what some term “holistic” process. While basic acting principles of foresight, sustainability, flexibility, and economy remain roughly the same, (this being a modified form of the principles named by Julian Thompson OBE in his book) the entire scope of logistics from production of essential items and consumable goods to their deployment and extirpation from the field of combat, and even to their disposal, has become a carefully managed commodity and element of national security.

While, in a sense, t’was ever thus, the efforts to achieve the sole control of organized violence by European-modeled states and state bureaucracy since the Middle Ages has increasingly put the entire life of an item or consumable good into regulation in some way. The process arguably reached a high point in the mid-twentieth century with the nationalization and subordination of entire economic sectors to war requirements, and the direction of entire national strategies to achieve logistical certainties, even in peacetime. Anyone looking for evidence need only read The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food by Elizabeth Collingham to get a sense of the intense magnitude of the effort to feed the millions of men and women who fought and who supplied the Second World War, and how the desire to achieve an average daily calorie count led directly to staggering mortality on and behind the front lines. A similar issue, rubber and petroleum requirements, directed Japanese and German strategies over vast areas of the globe; Asahi Shimbum, reflecting on the Pacific theater, wrote “It was a war begun as a fight for oil, and ended by the lack of it.”

Logistics and American Strategic Requirements 

The extent to which logistics has dictated the conduct and the limits of wars and the adverse effect of how the requirements of war has dictated the conduct and limits of logistics is a rather complex continuum, and is probably best understood on a case by case basis. When talking about the United States in 2015, the overall shape of military logistics is best understood as a matrix of military necessity guided by national strategy, liberal free market economics which direct the practice of contemporary logistics, and the important factor of public choice and political rationalization which directs strategies and money spent.

The first, military necessity as dictated by national strategy, is the hard requirement directed by the desired effect. America’s national security goals, as last defined in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, involve the defense of American citizens and American territory (the Continental United States and its Pacific extensions), as well as “advancing” the global order along the lines of economic prosperity for Americans and, guided by our liberal sensibilities, the general betterment in the economic opportunity and condition of humanity as a whole. This has been our clarion call for the better part of a century of global engagement, a morality roughly defined as Wilsonian, though the actual part we play in global affairs, as partner or leader, portion or exception, is several thousand undergraduate IR and Poli-Sci dissertations unto itself. Regardless, the requirement of global engagement in defense or in deterrence of conventional attacks or targeted terrorist threats to economic or physical security is the ability to project military force forward from the United States.

Logistics to achieve this for an organization the size of the American military, over 1 million personnel,  is to vast to even begin to be covered in a blog post. It involves supplying operations on land, sea, air, and space.  However, to understand it generally (as is my aim), one must factor in the latter two determinants of the matrices, the effect of global economics and the effect of political rationalization, as this generally governs the how and the why.

Logistics and American Economic Preferences 

For the first, it is important to recall that the United States is a power whose liberal social and economic interests have in no small part dominated its doings in nearly everything, especially military; for the fear of economic burdens due to taxation and eclipses of civil liberties, the United States did not keep a military commensurate to European or Asian powers until the end of the Second World War, and its earlier and more aggressive naval expansion served mostly to be a guarantor of economic interests for American mercantile activity. In the realm of logistics, this meant that much of the logistics and support/sustain activity was handled by contracting to private enterprise, and even at the point at which this trend was even partially eclipsed during the demands of the large wars of the early to mid-twentieth century, the industrial shift to war production was managed by government subsidy and an increase in spending/taxation, as opposed to outright seizure or the nationalization of industry and agriculture. Even where there is regular government interference in private industry, during the stages of development and procurement of new systems and carefully guarded regulation of certain high-value technologies, industry still retains leeway and usually turns a handsome profit.

Today the trend has returned back to a system of contractor support under the protection of American arms, which are themselves secured by the activity of numerous contractors and private businesses. The supposed ratios of contractors to government personnel (military included) in Iraq was 1 to 1, and possibly higher than that in Afghanistan, and the actions of the contracting personnel have also expanded beyond merely coordinating from behind the lines. Today’s contract personnel do things well beyond the scope of logistics, but the primary role that the private business plays in sourcing most non-essential military products (and even ammunition depots are maintained by private companies), from medicine to building materials, into active war zones is pronounced. Contractors water the grass, make food, cut hair, deliver mail, and in many cases drive the trucks and fly the planes which deliver vital supplies to American soldiers.

The Iron Mountain vs. Just In Time 

With this has come a certain influence of private practice into public activity. Military logistics now, especially operational logistics (getting stuff from A to B, depot to soldier as the case may be), is constantly being told to take a hint from Walmart’s system of making sure they never run out of Tickle-Me-Elmos, or whatever is desperately required in certain locations.

The rise of “Just in Time” logistics, in which costs are managed by reducing inventories in favor of competitive sourcing to deliver things only where they are needed and “just in time” has definitely had effects on military practice since the end of the Cold War. The ancient depot system, lovingly referred to as “The Iron Mountain”, was a fundamentally “push”-based concept wherein materials needed were amassed in bulk and then pushed out in doses to all units. By the linear logic of military thinking, this is the best way of assuring your forces don’t run out of essentials, but in the paradoxical logic of military reality, this creates the necessity to put more people on board to manage more stuff being sent in and out, and also means you have to amass material (and space most certainly is a factor) in various points which become vulnerable to enemy action (especially as they go closer to the active frontline).

The efficiency of “just in time” logistics is that it eliminates the need to store materials and is more responsive to unit “pull”: a unit needs something, say more night-vision goggles, and through a system predicated on better technology (phones, computers, automobiles, etc) that demand can be more uniquely catered to straight from private industry via a service contract with the federal government, which sees a company do all the necessary procurement work and delivers it directly to the unit either out of government stores or directly from the companies that make it. Hence there is no need to maintain an inventory of more than a few night vision goggles as long as they can be sourced reliably.

The Benefits and Risks of Military “Just in Time Logistics”

There is a whole world of economic sense in commercial logistic practice: it eliminates paper work, reduces money spent on inventory management, puts more government employees and soldiers to work actually fighting the war, and allows the free hand of the market to do its work with all the sublime benefits it supposedly brings (the repeated and massive waste of taxpayer money by the avaricious notwithstanding). Yet, war does not necessarily follow linear logic, nor the defense industry. The increasing specialization of the market and the aggressive sourcing methods do have some negative repercussions, especially when one considers that even “just in time” is not necessarily fast enough. In lengthy peacekeeping operations, where operational risks for companies are low, it is a boon, but it can also set limits to operational logistics where risks become to high for companies to accept. At this point, soldiers must take over and accept the risks of operational sustenance.

At this point too, the supply chain question of the global economy becomes a vulnerability. Most logistic support to our forces overseas comes by way of international shipping on commercial vessels, and the predication of the current security relies on the continuation of shipping, much of which follows long-established lanes which can be attacked by terrorism or conventional means. The large US owned and leased maritime logistic fleets are pre-positioned to give immediate aid and be a bridge measure to the establishment of a safe and regular supply line. However, in terms of actually conducting an armed operation swiftly, we are still talking months to build up for a large operation, and it is hard to hide, especially in this networked world, the direction of so much commercial traffic to any one spot. Pre-existing infrastructure in the Gulf made this possible for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003; over a decade before the process of sending a significant portion of the American and allied militaries to the Gulf took months of preparation and the rapid (contracted) construction and expansion of  port facilities.

Ground transport to the ends of the earth is similarly inefficient where infrastructure is lacking or openly hostile, limiting the expanse of operations to where troops can be sustained for lengthy periods and thereby slowing the pace of operations. In Afghanistan goods have to come either by air, which is costly and inefficient, or by land from the port of Karachi in Pakistan, causing there to be continual risks with local contractors having to pay off armed groups for protection or, as has occurred, Pakistan actually closing the highway to Coalition traffic. All these inconveniences and halts in the system can be overcome by slowing operations, but in warfare, correct timing is of the essence. The requirement to halt the pace of 2003 Invasion of Iraq in order to allow logistics units to catch up to forward mobile units was time lost that, if the enemy had been better organized and more resilient, might have proved a very significant setback.

Theater Logistics and the Budget Crisis: An Imperfect Answer to a Hard Question 

Therein too lies the problem of political rationalization and public choice. This could also be dubbed the “power of the purse”, as logistics now works mostly on the assumption that the control of violence means the control of the supply of violence as well. In the past, armies usually dealt with shortfalls and even supported entire campaigns by the method of requisition or foraging from the local population near to their operations, with the result that the presence of armies usually meant that looting, rapine, and exhaustion of local resources followed.

In modern warfare, A. it is usually not possible to secure highly specialized components necessary to enable forces to be successful from local sources (while resourceful, a Helmandi mechanic will not often have a spare track for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle), and B.  the imposition of military requirements upon local people, especially in under-developed areas, can easily overwhelm local resources and cause additional resentment when the market is not equitable or is culturally alien to American practices.  Hence these days a significant portion of the military budget is spent on sourcing and operational logistics just to sustain the daily operations of forces both abroad and at home, allowing American forces to enjoy operational flexibility unhampered by resource deficits in areas of operation, a factor which was and is responsible for high rates of personnel wastage and operational limitations that resource-sensitive forces cannot overcome.

This cost is one of the reasons the budget for the American military is so high (first in the world and outspending the next five largest combined). Maintenance and Operations, notwithstanding the Contingency Operations budget to actually fight wars, represents the lion’s share. This is where political rationalization re-enters the schema.  When it comes to Congress and the Services, supporting the established military capability as broadly defined by the leadership while attempting to rectify the budgetary problems of the last few years (which includes offsetting a few years of boosted military spending to actually bring Iraq to what we thought at the time was a successful conclusion) has meant that hard choices have to be made for the purposes of continuing forward global engagement while reducing the budget.

The concept of military “readiness”, which used to be equated to a very specific set of circumstances involving the defense of West Germany and South Korea is now a worldwide phenomenon as China becomes a seapower and veins of the global economy sit astride weak states and interdiction-capable powers like Iran. The United States must be ready to fight nearly anywhere, usually moving with pre-stationed small task forces, while most of the surge forces will project forward from the United States.

Readiness has various components, but logistically it means having enough material forward positioned to hold the line and then rapidly expand it when the need arises. The logistics chain forward, even at its best “just in time” is still very expensive to maintain, as is the need (on the production logistics side) to give the companies in the increasingly specialized and monolithic defense economy enough work to keep their businesses going. Hence we are now trying to be ready to fight anywhere in the world at any time without having to maintain the forces stationed overseas at increasing cost.

The answer thus far has been to attempt to rein in the size of the military to avoid it becoming a hollow institution (and saving money wherever possible) and getting it to increasingly specialize to deal in one specific region or task. The Marines are working around a concept of basing their forces entirely at sea and on any craft available with the intention of acting solely as a rapid expeditionary intervention force, while the Army has introduced the concept of regionally-aligned forces, which deploy to joint training exercises on rotation in smaller batches and then co-base with allied forces in-country. The new model will aim to eliminate military forward stationing and basing, which is expensive, with efforts to build up local capabilities to work in concert with American forces. This, in theory, ensures that American and local forces can cooperate efficiently and manage security (presenting capable deterrence, especially in the Pacific) without having to deploy more American forces and keep them there on longer deployments (with all the necessary infrastructure that entails). To be sure, prepared bases will remain, especially in Korea and in the Persian Gulf, but forces will more often co-habitate and cooperate out of local facilities elsewhere, and even forward bases will see rotations, rather than permanently stationed forces (cutting down on additional costs on garrison-supporting infrastructure).

This is an admirable solution with an imperfect logistics component. Regular rotation of forces drives up transportation costs (deploying with all the things you need to train and be prepared to fight) and can delay the establishment of a consistent supply chain (training can also be hard on your stuff) unless there is considerable forward presence of logistics personnel and equipment within a region to be used already. This approach, what is known as “theater logistics”, will involve the careful positioning of select equipment in delineated geographic area to allow forces to use it on rotation or to suddenly send an additional force to back up a pre-existing force. In Korea, for example, Army Pre-positioned Stocks #4 contain enough items to equip and sustain an Armored Brigade Combat Team (that’s vehicles, spares, ammo, the works) or roughly 2,000-5,000 personnel for a set time (30 days usually), as well as additional smaller units and specialty items.  The forward presence consists of both an Army Field Sustainment Brigade and contractors who actually do all the repairs and maintenance on the parts used. For the purposes of maintaining a consistent force to deter enemies (convincing North Korea it is not worth it to shell Seoul into rubble) this works in theory. It also works to quickly deploy assets to a disaster zone: entire field hospitals pre-positioned in Italy were rapidly deployed to assist American medical personnel deployed to Liberia earlier this year to battle Ebola.

Logistical Inflexibility: The Question of Failed Deterrence and Catastrophe

What is not known, and what is worrisome on a practical operational level, is how well this would hold up to surprise attack or a situation that evolved at an accelerated rate into a conventional attack. Our assumptions about what will and will not happen in terms of conventional warfare have been somewhat shaken as of late. The sudden collapse of Ukrainian conventional forces in front of Russian hybrid “non-linear war” and the current situations in Iraq and Yemen highlight how unstable the regional divides of our world can be, and how quickly they can split open when not constantly monitored. Pre-positioned stocks may be sufficient if America intervenes in a regional struggle as a powerful local arbiter, but once the situation overwhelms local pre-positioned resources we have to rely on the global supply chain to kick in. In small emergencies and disaster relief when not dealing with an aggressive or capable enemy, this can and has worked.

In terms of a more catastrophic conventional attack, however, it is unclear. I picture the situation in Korea in 1950. American forces were not on the peninsula when the North attacked the South, and the logistics network for American forces in the Far East operated out of Japan, which was luckily out of range of Communist interdiction. The force sent against the North Koreans originally, the dismal Task Force Smith, lacked consistent operational support (lacking weapons that could penetrate North Korean tanks for example), save from the port city of Pusan, the only port capable of supporting an American deployment in the region large enough to actually halt the Communist advance, and indeed, before MacArthur’s brilliant counterstroke at Inchon, the defense of Korea ultimately rested on Pusan, where every available soldier and shell was fed into the line as soon as they became available. Task Force Smith was too small and too ill-supported to halt the North Korean advance.

America is far better prepared overall to fight then it in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, but the point stands that a few good men can only do so much unless they are supported and reinforced. If Iran were to use a combination of irregular warfare via conduits in southern Iraq and conventional forces to attack Saudi Arabia (and presumably the United States’ Gulf Bases and Carriers as well), American forces on deployment would undoubtedly put up a good fight and, presumably, rapidly-surged Army and Marine elements to the Gulf would find pre-positioned equipment waiting, and would be ready to fight in a matter of days, not weeks or months. Yet, should the initial attacks be unexpectedly successful, the forces and the pre-positioned stocks may be rapidly exhausted. This limits the options we have to commence operations, save that we will have hopefully dealt Iran enough of a blow to halt their operational plans within the first day or so and allow the Saudis to defend themselves or hit back.  So too would the aggression likely open conduits (however risky) for American forces through Egypt or Jordan. The Marines could arguably be there within days and use seabasing to maintain some forces for up to a month before requiring a port in the region (potentially allowing for an attack on anti-ship missiles and re-opening the Gulf), but the concept is still in development.

This situation is unlikely (though intelligence failures about issues like this have happened), but it raises some key issues about pre-positioning and the logistics continuum to any one region. With the length of American engagement in the Persian Gulf, the port facilities and bases in Kuwait and Qatar are obviously tempting targets, if very well defended. Will pre-positioned material survive first contact with the enemy, especially if in fixed facilities? Will it be possible to source more material to the region if, heaven forbid, Iranian missiles make the Gulf extremely inaccessible to American shipping? Logistically speaking, this will define not only the first engagement but also the response and continuation of hostilities. The human element is important: where coordination and personnel are incapacitated or unavailable, then the pre-positioned stocks are of limited use, and the ability to quickly keep our forces supplied from the United States and other dispersed international stocks is a strategic imperative, but not one often discussed. In war, especially high-intensity conventional war, people can die very fast and forces rapidly become exhausted, and the US supremacy in “high-tech” arms will not be an indefinite solution if these are exhausted or break-down, which happens regularly as vehicles and weapons age.

This is not the first time that “first bound” options are the only ones planned for in concrete detail. As it was assumed during the Cold War that Western forces would not be the aggressors, merely the shield of Western Europe buying at most a few days before the West resorted to nuclear arms, the actual logistics for NATO forces (as it remains to this day) respected national sovereignty from production to delivery over actual military utility. The British, American, German, and Dutch-Belgian forces all used different equipment to national specifications, and did not have a single line of cooperation or delivery outside Supreme Allied HQ. Hence, if the Russians had actually attacked, resistance was essentially futile because there were not nearly enough roads and railway lines connecting specific national forces to their depots to resupply them to survive further Russian assaults, even if they had managed to stymie the first one. I once read of a British Sergeant cheerfully responding to a senior NCO who expressed concern about the forward-positioned stocks of ammunition lasting only three days, “Don’t worry, Sir, we won’t be needing any more than that.”

While something must be said for needing flexibility from instance to instance, planning is still key. If a crisis similar would develop in the American system now, expeditionary units from the United States and elsewhere would be arriving with their own support mechanisms within a week or two, then sourcing back along rapidly established supply chains to the United States or elsewhere. There is in this, I believe, a tacit assumption that money would then be no object, which if deterrence failed for China, North Korean, or Iran, is probably right.

Then again, the alternatives of nationalized industry or a unbelievably bloated defense budget are not more palatable in the meantime, especially if America wants to maintain economic and political freedoms she has enjoyed since rationing and the draft ended. Strategically, America could delineate her aims and focus on specific requirements, but the debounded nature of terrorism and suddenly collapsing states have made it hard to say where interests begin and end.

Contracting has given America some latitude to put some of the money spent back into the domestic market (and theoretically tax it), and it is evident from the success Private Security/Military Companies/Firms have had that global sourcing for military requirements can work up to a point, but the standards that American maneuver forces have mean that military logistics will have to maintain robust lines of supply where and if the global supply chain and contracting fails, and be prepared to push it out into attrition warfare in the first round of fighting. The issues presented by a failure in commercial contracting to source required equipment and shipping to deliver it ultimately could prove a fatal constraint only overcome by massive spending.


In conclusion, the tasks American security interests face are great, and this is only a general summary of the varied national and international dimensions of the problem. Especially now that timely engagement has become a global concern, the stocks required to do any given task in a theater, especially one like the Pacific Ocean, which covers of 50% of Earth, have to be distributed across a fairly wide area of operations with a lot of space (water) in between. The future projections of the Army’s Pre-positioning Plan foresees special smaller “activity sets” placed across the Pacific in Southeast Asia, Australia, Guam, Japan, and Korea, and similar diverse capabilities pre-stocked around the world. Efficient packaging, reliable sourcing, and expeditionary capability will be needed to enable this to work.

It is all about the process of managing risk and not sinking the economy or the government while trying to do it. I am relieved to say that I believe it can work, especially in crisis response, due to the innovative technologies available via the commercial market, including the potential for drones and automatic delivery technologies to reduce risks for personnel. I believe, however, that the risks of over-reliance on contractor support leaves the military vulnerable to a failure to fulfill contracts in event of emergency or economic crisis, limiting how quickly and how far we can go should the US have to. Hopefully, it won’t.

As always, the distances are great and the time is short, the essential challenge that logisticians throughout history have sought to overcome. Yet for the defense of American interests and the American people, the man behind the man behind the gun is still the essential figure who makes security policy into reality, and will for as long as we continue to fight abroad.

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Reflections at Spotsylvania

The first beautiful Sunday of Spring seems as good a time as any to resume the battlefield visiting and the study of Civil War tactis. It’s only been two weeks since my last visits to Monocacy and Antietam, both of which at the time were under a foot of snow, but the renewed vigor of the March sunshine and a rise in temperatures augured well for an expedition southwards.

I resolved to visit Spotsylvania, a battle fought in the Spring of 1864, on sudden impulse seeing how nice a day it was, though the seed had been planted the night before. I’ve been reading Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War and Earl J. Hess’ The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat and have been fascinated by an episode of the battle in which a Union Brigade under the command of Col. Emory Upton breached an entrenched Confederate line by attacking in column; that is Upton’s men marched in a deeper formation than the long firing line usually associated with Civil War combat, and then used shock (a bayonet charge) to rapidly breach an exposed entrenchment and then spread out to create a gap in the Confederate trench line which could enfilade (shoot down the length of a firing line) the defenders on either side.

Upton's Attack

Upton’s Attack

The logic of this attack was much like a battering ram. An entrenched enemy was an enemy that could easily use firepower to decimate attacking forces without exposing itself to the same killing power. Instead of Upton’s Brigade spreading out and attacking on a wider front (dropping the ratio of shots fired and the force exerted via shock attack they could concentrate at any one point), the brigade instead punched with maximum force at one much narrower point in the line. By ordering his men to not fire until they were inside the enemy trench, Upton’s forces rapidly drove through the advanced, but dispersed, Confederate skirmishers and were able to overcome the Confederate position directly ahead by reducing the fire equation to only one to two volleys at the effective lethal range of less than 50 yards before they were inside the trenches in force.  As the mass of Union soldiers rushed the trench, they quickly overwhelmed the dispersed defenders behind the earthwork and then were able to drive and turn about on the Confederate lines to left and right. These Confederate lines being narrower and, tied to a trench line, reduced to firing straight ahead with an effective variation of only 45 degrees to left or right, this caused the Confederate line to buckle on itself to absorb the surge on the point of Upton’s attack, losing cohesion and collapsing after being enfiladed by the suddenly more numerous Union troops spreading out from the breach.

Upton’s attack was a stunning success, but it was ultimately a local one that remained unexploited. Union attacks elsewhere along the line (not as well organized) failed to break through and were badly coordinated, and Confederate reserves counterattacked and drove Upton’s men back out of the salient entrenchments they had captured.  Unsupported by fresh troops and exposed well ahead of the Union lines, Upton’s forces could not maneuver further into the Confederate rear without fear of being cut off in a stand up engagement in the familiar linear fashion. If other attacks had been coordinated to pin other Confederate forces, the Brigade might have  hit the entrenched rebels from behind and collapsed the entire Confederate position, which was semi-circular and was thus dubbed the “Mule Shoe Salient”. A breach in force allowed attackers to then fire into the back of men facing away from them, causing further destruction, and it meant the Mule Shoe was not an ideal position,  and it would be abandoned a few days later in order to form a nearly un-breachable entrenchment on better ground.

Still, Upton’s attack is usually hailed as a harbinger of modern infantry tactics, and had to be re-learned in the First World War, in which the entrenchments of the Civil War would be complimented and made explicitly necessary by rapid firing small arms, machine guns, and high-explosive artillery. Breaches would be made on smaller fronts by fast-moving squads of trained men armed with grenades and rapid firing weapons (the bayonet still in evidence) in order to disrupt the firepower of entrenched forces, allowing further exploitation by reserve forces who could mop up and consolidate local gains.

All that aside, it turned out that Spotsylvania is also beautiful and I increasingly spent more of my time enjoying the sunshine then mapping Upton’s attack. It is nestled near the small town (the objective Grant sought) of Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the park meanders through field breaks in a large forest known as the Wilderness, which was also the sight of the battle of Chancellorsville and the battle of the Wilderness (which immediately proceeded Spotsylvania) in May of 1863 and May of 1864 respectively. A verdant Spring has not yet come to that part of Virginia, but the woods and the tumbling hills and hollows surrounding the long depressions that mark the respective Union and Confederate trenchlines echoed with birdsong, and the warmth of the sun came through the forest thickets and illuminated the ground in long shafts of amber sunlight. After stopping to walk Upton’s attack (I took a driving tour through the battlefield park), I made my way to another, more famous part of the battlefield, a turn in the Confederate “Mule Shoe” known as the Bloody Angle.

Looking out from the Bloody Angle across the Union line of Attack

Looking out from the Bloody Angle across the Union line of Attack

The Angle was the site of one of the most hideous contests in human history, let alone the Civil War. Indeed, there was nothing “civil” about the fighting at the Angle. Grant had been so impressed with the success (temporary as it was) of Upton’s attack that he ordered similar battering ram attacks for two days later that were to commence before dawn, and the attack started before 5:00 Am. The exposed position of the Confederate mule shoe trench was quickly overrun by 15,000 men of Gen. WS Hancock’s Union Second Corps, capturing over 2,000 men in the process. The Confederate reserves rushed forward and launched multiple assaults to retake the position.

The see-saw attack was what historians of modern war would dub a battle of attrition, a human meat-grinder in which whole formations of men went forth and were swallowed up in fire. Charging and counter-charging over the Confederate entrenchments, men huddled in depressions in the ground and fired until their weapons fouled with residue, leading small attacks without the semblance of coordination beyond squad level. Men hid on either side of the angle, firing their muskets vertically down on the men crouching on the other side and hurling muskets with bayonets attached like spears, pinning men to the ground.  Cannons were brought forward in order to fire canister (loose musket balls, shell fragments, and assorted shards) into the Confederate defenders, who shot down the gunners who crewed them and all horses who came to retrieve the cannons. They lay abandoned throughout the fighting, surrounded by a pile of dead men and horses.

Attack on the Bloody Angle, May 12th 1864

Attack on the Bloody Angle, May 12th 1864

The fighting went on like that for 19 hours until the sun went down. At the end of the contest, the Union had failed to break to Confederate lines in the Mule Shoe, but the Confederates retreated to a hastily prepared secondary line. The profligacy of the struggle was brutal for both sides, but General Robert E Lee knew his smaller force could not afford another contest in the exposed Mule Shoe. The much improved new line would be tested, but would prove too strong for the Union forces. Grant moved off around the Confederate right, and this line of advance would take him to the gates of Richmond by June of 1864 and another siege which would finally pin and bleed Lee’s army into surrender.

I walked to the Angle and stared out across at the direction of the Union advance. The long valley and field in front of the Confederate lines is filled with heather, and in the light of the spring sun, was the dull yellowish color of set honey. Children laughed and ran, local people walked their dogs and chatted to each other, and the first flying insects I have seen this year buzzed up from the earth, a sure sign that the world is turning. It was the perfect scene of serenity, and I felt as I often do at battlefields when observing the disconnect between this perfect serenity and the knowledge of perfect slaughter committed over the same field. I was thinking of an old Shaker hymn that was rewritten as a tribute to the British soldiers in the trenches by singer/songwriter John Tams, a hymn called “Lay me Low”

Lay me low, lay me low, lay me low

Where no-one can see me

Where no-one can find me

Where no-one can hurt me

Confederates in their trenches, Union soldiers in the swells that now rang with the laughter of children, all these to me seemed united in some kind of innocent concord, an understandable desire not to be struck down by a whizzing shell fragment or leaden ball, and especially not to be pinned with a bayonet or clubbed by a heavy musket butt. These were nearly all Christian men who fought each other for 19 hours, and whose personal hell might only be the 25 or so feet in front of them distinguishable in the tunnel vision of combat through the smoke of thousands of muskets. Thousands of men each experiencing a little portion of a terrible slaughter that prefaced the infernos of a later age. So many balls flew around the heads of the men at the Angle that a large oak tree was cut down by rifle fire and saplings of ten feet were sheared down, along with the over 2,000 men who became casualties in an area roughly the size of a football field.

I had forgotten all about Upton, attacks in column, about all else. I was struck by the tranquility. The wounds of a war that ended 150 years ago this year haven’t totally healed, and I know too many today who would make this into a site of martyrdom to Lost Causes and What Ifs. Too many things left undone and too much said without comprehending how ugly this could be. I was almost angry that it was so beautiful. Why should the earth heal? Why and how could the sod forget what men had done to each other here? From Grant and Lee down to the privates who stabbed at each other with bayonets over this beautiful field, why could it not remain as a warning to us all of what people are capable of when anger and fear is harnessed to destruction?

I don’t tend to think of myself as a sentimentalist over the Civil  War, but nothing angers me more then people who are too quick to write off history as easy inevitabilities. People who would whitewash history to give easy answers to difficult questions, that things are begotten without struggle. For all those who chastise our supposed “something for nothing” culture, deeper still too much is taken for granted or factors often ignored because they are ugly. At the Angle, Christian men fought each other with desperate violence, and the fields were covered in mounds of dead. The average age of a Civil War soldier was 25, my age. 25 years of life, love, and conviction, good and bad, hurled into the maelstrom. There is nothing poetic about that kind of combat, save how it eclipses the mind.

Yet, it is beautiful on that ground today, and I couldn’t help thinking back on my own life. I had been to visit the Chancellorsville battlefield (a few miles to the north) almost exactly two years earlier, at the time struggling with numerous questions about what direction my personal and professional life would take. The fields were gray then, wet with rain and a damp wind which made it bitterly cold, even in the woods. I reflected that things had indeed been unclear then, such that the world itself seemed to reflect my malaise.

I was back, still questioning, and I remembered that there was a lot I didn’t know then, and a lot I had to learn to bring to where I am now. Even still, I have to remind myself I can only see my own 25 feet of confusion, but with the right discipline it is possible to break through. I couldn’t pull off such a magnificently planned maneuver in my personal life as Upton did on the battlefield; indeed as melodramatic the metaphor is, it was more like a messy and protracted battle of attrition like the Angle. At the end of it, I occupy a new position, but it is unclear where to go from here. I plan to move, as Grant did, to flank and search for new ground to do better then engage in old fights I cannot win.

At the same time, the world will keep turning, and the fields will green again and there is potential for good things to follow on where all was horror and bitterness.  It is important too to remember that there is the potential for healing, that violence can be answered by time and reflection.

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One of my favorite stories from Japanese history is the surprise attack on Ichi-No-Tani, an episode of the Genpei Wars (1180–1185) between two preeminent Japanese clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, or the Heike and the Genji as they are also called. The war was fought over control of the military governorship of Japan, the Shogunate, which held preeminence during a period of weak Imperial rule. The civil war is chronicled poetically in The Tale (or History) of the Heike or Heike Monogatari, 平家物語.  The linked music above is a retelling of the Heike with a Japanese lute, or a biwa, and a singer (much like a Provencal troubadour), and the lyrics tell the tale of the death of Taira no Atsumori at Ichi-No-Tani in 1184.

Ichi-No-Tani was one of the final battles of the war. The Taira, after early successes in battle, had begun to reel under renewed attacks from the Minamoto, especially under the generalship of the brothers Minamoto no Yoritomo and Minamoto no Yoshitsune. They retreated to their coastal fortress at Ichi-No-Tani. A long beach approached from the seaward side and was secured by the fortress walls, while the rear of the fortress was protected by a steep mountain face. The Taira were confident of their position, and their boats anchored off the beachhead, confident they could defend against and interdict an seaward attack with ease. Minamoto no Yoshitsune, studying the problem, decided on a bold maneuver. While other forces attacked towards the seaward side, he took a small detachment of his cavalry to the top of the mountain above the fortress at nightfall. From above the garrison, the Minamoto samurai could hear the Taira conversing, smell their campfires, and listened to the soft and sweet tune of a solitary flute. The descent was extremely steep, but Yoshitsune sent a pack horse down the face and saw the animal safely reach the bottom. Deciding that this was a sign that his riders too could make the descent, Yoshitsune attacked at dawn.

The Minamoto Descend towards the Fortress

The Minamoto Descend towards the Fortress

The assault was a complete surprise, and the Taira put up little resistance, abandoned their fortress in haste, and made for their boats off the harbor. Yoshitsune’s warriors pursued, cutting down all who tarried or fell in their rush to the boats. One of the Minamoto’s retainers, Kumagai no Naozane followed in haste, eager to earn distinction in the eyes of Yoshitsune. Already he had been deprived of single combat by fleeing Taira, and he was angered for “Fame depends on the adversary.” Before him, in the waves, he beheld a finely-armored Taira warrior on horseback attempting to swim to the boats and Naozane signaled with a fan and called out to him “”I see that you are a Commander-in-Chief.  It is dishonorable to show your back to an enemy.  Return!”

Among Japanese samurai, name and lineage were wound up with honor. While in practice not all samurai stayed and fought to the death, in the Heike and in European chivalric poetry, the warrior ideal demanded that men called out would rise to the challenge of individual combat (in a religious sense it is the struggle against the frailty of one’s own body in confronting a trial of physical and moral strength). Hence, the Taira turned his horse away from his escape and rode back through the surf to face his opponent.

Kumagai no Naozane was hungry for glory and an older, experienced combatant, and he quickly brought the smaller rider down to the sand and knocked his helmet aside to cut off his head. Doing so revealed, as the story tells, that the enemy “was sixteen or seventeen years old…a boy just the age of Naozane’s own son.” Naozane, suddenly troubled, felt compelled to spare the youth, but he realized that more Minamoto warriors were mopping up behind him, and that the boy, who was a Taira clansman, would likely be executed by someone else, and his head taken as proof (a custom for identifying the dead and rewarding warriors in medieval Japan).

Kumagai no Naozane challenges Taira no Atsumori

Kumagai no Naozane challenges Taira no Atsumori

“I would like to spare you,” he said, restraining his tears, “but there are Genji warriors everywhere.  You cannot possibly escape.  It will be better if I kill you than if someone else does it, because I will offer prayers on your behalf.”

With tears rolling down his face, Naozane cut off the youth’s head. Upon searching the youth’s armor, he came across a flute. It was this flute that the Minamoto had heard the night before the attack, and from such they identified the youth as Taira no Atsumori, one of the youngest leaders of the Taira, and a close relative of the defeated Taira commander, Taira no Tadanori, who was also killed at Ichi-No-Tani.

The Taira would be decisively defeated the next year at the battle of Dan-no-ura, a naval battle of the straits of Shimonoseki. The remaining nobles and the infant heir to the Taira all perished under the waves. Yoshitsune, the brilliant leader of the Minamoto, too would perish. Having aroused the anger and jealousy of his elder brother Yoritomo, Yoshitsune committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, by self disembowelment shortly after Yoritomo became Shogun.

For his part, Kumagai no Naozane was so troubled by his act that he abandoned the world and became a mendicant Buddhist priest of the Pure-land Jodo sect under the name Rensei. He died in 1206. Subsequent stylized religious plays, called Noh plays, tell stories of his wanderings, including a fourteenth century play entitled Atsumori, in which Rensei encounters the ghost of Atsumori when his travels bring him back to the beaches of Ichi-No-Tani. The ghost (and the chorus) recalls the nights before the battle and the flight to the beach, whereupon the boats had pulled away. Atsumori sings:

“Stranded alone on the back of a horse on the beach I was hopeless and could not decide what I should do”

The play ends with Atsumori reflecting on the strange, but welcome, reversal of fate, and like Rensei he abandons ideas of violence (revenge is a regular feature of Japanese ghost stories):

“Today my fate brought me here to meet you. When I tried to slay you as my foe, I found that you have rewarded an old enemy with kindness and prayed for the peace of my soul with holy invocations. I believe we will both be reborn on the same lotus flower in Paradise…You were not my enemy. Please, pray for me. Please comfort my soul.”

This episode has always been a favorite of mine for many reasons. First because it tells of regret and repentance done for the hurt we do others. I have always been drawn to the message that we must be aware and seek forgiveness for our trespasses and endeavor, against all animal nature, to earnestly wish well for the souls of those who we struggle with and who hurt us. Transcendence of the violence of earthly rivalry has produced little peace in our time, but it is still, in my opinion, humanities’ hope.

But there is another important message for me, that being the question of duty in the face of oblivion. That is Atsumori’s role. Atsumori was very young (17 in the Heike), facing an unexpected and terrible turn of events that overtaxed his senses. I have often wondered at the terror he must have felt: falling men, whizzing arrows, sudden confusion all around him. Riding into the waves in full armor, hoping for escape with the rest of the Taira nobility, what then compelled him to turn to face death when he was called out? What made him ride back to face a larger and more experienced warrior in what must have been a nearly hopeless contest? It was a sense of resolve, and a sense of duty to what he was.

Rather than be dishonored, and rather than abandoning his identity as a samurai, Atsumori faced death resolutely. The image of him turning his horse to return to shore sticks with me. It was the action of a doomed man, but one who fulfilled his duty when circumstances turned against him. When confusion reigned, ultimately it was Atsumori, young as he was, who stayed true to his principles and fought on. Ironically, as even the Heike notes, it was his resoluteness in death and the innocence of his flute (an idle pastime) which inspired Kumagai to renounce the world and seek Paradise (and in the Noh play, Paradise for the both), providing a strange passage from violence to worldly renunciation.

Atsumori and Rensei became a religious and cultural icon for samurai and the Japanese in general throughout the ages. The Noh play became famous as it inspired the later Samurai Leader Oda Nobunaga, who was given to reciting a particular verse:

“In truth, this world is not truly inhabited It is more transient than dewdrops on the leave of grass, or the moon reflected in the water. After reciting the poetry of flower at Kanaya, all glory is now left with the wind of impermanence.

The verse ends: “Unless we consider this a very seed of Awakening, it is a grievous truth indeed.” There is a very specific Buddhist element to this, which I do not mean to trivialize. Yet, I, an American and not a Buddhist, have found that Atsumori’s tale is one I am very compelled by.

I am reminded of a quote often attributed to Julius Caesar that “No man is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.” Things rarely always turn out the way we have planned, in war and in life. Sometimes the entire foundation of a strategy, an assumption about the unbroachable tenants of security to pursue different options, is flawed. I have recently found myself in a confusing situation which arose as if out of nowhere, and which left me feeling like Atsumori, caught between the failing hope of the departing boats and the crushing weight of the pursuing warriors at my heels.  While it would be melodramatic to say anything in my life is the same life or death situation as he faced, my first question is the same: “What shall I do now?” All seems to float between two worlds, neither which seem to offer any immediate relief. At that moment, I felt a similar loneliness, that feeling that I was abandoned and facing something I could not handle.

Yet, as Nelson Mandela wrote “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Like Atsumori, I find the only thing to do is not to flee towards the boats that cannot save me, but to turn about and start plunging my way back towards the beach, ready to do battle. Being true to what you know of yourself and what you are responsible for, this is duty, and duty I have found is what carries you through the unexpected.

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The Militia Conundrum in Iraq

“This was the soldiers‘ show now. Britain belonged to them, and they belonged to God.”

-Simon Schama, writing of Pride’s Purge of the English Parliament, 1648

The Institute for the Study of War reported last week that Iranian-backed Shiite Militias, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or the Peace Brigades, are threatening the coalition government in Iraq, as well as spreading rumors that ISIS is a puppet of the United States and Israel.  On the ground, anti-ISIS Sunni tribesmen in Anbar have welcomed the arrival of militia units to complement the Iraqi Army forces battling to regain control of that province. Yet, at the same time, it was the appearance of Hezbollah and Shabiha (Shi’a Syrian Militia) paraphernalia in Iraqi Army columns in Anbar this time last year that prompted some of the Sunni tribes to shelter ISIS and allied groups. As ISIS has proven unwilling to work alongside other militias when they can be absorbed by force, and since it has begun eliminating tribes and leaders who supported the Sahwa, “Awakening”, against it’s forerunners in 2007-2008, it appears that some Sunni tribes are looking down the barrel of a gun either way, and some choose the Popular Mobilization forces to assist them, while others are not convinced or outright hostile. After all, the specter of Shi’a militias conjures memories the brutal sectarian-war-within-the-war that occurred in Baghdad in 2005-2007, and Shi’as no doubt remember the use of Ba’athist militants against their politicians by Saddam’s regime.

The Popular Mobilization has eclipsed the Sunni anti-ISIS forces, who claim they are not receiving enough weapons and support, and have also become a mobile auxiliary to regular Iraqi Army operations. What began as a summer re-mobilization of the pre-existing Shi’a religious militias, notably Jaysh al Mahdi (the Mahdi Army or JAM), to defend the Shi’a pilgrimage sites in Karbala and Samarra slowly became a full-fledged paramilitary. Numbers are uncertain, but over the summer upwards of 50,000 militiamen were supposedly defending Baghdad and its approaches. While not all of those are working as adjunct to Iraqi Army operations or are still in the field, the organisation is large.

A militia, defined as a part-time, largely amateur fighting force, is primarily a tool of expediency for central authority. Semantically what separates a militia or a tribal or ethnic band is different from instance to instance, but a militia’s purpose is usually to preserve local security and provide an elementary skeleton of a military force without having to constantly maintain a large standing force for internal security.  An overwhelming characteristic of militias is that they tend to be spatially oriented to their local area, and control tends to be similarly local, with authority residing in local community leaders or (in the American case) elected leaders. Connections to other militias in unity of purpose tends to be decentralized, with command and control reflecting a radial system of negotiation and communication from cellular unit leader to cellular unit leader as opposed to a direct top-down chain of command of one authority over another. It represents a devolution of control to local leaders or individual commanders, who enjoy considerable latitude to administer forces and direct local operations.

Under pressure to do more than simply protect property, often with the militia becoming synchronized to the interests of a central national or ideological authority, a chain of command historically emerges. In Ariel Ahram’s theory, expounded in Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias, the militias often evolve towards centralization as adjunct or regular forces with state sponsorship, which also sees militia commanders increasingly organized on hierarchical lines for the purposes of better command, control, and sustainment. The extent to which top-down leadership emerges, Ahram argues, has much to do with the requirements on the militia. If it is simply to hold territory and enforce a peace, militias tend to remain decentralized forces bent on local ideological or political enforcement. It is when these forces become adjunct military forces for offensive action, like Iran’s Basij and Pasdaran Revolutionary Guards became during the Iran-Iraq War, that they require additional controls and regimentation so that their actions can be better controlled for high political purposes, and that can be a point of tension where government authority is weak.

Why is this relevant to Iraq? Well, because the Iraqi Army, which still functions as the force directly interfacing with Western assistance, now relies heavily on the militias to do the work of patrolling areas, defending neighborhoods, and manning checkpoints. Some militias are also now actively taking on ISIS with the help of Revolutionary Guard leaders, who have sponsored, alongside Hezbollah contingents, similar militias in Syria. The Iraqi Shi’a militia movement bears similarities to those operating in Syria, though the polarization that has arisen in Syria is not, as yet, as marked in Iraq. Aggressive training in light infantry tactics and a source of external support make Iranian and Hezbollah forces hard to turn down, especially when they supplement otherwise intermittent support from the central government. Similar instruction is going to Kurdish and Sunni militias from UK, Canadian, and American military trainers, both in Anbar and for infiltration into the areas surrounding Mosul for cooperation with the Iraqi Army in the forecast offensive for the liberation of the city (though the announced timetabling has been the subject of fierce arguments which underscore the tension inherent in the situation).

Shia Militiamen Parade in Baghdad, Summer 2014 (Photo: Khalid Mohammed)

Shia Militiamen Parade in Baghdad, Summer 2014 (Photo: Khalid Mohammed)

Admittedly, there have been stumbling movements towards cooperation and mutual assurance between the various anti-ISIS militias. Not only have Sunni tribes called on Popular Mobilization units to assist them when surrounded by ISIS, but, in response to the recent killing of a Sunni tribal leader by Peace Brigade members in Anbar, Moqtada al Sadr (the prominent anti-American Shi’a Cleric and head of JAM) has recalled Peace Brigade fighters in an attempt to “show goodwill“. The pan-Iraqi Nationalist hopes that this is an attempt to show Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems and forestall those arguing for Western intervention, and Sadr is calling for local political parties not to abandon mediation and the government peace process. Yet, as some have argued, Sadr and Iraqi Shi’a Ayatollah Sistani’s religious decrees (fatwas) for Shi’a militia to organize and aid the Iraqi Army in “jihad” may create more panic among Sunnis and Kurds, whose lip-service to cooperation may be a method of obtaining more Western support.

The Peace Brigade and other militias represent, clearly, the weakness of the Army and Iraqi police to protect Iraqi citizens in the short-term, but what is more ominous in the long run is the increasingly devolution of violence and control of militias. That the Popular Mobilization and their Sunni counterparts have arisen is not surprising given the vacuum of civil authority to stop ISIS. What is worrisome is that Sadr’s call is interpreted by some as a demonstration of his power over large portion of the government’s available manpower, or, also worrisome, attempt to rein in those militia groups who are looking to splinter, inspired perhaps by Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, and pursue divergent interests. Indeed, because the local character of militias makes them ideal for short-term solutions and controlling their districts, they also have difficulty being controlled where preferences diverge between ideological or national leaders and local commanders. Some local leaders may take advantage of their new power and military capabilities (which may include buying or grafting items as large as tanks from the notoriously corrupt civil government) to launch their own offensives and local security efforts for ideological or openly venal purposes (collecting debts, taking revenge, etc). Too often in the past, petty warlordism has been responsible for sectarian murder and further antagonism.

It is obviously concerning to Iraq’s new coalition government, and the government has hinged on the reestablishment of a pan-national militia, a National Guard, which can harness local militias under government control and pay, attempting to create an uniformed and outwardly secular force for the advancement of pan-Iraqi goals. Such an attempt failed in 2004, largely because de-Baathification, in which anyone with ties to the Saddam regime was barred for public office, kept Sunnis out of the Guard (including that most precious commodity to paramilitaries, experienced leaders) and the resulting force, composed mainly of Shi’as, suffered continual discipline problems.  What Iraq got instead were local militias, loyal to individual commanders or local authorities who in turn kept them close to important national and transnational power-brokers, Iraqi, Iranian, or American alike.

Sunni "Awakening" Militiamen, 2010 (Photo: Mahmud Saleh)

Sunni “Awakening” Militiamen, 2010 (Photo: Mahmud Saleh)

The paramilitary expansion of Shi’a forces under Maliki’s government (arguably the Baghdad police force became an extension) and then the US bilateral backing of Sunni anti-al Qaeda self-defense militias during the “Awakening” (which Maliki opposed) effectively ended the Iraqi Army’s monopoly on force, while the Peshmerga, a very well-disciplined militia composed of Iraqi Kurds, presented the initial bulwark against ISIS expansion into the Kurdish autonomous region, but also were accused of being enforcers for Kurdish separatism. Overall, preexisting loyalties ultimately have precedent in Iraq in times of internal crisis, and Ahram, writing recently on the effort to recreate the Iraqi National Guard, viewed a pan-national Awakening to be highly unlikely via the medium of a national militia. Indeed, he quotes scholar Adeed Dawisha saying that security in Iraq has, since 2003, arisen “not because of the state, but in spite of it”.

In the end, it is that mutual suspicion and the relative attractiveness for a course of extrajudicial violence that shattered Iraq and may still shatter it. For indeed, if ISIS perishes, the land will, unless endowed with a far better system of administration, have a country filled with semi-permanent, armed, and factional militias and commanders. The recent example of Libya, struggling to disarm and demobilize the militias that toppled Qaddafi and now are threatening the country with a full-blown civil war, or Afghanistan, which suffered disastrous civil war years when the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen factions turned on each other for control of the country, point to danger ahead.

Military necessity and political expediency can help slow ISIS, but the answer (if the Army cannot deliver) will be the necessity to keep ad-hoc formations under arms and fed, with success going to the effective and well-organized (which can also happen to be the most homogeneous, thereby making it unlikely that pan-sectarian militias will emerge organically). Control of these informal auxiliaries, as a rule, still is hurt by the medium of local resistance to central hierarchy, and al Sadr remarked in June when he formed the Peace Brigades that he sought coordination with government forces, but that his people and clerics would retain control over the fighters. This sort of estrangement is already familiar from Maliki’s refusal to pay the wages of Sunni anti-al Qaeda militia after the US withdrew, leaving many men out of work, angry, and armed. Attempts to keep control and disarm militias have never yielded perfect results, and attempting to do so now, with the Army’s ability to defeat ISIS in doubt, is unrealistic.

Iraq’s national political process is still shaky, with regular accusations of Sunni Baathism, Shiite domination, and Kurdish separatism breaking down relations in a regionally divided country. Militias simply present an opportunity for politics to continue with other means. Of particular concern are Maliki’s closeness with Baghdad’s militia leaders, his wins in the recent parliamentary elections, and his remaining on the fringes of the political scene which adds to fears he might launch a coup with the assistance of the Popular Mobilization. So too is the actual combat leadership of Iraqi forces by Iranian Guardsmen, as is the American plan (and the difficulty) of finding Sunnis “moderate” enough to confidently arm to counter ISIS’s influence over the region’s Sunnis, while also building Iraq’s Army for the Mosul Offensive.

This is Iraq’s militia conundrum: the militias are both the symptom of anti-ISIS resistance, but are also further sapping Iraqi unity, creating fears for ISIS to exploit and encouraging factionalism. The expansion of and a reliance on militias, the widespread distribution of arms and rudimentary training, and the self-reinforcing insecurity they bring to a country that has already experienced repeated economic and social devastation does not augur well for peace, which was being maintained unevenly by tribal or sectarian forces operating outside the remit of the national government even before Mosul fell. As Machiavelli expressed it: “Wars begin when you will, but will not end where you please”, and Iraq’s fault lines are lined with militias.

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Uncertainty Reigns

Recent polling numbers, as reported by CNN, suggest that Americans on the whole are now more open to the use of escalated force against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, at least judging by the disapproval 57% of polled persons had with the way that the Obama administration is persecuting the war. It is remarkable, however, that a solid half of those polled are still opposed to ground escalation even as they view the war’s current results as disappointing. Yet, these numbers suggest more enthusiasm then most Americans have had for large scale intervention of any kind for several years.

I went to see American Sniper last night, and I enjoyed the film for the acting and on the understanding that I was watching carefully edited truth. It also made me realize, however, that perhaps some lessons of Iraq were lost on director Clint Eastwood and possibly on his audience. I don’t mean that the movie is propaganda, but I think it makes, for narrative reasons, some questionable simplifications that belie a deep problem with the way Americans view the Iraq War, or another round of intervention.

Chris Kyle’s legendary enemy “Mustafa”, a jihadi sniper, is the antagonist of the film. Mustafa is imaginary, paste together from several snipers that Kyle mentions in his book. In the movie he is first shown working for al Qaeda in Iraq, but later turns up in Sadr City, presumably fighting alongside Jaysh al Mahdi, in the film’s climatic scene. That AQI and JAM represent two factions fighting for two diametrically opposite aims (and who spent as much time fighting each other as fighting the US) is glossed over to focus on Chris Kyle’s one man war on the mujaheddin.

Yet, as one sometimes hears, the devil is in the details. When understanding why ISIS suddenly appeared, and why Iraq suddenly fell apart last summer, you have got to understand why these two enemies represent two very different things.  They represent two armed wings of a sectarian struggle within Iraq’s Arab population over who calls the shots in the local and national affairs, Iraq’s Sunni Resistance (the remnants of the old Saddam Regime with elements of global Sunni extremism) or the rising power of the Shi’a majority, some with ties to Iran. Throw in additional considerations of tribal loyalties and familial allegiances, and you realize the complexity of the situation that American leadership and the soldiers confronted during the occupation and the difficulties of combating insurgents and terrorists.

The fact is that this still matters. As psychopathic and apocalyptic as ISIS and their success appears, they didn’t simply arise from Hell. As the Institute for the Study of War observed earlier this week, a huge threat to the coalition against ISIS is that many of the “moderate Sunnis” feel as if they are being disenfranchised in the national assembly and are being attacked by Shi’a Militias who are supposed to be their allies. Little is dead and buried without the proper rituals of peace and firm mutual guarantees, and the concept of an Iraqi citizen/fighter without local color or communal identification (as Tip O’Neill reminds, “All politics is local”) is the kind of a-historical middle ground which simply concludes (as Chris Kyle did) that Iraqis are just “savages” or “crazy” because they can’t get over their differences.

But then again, why should they? What trust do they have in anything besides God, their communities, and their blood relatives? Over the past decade, Iraq has become the ground zero of uncertainty. Armed groups, some religious, some political, some simply criminals masquerading as the other two, have stressed the fault lines of the country. From 2005 to 2008, civil violence racked the country and American troops, while heroic in the face of danger, were unable to stop the abuses of Maliki’s local governments and their police forces (read death squads). Sunni communities who threw out al Qaeda while working with the Americans were armed and trained over the objections of the Shi’a dominated central government, who quickly suspended their salaries and left many young men bitter at Baghdad. Nobody felt like there was a national institution to trust in, certainly not the Iraqi parliament after the last round of elections revealed Iraq’s regional polarization and Sunni resistance to Shi’a majority rule in Baghdad. It certainly wasn’t the Army, which already was suspect for mass corruption, or worse being gunmen for Shi’a extremists. In times of uncertainty Iraqis do what anyone would do: they fear, and then they act out of fear. Fear is easy to create, and a man who is afraid is a man who can be manipulated. This is what Clausewitz means when he talks about the passion of the populations and the soldiers who fight as an essential part of the trinity of warfare.

This is important, because fear will not simply dissipate when American boots hit Iraqi sod. Iraqis are not a monolithic block waiting for us to come rescue them, and that’s important to know before voices demand we send the troops back in. Our fight with the ISIS would not just be a fight with ISIS. We also have our so called allies, the Iranian-backed and sometimes Iranian-led Peace Brigades who supplement the Iraqi Army, and who represent the same ranks of the Jaysh al Mahdi who besieged Chris Kyle in the climactic scene of the film. It is inevitable that a large American force will overlap in Iraq with Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a ones who view our intervention in the Anbar Awakening as having created this problem in the first place. This will create tension, and will create fear which can easily be manipulated by Iran or from anti-American elements (many of whom were good Maliki constituents) to direct militias against our supply lines from our Persian Gulf bases. We will need many, many boots to keep our forces operating along cordons extremely vulnerable to attrition.

This is where Americans, and their elected representatives, need to realize that everything in war is simple, and that simple things are complicated. It isn’t about Chris Kyle’s excellent war-fighting ability or that of America’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen, which I have no doubt of. I don’t doubt that American forces would beat ISIS’s current force in a stand-up fight 9.99/10 times. What you don’t see in American Sniper, however, is the hazards of trying to patrol neighborhoods or keep your bases supplied when you are surrounded by insurgent forces. Chris Kyle’s humvee, bringing mail and extra wrenches to a Forward Operating Base, doesn’t get hit by a buried IED artillery shell which kills and maims 7 men in one horrible second. The majority of America’s war wounded and killed in Iraq was due to improvised explosive devices hitting vehicles and personnel, and was an issue that cost the Federal government $45 billion in specialized vehicles alone.

That is what a war with no safe rear area actually looks like, and that’s what a prolonged war with ISIS will be like, operating in a country where the line between friend and enemy is extremely thin, and where there is already a violent seven year history of mistrust. Everything will be uncertain, the only certainty being that our boots on the ground will have plenty of itchy trigger fingers aiming at them.

In times of uncertainty, to be sure, many things are at play. Fear, the desire to live, and hope, the desire to do better tomorrow, will drive some Iraqis to take up arms, shelter fighters (many of whom they know), and be seduced by outright psychopaths and dangerous power-hungry sociopaths to participate in and promote terrible violence, either by threats or more innocuous incentives. We in the West also fear, fear for innocents, fear that terrorist groups like ISIS are exporting violence to us and our allies (and will continue to do so as long as ISIS remains undefeated), and fear that we aren’t destroying extremism faster than it is spreading. Yet, before we allow our fear to overwhelm our judgement and empower our leaders to promote a supposedly limited war that may unfortunately prove more complicated than they are willing to admit, we must carefully consider that nothing is certain, that strategy is about making hard choices when things don’t go your way, and that our enemies are dynamic, shifting, and uncertain.

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The Entente Against ISIS: Or the War of the Second Coalition (of the Non-Willing)

A week ago, US officials announced that an offensive to clear the ISIS or Daesh forces from Mosul was to commence in a few months. The announcement by Gen. Austin 5 days ago ends speculative discussions of this operation which began this fall, and gives substance to preparations starting in December of last year. Timetables are unclear, but it might be auspicious to counterattack roughly by early summer, coinciding in the public mind with the anniversary of the sudden reverse of the Iraqi Army in Mosul in June of last year.

Daesh has already begun to dig in, according to a report from the Institute for the Study of War, apparently taking bids to construct a defensive ditch around Mosul. There’s nothing funny about Daesh ringing Mosul with a moat: they are also demolishing important bridges into the city, and likely, if insurgent preparations in Fallujah in 2005 are any indication, they will barricade themselves in well-populated urban cordons, knocking through walls and bricking up entrances. In order to throw Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces off-balance, Daesh has also coordinated attacks along the main roads running to Mosul and may be attempting to draw Peshmerga fighters off by lightening thrusts against Kurdish areas near Arbil.

Daesh governance in Mosul itself has been a mixed bag: some images propagated by Daesh itself show the city of a million or more functioning regularly, with some recent additions like a ban on smoking and regular and mandated religious education for children. Life, to some extent, has continued, and it is in Daesh’s interest to serve the public needs in order to maintain internal security. However, other sources, out of Daesh control, tell of skyrocketing prices and the commandeering of public spaces like hospitals for military purposes by abusive fighters. Public administration has kept the lights on and water flowing, though only intermittently. Desiring not to place the citizens under Daesh rule in too much duress, the Coalition has been selective about targeting, lest they drive the citizens fully into the arms of their occupiers, but the battles in nearby Kurdish areas have taken their toll, and strategic control of waterways (and filtration plants) have had impacts on the city’s public health and access to clean water.  Mosul and its environs have seen reprisal attacks and brutal crackdowns on local resistance. Daesh has put a lot of resources into commanding Mosul and Iraq’s north, and it is unrealistic to imagine they will abandon it to the forces they took it from less than a year ago.

US Training Peshmerga Fighters

US Training Peshmerga Fighters

Taking the city will, realistically, take months rather than weeks. The barriers, roadblocks, and ditches are as much to keep the population in as the enemy out, and in order to prevent outcry, the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces will need to clear neighborhoods systematically without doing the expedient thing of flattening them with artillery or airstrikes (which the Coalition will likely not allow on urban targets). If Daesh intends to make a stand in Mosul, it will likely not do so just to fanatically fight to the death (though, certainly, they can use that to their advantage in propaganda), but also to give more time for local counterattacks outside Mosul to threaten Shi’a sites or Baghdad, which has kept the regenerating Iraqi forces on the defensive since the summer and made them patently unwilling to go on the offensive. Attempts to show up the Iraqi Army as the harbingers of Baghdad’s Shi’a tyranny may not be as potent as they were now Maliki is gone, though Sunni tribes who are skeptical of government intentions to protect or arm them against Daesh may prove intractable allies.

Speaking of allies, the next question will be the role of US forces in the struggle. Will they simply provide the guns, ammo, and the current 2,300 advisers, or will US formations enter the fray? There are military expediencies in direct control that are prompting some like Senator McCain to put more boots on the ground: American forces acting in small teams or as “tip of the spear” forces might be able to lead or support the operation, and the expertise of American special forces in urban environments has certainly proven effective before (see the participation of SEAL Platoons in clearing Ramadi in 2006-7). American professional soldiers have the training and the dedication to withstand a long urban operation, and certainly it is easier to dictate what happens when you control the boots on the ground directly as opposed to just advising them and giving them air cover (vital as it may be).

However, the key to such an approach is the size of these forces and their ease of deployment and redeployment. In order to prevent a sizable logistics and operational footprint, American forces will have to embed with their allies, and to expand operations it will be necessary to expand operational bases and depots in Iraq itself. While possible in Kurdistan, the lack of safe corridors to these areas (with Iranian-backed and unfriendly militias on the roads from bases in Kuwait) will make amassing and sustaining these forces both expensive (almost purely air-lift) and risky. While it seems a no-brainer to use the more competent force, the lesson of expeditionary intervention in unfriendly areas is that the more goes in, the harder it is for more to move forward or get out, especially as the rear areas are filled with angry remnants of Jaysh al Mahdi operating as “Peace Brigades” who will not likely be happy observing a flow of American personnel and supplies to the north (especially with embedded Iranian commanders in the ranks).

Strategically speaking, less may be more. Already, Canadian and American trainers, in addition to training Iraqi Army forces, have trained northern resistance fighters, and these may allow for exploitation of local successes with resistance fighters after the insertion of special forces cadres. If American advisers, schooled in COIN tactics from the latter stage of the Iraq War, are leading the way, allied forces will clear areas and hold them against counterattacks while restoring services and providing aid. Western resources will be vital to rebuilding areas under Iraqi or Peshmerga control, as will efforts to combat the same corruption and abuses that made northern Iraq a surprisingly easy target for Daesh last summer. While these approaches will take longer then sending in the Marines, they also prevent Daesh from a key propaganda victory of turning this into an Western Imperialist siege combined with their already effective propaganda against a siege of an Safavid (Iranian) Army in Iraqi Camo.

The tactical challenge will then be one of getting the Iraqi Army ready for the high-contact, attrition-assured struggle for Mosul, one that may take months of painful, intensive, and harrowing urban combat and stabilizing operations. It will be a challenge of deploying an institution that can distribute money and aid to Mosul’s displaced residents during the siege (and do so without the massive corruption Iraqi officials have been famous for), and one that can convince Mosul’s populations that Baghdad and the Kurds have their interests at heart, so that Mosul will be more “liberated” then re-taken. In point of fact, it won’t be the first time Iraqi Forces have done so. In 2008, the Iraqi Army performed a similar  offensive against Daesh’s forerunner, al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI operating around Mosul. It will be important this time, however, it will be necessary to prove to the population that the Army is ready to stay and fight to protect them.

These challenges are daunting: attempting to do things by timetable in Iraq has often yielded poor results, or at best superficial ones. While Iraqi troops are certainly capable of doing so, liberating Mosul will require tactical and operational fortitude, something which takes time to develop. The two Iraqi Divisions assigned to the attack are to receive four to six weeks of specialized training according to a Wall Street Journal article. The challenge will then be to sustain the offensive, which may require additional forces which Baghdad has been hesitant to deploy to the north lest Daesh thrust towards Baghdad or counterattack against operations in the west. Sieges, historically, are long affairs, and the “clear, hold, and build” strategy of American counterinsurgency requires long, measured approaches to help isolate pockets of resistance in populations and create secure areas, literally block by block. If American advisers aren’t confident that their Iraqi forces will stand and fight, and be prepared to do so for weeks, then it isn’t a good sign.

Strategically, that isn’t the half of it. The endgame is also very important: politics doesn’t begin when war ends. Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and home to a substantial Sunni population, will need to be a base against Daesh forces along the Syrian Border, and also will need to be governed in such a way as to bring in as many persons as possible into a peaceful political process to avoid a resurgence of insurgency in the province. Local anti-Daesh fighters (including some Kurds) will be likely allies where they can be found, but in order to drive Daesh out, it will be necessary to create some way to both protect local people and empower dialogues which can give local authority figures (tribal or otherwise) a sense they have some input into their future outside working with Daesh.

The allied forces (Iraqi Army, Coalition, and Peshmerga) will also need to have well-defined areas of operation and responsibility, and with open communications between them.Trust between the coalition forces is essential. As both Iraqi and Kurdish forces have priorities outside Mosul’s liberation, it may be easy to splinter them by attacking elsewhere (as Daesh has done in past) and to drive wedges between them during the prolonged siege operations.  Already, complaints have surfaced about shortcomings in the Coalition’s communicative ability, and if these cripple the advance on Mosul, it will simply reinforce the sense of fatalism some commanders clearly have about the offensive.

Not only will demarcation areas be vital, so will be the promise of renewed political discussions over what Iraq’s future will look like once Daesh is driven from their Iraqi capital. There will be other struggles left: ones that may stretch over the border to Syria, and there will be the requirement to swiftly demobilize large militia organisations and prevent clashes between armed factions.  If Mosul falls and Daesh recedes, Iraq will still have open wounds to treat.  Hopefully, with Maliki gone, Abadi’s government will do a better job then Maliki’s did after the US withdrew in 2010, though what this would look like is still questionable, especially when oil revenues may be involved.

Even before all that, it is not hard to recognize that a lot is hinging on the success of this offensive. If Iraqi forces are ejected from Mosul again, especially in a rout, it will be a major blow to Coalition morale. It has political implications for US elections next year, especially as so many Republicans criticize President Obama’s slow “degrade and destroy” approach, which has not provided any decisive results thus far (though it never promised quick ones either). It might drive irreconcilable differences between Baghdad and Peshmerga political agendas, and it may embolden Shi’a political forces (with Iranian sanction) to threaten the new pluralist government. Daesh still has other strongholds and battlefields to entice foreign fighters to, and Mosul’s defense will likely be a focus for renewed efforts which could prove disastrous for the Coalition, even if their fighters are killed in the thousands (counting KIA, being a lesson of Vietnam apparently ignored by Sec. Kerry a few days ago).

Liberating Mosul will take lives, blood, money, determination, and time. Anyone expecting Daesh to crumble is to be applauded for their optimism, but resiliency is the name of the game. The world will watch Mosul carefully, and hopefully will see a day soon when the black flags are pulled down. However, the challenges are great, and Mosul will be a test for the coalition of foreign and local powers, one that hopefully they will meet.

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