Category: Iraq

ISIS strengths and weaknesses in one article

Here’s a description of ISIS moving into new territory.

“They are ready to die, willingly. They are not afraid of anything,” said Capt. Iyad Shamsi, who witnessed the Islamists’ walkover in June in Abu Kamal, Euphrates river town on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.

But it, as the McClatchy reporter says, was a walkover.

“They brought their (black) flags, they distributed their videos,” he told McClatchy. “Everyone was afraid. Some (rebel) fighters just dropped their weapons. Abu Kamal fell after a very short battle, and it caused a Dominoes effect in the nearby town of Shahfah, Sh-hail and to the west.” The Free Syrian army, by contrast, had done no “hearts and minds” work to reassure the population and didn’t even have a flag to plant.

A government that loses is being out-governed, etc. Also this:

Islamic State commanders not only had tactical intelligence, but also powerful means of communications, with antennae and receivers in each vehicle, Abu Mousab said.

Good communications, good mobility, and good propaganda – not far from a definition of blitzkrieg as practiced, especially if you read Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France.

That said, the late cold war airpower infrastructure of the Western powers was basically built to identify mechanised columns and operational-level command structures, and kill them with precision strike.

Blair’s Generals III: The Blairing

OK, still reviewing this book. Can’t really bring myself to Buzzfeedise it. Anyway, we’re moving onto Afghanistan and to “lessons learned”.

Who else stood out? Chris “not that one” Brown writes about the NATO HQ in Afghanistan; I looked that up in the index because I can’t think of a single interesting point from his essay. Similarly, Nick Pounds and Jon Riley talk about the comprehensive approach to counterinsurgency and again about NATO and don’t say much, although they all think things were OK when they rotated out. None of them can put a finger on who, precisely, decided to go to Afghanistan or why.

Paul Newton, who was in charge of an army thinktank dedicated to making the MoD a “learning organisation”, introduced touch-typing as a necessary skill for officer cadets and points out that most of the training syllabus assumes not fighting in cities, while the army seems to do it a lot. He also talks some really incredible bureaucratic guff.

Desmond Bowen is an MoD civil servant, and remarks that Iraq was a disaster and we shouldn’t have gone. He points out that a lot of decisions were conditioned by the desire to find something for big, expensive organisations and formations to do – the British-led NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps HQ was put forward for deployment to a whole variety of places and tasks, because it ought to be doing something for fear it might get cut otherwise. This was intolerable because it was a corps-level HQ and we had to have one. Similarly, the British role in Iraq was conditioned by needing to be more than a token showing, to be nice to the Americans, and enough to be worth deploying 1 Division HQ. Depressing.

Iain McNicholl is an RAF air marshal, which is interesting because apart from two civilians, he’s the only contributor from outside the Army. There are no contributions from the Royal Navy or the Marines at all, although 3 Commando Brigade invaded Iraq and went repeatedly to Afghanistan and took lots of Naval personnel with it each time. Also, the FAA’s Naval Strike Wing went to Afghanistan. Libya is out of scope, but the RN also did a lot of work chasing pirates off Somalia which might be interesting. Did they get censored?

Anyway, McNicoll doesn’t say much of interest.

Simon Wessely, KCL professor of psychiatry, discusses the psychiatric impact of the wars on the people who served. He argues that they came through better than expected although they do drink a lot of beer. More interestingly, he thinks some of this can be ascribed to better care, notably better awareness and peer-support. Out of everyone who contributed, he probably has a maximum of specific and implementable proposals for improvement.

Alexander Alderson was ordered to brief the American V Corps HQ, going out to Iraq, on British counter-insurgency doctrine. He started by reading the handbook, issued as recently as 2001, and was surprised that it was rather good. When he got to brief, after his slides were vetted by a number of colonels, he was barked at by US corps commander David McKiernan for suggesting that there might be insurgents in Iraq. “We’re warfighting, dammit!”

That said, he points out that as early as 2005, the Americans had set up a training course in Iraq, while the British didn’t do anything similar. In fact, the Americans offered the British a number of instructor jobs on it but we didn’t take up the offer. It gets worse. It was decided to rewrite the doctrine from 2001, but this project ended up with the services disagreeing, the MoD turning down the Army’s version, and eventually no doctrine. Rather than a learning organisation, MoD was apparently an unlearning organisation.

Hew Strachan sums up by accepting that it was all a terrible fuckup but not offending anyone specific.

More of Blair’s generals.

A few weeks ago, I did a partial review of Blair’s Generals, a collection of essays about the wars since 1997 by the generals who commanded British forces in them, organised and edited by Hew Strachan at KCL and heavily censored, as it turned out, by the MoD. Here’s phase two.

Nick Parker says the operation in Sierra Leone worked because the FCO had a plan. Action by the military, and by DFID, was in support of this plan. From his point of view, the operational-level commander was the high commissioner. The FCO chain of command seemed to work better than the military one, which was OK as far as PJHQ but broke down in MoD Main Building. DFID’s was really awful, because it wasn’t allowed to spend money without someone in London approving it.

Graeme Lamb’s contribution is…special. We get a lengthy rant about being a Spartan who cares nothing for anyone and who despises the modern cult of image, but who also spends a great deal of time projecting his image and whining about anyone who dare criticise. Some of this jumps head first into outright fascism. He complains about “the modern methods of business”, approvingly quotes something called The Business General, and looks forward to the coming wars over food that might bring back a concern for something beyond self.

He then remarks that getting a grip on the flow of oil into Baiji refinery, refined products out, and cash in both directions was absolutely critical. I remember that was in the New York Times.

Andrew Murray discusses his tour of Afghanistan with 52 Brigade in 2007. He describes his campaign plan as being all about influence, and notes that he had to improvise the means of it completely as the army could offer him little capability for propaganda. He issued a reading list to his staff that included Kahneman & Tversky’s Judgment under Uncertainty, but also Cass Sunstein’s Nudge and Superfreakonomics. He also quotes General Richards’ concept of operations for Afghanistan, which was…not particularly clear, and would probably have caused some surprise had it been published at the time.

Like so many in phase one, he felt Afghanistan was going OK when he handed over.

Justin Maciejewski writes in the place of Richard Sherriff, whom he served as operations officer in Basra. Sherriff is still on the active list and his contribution was suppressed by MoD. He says bluntly that Iraq was a disaster and we should never have got involved, and we learn that by 2006 people were already talking about “honour” during planning for the next rotation and for Operation SINBAD. Also, he says, the various British officers who acted as deputy commanders in Baghdad had very little to do with the army in Basra, which communicated only with London and tried to ignore the rest of Iraq.

That said, he points out that much of this planning closely foreshadowed the “surge”, and Sherriff attempted to integrate the British into a wider national campaign plan, to the extent that he got the Americans to reinforce MNDSE with more helicopters. The original plan foresaw a succession of aggressive raids to weaken the various enemy forces in Basra, followed by consolidation with a neighbourhood presence of British troops and Iraqi police, and an effort to deliver aid and political goods. Nouri al-Maliki’s government insisted first on a less aggressive plan, and then on going ahead early. They also committed very few Iraqi troops – 2 infantry battalions and a military police company, less a third of the force rotating to Baghdad as reinforcements.

The enemy responded by plastering Basra Palace with rockets, causing the civil element of the operation to be called off and the US consulate there to use their chain of command (see Parker) to demand that something must be done. Without more numbers, there was too much of Basra in range to patrol often enough to suppress the rocketing. He argues that the situation at the beginning of 2006 was stalemate.

This brings us to Jonathan Shaw, who took over as MNDSE commander at this point. He argues that although they evolved tactics to fight the rocketing, what they really lacked was air power, specifically surveillance and attack helicopters. Although the US consulate reported back that it was getting rocketed, and this led to a stream of badgering messages demanding more unspecified action, it didn’t induce the Americans to help in any way. Meanwhile, the Army Air Corps and the RAF were increasingly called on for Afghanistan, as were the Fleet Air Arm (this was important because their Mk.6 Sea Kings were used to monitor the rockets with radar, identify the rocket team with cameras, and then call in an air strike). This led to the assessment that most of the fighting, as opposed to the rockets, was “thief vs. thief” and it was time to pick a thief and move out to the airport.

Shaw thinks things were pretty much OK when he rotated out.

This was the period in the run-up to Operation “Charge of the Knights” when the Americans were being snippy. The British commander at the time, Richard Iron, has a lot of interesting stuff to say – notably that the Basra security plan was worked out by MNDSE based on Northern Ireland documents, but had never been put into effect due to the lack of Iraqi Army or police to fill it. He also says that Shaw’s disengagement had the effect of losing contact with most of their best intelligence sources, and reveals that there were no – no – British advisors embedded in the 10th Iraqi Division in Basra.

This is interesting because training, the Multinational Security Transition Command’s job, reported to the higher-level MNF(I) HQ in Baghdad rather than to MNDSE or the operations-focused MNC(I). What were the various British top generals there, like Bill Rollo, up to? He has little to say. The point is also made that British training efforts were concentrated on the police, on the Northern Irish principle of police primacy, and this seems to have been a waste of time.

Anyway, on this occasion, unlike Operation SINBAD, some 15 Iraqi Army battalions under 5 brigades showed up. So did the MNC(I) advanced headquarters and a mass of US helicopters and drones. Clearly, the degree of political commitment had changed on the part of several actors. However, the Iraqis insisted on going it alone, again. Was this Maliki still not wanting to provoke the Shia powers, and setting the IA up to fail? Or was he trying to ensure that the coalition would commit to the operation?

Either way, despite what is described as a US information operation directed at the British, the 4th Mechanised Brigade is reorganised in a hurry to provide advisory teams to the Iraqis. It is perhaps not very surprising or informative that an operation with 60 per cent of two and a half battalions didn’t work when one with 15+ and perhaps double the air power did.

It’s nobody’s fault and nobody is sorry.

OK, a book. British Generals in Blair’s Wars (Military Strategy and Operational Art), available from the book company. Recommendation from Tom Ricks.

I’ve not finished the book yet, but the big stand-out issue here is: Why is nobody responsible? Hardly anyone sees Iraq as anything other than a disaster. Meanwhile, the British armed forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for 12 years and are preparing to draw-down by 2015, and what has this achieved? Isn’t all this somebody’s responsibility?

We hear a lot of stuff about the importance of Phase IV and of the pre-conflict phase, about multinational coalitions, and that the complex crises that characterise the post-cold war world are both ones where politicians call on the military because they turn up, being able to deploy into odd places, support themselves there, and defend themselves, and also ones in which the utility of military force is not obvious.

Of course if you wanted to know that you could have read Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force in 2005, eight years ago. It was also fairly commonplace a year earlier when I was an IR student. Today, it is glib cliché.

We also hear that Tony Blair was a weird guy and that the Americans shagged the dog. Right.

However, a lot of the people most involved seem to also think everything was going great when they handed over and rotated back to the UK (like the MNDSE commander, Stewart) or that despite being involved in the disastrous Phase IV nonplan, it was none of their responsibility (ORHA deputy, Tim Cross).

Cross, for example, got the hospital-pass of being the British deputy to Jay Garner. This was as bad as it sounds, but the British side could take more criticism. We didn’t select Cross because he was the army’s authority on postconflict reconstruction, or peacekeeping, or counterinsurgency – he was picked because his original mission to set up a logistical line of communication from Turkish ports up to the border for the 1st Armoured Division and the US 4th Infantry Division fell through when the Turks so wisely backed out, leaving him hanging about as a spare part. His main directive from the prime minister was to make sure no specific British zone might be set up for reconstruction purposes, because that might lead to the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. He was grateful for the loan of a spin doctor from Alistair Campbell’s staff, though.

Of course, the CPA did indeed set up a regional structure aligned with the military command structure, and then there had to be a British zone. In that zone, we find Stewart, division commander, who is pleased with himself for acting as the “sheikh of sheikhs” and who seems to think everything was pretty much OK in mid-2004 when he handed over, and who spent much of his time crisis-managing reconstruction.

He also tells the story of the Italians in Nasiriyah at the beginning of the Shia rising – their commander was constantly summoned to the videoteleconference room to answer to Silvio Berlusconi in person, who usually wanted to check he wasn’t taking any risks. On the first night, the Sadrists occupied the crucial bridges and set up their roadblocks without interference. The Americans, without their convoys and on half rations, badgered Stewart to clear them. Stewart called the Italians. Berlusconi did so too. This went on for a week. Eventually Stewart began scraping together British troops and said he would retake the bridges himself. Berlusconi reversed course, and the Italians proceeded to win without more fuss.

Interesting, but it was still Iraq! in 2004!

The reputedly more cerebral commanders are the worst; they have more words to hide behind.

Kiszely deploys a reinforced division or so of them to discuss the history of Western interest in the operational level of warfare, going so far as to assign credit for the US Air-Land Battle doctrine to the British in the form of the 1970s Soviet Studies Research Centre. He keeps on about operational art, mission command, and the manoeuvrist approach, and discovers that his role as deputy to George Casey at MNF-I in 2004 was precisely at the operational level, oddly enough.

Unfortunately he can’t find any example of this affecting anything, and talks quite a bit about how much time he spent having meetings with other British, US, and allied officials. And…it was the second half of 2004 in Iraq! But is he sorry? Is he responsible? Not in the slightest.

He also says that in most British operations of the time, the crucial operational level was to be found at Permanent Joint HQ, except when he was in the field when it was him. He doesn’t ask if this was a bit distant from the fighting or a bit close to the politicians and MOD Main Building. PJHQ was originally meant to be deployable, but it has never done so, and as he claims to be its architect he surely ought to ask the question.

Richards recounts his triumph in Sierra Leone and explains how he’s going to win Afghanistan with the assistance of “Reid Groups” to co-ordinate civil and military action. That’s as in John Reid. It was 2006.

McColl badmouths the troops, saying that the Americans have more pride, and doesn’t really say anything else of any interest whatsoever.

Jackson gives us his detailed version of the Wesley Clark incident in Kosovo – it’s worse than we thought, with Clark accepting the original decision not to fly paratroops into Pristina, but then, after the Russians arrived, changing his mind and wanting it done, onto the runway with them in occupation – and trots out a lot of stuff about no postwar planning and coalitions. But why didn’t he insist on it? He was the chief of the general staff and he’d already told the Americans to bugger off twice!

In fact, he left the final bugger-off to Dannatt – when Clark came knocking the second time, Jackson suggested it would be even more impressive to put tanks on the runway, rather than helicopters, and referred the issue to Dannatt’s 4th Armoured Brigade knowing they would refer it back to London. The French were also asked, and also said no.

Irwin confines himself to talking about Northern Ireland, and specifically whether a campaign plan was something that could have existed in that context. He makes sense.

So far, the pick is Barney White-Spunner, who compares the now thoroughly forgotten mission to Macedonia in 2001, which he led, and the first ISAF deployment to Kabul in 2002, which he also led with the rest of a hard-worked 16 AAB headquarters.

He concludes that the biggest difference between the two missions was that “in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no European dream”, i.e. no political aspiration that the people most concerned shared and no credible path to economic development, and strongly implies that the big problem with Iraq was that it just wasn’t in the national interest to do it. He notes that at one point, he was asked to take 16 AAB HQ to Afghanistan without any troops of his own under command at all, a Reid-class idea he refused strongly. He also remarks on the excellent condition of Albanian rebels’ pack animals despite a shortage of forage.

GSM Warlord, with actual statistics

Via Trombly x Exum, an interesting paper on mobile telephony and the Iraq war is here. I was impressed by the fact the authors know there are multiple antenna sectors per cell-site, and that they bothered to find out roughly what an emerging market GSM operator’s roll-out process is like. In fact, if you wonder, the paper is actually quite a good high-level brief on how you go about picking the sites for a mobile phone network and some of the operational considerations, in Iraq or anywhere.

But that’s not the point. The authors set out to answer whether GSM helped the insurgents or the counterinsurgents in Iraq. They reasoned that it might help the insurgents by letting them co-ordinate their activities and by letting them set off bombs remotely, and the counterinsurgents mostly by making it easier for civilians to inform on the insurgents. They also took note that it could contribute to economic development, which is presumed to help the government side. (They don’t discuss the impact of either counterinsurgent ELINT spying on GSM traffic, or insurgent spying, probably as it’s very hard to get any information.)

They pulled a hell of a lot of data, helpfully provided by Zain (i.e. ex-Celtel), and concluded after a creditable effort to understand it that there was a small, but formally statistically significant, effect in favour of the counterinsurgent. Importantly, this was strongest in the areas that were classified as mixed Shia/Sunni in 2003, i.e. the battlefield, and during early 2007, i.e. the decisive peak of the battle.

That said, the R^2s aren’t huge (highest is 0.28). There’s also a problem in that they took quite a lot of care to identify antenna sectors that got service for the first time, in order to compare them with ones that already had it and ones that never did. This is scientific, but it does pose the problem that Zain weren’t putting so many BTSs out there in the spring of 2007 in the worst of the civil war, because their people didn’t want to die, and therefore you wonder about the sample size and the representativeness of some data points that are quite crucial.

Actually, you learn a lot here about the history of Zain Iraq’s network; in the months before the fateful mosque attacks of 2006, they were building out like maniacs, true to their reputation back then as Mo Ibrahim’s pioneers covering the most troubled hellholes of Africa. Then, it got bad enough and suddenly that they shut down most investment and stayed that way until the end of 2007. The authors say that “month-to-month variance in violence” didn’t lead to “major design change”, but the point wouldn’t be design change but timing, and they also include a chart that suggests they basically stopped in the worst of the war.

Growth isn’t necessarily stabilising, and I suspect that Zain engineers would tell you that straight off. In a very low-trust society, more resources are quite likely to lead to more conflict. I think it’s a safe assumption that GSM coverage helps people to rat to the government more than it helps them to rat to insurgents, because insurgents need to be in the network of strong personal ties to survive. I’m not completely convinced, though. There were examples of insurgent intelligence exploitation of GSM back then (see the 2005 and 2006 archives) and the weak/strong tie distinction is subjective.

Also, I would like to know what role anti-social networking played; to what extent did better communications, that were mobile, two-way, and also personal, help to spread propaganda, hate-speech, and paranoia? Radio Mille Collines was a broadcast system, but there’s no obvious reason why incitement to genocide can’t be participatory via SMS or (better) voice.

That said, the most responsive measurement of violence was the percentage of IEDs found and cleared, which suggests something was going on.

But one of the most interesting things in the paper is this:

Most importantly, the teams would typically enter into long-term contracts with local community members and organizations to pay for site rental, generator fueling, site security, and training of local engineers to provide these services. Where possible, they would engage with local elites to identify the personnel who could be entrusted with these jobs.

This strategy of establishing close connection to local elites meant that once marketing had identified an area for network expansion, teams were mostly able to move in effectively even in areas with high violence.

So perhaps we’re seeing the emergence of people who can navigate the emerging low-trust society. On the one hand, the interhierarchical leaders of instant tradition, who would later be the key interlocutors with the Americans in the counterinsurgent phase, on the other, the pre-merger Celtel team who were already familiar with working in this kind of environment.

you haven’t got any less wrong, you know

Shorter John Lloyd: The Iraqi people have proved unworthy of me. And all those soldiers of ours are a bunch of girlymen.

You think I’m joking?

But we did not anticipate that Iraqi forces who hated the US – including those loyal to Saddam – would dominate after the invasion, that the population would not be active in ensuring democratic choice as it had been in, say, Poland, and that the west had limited staying power.

Unlike Lloyd, who went once as a journalist to offer solidarity to the Iraqi trade unions (i.e. go to some meetings), says so right there in the piece. Doesn’t mention that they needed solidarity against the authorities John Lloyd wanted to impose on them.

Not even bothering with a shorter for Tony Blair:

The fact is, yes, there are people who will be very abusive, by the way I do walk down the street, and by the way, I won an election in 2005 after Iraq

Yes, after you promised to resign in favour of Gordon Brown.

Meanwhile, the polls:

The approximately two-to-one balance of opinion against the Iraq war broadly applies across both sexes and every age range. Every nation and region of the UK also retains a clear anti-war majority…

The marchers are also vindicated by opinion up and down the social scale, although the 49%-36% balance of opinion in favour of the marchers among the so-called AB occupational grades is somewhat more balanced than the crushing anti-war majorities among working-class voters….

there is no partisan slant in the public’s opposition to the war. Conservative supporters believe the marchers were right by a 57%-30% margin, statistically indistinguishable to the 57%-29% support for the marchers found among Labour voters. Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, the only big party in 2003 to offer a united anti-war stance, are only marginally more strongly behind the marchers – they are split 59%-24%. The 54%-33% anti-war majority found among Ukip supporters confirms Blair is judged to have been on the wrong side of history, right across the political spectrum.

A very short post about Iraq

A quick post, too long for twitter.

The problem with telling me that you got it wrong about Iraq because you’re such a nice guy is that all I hear is someone telling me they mistook the shit for chocolate in good faith. Yes, yes, I feel your pain. You meant well.

But I’m still not sending you to the shop on your own.

Perhaps this could have been predicted

Ink Spots rips into what sounds like a truly dreadful TV belch, as well as one where the Stiftung’s opinion would be worth having. Ackerman also has a go, specifically at former SACEUR Wesley Clark’s role in it.

Which reminded me. Back in 2004, in the circles of my MSc International Relations course, all sorts of neatly policy-wonky people were mad keen on the thought of Clark running for president, as were the duller bits of the US Democratic blogosphere. I did know the story about him and the pre-eyelid job, pre-Iraq version of General Sir Michael Jackson, which made me wonder, but then anybody can drop a bollock and that’s what a blind eye is for.

But, of course, Clark wrote a book, Waging Modern War. And I read it. And it turned out to be…something and nothing, Freakonomics or Airmiles with B-52s, probably not really worth publishing except of course as an instant presidential campaign job.

And perhaps I should have realised that, if the best idea anyone in a position of power in the US had was to find someone with more gold braid in the hope they wouldn’t be accused of being With The Terrorists, things were wrong in more subtle and serious ways than I had thought.

O RLY?

Here’s an interesting story about US efforts to aid the Syrian rebels. Especially this bit:

A centerpiece of the effort this year focused on getting Iraq to close its airspace to Iran-to-Syria flights that U.S. intelligence concluded were carrying arms for Assad loyalists—contrary to flight manifests saying they held cut flowers…

One example of the U.S. approach—and of its limitations—came earlier this year when the U.S. sought to pressure Iraq to curtail flights between Iran and Syria across Iraqi airspace. That supply route opened wide after the U.S. completed its troop withdrawal from Iraq in December, U.S. administration and military officials say.

The next month, the CIA picked up detailed intelligence that Iran was using an Iranian private cargo airline, Yas Air, to fly arms over Iraq to Syria, according to U.S. officials. . . .

In an official complaint to Baghdad called a démarche, the U.S. demanded an end to the flights, said officials briefed on the discussions. “You’ve got to stop this,” the Americans told Iraqi leaders, according to one senior U.S. official.

The démarche appeared to persuade the Iraqis to act, according to American officials; the flights stopped.

But in late January and early February, the CIA began to track flights of Syrian government AN-76 cargo planes between Syria and Iran, a new tactic. . . .

While U.S. and Iraqi officials went back and forth on the issue, several Syrian cargo planes made the trip to Iran and back without interference.

As Iraq prepared to play host to an Arab League meeting at the end of March, which would showcase its emergence from American occupation, U.S. officials raised the possibility Iraq would face disclosures about the flights—an embarrassment because most Arab nations had turned against Mr. Assad.

The warning appeared to get through. Iraqi leaders told the U.S. they might search the suspect flights. Two weeks before the Arab League summit, the flights of the Syrian AN-76 cargo planes abruptly stopped, U.S. officials say.

Flowers, eh? No fish? Doing a quick look, I find that Yas Air is now on a UNSC list, and that it operates 2 Il-76 and 3 An-74. All three of the An-74s were previously registered to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Corps. The Ilyushins have knocked around various Iranian owners, but the prior one (Parsair) also seems to have taken over another aircraft from the IRGC. Guys. This isn’t going to fool anyone.