Human Dynamics in Great Power Competition

Interesting article over at MWI on the role of the ‘human domain’ in strategy.

The US military flounders in the human domain of conflict, with respect to foes, friends, and bystanders alike. Failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality. The result has been on display to the world for decades. The Afghan collapse provided a final exclamation point.

GETTING COMPETITION WRONG: THE US MILITARY’S LOOMING FAILURE

There is a lot I agree with in this article – like the importance of understanding human dynamics in warfare. The authors don’t really talk about language – but I’m coming around to believing that you can’t call yourself a “regional expert” if you don’t have some language ability in the region in which you claim expertise.

However, I’m skeptical about the idea of building strategy on all of the granular human stuff.

It seems like the powers that be should set the goals, set the objectives, set the end states. And then it is the role of the rest of us to use what we can to achieve those.

I’m not sure it works any other way.

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We Want a Nation

A great talk with former Ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman.

The complicated relationship between Iraq and the United States is once again approaching a crossroads. Parliamentary elections held in Iraq last month promise a new government featuring a new cast of political forces with their own difficult histories with the United States. The United States, meanwhile, is approaching the self-imposed deadline by which it has promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops from the country, even as its diplomatic and military presences in the country have continued to come under attack by Iran-backed militias. To discuss these developments, Scott R. Anderson sat down on Lawfare Live with Ambassador Doug Silliman, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019 and was previously the deputy chief of mission and political counselor there. They talked about the Sadrist block that appears to have won the recent elections, what other challenges are facing the Iraqi state and what they all mean for the future of our bilateral relationship.

The Lawfare Podcast: Ambassador Doug Silliman on What’s Next in U.S.-Iraq Relations

I enjoy listening to Doug Silliman. He understands the region and he certainly understands Iraq.

And he also understands US interests in the region and in Iraq.

Better yet, he can communicate it.

A few things that stood out to me in this episode:

  • Slogans – نريد الوطن – We want a nation! Simple, but so important.
  • ISIS Propaganda – Ambassador Silliman talks about how the desertions in the Iraqi Army were partly due to ISIS propaganda. Iraqi soldiers believed that if they were captured by ISIS they would be beheaded and displayed, potentially to an international audience. Propaganda works.
  • The Counter Terrorism Service – A good chunk of this interview is Ambassador Silliman extolling the benefit of having a robust mil-to-mil arrangement in Iraq. The State Department, and foreign service officers specifially often get a bad wrap as being ‘anti-military’ in some regard. That is (mostly) unfounded. And in this interview we hear it, where Ambassador Silliman is talking about how important the mil-to-mil partnerships were in Iraq. Fostering military cooperation is a diplomatic win.

Interviews like this give me hope.

Want to quickly build clout? Shout out into the void about how if we want to compete more effectively we need to invest further into our diplomatic corps.

But what is often missing is our diplomatic corps saying how much of a useful tool our military partnerships can be to further diplomatic aims.

That is interagency cooperation right there.

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On Foreign Fighters

Good episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

In this fascinating discussion, our guests discuss what political, social, and economic circumstances create the conditions that enable the mass recruitment and radicalization of foreign fighters. Their research on this topic represents a startling departure from conventional wisdom and, as such, offers opportunities to preempt this destructive process before it begins. There doesn’t have to be another wave of diaspora-fueled jihad, they argue, but prevention will require Western governments to take comprehensive and determined action now.

ON THE ROAD TO JIHAD: THE ROLE OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN IRREGULAR WARFARE

A few things struck me as I listened to this one.

Foreign Fighters and Information Warfare. Early in the episode, the guests brought up the concept of foreign fighters supporting a cause remotely through information warfare. While the focus of the episode was primarily on foreign fighters who actually pick up and travel to a foreign land, there is so much more to know about what actively supporting the same movements looks like when done digitally. Propaganda support (creating/sharing memes), harassment, actual hacking – there’s a lot to be explored there. We saw a lot of this in the mid-2010s during the rise of ISIS. I’d love to learn more.

It’s our fault. Jasmine El-Gamal plants the flag on the things we’re not allowed to talk about – chiefly, that there are policy decisions that the US has made which may be the proximate causes for motivating foreign fighters in the first place. As she rightly indicates, having those conversations were (and are) rare – and it leads to us coming up with new strategies and magic to try to solve the problem. It’s what led to the GWOT effect.

Stanford Prison Experiment. There was a brief mention of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, which despite all of its flaws and the continuing information that comes out on it which calls into question the validity of the results, it is still popularly understood to hold water. It is true, of course, for an experiment to be flawed but the results still valid.

Human Rights as Counter-Terror. I like this concept. We don’t really talk about human rights anymore. It used to be a driving force of policy. It has the benefit of allowing you to stand on the moral high ground, as well. It seems we’ve moved very deeply into the realm of states’ interests above all else.

Measures of effectiveness. There’s a conversation at the end discussing possible solutions to the problem of foreign fighters – dissuasion and de-radicalization. This led to the fact that many of these solutions appear to be ineffective because of how difficult they are to measure. If you’ve been reading my newsletters lately, you’ll know that I have an against the grain take on “MoEs” – that is, we don’t always need them. Just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

We have an obsession with “showing” results – that’s how you get more money, get promoted, get more resources. Thus, we tend to enact policies and programs that are easy to measure instead of actually effective. If we truly want to win, we have to extend some trust. I don’t need to know how you did the magic trick – I just want to be amazed.

The episode ends with a short story of a stunning encounter between one of the guests and a soldier deployed to Iraq. It’s sad, and it captures the absurdity of war and violence neatly. You can do all the planning and training you want, but when war requires men and women to enact violence on behalf of some cause, it will always be nasty and brutish. There will always be trauma. There will always be psychological scarring.

There is no clinical war.

Lastly, as an exercise in self-awareness it’s helpful to ask yourself (or others) in a given country, where do the majority of foreign fighters come from?

The answer will indicate how close they are paying attention.

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GWOT Hangover: “I’ll take it from here”

I'll take it from here
I'll take it from here
Not sure of the origin of this cartoon – but it was everywhere in the military in the weeks following 9/11. Our company armorer had it posted right there at the weapons cage.

We’re in the deluge of 9/11 reflections. Articles, documentaries, ceremonies, and tweet storms. It’s everywhere.

And it should be.

I find myself wanting to do nothing but engross myself in all of them while also avoiding every last one.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about if I have anything useful to add.

I’m not sure that I do.

I’ve written about my experiences in and around 9/11 – a lot. I’m from New York City. My father worked for the FDNY. I joined the Army just before 9/11 and it happened while I was at jump school. My entire military and academic career has been wrapped up in what happened, why, and our response to it.

That’s all personally interesting, but it’s not that different from most folks I serve with. There are variations of intensity and experience, but it’s all very similar.

Instead of thinking about what it all means for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means for us.

9/11 was a psychological weapon of mass destruction.

It shocked us into action and overreaction. It was a power-punch directly to the forehead. We were shook.

Do you remember this video (2003) of Tom Friedman discussing our reaction to 9/11?

We need to see American boys and girls, going house to house, from Basra and Baghdad, asking ‘what part of this sentence don’t you understand?‘”

Watch the video. It’s angry. It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive. I don’t agree with the argument.

But I also remember this sentiment being the feeling in the air in the days, weeks, and years directly after 9/11. It didn’t matter what was logical. It mattered how we felt. We made decisions and we carried them out.

Then twenty years goes by.

When I think about 9/11 now, I don’t really thinking about 9/11 at all. What I think about is the GWOT effect.

What I think about is the burning desire to help, to marshal that patriotism into action and churn, and churn, and churn. And have it come up empty.

“To be sent overseas to divide by zero.”

I’ve seen men and women of all ranks and in all different jobs throw themselves into the fire only to get burned.

What began as a mission of justice became something much grander.

So here we are.

Twenty years is a long time.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Gertrude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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Two recent podcasts on Fallujah

I haven’t listened to an Urban Warfare Project podcast for awhile – this one was good.

In this episode of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast, John Spencer is joined by retired Colonel Leonard DeFrancisci. He served thirty-two years in the Marine Corps and in 2004 he was a civil affairs detachment commander for Regimental Combat Team 1 during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq.

Civil Affairs and the Second Battle of Fallujah – Modern War Institute

I don’t usually get too excited about Civil Affairs, especially USMC Civil Affairs. In the episode, we learn about civil affairs contracts as military deception, the effective use of PSYOP and loudspeakers to clear an area of civilians, and whisper campaigns.

Incidentally, I recently listened to another podcast on Fallujah, titled “Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq,” which discusses the lingering effects of warfare on the health of the people of Fallujah.

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Man and Machine

This sequence terrifies me.

A hunk of metal, high above the ground, completely out of control.

The pilot’s dead and you know you’re going down.

You have to try to do something but at this point there’s really nothing to be done.

The way the world swirls through the windshield – spinning and spinning – is sickening.

The alert sounds. You don’t know what it means, but you know it isn’t good.

Pulling on the stick, trying to make it do something.

Rapidly changing gravity makes every movement a challenge.


When I first joined the Army, there was an older guy in my basic training course. He was 29 and I was 19. We got along well enough and he said he thought I should try to become a helicopter pilot. I don’t know why, but that stuck with me.

I’ve always been fascinated with helicopters. As a kid, I used to play ‘HIND‘ on an old Mac and loved trying to pilot the hulking mass low to the ground to a landing zone to drop off Soviet Spetznaz under fire.

I never seriously considered trying to fly.

Being in an aircraft as a military person is a special experience.

There is the thrill of the infil.

But there’s also the terror of the portal. Looking out the door of a Blackhawk into the night, down the ramp of a CASA at the hazy ground as it passes by slowly, or through the round porthole of a C-130 as it corkscrews for a landing under threat of attack, the world spinning and spinning.

It is a reminder of how out of control you are. You’re a passenger. You are completely at the mercy of the pilot, the crew, and the machine.

At least the pilot and the crew have something to do.

Rewatching the above clip reminded me of this horror story, about a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2005. The helicopter was carrying Blackwater contractors who all died after the helicopter was struck with a missile. Miraculously, the pilot somehow survived both the missile strike, the fall to Earth, and the subsequent crash.

The insurgents who shot down the helicopter found the pilot near the wreckage and shot him. The whole thing was captured on video and released.

It’s easy to forget that these kinds of things were happening on a regular basis in those days.

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Saddam, eradicating illiteracy, and the Ba’athist propaganda machine

Fascinating interview on women, writing, and the Ba’athist state.

Hawraa Al Hassan’s Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is unique because it both explores discourse concerning women and how women themselves used literature to create a site of resistance to the state. Al-Hassan’s work is also inclusive, as it joins a wider call to make literary studies a space in which works which were previously considered propagandistic can also be seriously considered.

New Books Network | Hawraa Al Hassan, “Women, Writing and the Iraqi…

There are some great gems in this episode and areas I would like to dig deeper on, such as:

-Saddam eradicating illiteracy chiefly to build a wider audience for Ba’athist propaganda.

-Book covers as messages (not many read the book, but they do see the cover).

-The novels of Saddam Hussein. You may recall, it is believed that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was inspired by one of these novels.

For more, here’s a print interview with Dr. Al-Hassan over at ArabLit.

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‎Army Myths: Chechens

A ruined Grozny, 1995.

Reminded during a recent Team House podcast of a very-GWOT myth: Chechens.

For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).

“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.

“Oh damn, really?”

Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?

What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?

I never figured that out.

Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.

It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”

I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.

Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Details about the referenced podcast below.

Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

‎The Team House: Deadly Special Ops missions in the Pech Valley with Wes Morgan, Ep. 85 on Apple Podcasts

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