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Posts by tom nomad

Some Preliminary Comments On US Military and Police Operations in a Post-Counterinsurgency Era

There has been a lot of noise made in the past series of years about the rise of counterinsurgency doctrine within the US military, and some great writing on the topic, including Fred Kaplan’s new history of the rise of David Petraeus and a recent piece by Adam Curtis, which summarizes this history well (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/posts/how_to_kill_a_rational_peasant).  My interest in this topic is not only connected to the impact that COIN operations have had on domestic policing, which Kristian Williams wrote about at length in a piece called The Other Side of the COIN: Counterinsurgency and Community Policing (http://www.interfacejournal.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Interface-3-1-Williams.pdf), but how the failures of COIN, and its ossification in doctrine, have caused a fundamental shift in US strategy into a post-counterinsurgency form of counter-terrorism; which predictably is worming its way into domestic policing as well, with increases in grand jury proceedings, entrapment cases, uses of domestic drones and the use of extreme police force against domestic radical movements, creating a situation that many, including myself, feel is significantly more dangerous than anything we saw under Bush.  This shift into a more fluid, responsive, dispersed form of military operation is structured around the concept that the US will never allow itself be caught in a situation like Iraq, where their logistical capacity was stretched almost to the breaking point, opting, rather, to wage a constant, global security operation, complete with killer flying death robots, international networks of snitches and intelligence officers, secret prisons and Special Ops raids, that can strike anywhere at any time.

These changes have also generated a series of modifications to the institutional culture of the military itself, as can be seen in the recent Department of Defense directive eliminating gender restrictions on all roles with all branches of the military.  This announcement came with a series of other announcements, all part of the same directive, to increase the necessary qualifications to fulfill certain roles and remove a lot of the gender specific fitness requirements attached to certain units within the military, including Special Forces and airborne units.  Thus far, commentary on this topic has tended to be of two sorts. The misogynist argument has perpetuated on the right wing, arguing that women are not fit for combat roles; of course ignoring the fallacies of binary gender, the particularities of body structure and the stark reality that many female bodied members of the military have already been thrust into combat as the concept of coherent front lines has broken down.  Various liberals have begun to write about how these restrictions either should or should not be lifted, centering around an argument of whether it is a good thing to open up more people for combat roles and how this balances itself against concerns of gender equality.  All of these arguments completely miss the point.  This move, like the earlier removal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, may be the result of political pressure (although it is pure speculation whether or not this is the case), but these moves, as was indicated by Panetta, are about increasing force quality, and thus must be understood as a strategic decision.  This move to increase force quality, rather than force quantity, can only be understood in the framework of a series of moves that the Pentagon has made over the past decade to make the military smaller, faster and more able to cover ground quickly.

This year begins the often talked about military drawdown. The goal of this process is to enshrine, in the structure of the military itself, something that John Nagl, the author of Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, came to understand after Operation Desert Storm; the era of the large tank battle on the plains of Europe is over, and the conflicts that the US military is likely to become involved in will be centered around “irregular” forces and quick engagements.  The drawdown itself has roots in the moves, around 2003, to structure the military around so-called “modularity”.  Much like the fragmentation of police forces into zones, policed by specific teams, the goal was to divide the general force into smaller units, each of which has a certain degree of autonomy, and is, therefore, able to be deployed in more places simultaneously.  In the absence of the war of frontal assault, or the war of firepower, much like the hypothetical war in Europe during the Cold War, the concept of having to concentrate entire divisions in a certain area became obsolete; the concept of “modularity” separates these divisions into brigade sized forces, more capable of covering more ground as a whole by concentrating less numbers in specific sites.

The drawdown itself calls for a drop in the number of active duty personnel from 570,000 to 490,000 over the next series of years.  This has been done for a series of reasons, primary among these has been an odd fusion of counter-insurgency doctrine and the weapons systems developed through the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs initiatives of the 1990s through today.  Underpinning this move is a recognition that counter-insurgency operations are long, resource heavy, and require a large force footprint on the ground.  The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have pointed out a series of problems with the patched together combination of overwhelming force and counter-insurgency.  During the invasion of Afghanistan, a relatively small number of Special Operations troops and Intelligence units were able to operate as forward observers, essentially, spotting out Taliban infrastructure, sending the coordinates to a drone that was flying overhead, which sent the coordinates to a base in Saudi Arabia, and finally to a B52 which could drop a satellite guided bomb on the spot.  But, after a couple of weeks of this, all of a sudden, there were no targets to hit and ground forces had to be committed in order to actually hold space.  As I argued in my last post on this blog, as ground forces are committed, this creates a problem of generating a force footprint, maintaining supply lines and having to maintain the security of transportation lines.  In other words, as Galula argues, the military force moves from a mode of interdiction, and hitting specific targets on a map, to having to cover all space simultaneously. 

This process of covering space, or policing, was fit under the general umbrella of counter-insurgency, at least since the mid-2000s, but this also creates a problem.  As we see in community policing, the police have to exploit local communities for information, build camera networks, patrol streets and eventually raid houses, all of which erodes trust within targeted communities and generates friction.  As friction builds the police have to move into a more defensive mode, focusing on protecting themselves, which usually comes with the use of more force.  A similar dynamic played itself out during the early phases of the occupation of Mosul by the 101st Airborne, immediately after the invasion and occupation of Iraq began.  Initially they were able to pour in money, raided from the Baath regime's reserves, and could find enough collaborators to construct the semblance of normalcy, of course with armed troops occupying the streets.  But, after the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the military, and threw thousands out of work, demonstrations started, which resulted in Iraqi police shooting demonstrators, which led to counter-attacks against American troops and so on.  As a result the military quickly shifted into a battle posture, closing off blocks to conduct raids in the middle of the night, engaging in firefights and so on.  This acceleration of conflict, at the slightest provocation, points to a tension in counter-insurgency; on one hand counter-insurgency is based on isolating and decelerating conflict, but this, on the other hand, can only be accomplished through a deployment of force into space, to police space, generating conflict.

The drawdown creates a situation in which protracted on-the-ground conflicts become a thing of the past, while smaller scale engagements, for less time, become more possible. This is coupled with the growth of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) and the increasing use of drone strikes, as well as the integration of private security forces, as is mirrored in urban police departments, with the rise of pseudo-police units, SWAT and surveillance.  Obama announced the adoption of this policy shift in a document called “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities of 21st Century Defense", which, along with announcing a general shift of forces from Europe to the Pacific region, and discussing a renewed focus on China and cyber-security, begins to discuss this move into a fluid, post-counterinsurgency military, capable of intervening in ways that are either temporary and leave a relatively small force footprint, or in ways that are targeted at single targets and momentary, through the use of bombing runs, drones and Special Ops operations.  This both increases projection and lessens the material footprint on the ground, denying the possibility of counter-attack or attacks on supply and infrastructure.

 In the wake of the restructuring of US military force composition this comes to reinforce the discussion that I began with the most recent blog post; the failure of US counter-insurgency has led to a series of changes in the approach to force composition.  As we see in the Yemen, where drone strikes have increased dramatically as of late , this move is meant to solidify the base force composition before the primary transition.  In Irregular Army, Matt Kennard is speaking about stop gap measures that were put in place to address the stretching of logistical capacity in the wake of the failure of counter-insurgency, but what is missed in this book, and its horrendous conclusion, that this is something that should be remedied, is that these recruitment measures, and the loosening of qualifications, are temporary measures, and ones that ended up damaging force capacity more than helping.  By opening up combat roles, and other military jobs, to anyone willing to sign their lives away, while at the same time lowering the numbers of soldiers needed for operations, the military is attempting to improve force quality, and eliminate the problems caused when they became logistically stretched over the past decade.  The shift into a post-counter-insurgency US military, and bleeding into the police, is based on a series of shifts; the solidifying of qualifications for combat roles, the widening of the possible pool of soldiers that can serve combat roles, the specification of combat roles into more highly trained units with less numbers, the ability to move and strike without holding space, the use of private security and the focus on allied forces and the use of surveillance including drones.

This also, however, sets the stage for a profoundly disturbing trend, the manifestation of a state of perpetual war. As the Council on Foreign Relations has been arguing in a series of recent pieces, and as I argued in my last post, there is a danger within this strategy for the US military.  As these points of conflict are engaged, either through drone strikes or JSOC operations, conflict is created through the effects of these actions, but the lack of ground forces ensures that that conflict cannot be contained.  Though it eliminates localized targets for  counter-attack, it also fails to engage in a total policing, as occupation and the deceleration of dynamics of conflict require.  Therefore, there is a paradox in this approach, through the new force restructuring and military drawdown are constructed to increase force flexibility and security constancy, it fails to actually engage with the dynamics of conflict, except on a target by target basis.  As I argued in the last post, this is important for insurgents and insurrectionists to understand; without a legible command structure, without a legible and constant form, these targets become impossible to identify, making this security at a distance strategy irrelevant. The conflict generated through these operations have been, and will continue to be amplified on the ground through the actions of insurgents/insurrectionists, and this amplification could cause, and is causing in some areas, a fundamental break down in the ability of this security operation to function.

This approach takes COIN's focus on multilayered and responsive operations further, into a post-counterinsurgency strategy.  The drawdown centers on this attempt to wage a constant security operation, both through weapons of distance, like drones, but also through the insertion of troops into sites of concentrated conflict, wherever they may arise.  The trend toward perpetual war is not something that is an anomaly of this point in history, but rather draws its lineage to the rise of the Enlightenment state.   In the rise of the Enlightenment state, with the American revolution, the concept of the state began to project totally, across all time and space, as an expression of some concept of existential totality.  In this projection, across the totality of time and space, the state only comes to function to the degree that it can police all space, at all moments.  This mirrors an argument Carl Schmitt makes in any number of pieces, the conceptual structure of the state is merely a conceptual content, but the state is, in itself, a profoundly paradoxical institution.  For it to function it must move outside of this world of discursive rationality and into agonistic, political, immediate material deployments of force, in order to attempt to frantically construct a unity of time and space in all moments. 

This total deployment, however, also generates conflict, effects and causes crisis in the attempt of the state, as policing, to maintain its own coherence, let alone the coherence of space.  We can see this in massive police operations, when the police concentrate force there are spaces that become unable to be covered; but to thin force out means that space can be covered, but only lightly.  As conflict accelerates, and police force becomes increasingly concentrated, these zones of indiscernibility become wider, possibility is amplified, the speed of action accelerates, creating crisis in the ability of policing to function more or less coherently; as this capacity to contain conflict is stretched it can reach a point of rupture, a point that is termed insurrection.  The move of the military into increasing forms of projection at distance, and lighter force footprints, is an attempt to project globally, but to do so in particular spots and at low concentration.  Though this form of armed containment may seem frightening to many, it vastly increases the amount of space that must be covered, thinning out force capacity, and making them rely on more localized assistance, localized intelligence, and localized cooperation in order to function. Just like in demonstration contexts, where the police derive most of their pre-action operational information from our postings on the internet, our announcements for actions, and whatever informants that can be planted; just as our tendency to concentrate numbers dramatically cuts down our effectiveness; the ability to eliminate information visibility, the ability to eliminate coherent target sets, the ability to move with speed across wide areas of space and then melt away, and the ability to operate with even a basic level of secrecy and opacity, will prevent this form of total force projection from functioning coherently.  As in May 68, or as during the recent disturbances in Greece, we can see the effectiveness of speed and opacity in action against dispersed forces.  As speed increases, and as the terrain of conflict spreads and becomes more complex, the ability of dispersed forces to compensate drops dramatically, leading to either force concentration or logistical rupture, the limiting of the spaces that can be policed, or insurrection.

On Syrian Regime Strategy, US Drone Strikes, and Why Snitches Could Cost You Your Life


The Syrian conflict, and the state’s response to the revolution on the ground can actually tell us a lot about US military and IDF strategy as we transition into Fourth Generation Warfare.  If we look at the progression of the tactical dynamic we can see a series of dynamics surrounding the interaction between  the resistance’s attempts to accelerate movement in space, and political possibility, while the regime attempts to cease movement.  This has followed a specific trajectory that we can track between the advent of regime snipers and the current insurgent attacks on airports that has accelerated over the last two weeks. But to understand this it is necessary to go over a much abbreviated discussion of the tactical trajectories present on the ground, as well as some basic tactical theory, mostly deriving from Chapter 2 of Book 1, in Clausewitz’s On War.

At the beginning of the conflict, in the unarmed phase of the uprising, the regime began opening fire on demonstrators on the first days of the demonstrations, making the demonstrations more militant, generating more conflict on the ground, and beginning the process of the political movement attempting to work around the tactics of the regime, eventually resorting to armed guards at demonstrations.  The regime moved from opening fire on demonstrators from lines positioned on streets, which required them to respond to demonstrations that were occurring, to attempting to control the possibilities of movements, through the advent of checkpoints and snipers.  Checkpoints in this context serve a series of roles; they not only prevent movement but provide logistical bases for regime troops, allowing them to consolidate troops at rally points and store equipment while maintaining constant presence.  Snipers were used due to the threat that was posed by the range and accuracy of gunfire, by positioning them on the tops of tall structures snipers have a large fire zone, in which movement stops; this was also used by Gaddafi in Misrata.  

With the advent of the armed resistance rebels began, the ability to use weapons of range cleared regime soldiers off the streets for periods of time, making regime movements into areas with rebel presence risky and high cost.   Regime troops had, at this point, begun to incorporate irregular forces, Shabiha (foot-soldiers of Assad family aligned gangs) into regular forces, and the most intense period of massacres, with the exception of the past month, began.  This escalation, and the indiscriminate shelling of of cities caused rebel forces spread out from cities, and other bands formed in the rural areas, putting pressure on checkpoints, and cutting supply lines, preventing artillery batteries from being able to maintain the shelling.  At this point defections increased dramatically, leading the regime to pull soldiers off the streets even more, limiting risk, and policing their own ranks to prevent defections.  As regime soldiers retreated from cities, and troops defected into the countryside, the battlefield shifted to roads, supply lines and checkpoints. 


The result of pulling troops back from the streets has been three-fold.  Firstly, outside of areas that the regime continues to contest (mostly areas along the coastal areas outside Latakia, the western parts of Aleppo, and the core of Damascus and the area around the Mezzah military airport), they have moved into a strategy of government localization and attempts to contain resistance (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/17/syria-s-rebels-stuck-in-stalemate.html).  This represents the devolution of state capacity, the inverse of the Italian fasci strategy of the 1920s, where the gradual policing of space eventually found logistical coherence after the March on Rome.  There is an obvious problem with this strategy however, outside of the wanton murder of innocent non-combatants, on both ethical and tactical levels.  This strategy requires the ability to maintain air superiority in order to move supplies and troops between isolated areas in which the regime maintains operations.  This brings us to the new phase of the war, what has begun to be called the “war of the airports”.  

The regime has begun to move into the increasing use of air-power, both to resupply troops and to carry out strikes.  This is due to the inability of the regime troops to move on the ground without the threat pf ambush or isolation after reaching an objective.  In short, the regime is retreating from the ground plane of conflict and moved into a plane of conflict that they dominate, the air.  This has been disrupted, through, by a series of shifts in rebel strategy and arms.  Firstly, both through Islamist militias acquiring advanced anti-aircraft weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and outside funding, combined with Free Syrian Army units acquiring anti-aircraft weapons from raids on regime bases, the rebels have a limited capacity to actually down regime aircraft; mostly helicopters, but there have been various Mig Fighter-Bombers and training aircraft shot down.  Secondly, rebel troops have begun to attack, and even capture airports.  

Taftanaz Airport is a major military heliport southwest of Aleppo, which the majority of regime supplies for troops in the northwest of the country were dispatched from.  It was taken by Islamist rebels last week, and a large number of weapons captured.  The loss of this airport makes it significantly more difficult for the regime to maintain military positions in the northern half of the country, and as a result they have begun a final assault on areas of Aleppo outside of their control, hoping to dislodge resistance before they run out of supplies.  As with all wars of attrition, as the Battle of Aleppo is at this point, the ability to maintain supply is critical, and the regime has just lost much of their capacity to do so.  


The Mezzah Airbase, southwest of Damascus, has recently been surrounded by rebels fighting in the Daraya suburb outside Damascus, a rebel stronghold since the early days of the revolution.  This has been accomplished through the mortaring of the base itself and the downing of fighter-bombers leaving or arriving at the airport itself.  As a result the regime has attempted to launch attacks into the neighborhood almost every day for the past two months, without making any headway.  This is the primary fighter and fighter-bomber base for the entire country, and the primary site where airstrikes, such as the Thermite cluster bombings, are launched from.   

There has also been a Free Syrian Army led siege of the Meng Airport, north of Aleppo.  This airport serves as a primary support and logistics hub for all forces fighting in Aleppo itself, as well as any of the forces that may be attempting to hold space in the Kurdish areas of the north, along the border with Turkey.  This base has been under siege, on and off, for a month and a half, but there is a renewed rebel push occurring currently.  

Formerly civilian airports are playing a role in the conflict as well, mostly serving as supply hubs for external supplies and personnel, including supplies and troops from Iran that have been entering the country.  Both Damascus International Airport, southeast of Damascus, and Aleppo International Airport, east of the city, have been under intermittent attack, which have damaged the runways and prevented planes from making landings.  



These attacks have begun to degrade the regimes ability to launch attacks into areas, forcing them to increasingly retreat to areas under their control.  This points to a fundamental fallacy of the media’s understanding of this conflict, and asymmetric conflict generally.  As in Syria, the ability of the rebels to disrupt the regime’s ability to move through space also disrupts the regime’s ability to maintain logistical operations, both through the loss of materiel, but also through a loss of the ability to carry out operations, at the same time giving themselves the ability to have space to organize and launch attacks.  It is not a question of rebels holding space, as the media constantly claims, but it more about the ability to prevent the regime from holding space; this is the core of all insurgent dynamics.  

As Clausewitz argues, the ability to end war, or dissipate conflict, is dependent on the ability to not only eliminate the ability of the adversary to fight, but also to prevent this possibility from arising in any future moment, and this requires a total occupation of space, for perpetual periods of time.  This is also the methodology of policing, for law to function it must function in all places at all times, and that depends on the logistical capacity of total mobilizations of force across the entirety of time and space; the state only functions to the degree that this total social war perpetuates.  But, as Clausewitz argues, later into Book Two, this is always an impossibility.  On one hand, this is a numerical impossibility, if the deployment of conflict causes effects, and effects change the dynamics of action, then there is no unity of force to begin with, let alone one that is numerically sufficient to project across the totality of time and space.  On the other hand, it is the deployment of force itself that causes effects, as all actions do, meaning that there is not a static situation, or unity of time and space, that is able to be controlled to begin with.  As such, conflict and insurgency are both possible, and are potentially successful, because of the impossibility of a total deployment of a logistically coherent policing.  As actions occur, and as dynamics change due to the effects of action, policing must become mobile to operate in space, to cover space, and project outside of the numerical and historical limitations of the totality of policing.  As such, policing becomes a spatialized phenomena, which is not unitary in itself.  

Historically there have been mechanisms to maintain the concept of the coherence of force logistics, such as nationalism, uniforms, common supply lines, training and internal policing.  But, because force can never be coherent (the particularity of the dynamics of actions, and the particularity of those that take action can never be eliminated), and all actions have effects, then the threat of disorganization through the effects of action and counter-action are potentially high.  The actions taken shift the dynamics of conflict, meaning that all attempts to project force into space depends on the ability to project the possible contingencies generated by this projection.  As Clausewitz argues in the second chapter of Book One of On War, this projection is based on two calculations, that this movement will generate a probability of success, and that this success will not be too costly, on the level of maintaining logistical capacity.  As resistance increases in space these movements through space become impossible, as we can see in Syria, but also during the early phases of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the creation of the autonomous zones in Catholic areas of Derry, such as Free Derry.    

In the case of Syria, the regime has deemed it too dangerous to move into and through most spaces, forcing them to attempt to hold together coherence over distance.  The attacks on airports has both cut them off from external sources of supply, primarily Iran, but also the ability to move supplies across space.  Much has been made in the media this week about how the taking of the Taftanaz Airbase will prevent the regime from bombing cities from helicopters, which is true (a lot of areas in the northwest of the country are now outside of helicopter range), but the primary impact is that a lot of the isolated bases, and small enclaves, of regime troops are now cut off from supply, and this includes various regime elements that are currently under siege and cut off from moving over land.  But, there is another fascinating element of this dynamic that has little to do with Syria, this mirrors the US military’s force recomposition plans and the move into Fourth Generation Warfare, which is also underway in the IDF.

There has been two primary shifts in recent US/IDF strategy that have been similar, the removal of troops from the ground in resistant terrains and the use of remote projections of force on planes where they hold superiority.  As resistance increased in Afghanistan, or in Iraq, counter-insurgency began to break down.  Soldiers are asked to go into towns to “build connections” within counter-insurgency doctrine, but this requires the ability of soldiers to be certain of the contingencies of their movements.  A single attack, road-side bomb, ambush and movement through space is no longer certain.  To increase the probability of safety requires the raiding of houses and the construction of check-points, moves which generate conflict on the ground, amplifying resistance, increasing the defensive posture and so on, until terrain becomes difficult to move through.  In Palestine this began with the IDF pull out from the Occupied Territories and the construction of the Apartheid Wall.  This withdrawal is an attempt to limit the force footprint on the ground, eliminating risk to front-line troops, eliminating the logistics of maintaining supply lines, but also giving up on the concept of occupation of space.  

This has moved into the attempt to maintain constant force presence in the air, and through flash raids.  As the US and IDf move into drone strikes and tactical air strikes as a tactic a problem has arisen though.  At the beginning of a campaign like this the elimination of the force footprint in the area cuts off access to information, while removing the problem of having to move through resistant terrain.  In the initial phases of a campaign, and this was also the prototype model for the initial CIA-affiliated local forces strategy in Afghanistan in the early phases of the invasion, specific targets can be infrastructural.  In Afghanistan and Libya there were strategic airstrikes on command and control posts, air defense stations and radar installations, while in Palestine these tend to be buildings that have been identified as logistics hubs for the resistance.  At this initial point the threshold of information is relatively low, and information for targeting relatively easy to come by.  As these targets are eliminated, and forces become more asymmetric, targets begin to become of less logistical importance, reducing to the point where NATO bombers were hitting single tanks and trucks in Libya, and drones are hitting single houses in Pakistan.  Here the threshold of information is high, and targeting tends to be imprecise.  The difficulty of targeting in this environment is compensated for, somewhat, by on the ground intelligence, and collateral damage is limited by the use of flash special forces raids, as in Palestine or in Afghanistan/Pakistan.  

However, in this approach the ability to attempt to control the contingencies of space are sacrificed for the ability to police specific threats totally, arbitrarily, and on a plane of movement that is separate from the ability to disrupt that specific movement.  This means that targeting can only focus on single targets, or small groups of targets that are essential for the functioning of resistance movements.  But, as resistance becomes more generalized throughout a space, or as resistance eschews concepts of command structures, this targeting becomes impossible as the ability to gather information dries up. To amplify resistance in space is to also eliminate the core of all military strategy and force projection, visibility and the ability to gather information.  As force leaves space, due to the resistance in that space, their ability to make sense of space is lowered dramatically, creating a zone of indiscernibility, and this occurs in sites in which insurrection occurs.   In the process of eliminating the actual concentration of force in a single space, and the visibility in a single space that one achieves through occupation, there is less of an ability to monitor space; hence the use of informants to facilitate drone warfare.  Drone warfare and special forces centric military strategies are strategies built to eliminate single threats, but this requires identification of single threats, and thus relies completely on intelligence gathering So, once again, remember loose lips sink ships, or get your house blown up by a flying death robot.

Continue reading at Intro To Anarchy …

Reading List and Some Recent News

After some recent conversations it seems that it is time for me to start updating this blog a lot more regularly.  So, I am going to start putting out links to relevant articles having to do with tactics theory and insurgency, as well as some anal…

Continue reading at Intro To Anarchy …