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Sunday, February 28, 2010

New DOD social media policy

In case you missed it, the DOD has finally issued a clear policy statement permitting the use of social networking sites. This standardized policy should replace the hodge-podge, contradictory policy that has guided the different services until now. That's good news for all of us who believe in the potential benefits of Web 2.0 technology.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Luttwak's Praise for Aerial Bombing

It's fashionable to pick on airpower these days. Even as an Air Force officer, I think the Air Force has often gone too far selling airpower, and I remain unconvinced by some of the pro-airpower articles I have seen. But when a strategist as well-respected as Edward Luttwak writes an article titled In Praise of Aerial Bombing, we should all take note.

Check it out. It's a quick read.

I'm not so sure what I think about Luttwak's examples of the Israeli wars in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008. How a person understands the success or failure of these wars largely depends on the level of analysis. Luttwak is right that both operations re-established deterrence. If that was Israel's strategic goal, then the wars succeeded. But neither war did anything to solve Israel's long-term strategic problems; if anything, they made things worse. The 2006 war empowered Hizballah and drove Lebanon to the brink of collapse. Cast Lead bought Israel a year without rocket fire, but at what cost? An new generation of Palestinian children has been traumatized and radicalized forever. Hamas is more entrenched than ever and Fatah is severely weakened. International condemnation is hotter than ever. Massive displays of firepower--including airpower--can shock enemies into submission for a time, but they do not usually resolve the underlying political conflict.

If you don't care about solving the political conflict (or believe it can't be solved), I suppose that makes for a good strategy. Maybe that's the difference between the United States and Israel. Because it cares about "winning" wars and creating stable political outcomes, the US is engaged in costly nation-building enterprises in Afghanistan and Iraq that are straining the country to its breaking point. Then there is Israel. According to a US army colleague who works extensively with the IDF, the Israelis simply do not do strategy. "This is how they think," he told me. "At the end of every year they look around at one another, exclaim 'Wow, we're still here!' and congratulate themselves on a job well done."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

An evening with the Bedouin

Yesterday my family and I had the unexpected opportunity to enjoy some Bedouin hospitality, when we went hiking in one of the wadis (valleys) in the Jordan River Valley near the Dead Sea. I was busy teaching my son the essential Man Skill of throwing rocks into a stream when we heard the tinkle of bells. We looked up and saw a long parade of sheep and goats appear from around a bend. They lined up along the stream for a drink, just a few feet from my enraptured son. When the Bedouin goatherd came into view, I waved and greeted him in Arabic. We chatted briefly, then he invited us visit his camp over the hill for a cup of tea. Always eager for new cultural experiences, we accepted.

When we got to the camp, we met two other goatherds who share responsibility for the flock. We got the inevitable lecture about the weather is way too hot for our baby to be outside (until now, all the lectures have been about how it's too cold), then were led on a brief tour of the camp, which consisted of little more than a tent, an animal pen, and a firepit. Our host kept urging us to sit down and relax in his tent, which was well-furnished with carpets, mattresses, a kitchen, and a television. My son was far more interested in watching the animals, so we set up some chairs near the firepit and watched our hosts draw a pail of milk. After that, the head goatherd offered us each a cup of hot, fresh milk mixed with sugar. We migrated to the tent, kicked back, and spent the next hour drinking our milk and talking.

I was surprised that the head goatherd spoke fluent English. He studied agriculture in London and spent a career working in a Jordanian government ministry, but ultimately, he decided to switch to something he loved: goatherding. He said that he likes the physical activity and the freedom. His hired hands were both Syrian, less-educated, and only spoke Arabic, which was better for my wife and I, who are always eager to practice our language. When I told them that we were hoping to visit Syria later this year, one of them invited us to visit his family there (of course, that's only if the US government bureaucracy doesn't disapprove the trip, like they disapproved my previous attempt). I traded phone numbers with the Jordanian goatherd, who wants us to visit again and has invited us to spend a day with his family in a nearby town.

My only experience with Bedouin previously was with a tour guide in the magnificent desert of Wadi Rum, so I enjoyed the opportunity to get a more authentic look at the day-to-day life of the Bedouin who are a standard part of the Jordanian landscape. I also enjoyed the opportunity to experience something of the Bedouin's legendary hospitality firsthand.

An example of Army bottom-up learning

I have often argued that junior officers should take ownership of their own learning, and shouldn't wait for PME to teach them what they need to know. So it's nice to see today's article at SWJ by Captain Kelly S Jones and Major Scott Shaw, who urge Army commanders to build up professional reading programs at the unit level.

I can't comment on the particular books they choose--my personal reading list necessarily looks a lot different than what platoon and company commanders need to read--but I like the idea and admire their efforts promoting bottom-up learning.

OVERCLASSIFICATION RANT: Why do programs like this get sucked into the AKO black hole? God forbid somebody in the Air Force wants to learn more about something that's going on in the Army.

Friday, February 19, 2010

CRS report on al-Qaeda

If you've always wanted to know more about al-Qaeda and didn't know where to start, I recommend this new report by the Congressional Research Service, which consistently writes the most helpful background papers I've ever found. It provides a worldwide tour of al-Qaeda and its various franchises in about 30 pages.

You can find a collection of CRS reports on all sorts of fascinating topics here, courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists.

The problem with air-mindedness

Yesterday I praised Air Force Col Zastrow's call for an emphasis on jointness, in contrast to other Air Force articles that play up antagonism with other services. One of the key tenets of these articles is the concept of "air-mindedness." I think this word needs to be jettisoned from the Air Force's lexicon.

What does air-mindedness mean?

An article published today in Air University's The Wright Stuff is a perfect example. In Why does the nation need an independent air force? Dr. Muller writes, "What makes airmen different? Soldiers rightly see the close fight as the center of their universe. Airmen look beyond the front lines to the enemy heartland, to the sustaining sources of military, political and economic power, and even to the threat of the next war."

This view is the evolution of what airpower theorist Giulio Douhet once wrote: "As long as man remained tied to the surface of the earth, his activities had to be adapted to the conditions imposed by that surface. . . . By virtue of this new weapon [the airplane], the repercussions of war are no longer limited by the farthest artillery range of surface guns, but can be directly felt for hundreds and hundreds of miles over all the lands and seas of nations at war." General Hap Arnold coined the term "airmindedness" to describe the airman's unique view of the battlefield.

General Charles Dunlap, one of the Air Force's most prolific writers, often champions the concept of air-mindedness. In his most recent article he writes, "Actually, 'airmindedness' is more of an attitude that focuses not upon any one dimension of military power, but rather aims to holistically leverage America's technological advantages across multiple domains, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in air, space, and cyberspace."

Dr. Dale Hayden writes, "Air-mindedness... is a global, strategic mind-set providing perspective through which the battleĀ­space is not constrained by geography, distance, location, or time. The air-mindedness lens enables Airmen to think about conflict in which force-on-force and armies in the field are only one element. It implies the ability to influence the links between adversary materiel and moral strength. Although Airmen rarely claim to target the enemy's will, they perceive a direct connection between his physical capacity and desire to continue the fight."

The core idea of "air-mindedness", in other words, is that surface operators view war as a 2D contest where armies collide at the front line; airmen think in terms of a comprehensive, multi-dimensional, unconstrained battlespace and are primarily concerned with strategic effects.

Why should we jettison the term? Two reasons.

First, I don't think it's true anymore. It was once upon a time. Airmen fought for decades to broaden the views of ground commanders and awaken them to the strategic effects airpower could create. I won't go into the story here, because it is well-documented by the airpower theorists at Air University. The story of airpower's difficult ascendancy finally climaxed in Desert Storm and the Balkans, where airpower proved its strategic utility. It is easy to see why early airpower advocates promoted the idea of "air-mindedness" and urged airmen to take a broader view of military conflict.

I think those days are largely behind us. The airmindedness theorists have a point--ground commanders do not always understand what air and space power are capable of, and there needs to be more mutual learning--but they are wrong that airmen have a monopoly on the strategic view of the battlefield. Afghanistan and Iraq have turned the tables. The US Army does not view these wars as a red vs. blue contests on a two-dimensional geographic battlefield. Army leaders see a complex, multidimensional battlespace. They understand these wars are waged in political, economic, military, and information domains. Tactical victories are less important than strategic effects. Nor are these wars limited to Afghanistan and Iraq; broader regional politics are immensely important. The keys to Iraq's and Afghanistan's future, for example, may lie with Iran and Pakistan. The Army did not develop this sophisticated understanding of the battlespace overnight, but it has proved remarkably adept at learning. Today you'll find soldiers and Marines of all ranks writing thoughtful essays about tribal engagement, the evolution of Islamic terror organizations, and the efforts of provincial reconstruction teams, among other things.

The Air Force has tended to lag. I was deeply alarmed when a senior AFCENT general gave a briefing at the base I was deployed in 2007, full of the metrics he was relying on and was obviously proud of: sorties flown, bombs dropped, targets destroyed. His view of the war, I thought, was far too narrow. Very few Air Force officers regularly engage with the vibrant discussions of war and strategy online. The Air Force has made great strides in improving its understanding of irregular warfare since 2007, but I see no indication that the Air Force by definition has a more strategic view of war than the Army.

The second reason we should jettison the phrase "air-mindedness" is that nobody is listening. It's a term and concept that only circulates within the ranks of the Air Force. Mention it around the Army, and you'll probably hear snide comments about "air-headedness" and the Air Force's irrelevance. This interservice rivalry has two sides, and plenty of soldiers and Marines are guilty of ignoring or downplaying the Air Force's crucial contributions to our present wars, but the elitist view of air-mindedness will not close the gap. Far better to start from a platform of cooperation and equality, and clearly and professionally articulate what airpower can contribute. Lt Col Kelly "K Mart" Martin sets a good example with her piece at Tom Ricks' blog.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cross-cultural learning and the danger of overconfidence

One of the dangers of living in a foreign culture is developing a false sense of confidence. If you spend a few months in a place like Jordan, you can get lulled into a belief that you understand the people and their culture. What you don't realize is that you are seeing only the most superficial aspects of the country; there are layers and layers of complexity and subtlety you have no idea about. This is especially true if you are an American living in ritzy West Amman.

For example, if you read the English-language Jordan Times every day, you will be able to keep up with the headline news, follow the major events in the country, and read some op-eds that are quite different from anything in the US papers. But really, you're only getting a very narrow perspective. Even if you don't speak Arabic, you'll note that Al-Ra'i, the Arabic-language paper, is four or five times as thick as the Jordan Times. Most of the news is inaccessible to you. Also, these papers are both state-controlled, so they don't necessarily tell you how the average Jordanian thinks. If you visit a local barbershop, you'll quickly get a very different perspective on politics. And who knows what is being shouted over the mosque speakers during the Friday sermon?

When you first arrive in Jordan, you wouldn't know that it's a tribal society. The country has a more-or-less functioning government and public institutions. Your West Amman friends are all pretty westernized. They drive BMWs, go to university, work as engineers or in government ministries. You see young men and women hanging out together on the university campus, sitting in the shade of trees talking and drinking Pepsi. If you can get past the headscarfs and occasional burka, it's tempting to think that this culture is not so different from the US. Of course if you think that, you would be wrong. You probably don't realize that when two Jordanians meet, the first question they always ask is what tribe the other belongs to. You probably have no idea that in May 1999, three days of fighting erupted at the university between two rival tribes. Hundreds of students got involved--all because of a single slur. The crisis was solved not by university or government authorities, but by a tribal tradition of reconciliation over a cup of coffee. You probably don't realize that the social interactions between all those young men and women are governed by complex cultural protocol, and that if you violate it--say, by talking to the wrong girl--you could inadvertently find yourself under the wrath of distant cousins who are honor-bound to defend her because she is in their tribe. And don't be fooled by that local car insurance you bought; if you get in a bad accident, you're likely to find yourself in the middle of a tribal dispute resolution mechanism.

I'm always learning these little lessons... how much I don't know, and how much depth this society has that I'm blind to. Just when I think I understand something, I get thrown for a loop.

I was reminded of that last week. Last semester I studied in an English-speaking master's program with professors who were mostly educated in the West. I heard a lot of opinions from my professors and peers that were quite different from anything I heard in the US, but overall, I was pleased how moderate most of my colleagues were.

This semester I am talking a class on politics in a different department, where the language of instruction is Arabic and the professors are mostly educated in the Middle East. I was shocked by the first lecture. The teacher explained that in America mothers teach their children, "The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim" and that every morning when the US Navy raises the flag, sailors sing and pledge their vengeance against Libya because of a naval defeat in the First Barbary War. He said American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq is best explained by the fact that George W. Bush and Tony Blair are both Protestants, and that Protestants believe Palestine is for the Jews even more strongly than the Jews do, so they launched a new crusade. He explained that Christopher Columbus was on a religious crusade to encircle his Muslim enemies from the east, and that the conquest of the Americas killed up to 600 million Native Americans (twice the current population of the US). According to studies, he said, 70-80% of Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And if you want to get elected US president, you have to hug a black person and kiss a Jew. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Just when I thought I was beginning to understand the perspectives of my Jordanian colleagues, I was reminded how little I knew. Until this week, most of my political discussion was heavily filtered; I was talking politics with Western-educated professors and English-speaking students. Now I'm getting a more local perspective, although it's still filtered: although it's far from US standards, I'm still in a graduate level academic environment. I'm sure there are layers and layers of the culture that I have still not glimpsed.

Can we draw any larger lessons from my experience? When our country engages with foreign nations, humility is a virtue. We should never assume we have other cultures figured out. We need to recognize that most of the insight we gain is heavily filtered--through English-speaking scholars or journalists, or through elite government and business contacts. Our government-level linkages with other cultures are usually with elites who speak good English, wear suits, and seem deceptively like us.

These native guides are vital for understanding other cultures, but our elite contacts do not necessarily reflect the broader population and they can also open us up to the risk of exploitation (think Ahmad Chalabi). I'm sensitive to that danger here. Recently I asked a Jordanian friend to tell me about the most prominent tribes. We spent the next hour hunched over a notebook, drawing diagrams of the tribes and their relationships and scribbling notes about each one. My friend offered extensive commentary. "This is the tribe that controls my town," he said. "They are very corrupt. The father is illiterate and doesn't know anything, but buys the support of higher level government officials by throwing wild parties for them with lots of girls. If you want to do any business in my town you have to go through his son, who always wants huge bribes." I'm sure there is some truth in what my friend is saying, but I suspect if I talked to that rival tribe, I would get a very different explanation. That meeting heightened my appreciation for how difficult it is to make an accurate map of the social and political terrain.

That's what concerns me about the tribal engagement strategy described by Jim Gant. I, along with a lot of other military officers, got a little nervous reading the section about his taking sides in a tribal dispute. How well do we really understand what we're doing in these cases? Obviously we have to find a strategy in Afghanistan, no strategy is perfect, and tribal engagement might very well be the best option on the table--I will leave that question to the experts--but we should tread carefully, recognizing that we are dealing with an ancient and very alien social arrangement that we barely understand. I also wonder how much we really know about Iran; Western media is obsessed with the opposition Green Movement, but is that because the movement is really so powerful, or because limited information filtered through Western-friendly contacts and our own hopes for Iran are giving us a distorted picture? Humility about our cultural knowledge should not paralyze our decision-making processes, but it should lead us to constantly question our assumptions and seek to learn more.

I'll close by linking to a recent SWJ article titled The Seven Pillars of Ambiguity. Author David Mason writes, "The Seven Pillars of Ambiguity are those things that, unless you are native to the country, you can never really know. What you can do however, is recognize your knowledge gap and work to close it."

CNAS on Officership

Today I read the new CNAS report Keeping the Edge: Revitalizing America's Military Officer Corps. This report draws together a lot of the best ideas on reforming the military's personnel and education systems. The themes of the report are probably familiar to most of my readers: we need to identify and promote the right leaders, broaden the education of our officer force, increase opportunities for joint, interagency and multinational assignments, allow for more career flexibility, etc.

I was pleased to see that the report includes a chapter by an Air Force officer, Col Roderick C. Zastrow. The Air Force has struggled to find its place in the messy, ground-centric "small wars" in which the US is presently engaged. Col Zastrow offers a number of practical ideas on how to improve Air Force integration in joint operations. He emphasizes the importance of mutual learning between the Air Force and other services, something I firmly agree with. I appreciate his tone. He rightly insists that airpower specialists can bring unique perspective and abilities that our sister services might not fully understand, but he also admits