The War Diaries

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Archive for April, 2009

Today’s Military (The American Kind)

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General John Abizaid, the former Commander of U.S. Central Command spoke at NYU’s Center for Law and Security on the primary challenges the United States Armed Forces face today and in the near term along with a host of experts on counterinsurgency (COIN), critics, and A-list journalists. 

Abizaid described Islam across the spectrum of the twenty-seven nation CentCom theater as being in a “fight with itself.” The four challenges for the U.S. in the region are Sunni extremism, the rise of King Abdullah’s feared “Shia Crescent”, the ongoing Arab-Israeli war and the securing of oil and other natural resources. General Abizaid stated that the political and economic center of gravity in the world has shifted to the East and that military power would eventually follow if history can be seen as a blueprint for the future. In order to maintain order, the United States must get out of an “occupational strategy” and enter a more coordinated “cooperative strategy.” Abizaid told of his strong dislike for “political-military friction” and that in the traditions of which he aspired, commanding officers are meant to remain neutral and stay clear of Republicans and Democrats alike avoiding involvements in Beltway entanglements that can further polarize the public-military discourse.

John Nagl is a retired Lieutenant Colonel and distinguished COIN expert, President of CNAS , and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife who spoke of the massive paradigm shift that took place in calm after Desert Storm. The shift Nagl described was in the eyes of America’s enemies, allies and rivals. The warfare that would follow could be either high end (nuclear) or low end (guerrilla) with virtually no set piece battles in between. The Gulf War demonstrated that the United States could not be opposed military-to-military on the battlefield. “Tank-Tank”warfare as he put it was unlikely to occur on future battlefields (with the Russia-South Ossetia-Georgia war an exception). The military held that if “You can skin a cat, you can skin a kitten” and that fighting a small war was just a slimmed down version of fighting a large one rather than a mission that employed an entirely different skill set. Nagl told audience members that the U.S. must have a balance of preparedness through a whole spectrum of combat and risked negating itself if it swung too far in either the small or large war direction. The U.S. military was structured for offensive and defensive combat but now was operating along a crucial third tier, that of stabilizing operations. A key part of these type of operations was not Marshall Plan post-war style reconstruction but reconstruction as a core component within a theater of active combat. 

Retired Lieutenant General David Barno who commanded American forces in Afghanistan from late 2003-2005, talked of  the country as an “In-Conflict Reconstruction” and described his troops as doing “Armed Nation Building” (which I thought was a brilliant term) “because you get killed by doing unarmed nation building.” Barno described today’s war-fighting environment as one that no longer allowed for humanitarian space (think Sri Lanka). Lt. General Barno said this in response to a question I put to the panel about the conflation of nation-building and humanitarian work with armed state and non-state actors alike (The former being say, U.S. forces in the Balkans, an example of the latter being LeT in Azad Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake). I mentioned the sight of an American officer in post-invasion 2003 Karbala sitting behind a hospital administrator’s desk paying out freshly minted $20 bills to nurses and doctors who hadn’t been paid for months. On the surface it may have appeared to be a nice gesture by the officer in question but appeared to be a grave violation of the Geneva Convention. Suzanne Nossel of HRW said the line had been blurred between traditional civil and military lines in a conflict zone which confused the issue as soldiers, even while carrying our nation-building efforts, can still be considered legitimate targets under international humanitarian law. Although there was an emerging common ground between human rights groups and armed forces (I’m assuming she meant Western armed forces), that we as a public should remain cautious about ceding the idea of humanitarian space in war.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 25th, 2009 at 2:55 pm

The Islamist Revolution

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crooke-bookI attended an event with Alastair Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution and veteran EU Middle East diplomat at the New America Foundation here in Washington. The event was webcast on the The Washington Note and Crooke’s presentation was little short of spellbinding. Flanked by Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy from NA’s Middle East Task Force, Crooke took the audience through the rise of modern political Islam in the late twentieth century beginning with the earthquake of Imam Khomeni’s revolution up until the present. In a thorough bit of comparative historical analysis, he wove the narrative of the pairing of an evolving Protestant Reformation in the heart of what would become modern Europe with Enlightenment capitalism and the invisible hand. This pairing according to Crooke, led to the rise of the Western notion of strong individualism which would later clash with Islam’s concepts of communitarian social equity and justice. The invisible hand was meant to maximize human, and therefore individual, wealth. Combined with a belief in the “spontaneous natural order of the body politic” spurred by competitiveness would form the two pillars of modernity that would bring Islamic societies to near extinction with the rise of the (Westphalian) nation state and attendant human rights. 

According to Crooke, “powerful, unitary nation-states were necessary to create economic markets.” Thus with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire came a modern dark age for traditional Islamic societies. Western Europe’s Sykes-Picot version of the Middle East, creating definable state borders with centrifugal client leadership (and subsequent dependent economies) was devastating to regional cultural order. Using the rise of Kemalism in Turkey as a prime example, Crooke noted the Armenian Genocide and the state orchestrated oppression of Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and transfer of the indigenous Greek population as an enormously destructive result of revolutionizing Turkey from a fluid multi-ethnic empire to a monolithic market-state modeled after Western Europe.

In the aftermath of the Great War, simultaneously, Marxism was attacking Islamist ideology from the bottom up squeezing religion out of the political space as revolutionary communism mimetically competed with branded Western capitalism throughout most of the twentieth century, much of it through imperial or neo-imperial enterprise. Genuine political Islam says that “social justice must be subordinate to markets” making it diametrically opposed to the “two pillars of modernity” mentioned above. Crooke mentioned that what most in the West consider “revolutionary” Islam is in fact a counterrevolutionary brand of the faith’s implementation of politics. Islam’s counterrevolution is “dogmatic and anti-heterodox”. The West has used this form of Islamism in it’s containment strategies of “Nasserism, Marxism, Shi’ism, and Soviet Communism” to name several. 

Containment strategies in their inherent quality are by and large a short term, ill conceived methodology that often give birth to larger, less reconcilable quagmires. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the mujahideen in 1980’s Afghanistan are examples of this flawed policy. Amjad Atallah noted that U.S. policy in Cold War Afghanistan didn’t differentiate between sponsoring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami and Ahmad Shah Masood’s Jamiat-i-Islami and even encouraged the more virulent ideology of the former rather than the more pragmatic Islamism of the latter.

The West, he said, ends up on the wrong side (of history) with its policies and actions (that are reinforced) with its own dogma and literalism. Having Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia (read: apostate) on the “throne” in Baghdad, the seat of Abassid glory, is akin to Hulagu’s sacking of the city’s ancient incarnation in the twelfth century and heretical Mongol siege of the city in the eyes of Salafis

Speaking on the transformational ascendency of Hassan Nasrallah across the breadth of the Middle East among Sunni and Shi’i alike, Crooke said “If you want to get a taxi quickly to the airport in Doha, wait until Nasrallah gives a televised speech”. Nasrallah’s charisma breaching entrenched social and doctrinal boundaries in part highlights the struggle for the future of the whole region within the Middle East’s competing indigenous ideologies since the era of classic great power competition in the Middle East has ended and a new era of affinities both regional and imported, rather than hardened alliances, has been ushered in. 

Written by derekhenryflood

April 17th, 2009 at 11:06 am

Pakistan’s Troubled Frontier

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On April 15th, Jamestown hosted and exhaustive conference on the subject of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There’s too much else to include for the number of people gathered and the all the topics covered under the umbrella of the larger concept of Pakistan’s tribal wars but here are  some of the highlights.

The first panel consisted of Ahmed Rashid  and Shuja Nawaz. Rashid sadly described the “surrender of the state” in the Swat valley to Sufi Muhammed and said that the Swati Taleban had taken over the instruments of the state in spreading their own version of Sharia law, which, Rashid said, differed markedly from historical Sharia that had been practiced in the area in previous decades. Rashid told the audience that that the Pakistani Taleban, the TTP, had an agenda of Islamizing all of Pakistan and challenging the army. Shuja Nawaz spoke pessimistically of a “battle for Pakistan” and described an army that was able to clear but not build and hold (one can think of the example of the Bajaur operations) which is critical in a COIN strategy (which every speaker described as non-existent in Pakistan’s military doctrine).

Mariam Abou Zahab, an expert on Sunni-Shia internecine conflict in Pakistan and co-author of Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection presented a fascinatingly detailed background on this conflict within the broader turmoil occurring throughout Pakistan. Though it may be hard for outsiders to differentiate between the various contexts of carnage coming out of the country on a daily basis, Mme. Zahab told of the fitna, or sectarian Islamic warfare that has been shredding the fabric of Pakistani society since the 1980’s which was part of a proxy struggle between Iran and the al-Saud family. This sectarian warfare is relevant to the conflict in FATA and the historical context of the Afghan war for several reasons. Two of the seven tribal agencies, Kurram and Orakzai, have significant  Shia populations and hence inherent conflict. Zahab states that the influx of large numbers of Sunni Afghan refugees during the Soviet era skewed the Sunni demographic in FATA well out of its historical balance. According to Zahab, this suited General Zia ul-Haq just fine. Zia was greatly annoyed by particular Shia tribes in crucial border areas refusal to let mujahideen cross their territory during the anti-Soviet war. For Zia these Pashtun Shia presented both a tactical and ideological issue. Zia’s “Islamization” of Pakistan was also a defacto Sunnization of the country as well. Skewing the tribal areas in favor of Pashtun Sunni clients was necessary to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. Outside of an historical Islamic context, the violent schism harks back to the British Raj when colonial officers divide et impera by favoring wealthy minority Shia landholders against the unwashed Sunni masses tilling the land. Within Pakistan’s unannounced civil war, mosques are detonated, captured Shia soldiers are beheaded and imams are assassinated. Sectarian outfits in Pakistan are, in the words of David Kicullen, “Fighting Smalls Wars in the Midst of a Big One.”

Stephen P. Cohen of Brookings spoke to Pakistan’s lack of a counterinsurgency strategy which most of the experts throughout the day agreed the country so desperately needs. Cohen described Pakistan’s enemy-centric war fighting strategy as self-defeating because it further alienated local populations which remains fervently counterintuitive to COIN doctrine. The army’s “ethnic mismatch” fails to represent the makeup of of the society at large being a heavily Punjabi dominated institution which leads to a deadly cultural gap when fighting Pashtun (or Balochi) militants. Cohen also criticized Pakistan’s civilian leadership for its “knowledge deficit” in the country’s military affairs which may be a product of the natural tension in the swinging pendulum between democracy and dictatorship for the past six decades. The Army, Cohen said, has no discernible interest in taken lessons from other campaigns from the Pakistanis could implement in their internal land war. Cohen mentioned various Indian COIN operations of yore that Pakistan’s army could seek to learn from. Not bloody likely…

Jamestown’s Andrew MacGregor, describing recent attacks on Peshawar’s freight terminals, gave an interesting presentation on NATO’s baffling choices for logistical supply routes presenting a region wide context. The cycle of supplying Western forces in Afghanistan has built-in instability with bribes being paid regularly to the Taleban. In order to let equipment pass through their jurisdiction, the Taleban exact payments from  trucking syndicates which are used to fund a widening insurgency. Internally Displaced Person’s (IDP) camps sprouting up on the outskirts of Karachi as a result of the Pakistan Army’s operations  have given cover  to militants from FATA and NWFP now operating in Sindh where they threaten the formerly safe port for NATO supplies. While trucking military supplies through Pakistan are threatened (not to mention taking away legitimate income from the Pakistani trucking industry), other much more costly sounding and arduous supply routes are being considered like a South Caucasus-TransCaspian-Kakakh route, an old Soviet supply route beginning in the Baltics in Riga and continuing on to Central Asia through the Russian Federation. MacGregor spoke of the “Iranian Route” which would make the most sense logistically, especially considered Iran’s relative stability and wealth of infrastructure. Such a move would be highly improbable, at least for the United States, without a major overture from the Americans but may be doable for some EU militaries. Central Asian routes may give Moscow a degree of leverage over the authoritarian states it is trying to hold within its orbit and could likely be a great odds with NATO’s objectives in both Afghanistan and possible membership candidate states.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 16th, 2009 at 11:20 am

This Week’s Agenda

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I will be in Washington this week attending Pakistan’s Troubled Frontier: FATA and the Future of NWFP at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and then I will be at The Islamist Revolution with Alastair Crooke over at the New America Foundation. Should be good stuff, reports here at TWD to come…

Written by derekhenryflood

April 13th, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Washington D.C.

BBC Radio Appearance

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I participated in a World Have Your Say debate hosted by Madeline Morris on BBC World Service with guests Zahid Hussain, Times of London correspondent and author of Frontline Pakistan:The Struggle with Militant Islam, Walid Phares author of The Confrontation:Winning the War Against Future Jihad and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Pakistan People’s Party insider Wajid Shamsul Hassan. The show’s producers called  me to react to Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani’s recent comments on a his espousing of a “bailout” of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan rather than, say, AIG or GM. I, and I think most rational internationalists, agree that Pakistan certainly does need help but that of a nuanced and self-sustaining sort rather than thoughtlessly throwing further billions at the military while the feuding feudal kleptocrats Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif create a political smokescreen in their constant dust ups. As an asymmetrical civil war engulfs swaths of Pakistan’s geography and attempts to silence members of its civil society, a regional rethink is required by all parties. The United States and Pakistan have quite different objectives in regard to Afghanistan and South Asia as whole (not to mention China and Russia) and a modus vivendi by several sides will be necessary to solve the “Af-Pak” crisis. 

As someone at a party in Karachi said to me last year,”Ten years ago we were being compared to India, and now we are being compared to Afghanistan. What the hell happened”?

The BBC podcast can be downloaded here


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April 11th, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Article on insurgency in NE India

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An insurgent checkpoint in Guwahati, Assam. ©2007 DHF

An insurgent checkpoint in Guwahati, Assam. Photo: ©2007 DHF

I’ve got a new piece out with the folks at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington on a seemingly obscure insurgent movement in Northeast India that has been active for three decades and shows few signs of dying out anytime soon. Not all militant movements are Islamist nor are they confined to operating in nations outside the G-20 and/or failing states. Take a look at the article here…

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April 11th, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Will They Ever Learn? (Washington…that is)

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Thursday’s edition of the New York Times had a cliched beltway piece by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker espousing a Pentagon plea that it’s seeking three “new” billion dollars in military aid to Pakistan and must bypass the State Department in doing so. “Military supporters of the program said it offered a speedier alternative to the traditional military assistance process overseen by the State Department” says the Times. “Speedier”? Nothing that takes place in Pakistan is terribly speedy. At least nothing beneficial that is. Pakistan needs well thought out, nuanced solutions that will benefit the country in the very long term in order for it to maintain itself with a modicum of integrity  into the twenty-first century. As an avid Pakistan watcher, I can tell readers that the very last thing Pakistan needs is the promise of further military aid from the United States and the unwitting American taxpayer. What Pakistan does need, however, are billions in emergency aid for schools and an aggressive rural literacy program. Northwest Pakistan needs up to date hospitals and proper asphalt roads. It is much sexier to sell Congress on injecting useless billions to bolster a feeble, incapable military that has lost every war it has ever fought than, say, printing millions of Pashtu language school books and training an army of Pashtun teachers. As opposed rearming the peasantry. which is essentially what the Frontier Corps is, the Americans must focus on investing in the human infrastructure of the region if the clash of ideals is ever to be reconciled .

The United States must stop looking at the short term. Insurgencies are not a short term problem. Insurgent movements stem from lack of opportunity among their foot soldiers, vast civil inequality, boredom and outright political and ethnic oppression by the state. The Northwest Frontier and the jihadi hamlets of FATA existed for ages in isolation from the mainstream economy of the rest of “settled” Pakistan. The various FATA guerrilla movements will not be defeated by more accurate drone attacks and handing Pakistani soldiers night vision goggles. They would be defeated by an increase in literacy and finally coming to a regional settlement with Kabul and lastly, addressing the aspirations of broader Pashtun nationalism. These are issues Washington does not seem to know how to deal with and Islamabad and Kabul will keep on the back burner for the foreseeable future until their hand is forced by the international community. FATA is not simply Anbar in the mountains. The issues go (at the very least) as far back as the age of the Afghan kings and the British Raj. The Anbar insurgency was a direct result of American war fighting strategy. Pakistan’s Tribal belt has been the seat of ethnic and religious tension in that region for much of modern history. Inter tribal blood feuds and the deadly Sunni-Shia schism have little to do with the legacy of the Soviet war or the American intervention and troop build up though they have since been exacerbated by it. FATA is, and always has been, a threat to Pakistan’s already weak territorial integrity since Partition. Letting the Tribal Areas fester and fend for themselves has been part of Pakistani government doctrine for decades.

The solution lay not in giving the enfeebled Frontier Corps newer small arms but, short of creating a viable political settlement along the Durand Line, in providing education and healthcare in dangerous and remote areas. A civil society approach is needed which would undoubtedly cost the lives of civil servants, NGO workers and other perceived “collaborators” whom the Taleban and their imitators will certainly harm in the short term as the soft targets they are.

It seems as though little has changed since the Johnson administration. More money for war? You bet! Simply distributing more weapons to a faltering institution like the Pakistani Army is an irrelevant strategy that failed in Indochina and will not work in South and Central Islamic Asia today. The battle against nihilistic Islamism in Pakistan cannot be fought with conventional weapons. A war of ideas, which is what is actually being waged inside Pakistan today, can only be outgunned by partnering with the indigenous civil society in that country who desperately seeks to be heard.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 4th, 2009 at 10:17 am

Flash Point:India, Pakistan and Kashmir

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New York-The New York University’s Center On Law and Security held a discussion on the role of the Kashmir conflict in the context of the South Asian security environment and the disputed region’s place in overall Indo-Pakistani relations. The speakers included Steve Coll of the New Yorker magazine and author of Ghost Wars, Pakistani journalist Arif Jamal and author of Shadow War:The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir, and Basharat Peer, Kashmiri journalist and author of Curfewed Night.

From Left: Steve Coll, Arif Jamal, Karen Greenebrg and Basharat Peer

From Left: Steve Coll, Arif Jamal, Karen Greenebrg and Basharat Peer


Basharat Peer began the discussion with a general background on the history of the Kashmir dispute and its relevance within the post-partition ideologies in the Indian subcontinent. Peer told the audience of Nehru, himself a Hindu Pandit from the Kashmir Valley, and his belief that maintaining control over a Muslim majority state was an essential element of the inward projection of Indian secularism. Obversely, Pakistan, being founded on the principle of an Islamic Republic, necessitated the Muslim Kashmir be absorbed into Muslim Pakistan. 

Arif Jamal related an anecdote of an American diplomat, who upon meeting with a Pakistani counterpart, asked to begin the discussion on Kashmir’s hot and cold cycle of crisis. When the Pakistani official curiously asked why, the American responded “When I come to discuss the Taleban, people in your government shoot back with “Let’s start with discussing Kashmir””. The American learned that he should cut to the chase and realized from the Pakistani perspective that the war over the Valley was of primary importance while the American war with the Taleban and Pakistan’s proxies in Afghanistan was secondary. Jamal explained that jihadi ideology, rather than being some recent off shoot of globalization, was in fact an integral focus of the Pakistani defense establishment’s outlook since the nation’s inception. Jamal differentiated between being an Islamist and a so-called Jihadist. “One does not have to be an Islamist to be a Jihadist”. In that sense, Ronald Reagan was a jihadist to the extent that he espoused the framing of the Soviet-Afghan war as a Holy War pitting pious Afghans against godless Soviet Communism. 

Steve Coll mentioned excerpts from his recent New Yorker piece The Back Channel on Indo-Pak negotiations and recent events roiling the subcontinent. Coll described the lack of a regular Western media presence in Srinagar as possible reasoning behind the Mumbai atrocities. As Coll put it, “A suicide bomber entering a police barracks in Srinagar won’t make the evening news in the United States but attacking five star hotels in Mumbai will”. Coll commented when asked by moderator Karen Greenberg whether he agreed with David Kilcullen’s assessment that Pakistan may collapse in six months time due a marked decrease in the country’s overall security profile by saying that Kilcullen had overstated his case and that Pakistan’s relatively successful (and peaceful) elections showed that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Pakistanis do not want to live in a feudal Sharia state. (Author’s Note:The best example of this is the voters of NWFP throwing out the militant leaning Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in favor of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party) 

An interesting part of the discussion was the disagreement between Jamal and Coll over the proposed styles of a Kashmir settlement. Arif Jamal advocated the sanctioned internationalization of Kashmir talks because the historical record of three wars and over sixty years of squabbling between India and Pakistan demonstrates that they are not capable of coming to a mutually trustful agreement without pressure from some international body. Steve Coll sharply disagreed stating the Kashmir conflict must be solved bilaterally inherent to the 1972 Simla Agreement and said that a far more likely scenario would involve non-declared internationals quietly partaking in outward bilateral talks.

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April 2nd, 2009 at 6:44 pm