The GWOT Effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.

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Eating Soup with a 900′ Powerglove: Mass Effect, Mechanical Armies, and the Reaper as Counterinsurgent Fever Dream

This event, entirely fictional, is inspired by chapter 33 of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In it, Lawrence lays out his vision for how the Arab Revolt  might defeat the Turks in Arabia. In this, I lay out the counter-insurgent’s dream, a fantastical imagination of the introduction of the Reaper, a la Mass Effect fame, as the ultimate weapon in counter insurgency.

About four weeks I spent lounging in that stuffy barracks, eating – no, gorging – on what they allowed, my body soaking up the calories, exhausted from weeks of neglect. As usual, in such circumstances, my mind began to spin and process, finally turning towards that perpetual thing, war, but more accurately, insurgency. Till now, our moves and methods were built upon our mistakes and their remedies, solidified in doctrine and then presented as the final antidote, tried and deemed successful, though it was not. So, in this forced mental solitude, I began to look towards those things I knew of the subject from study and experience, as well as my many digital travels. In this caffeine-free environment, my brain shrunk and made the world around me a haze, in which I pondered the subject at hand.

I am as well read as any on the subject. I have read Petraeus, McChrystal, Kilcullen and Nagl. I follow @abumuqawama and the War Kids. I’ve read the ideas and actually did them, seeing their effects, better now with the luxury of time, distance, and results, or lack thereof.  All this has resulted in me and my peers an almost unquestioning acceptance of the way – drink tea, be nice, be patient.

To win, it is argued, the key lay in the population. Win them, their hearts and minds, and you shall know victory. It had become an obsession of ours. Learn the language, study the culture, be persistent and kind and absorb casualties if needed but by all costs, win the population. Then, and only then could one expect to find victory. Now that l was in this broken, recovering state, it became unclear to me if this goal was worthy and just. What again, did we want this for and why were we doing so much to achieve it?

The barracks ebbed and flowed with the chow hours. Breakfast followed by post-breakfast naps, then lunch and then more napping. Only come dinner did the camp come alive. Debate mixed with the agonizing stories of recent failure. While they gossiped, I lay in my bed, lower back aching from too much rest – the king’s ailment – and thought more of our aim in this war. Win the population. Only we showed no prospect of winning anybody’s population.

I flopped over on my bunk, relieving the pain in my lower back temporarily and closed my ears to the nonsense around me. What if winning the population was not the key? Maybe the goal was in fact, the destruction, or at least the permanent defeat of the enemy, that vapour, blowing where it listed. Population be damned.

A trio of soldiers laughed and debated the merits of wholesale annihilation vice the softer approach. I listened in as one made his point, struggling to convince the others of the foolishness of such a barbaric tactic. They would come to no conclusion.

This unending insurgency, this vapour, how to defeat it? The tools provided, we knew not, with any certainty, if they worked. A confluence of events in that vilified theater led to a sort of victory, while those same events attempted to be replicated in the virtuous theater, are at this time indecisive. Perhaps to win the long war, winning the people is the essence and necessity. But what might be done in the interim? Better, a cheaper, yet permanent solution that does not annihilate the insurgents but threatens as much?

They wanted after all, the removal of us from their lands – an understandable goal if ever there was one. To do so they harassed and sniped and bombed and generally caused havoc, not just for us but for the people of whom we have made it our goal to win. As much as we killed them, which wasn’t much enough to secure victory, we could not do so to that end. They fought for their own freedom, or notion of it, and we ours. Killing to killings end would not accomplish these war aims.

Days went by and my gorging increased before slowing to something recognizable. Vigor returned in small doses and I milled about, chatting lightly and raising spirits with riddles and games. My chief concern, as fantasist, lay still with the house of war, it’s tactics, strategy, and psychology, for my personal duty was service, and my service was to all.

The first confusion lay with the idea that this enemy could not be destroyed, or again, defeated. Their base was their idea, and how does one really kill an idea? This, given the proper gathering of intelligence, technology, and imagination might be overcome.

To hold this territory of square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps two hundred thousand square miles, we would need troops there, on the ground. Impossible! Yes, but perhaps, the counterinsurgent would argue, we could partner with the locals, our host nation brothers and sisters who would exponentially increase our numbers. True, I say, but would it yet be enough? And to be there and to win the population? And even then, we know they will not come to fight us with an army of banners, lest it be online, in the info-space. No, they do indeed come as an army, in small numbers, happy to exploit our size and vulnerability, knowing fully we must be careful in our application of violence to win the population. Armies, it was argued, are like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. They, the enemy, they are the vapour. Their kingdom lay in the mind. A regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only where he sat and subjugating only what he could poke his rifle at.

Yes, all this being true, to do the deed as we know it, we would need hundreds of thousands of light infantrymen, with support, to garrison the land. An expensive and altogether unlikely scenario.

Now then, we get to the rub of his whole thing. Let us take the assumption that what we need to win is an immovable Army large enough to poke his rifle at whatever it is he seeks to subjugate. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Instead of drafting the rank and file for the colourless duty on the imperial frontier, why not leverage the incredible advantage in technology that we solely possess and develop and deploy a new concept of counter-insurgent?

Imagine a gigantic spider of steel and electrons, nuclear powered and nearly invulnerable to small arms and explosives. Tall and wide, imposing and always there. Part of its weaponry is its size, imposing, a mobile skyscraper. Rooted into the ground, an immovable army – only it moves! Rapidly it does, descending from the air or creeping along the land, watching all around, threatening to strike. It is ever present and sinister. That is the nature of it, to strike fear into the hearts of men who wish to oppose it. It cannot be defeated, only avoided. And even then, assisted by its junior siblings, the drones, and their network of spies, it captures the vital element of the modern battlefield – information – and quickly processes that into a strike from it’s all seeing eye.

Yes, this might be the irrational tenth, the kingfisher of the pond, the test of generals, for there lay in this no real predecessor except in the minds of children and mad men.

The absolute strength of our power, to the sadness of the modern noble warrior, rests in the pure economic and scientific dominance we maintain over all. To engage in ground combat with the insurgent is madness. It provides the enemy with that chance to fight and win against an icon of his hatred. To send the Reaper, is to show that there is no hope. It cannot be defeated. It can be there forever or be there not at all, only to return in an instant.

Some, understandably, might object to the black nature of such a weapon. Is this not more humane than the alternative? Flooding a land with hundreds of thousands of individuals all guided by their own hearts, attempting to stroke a hostile population to neutrality, instead of deploying a dozen Reapers to act as statues of justice?

Battles in Arabia or its cousins were a mistake, since we profited in them not at all. But if we must, honesty may do more for the case of victory than ill-conceived notions of pure intent. Our power is not in patience or numbers, but technology and imagination. Our developments have been lateral, not horizontal. We saddled our trucks and troops with armor and a brief class on “culture” and called them counterinsurgents. Our power is our strength, and a failure of imagination stunted its development and deployment.

Time passed, and my weight restored, somehow more natural than even before. These thoughts solidified and were packaged and stored away.

It seemed to me that our forces are strong but not prepared for the enemy they face. Our enemy is sophisticated only in that it faces us as we are and not as we should be. Our own population is supportive so long as we remain safe, and so enamored by technology are they that the introduction of the Reaper would be the crown achievement and marvel of our time. On its first landing, the absolute folly of opposing it would become apparent, and in that the war would be won.

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The Chattanooga Shootings and the Era of Persistent Conflict

Forever War

Forgetting we are at war has become very easy. Although we still have troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it feels as though those two conflicts have been tucked in, put to sleep, and we’re tip-toeing out the door, trying not to wake them up.

For those who have served, last week’s shooting in Chattanooga did not come as a major surprise. While the media quickly shifted to searching for the “why,” looking for rock-solid connections between this or that terrorist group and the shooter, many veterans instinctively knew it was tragically just another SIGACT in the Global War on Terrorism, to resurrect that dying phrase.

In 2008, when I was in New York City attending college, a bomb was thrown at the Times Square Recruiting office. Just another SIGACT.

I remember waking up early one morning when I was attending school in Egypt and reading the news about the Fort Hood massacre, where MAJ Nidal Hassan murdered 13 people at an SRP site at Fort Hood, Texas. In the same year, there was an attack on a recruiting station in Arkansas that saw one soldier killed and another wounded.

Then, as now, I didn’t wonder about the motive.

The term “era of persistent conflict” has been thrown around a lot in the past decade, and honestly, I’ve mostly ignored it as another buzz-phrase that’s shuffled out to further obscure whatever it is we’re actually talking about. A throw-away line in a speech that keeps the timer ticking down to zero. That, and I wasn’t sure that we really were facing an era of persistent conflict.

It sounds, dreary.

Then, the other day, I read this piece by David Kilcullen. As a refresher, Kilcullen is the former Australian Army Officer who wrote “The Accidental Guerrilla.” He advised General Petraeus in Iraq and is one of the important figures in devising the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. He’s not infallible, and he has his detractors, but it is hard to argue he’s not an important voice on violence in the 21st century (Given their penchat for preaching that the world is getting safer, I’d be curious to think about what the folks at On Violence are going to think of this post).

We’re living in an era of persistent conflict. This isn’t my insight – you can read it in the latest concept documents of half a dozen western militaries. But it doesn’t seem to have hit home, for the public or some policymakers, that the notion that this can all end, that we can get back to some pre-9/ 11 “normal,” is a fantasy. This – this instability, this regional conflict surrounded by networked global violence, this convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, this rise of a new aggressive totalitarian state from the rubble of the last war – is the new normal, and it’s not going to change for a very, very long time. There are no quick solutions: we need to settle in for the long haul.

For some reason, this opening paragraph resonated with me. I think it’s the idea of returning to “some pre-9/11  normal” that got me. I can’t even imagine what that would be like anymore. It does sound like fantasy. So maybe, it’s just time to accept that we’re really in it for the long haul.

But the truth is, that doesn’t mean it has to be miserable.

As Kilcullen says, there is a convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, and that is the new normal. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that the shooter in Chattanooga felt like he wanted to belong to something greater than himself, and by attacking members of the military – who are symbols of the state – felt like he contributed to something global, something cosmic.

It happened, and is happening, and if we’re to belive Kilcullen, will continue to happen. The policymakers, in their talk about “persistent conflict,” are aware of it. On an anecdotal level, despite the slowing deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the operational tempo remains high. Train, Fight, Reset. Over and over again. Even in 2015.

Generally speaking, I think what’s important is that there has to be some expectation that these things are going to happen. Not every event can be predicted or prevented. The critical element is how we react. Do we over-correct and batten down the hatches? Or do we mourn and resolve ourselves to presevere our way of life in the face of unknown threats?

I know that for a military that is struggling to find the next mission, understanding that nothing is over, and that we are indeed in an era of persistent conflict, provides a training focus going forward. In the face of budget cuts and a shrinking force, it’s sometimes hard to see what the purpose is.

But if you’re looking through the wide lens, you can see it.

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The Fire of COIN is Gone

The_Defense_of_Jisr_Al_Doreaa_-_Dream_1_-_YouTube

As I was getting out of the Army in 2006, the debate about “how to win” in Iraq and Afghanistan was heating up, and counter-insurgency (COIN) was gaining traction as the “graduate level of war.” As a college student who liked to read about what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was an interesting time. I enjoyed reading about junior officers struggling to make an impact, and the importance of the strategic corporal.” I told friends that getting out of the Army in 2006 felt a lot like being taken out of the game at halftime and having to watch the rest from the sidelines.

COIN was hot. Very smart and eager men and women ground themselves to the bone trying to figure out what it was and how to employ it. It provided an organizing purpose to be excited about. Field manuals, books, debates, blogs, dreamy instructional videos – it was the constant topic of the day.

And now it’s dead.

No one is really talking about “winning” anymore, because the wars just kind of faded away. Back in the Army, no one is really talking about COIN or strategy. We lack that kind of overarching purpose to drive us on.

In the midst of cutbacks, drawdowns, and realignments, I think I am starting to see a trend towards what the “next big thing” is in terms of organizing principle, something to get excited about. It seems that what the Army struggles with today is how to satisfy all of the ever-increasing demands placed on it while still empowering junior leaders and building lethal teams. It’s not as exciting as COIN, and it doesn’t get any cool monikers like “the graduate level of war,” but effective management in the 21st century Army seems to be the holy grail. It feels like in order to accomplish everything that is being asked, something (and likely, many things) have to fall off the table.

The new COIN isn’t getting simply back to basics, exactly, but more like figuring out what a true modern Army looks like, how we train, and how we fight. If the wars never happened, what would the Army have become? It feels like that’s where we are, or where we’re trying to get to.

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Joining the insurgency because it’s fun!

In my college classes and in think-tank papers, really smart people peel back layers to try to figure out why insurgencies happen, or why regular people engage in political violence. The result is often this ornate collage of factors that lead people (usually in groups, not as individuals) to join the rebellion. Complicated lines are drawn from economic/social/political conditions to the end result which is violence. The research is there and the data often works. Vindicated. Done.

I’ve always been more curious about the human dimension. Is it really a hodgepodge of factors that leads a person to violence like a lemming, or is there something else? I joined the Army, after all, mostly seeking adventure. The other stuff was there, too (service, patriotism, benefits) but the chief reason that the 19 year old version of me stepped into the recruiter’s office was to do something exceptional. Is it too much to think that our adversaries aren’t doing the same? In many places in the world where you find American troops, our adversaries are living the Red Dawn scenario that Americans often fantasize about.

A few years ago, I was at a seminar where David Kilcullen was giving a talk on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. I had recently read The Accidental Guerrilla and was familiar with his research and his work. At the end of his talk, I asked him my question about what motivates individuals to join an insurgency, and could it not just be for the simple thrill of it – to be part of something exceptional? He didn’t really give me a good answer, but he directed to me to “an Army pamphlet called ‘Human Factors of insurgencies’ or something that was written in the 60s.” I quickly scribbled it down.

Later, I did a cursory search for this on the internet which turned up nothing. I typed it up as a task and tucked it away in my Things to look at it another day. And there it sat. For three years.

Yesterday, I was poking around and came across that task and decided to give it another search, and boom! First hit. Downloadable as a PDF: “Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 550-104: Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies (1966).

I haven’t read through it yet, but it looks like just what I was looking for. For anyone who is interested in insurgency and the human dimension, this looks like a great resource.

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Not shooting can be more exhilarating than shooting

Sighing, I picked my head off the ground and looked around and then over to my team leader on the right, who was watching the objective. I was a little further back, behind a tree and lying on my stomach. I couldn’t see it. He looked at his watch and then to me and whispered “They don’t have any weapons.”

I looked back at him blankly.

He said, “What should I do?”

“What did the squad leader tell you to do?” I asked.

“He said to open up at this twelve o’clock and it’s twelve o’clock. But they don’t have any weapons.”

I took a deep breath trying to think of the right answer. They’re not showing weapons, yes, but is that because they don’t have them or because we don’t see them? With no weapons, the right answer is not to shoot, but we really didn’t brief a mission that had a contingency built in for an objective without enemy personnel or people without weapons. We’re in a training environment and on a training lane. The mission is a squad attack. Our team’s mission is to support the assault by fire. To do anything else might result in failing the lane, but the right thing to do might be to not shoot.

I certainly didn’t want to give the wrong advice, so I passed the buck. “Well, it’s your lane and you’re the one getting graded. Go with what you think is right.”

He nodded and jumped onto his feet shouting “Freeze! Don’t move!” Instinctively, but cautiously, I followed. It felt completely wrong.

No gunfire, no shifting fire, no assault.

We moved forward at a quickstep, weapons up and scanning. I felt like we were doing the right thing, but worried whether we were thinking this one through too much rather than just going with what was normally expected – shoot, fight, win.

Watching the objective, a figure dashed from a tent and over a log, curling up against the log in hiding. Another figure took off running away from the objective into the woods. As I reached the log I yelled over to the team leader that we had one person on the objective who didn’t speak English. She lay on the ground speaking gibberish.

The lack of gunfire coupled with the strange shouts eventually compelled the assaulting element to come out of their positions in the nearby woods and stumble into the objective, wondering what the hell had just happened. An eerie feeling descended on us as we whispered to each other, trying to figure out what was going on. We were all thinking the same thing – we probably just messed this up big time and someone was getting a no-go.

Still, when you’re in this deep you go with what you’ve got. We criss-crossed the objective looking to see if there was anything worth noting or anyone left hiding. I searched the one civilian(?) gingerly and fake zip-tied her hands. We then picked up and moved out with our one captive until the cadre called ENDEX.

I felt exhilarated. More so than any of the lanes where we conducted a flawless, textbook, squad attack with lots of gunfire and loud bangs. I was beaming. I was completely impressed and inspired by the decisive and bold leadership displayed by the officer candidate who decided that it was more important to do the right thing as he saw it and risk failing the lane than to take the easy option and follow through on the briefed plan.

Fortunately, our cadre had actually instructed the OPFOR to not show any weapons to see how we would react. The plan was to attack and destroy the personnel on the objective. But a junior leader made a tactical decision that, had he not, could have had strategic implications (if this was a real scenario).

Not shooting was the right thing to do in this case. The leaders passed the lane and we all left feeling good about the decisions made.

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