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July 06, 2006

Max Boot on the two campaigns of the GWOT.

Writing in the LA Times he opens with:

Max Boot: Our enemies aren't drinking lattes July 5, 2006


'AMATEURS TALK strategy. Professionals talk logistics." That well-worn saying, sometimes attributed to Gen. Omar Bradley, contains an obvious element of wisdom. Modern militaries cannot fight without a lengthy supply chain, and the success or failure of major operations can turn on the work of anonymous logisticians.

Yet there is a danger of professional soldiers becoming so focused on supply lines that they lose sight of larger strategic imperatives. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we may already have crossed that threshold.

There is undoubtedly a kernel of truth in the question he raises. US Forces are unparalleled logistician - it is a reflection of our society and economy, and an embedded feature of our warmaking - and has been at least since the Civil War.

In a piece I can't find anymore, from sometime last week, Boot or a similar pundit was talking to a Vietnam Vet contractor who was at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, looking over at the Golden Arches of a McDonald's and saying "When it gets this big, you've lost."

That vet's perceptions are shaped by his war, methinks. Doesn't make them wrong - but it *does* make them a single datapoint, hard to extrapolate trends from.

American forces, since the Civil War, have *always* built huge support infrastructures as quickly as we could, consistent with the demands on shipping assets. One has only to look at the 'boring' pictures from WWI, WWII, Korea, to see that as soon as we are able, we build large camps, filled with recreational facilities and troop comforts. It has oft times caused our enemies, and allies, to call us soft, even as we were steamrollering them into the dirt and surrender - if anything, it added to their annoyance.

What's happening over in Iraq (and less so in Afghanistan) is a logical byproduct of the deployment and modern logistic capabilities, especially in an environment where the war in question is very self-contained, and much of the materiel moves in civil airframes and ships until (and even in) the combat zone. It's not like we're losing ships to the U-Boat menace and other threats that smacked Convoy PQ-17.

Nor is as much being diverted from the war effort as you might think - MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) activities are not funded using appropriated monies (though they do leverage facilities). Those activities are funded via donation, contract services, the profit from the Exchange system (on-base department stores) and revenues from MWR activities. For example, here at Castle Argghhh! the Equine Family Members live in the stables at Fort Leavenworth - a service we pay for. That activity does *not* pay for it's building (the old 1909 Quartermaster Stables) but do pay for any new construction, electricity, employee salary, etc - and, since 2001, we've been hit with a surcharge of 10% - that goes directly to fund the overseas MWR activity for deployed troops. We tax ourselves, in a sense. So the diversion of assets is minimized - but certainly there - and in this war, as in Vietnam - there is certainly this aspect Boot observes that deserves consideration.

In the middle, we find this:

Among the more surrealistic moments of my travels was pausing at a base near Baqubah — a far-from-pacified Iraqi city that was Abu Musab Zarqawi's last base of operations — to enjoy a fresh-brewed iced latte at a Green Beans coffee shop. It hit the spot, but when I later told a Marine captain about the experience, he took away some of my enjoyment by asking, "I wonder how many men had to die to get those coffee beans to Baqubah?"

Probably not many, if any, but it begs the question - should any have died? They'd still be dying - the convoys also bring in food and munitions and troops, but exposure would certainly be less. That doesn't mean we should go back to tents and start digging wells, either.

Boot's real point is in his closing:

Successful counterinsurgency operations require troops to go out among the people, gathering intelligence and building goodwill. But few Iraqis are allowed on these bases, and few Americans are allowed out — and then only in forbidding armored convoys.

Most of our resources aren't going to fight terrorists but to maintain a smattering of mini-Americas in the Middle East. As one Special Forces officer pungently put it to me: "The only function that thousands of people are performing out here is to turn food into [excrement]."

How to explain this seemingly counterproductive behavior? My theory is that any organization prefers to focus on what it does well. In the case of the Pentagon, that's logistics. Our ability to move supplies is unparalleled in military history. Fighting guerrillas, on the other hand, has never been a mission that has found much favor with the armed forces. So logistics trumps strategy. Which may help explain why we're not having greater success in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps. But the commanders - and more importantly, the troops, are trying to figure out ways to do that better - and want the comforts of home, too. And the troops are going to find ways to get 'em, whether or no Boot likes it - as this article JTG sent me regarding "Hajiinets" - troop run ISPs to deal with the lack of Internet access.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some enterprising military personnel have engineered an alternative. Hajjinets, the common term for troop-owned ISPs, have sprung to life on almost every base around Iraq. A typical Hajjinet is built and maintained by one or two soldiers and can provide nearly 24-hour internet access (until the region is stabilized and electrical lines can be installed, generators must occasionally be powered down for maintenance). Most Hajjinets are small, serving between 20 and 30 troops, but ISPs serving as many as 300 are known to exist. In a country wracked by war, where even the capital city receives only intermittent electricity, where people's lives are in constant peril, and where even basic necessities are scarce, this is no small victory. A Hajjinet's key elements are satellite service from an international provider, a satellite dish to send and receive data, and a central location inside a base where network hardware is safe from attack. Like an internet-age Frankenstein, a Hajjinet's hardware must be purchased from an international source, shipped in, then cobbled together by military personnel, many of whom have little previous experience running a network.

A lot of what you see building out there is also maintaining a measure of control.

It's just not as simple as Boot would like to think - we can't win the war we don't want to fight, so we'll just sit around and jerk ourselves off. Which is the bottom line of his reasoning, starkly put.

There is food for thought there - and most people don't know about what the services are doing to try and fight these campaigns better while maintaining the ability to fight other kinds of battles as well. A lot of that is OPSEC, and a lot of it is boring. And none of it lends itself to much in the way of sardonic bon mots for pundits.

Aside from OPSEC, it's one reason I don't write about it much - all y'all don't really want to read it.

I should note Max Boot is a supportive voice - but I think he's trying too hard here.

The whole LA Times piece is here.