Opinion: Training for war is not a precise science

…and Josh wrote another op-ed piece…


Training for war is not a precise science.  By its very nature war is imprecise and unpredictable.  To make matters worse there tends to be an opponent who, in the words of American General George Patton, is trying his hardest to make you die for your country rather than him. Training therefore has to be relevant, intensive and invariably adaptive.

War since 9/11 has become increasingly characterised as being irregular in nature. Modern war has become less about the battles between states and their armies and more about defeating violent non-state groups. Terms and descriptions like peacekeeping missions or stability operations are often an attempt to re-categorise what are actually wars.

As military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz noted,  “The first, the supreme, most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature.”

While the term war may sit uncomfortably with many citizens, the fact is when bullets and bombs start to fly your way those on the front line have more regard for their survival than concerns for what their mission has been labelled.

The recent media reports about the training and the attitude of New Zealand forces deploying to Afghanistan raises a number of important issues. The fact that a soldier has raised concerns while observing the training of a contingent is actually a good thing. That is exactly the purpose of observing and making expert judgment on training for the contemporary warfare environment.

No doubt there have been training concerns in the past and there will be more in the future. Some may have missed the point that such observations are designed to make the team better, not worse. The response so far has been to put the comments into a wider context of training for Afghanistan, and rightfully so. What will be interesting however, is to see if any follow up by the Defence Force focuses on the message or the messenger.

Training in the military is a system. Those who present themselves for deployment are at the pinnacle of that system. The full suite of training courses and on the job experience they have previously undertaken is ultimately designed for them to deploy and succeed on operations. If things manifest as problems during the final training for operations it is sometimes difficult to recognise or even isolate where in the total system it may have gone astray. 

Attitude is acknowledged as affecting performance. A positive attitude tends to increase performance while a negative attitude can reduce it. Inextricably linked to attitude is confidence. Preparing for a military deployment requires confidence in those being deployed, confidence in the leadership of those deploying, confidence in those charged with providing the training and confidence in the training system itself.

Accepting that war is imprecise, and more irregular these days, it is hardly surprising that the training and attitude for today’s military forces is under immense and constant pressure. Ideally, the force will depart for their mission confident that they are well prepared. To assume that they are ready for anything however, discounts the actuality of unpredictability. There is always a very fine line between sureness and an hubristic approach. 

Having a winning, positive attitude, and implicit trust and conviction in your comrades and the training you have received are what define the profession of arms. While it is good to hear that the training is going well, it is not always a bad thing to hear that it is not. 

Josh Wineera is a teaching fellow at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies and is planning to teach a new 200-level paper “Irregular Warfare”in the second semester.

Indicative of the articles referred to above are these:

Training for Army fighters blasted

Officer was ‘too aggressive’

Unfortunately, today’s media has of course selected deliberately inflammatory headlines without either considering or even probably understanding the core underlying issues…

Bad boys, bad boys…

…whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you…? 

Ready or not, here we come...

Ready or not, here we come…

Dear Unit 61398

How do you hack the guidance on a ‘dumb’ Mk.84 low drag bomb once it (and its friends) are spiralling down towards you?


The Hacked (Off)

In this era of informal conflict i.e. one in which one or more or even all of the actors are the regular formed units or formations that we remember from the good old days of the Fulda Gap, this becomes a valid question.

In the good old days (GOD for short), if someone actively and physically attacked or took some form of physical action against a nation’s physical infrastructure or commercial structures, there would be options under the DIME construct (more D, M or E than I perhaps) through which one might register one’s national concerns about such activities and encourage the perpetrators to cease and desist.

In the case of Unit 61398, despite its mundane designation (F-117 sounded mundane until 17 January 1991), we have an identified military unit conducting, with guns more smoking than Saddam’s WMDs, offensive actions against national and commercial infrastructure around the world but especially targeting the US. If Unit 61398 was an active service unit, regular or irregular, operating within the borders of any western, and most if not all other, nations, it could reasonably be expected to be hunted down and neutralised physically. Similarly, if  it was as openly offensive as Saddam’s SAMs during the decade of no fly zones, or Iran’s Boghammers during the Tanker War, something loud and bad would probably happen to them.

But (yes,yes, I know, never start a sentence with ‘but’) in the convolutions of informality the smoking gun justifications are not as clear regardless of provocation. Just as US- and UK-based UAS operators blithely commute between domestic homes and respective UAS remote operating bases with a strong sense of security and little of risk of threat (in the UK, the IRA must be rolling in its unmarked grave after the security awareness it forced upon the UK military in its heyday of terror), members of Unit 61398 probably cycle home with a similar sense of blithe innocence…

So will it be that one day,maybe one day soon, and in true Dale Brown style, the stars at 65,000 feet will ripple as payback soars over Shanghai and releases some unhackable cease and desist notices (Lucasfilm lawyers eat your hearts out!!)…?

Note: Lucasfilms/LucasArts are the people who not only brought you the three worst science fiction movies of all time (certainly when viewed sequentially) but who also have a rep for being the Galactic Empire of the known legal cease and desist notice universe…

Reversing the Oil-spot

Possibly winding off the Thursday/Friday War for 2012, a short item from Josh Wineera wondering what the reverse side of the popular COIN theory of the inkspot might look like in 2014…

Reversing the Oil-spot:How does the concept apply when leaving Afghanistan?

Josh Wineera

November 2012


For professional military planners, and even armchair strategist, the oil-spot concept for responding to an insurgency appears to be well understood. The counter insurgent objective of extending the security environment to establish and entrench a sustainable economic and political situation has been a particular feature of the latter stages of the War in Afghanistan. Conceived some 100 years ago by French Army Generals, Gallieni and Lyautey, the modern oil-spot concept is expressed in the form of a ‘Clear, Hold and Build’ strategy. Clear, Hold and Build has been the mainstay of ISAF coalition operations since the release of the 2006 US Army field manual, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency Operations.

Afghanistan experts have fiercely debated the merits of fighting the enemy, aka the Taliban, verses focusing on protecting the population. Recent ISAF commanders, such as Generals McChrystal, Petraeus and Allen, all recognised the necessity to engage in both. Kill-capture missions sit aside missions such as training and mentoring Afghan security forces – such is the nature of contemporary counterinsurgency operations.

As the exit date rapidly approaches for coalition governments to withdraw their forces, plaudits for the successful application of the oil-spot approach still proliferate. Manifestly the surge of an additional 30,000 troops in early 2010 provided better force ratios and counterinsurgent density to implement the expansion in to previously held Taliban-strongholds. At this time however, with transition and withdrawal leading every major conversation about Afghanistan, a natural question arises.

Having applied the concept, moving forward has any thought been given to what happens when the oil-spot concept ceases, or rather the ISAF forces contract and concentrate to leave? Granted, a critical precondition to leaving has to be the successful training of the Afghan Army and Police forces to take full responsibility for their own community’s internal security. They after all, are the most important counter insurgent force in Afghanistan – a point often missed. Regardless, the degree of their success is still open for debate. One measure has been the quantity of Afghan security forces being trained. As to the quality, plainly numbers do not convey the whole story. Recent insider attacks, known colloquially as a ‘green on blue’ incident, have placed immense pressure on the trust and confidence within those partnered ISAF and Afghan units. It would be unfair to generalise these extreme tensions across the whole country. In many places, such as the Arghandab River Valley in the Kandahar Province, conditions are in place to enable the Afghans to take the lead. Certainly in his address to the US Army Irregular Warfare Centre last month, former ISAF battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Michael Simmering explained the rational for his unit’s achievements.

Having expanded the security environment, in many cases literally being the outlier force, ISAF strategists and even regionally based planners must surely be conceiving a plan to reverse the oil-spot concept? Ideally, the full extent of ISAF control of the environment is manageable for the Afghan forces but common sense would suggest they are in for a very tough time. The absence of ISAF will almost certainly be a cue for prospective power brokers to demonstrate their credentials for control. In some provinces this demonstration has already begun.

Drawing back to a concentration area, or a central hub, for departure might seem like a logical method to reduce the ISAF footprint in the provinces. For this to be achieved an assumption would need to be made in terms of the previously held (by ISAF) security zone remaining intact. That is an assumption that will hold up in some provinces, for others it will remain questionable – certainly a major risk consideration. Possibly some ISAF contingents might contemplate holding the outer security areas in place and hollowing out the main force from the rear first. The last element to withdraw would be the outer security forces having provided a ‘shield’. Military proponents would recognise these two options as merely tactical methods of withdrawing from a main defensive position, and so they are. Could they however, become the basis to start conceptualising and visualising what ISAFs oil spots could look like in reverse?

For those ISAF soldiers still patrolling their area of operations, the time for theoretical conceptions matters little. Familiar tactical tasks, such as the options to withdraw or allowing the Afghan security forces to relive them in place, may not be considered particularly elegant or intellectually innovative. But they, in some way, will feature in every planning consideration. So might a new metaphor be coined to explain reversing the oil-spot? In an age where anything can be rebranded and often is, where the old can be made new age again, the likelihood is high.


Major Josh Wineera is a serving military officer on secondment to the Centre for Defence and Security Studies,Massey University. He can be contacted at j.wineera@massey.ac.nz

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies or the New Zealand Defence Force.

Joining the dots

I’m sitting in on the two day Contemporary Wafare module at Command and Staff College  that is being conducted by Dr Michael Evans from the Australian Defence College. Although it is only a two day module (compressed down from 4-5 days to fit the study programme) it is a great learning experience both through Michael’s experience and the interaction with members on the staff course; I have almost a whole notebook full of notes (= a few nights typing them all up before I forget which scribble means what!) and some great insights to expand and write on…There was some very good material yesterday afternoon that has helped join some of the dots in our own work here and we’ve just finished working through some of the ethical dilemmas of the contemporary environment…

Seven Days in May

I’ve been on a recreational reading blitz over the last month or so…mainly to daily purge the professional reading I have been reviewing…sort of getting a literary life, I guess…

I started with old favourites from Steven Coonts (The Intruders, America), Clive Cussler (Raise the Titanic, Night Probe) and Dale Brown (Wings of Fire and Fatal Terrain). I overnighted at Carmen’s flat in Otorohanga a couple of weekends ago and, having forgotten to bring a book with me, grabbed Michael Connelly’s Echo Park for my pre-lights out read. This was followed by my two wins from Get Frank, Jonathan Kellerman’s Deception and Stephen Leather’s Nightfall.

Two nights ago, I felt the need to reread another favourite and grabbed Larry Bond’s Cauldron but while walking down the hallway, found I had picked out his Days of Wrath instead which was not really what I was in the mood for. As I was replacing it on the shelf in the study, I noticed Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May beside it. I’d only ever read this as a teenager in the Reader’s Digest Condensed version and so opted to read it next.

What a great read!! Published in 1962, before Cuba, Dallas and Vietnam, it is set in the early 70s after a Cold War conflict that leaves Iran divided into Communist North and democratic South – logical for the time considering the Koreas, Vietnam and Germanys. A nuclear disarmament treat has been signed with the Soviet Union but elements of the US military have littler faith in either the Treaty or the President that signed it…to find out what happens you need to read the book (recommended) or see the movie (on my to-do list but it has Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster so I have high expectations).

In addition to being a damn fine read, delivering a gripping  storyline without needing the prop of a high body count as perhaps a contemporary equivalent would, Seven Days in May has a couple of lines that I felt are relevant to our contemporary environment…

Cleaning up the “sad debris of surrender”, as Todd called it, took time

The sad debris of surrender – a good phrase…someone said to me earlier this week that the US is not good at nation-building and I had to bite back quite sharply…this is one of those myths that has appeared since the end of the OIF warfighting phase in 2003, a result of moral high-horsing from the UN and sniping from the UK when post-war Iraq didn’t snap nicely into a nice shining example of Middle Eastern democracy (now there’s an oxymoron for you)…my response included three names…Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and George C. Marshall…three generals who, between them, rebuilt Europe and Japan from the ashes of WW2. If there was any failure of nation-building in post-war Iraq, it was down to three factors:

The failure of the UN to get over itself and not step to the plate to take the lead in rebuilding Iraq. Regardless of the nature of the disaster that struck Iraq in 2003, the sad human debris of its surrender was left to suffer and endure after the UN’s half-hearted attempt at a presence in Iraq. The few casualties suffered by the UN in Iraq are but a drop in the bucket compared to the casualties suffered by the people of Iraq and those nations that did step forward…

The decision by the US to allow the bulk of development and reconstruction work to be let to US-based mega-corps that only had an eye out for the quick big bucks instead of perhaps applying a fraction of those billions to developing those construction capabilities in Iraq itself, thus contributing to the development and stability of the Iraqi economy. This was a point made by COL Dransfield in his presentation at Massey yesterday on his recent experience in  Afghanistan: he admitted some confusion as to how these contracts could cost so much when the daily rate for labour is about US$5 and all the raw materials like sand and gravel are there for the taking. He was surprised to learn that his PRT was one of the few forces in-theatre that purchased a lot of its support e.g. fresh food, minor mechanical repairs, etc from local resources.

The UK perception that it was on top of both conventional state versus state conflict AND low-level conflict and that it had nothing to learn from the US. The corollarative effect of this was that it also contributed little back into the Iraqi nation-building process at either the national level (after all, the UK was the other primary collaborator in the WMD ‘justification for the war in Iraq) or within it’s own AO which ultimately had to be ‘pacified’ by a US force as the UK was packing its bags to go home, it’s job not done…

At the Australian Army COIN Seminar in 2008, the comment was made that no one ordered Dwight Eisenhower to conduct reconstruction and nation-building tasks as he advanced across France and into Germany – they didn’t have to because it was such a logical and common sense method of pacificying the region. Similarly, Douglas MacArthur was expected to inflict draconian Versaille-like measures against the Japanese after Japan surrendered in August 1945 and many would have believed that he had a major axe to grind with Japan over the way it had treated his beloved Philippines. No doubt he did but, again, this senior US general determined that this would be counter-productive in the bigger picture. As a result, Germany and Japan sixty years on are still two economic powerhouses and one has to wonder what the Army of that day got right in training its senior officers.

Or possibly, as I’m not sure that the US has too much wrong with how it develops its generals today, what was so different sixty years ago that the governments and civil staff trusted those officers to just get on and do the job…?

“…the trouble is that democracy works only when a good majority of citizens are willing to give thoughts and time and effort to their government…”

And that remains the single biggest issue with the current campaign in Afghanistan: at the tribal and provincial levels the majority of citizens may be willing to contribute to government and leadership, there is simply no interest in a strong central government regardless of its composition or ethical philosophies. No matter how much you flog a dead horse it still isn’t going to get up and haul the cart any further…The McCrystal ‘Cursed Earth’ plan essentially abandons the centre of Afghanistan to whoever wants and only maintain a Maginot-like ring around the outer edges of the country – which might be useful if Afghanistan faced any credible conventional external threat. But it doesn’t, and ISAF’s failure to adopt a provincial/tribal based campaign along the lines of that proposed by Jim Gant that might, over time, allow the  ink blots of success to spread and merge only means that more lives and money will be wasted in ineffective and pointless kinetic operations.

MacArthur in particular achieved his success in reconstructing Japan not, by through kinetics or arbitrarily inflicting Western culture on the Japanese but by working within their own culture, evolving an his approach for that situation and no relying on templates from previous successes…what it it so hard to learn…?

The New War #5 the new intelligences

…the game of chess, even three-dimensional chess, is simplicity itself compared to a political game using pieces that can change their minds independently of other pieces…” ~ Mr Spock, Garth of Izar, Pocket Books, 2003.

It being the twins’ birthday the weekend just gone, I was offline most of the weekend and it was only last night that I  saw a Stuff report of the contact involving Kiwi personnel in Afghanistan on Saturday “…a group using small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a combined New Zealand and US patrol from the New Zealand provincial reconstruction team in the northeast of Bamiyan province…the patrol returned fire, driving the insurgents off after a 15-20 minute engagement…

There’s not much information in the Stuff article but with the recent changeover of Operation CRIB (the NZ PRT) contingents this might be simple cases of the local likely lads testing the mettle of the newest kids on the block – although ‘newest’ may be a bit of the stretch as some of these troops will be on their third or maybe even fourth deployment in this theatre…chatting with a colleague yesterday, the conversation turned to ‘what is an insurgent?‘ and ‘who says so?‘.

Obviously a lot of information on this contact has not been released but one wonders what confirmation there has been that the instigators of this attack were actually insurgents i.e. activists seeking to render political change through acts of violence. Or were they were something else? Perhaps…

a couple of lads out to impress some local lasses with their courage and prowess…?


some bored locals seeking to spice up a small ISAF patrol because they could…?


an attempt at ‘accidental insurgency’ to meet local quotas for attacks on the ‘infidel invaders’…?

As it appears in the Collateral Murder story released by Wikileaks last week, if you go out in the badlands looking for insurgents, then ‘insurgents’ are what you find, often with significant second order effects at both strategic and tactical levels. In all fairness, those who engaged the combined NZ/US patrol on Saturday may very well have been insurgents of some sort, possibly even more focused than accidental…but as attacks go in this theatre, it was in “…good country for ambushes…, “‘…driven off...” in “…15-10 minutes…” and was all over before air support arrived on the scene.

In places like Afghanistan, carrying an AK or an RPG does not necessarily an insurgent make, not does arcing up in the general direction of an ISAF patrol. So if the shooters have been confirmed as insurgents, which would be a an outstanding intel flash to bang noting the time between the attack and the NZDF media release, well and good…if not yet proven, then perhaps some less martial language would be more appropriate.

As David Kilcullen proposes in The Accidental Guerrilla and is further discussed in The New War #4 – Normalcy, the birth of an insurgent is a direct reaction to actions of host nation or foreign interventions…we need to understand not just the process of ‘accidentalisation’ but the local nuances and catalysts that often make incidents of  ‘accidentalism’ so distinct and different between different areas and groups.

I was interested to read in Wired that the UK is deploying its Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU) to Helmand Province. This may be an example of learning from the experiences of others, specifically the US Army’s Human Terrain Systems teams that have been operating for some years now. I was intrigued by the last paragraph in the Wired article “…the US Human Terrain System has seen its fair share of controversy. It will be worth watching this initiative as well to see if it provokes backlash among British social scientists…

I did some research into the HTS teams after mention of them appeared in one of the Interbella briefs. From what I saw then, I rated the HTS as a damn fine idea that’s time had definitely come; more so when it appeared to be a logical  consequence of Michael Scheiern’s platform- to individual-based transition model.

So, I was quite surprised to find the degree of active resistance within the anthropological community, or certainly a very vocal element within it, to the employment of HTS teams in operational theatres like Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve yet to find a copy of Roberto Gonzalez’ Human Science and Human Terrain [note: I reviewed it later]. Gonzalez is reportedly critical of the US Army’s adoption of anthropological techniques to aid in the understanding and interpreting of contemporary operating environments. In all the reviews and articles I have read in the last day or so that support Gonzalez, I can find few threads of logic; instead I get a very real feeling of rampant prima-donnaism amongst what is really quite a small and relatively insignificant strand in the broader carpet of science. Indicative of this content are Fighting militarization of anthropology, The Leaky Ship of Human Terrain Systems, and The Dangerous Militarisation of Anthropology.

Another finding of the New Zealand COIN doctrine review was that intelligence in the complex environment will need to transformed to closer resemble police-style criminal intelligence (CRIMINT) focussed on a. individuals and b. providing fast and accurate response to an initiated action. This would require a clear shift, transformation even, from traditional military intelligence that is…

…focussed on conventional platforms and groupings, and

…driven largely by predictive philosophies.

Science and warfare have always gone together in an alliance that is both logical and inevitable. Eight years into the war on terror, there seems no reason why the CRIMINT finding does not stand true. We should also accept that sciences like anthropology offer us useful tools to assist with the uncertainty and complexity of the contemporary environment.

The moral objections of Manhattan Project scientists are somewhat strained when these same scientists were remarkably silent on such topics as the firebombing of German and Japanese cities, actions which causing far more civilian deaths than the atomic bombs ever did. The ‘do no harm‘ stance of Gonzalez and his fellow bleating liberal anthropologist cronies is sickening in both its naiveté and its preciousness. If this group really cared about those most likely to be harmed through misuse of social sciences, then surely they embrace the HTS concept as a practical and employable means of promoting greater precision of both information and effects in current theatres of operation?

Tied into the need to transform towards individually-focussed CRIMINT, was a need to better integrate operational analysis (OA) techniques into contemporary intelligence systems. These techniques would enhance and evolve pattern analysis processes to better grapple with the greater amounts of information in far greater detail than conventional intelligence systems were ever designed to manage. Unfortunately this finding seemed to die a death when the term ANALINT developed a perverse life all its own, alienating a proportion of the OA community.

In the last two decades, we have spent too long declaring war (lower case) on every real or imagined threat to western society that we have become somewhat blase and have forgotten what actual War really is. While the generation that sacrificed 5000 of its members in Afghanistan and Iraq may lead the way in remembering what War really is, it’s influence has yet to be felt…War is not nice, War is not safe…War is not a game…War is not something where we can artificially pick and choose based on what is convenient or suits at the time…

To artificially deny the utility of science like anthropology in winning the Wars we are in, to discard tools that save lives on BOTH sides, to dignify self-centred egotists like Gonzales is an insult to every one of those 5000…



This STRATFOR article Jihadism and the Importance of Place arrived in the mail last night. It is so good that I believe it is worth repeating in its entirety. My only comment is that, while this report reflects success in the campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, that is still but one campaign in the wider war against those who preach and practice takfiri phliosophies.

As an admin note, I have edited yesterday’s post because I realised this morning that I had skipped out the first paragraph….

STRATFOR Security Weekly March 25, 2010

By Scott Stewart

One of the basic tenets of STRATFOR’s analytical model is that place matters. A country’s physical and cultural geography will force the government of that country to confront certain strategic imperatives no matter what form the government takes. For example, Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia all have faced the same set of strategic imperatives. Similarly, place can also have a dramatic impact on the formation and operation of a militant group, though obviously not in quite the same way that it affects a government, since militant groups, especially transnational ones, tend to be itinerant and can move from place to place.

From the perspective of a militant group, geography is important but there are other critical factors involved in establishing the suitability of a place. While it is useful to have access to wide swaths of rugged terrain that can provide sanctuary such as mountains, jungles or swamps, for a militant group to conduct large-scale operations, the country in which it is based must have a weak central government — or a government that is cooperative or at least willing to turn a blind eye to the group. A sympathetic population is also a critical factor in whether an area can serve as a sanctuary for a militant group. In places without a favorable mixture of these elements, militants tend to operate more like terrorists, in small urban-based cells.

For example, although Egypt was one of the ideological cradles of jihadism, jihadist militants have never been able to gain a solid foothold in Egypt (as they have been able to do in Algeria, Yemen and Pakistan). This is because the combination of geography and government are not favorable to them even in areas of the country where there is a sympathetic population. When jihadist organizations have become active in Egypt, the Egyptian government has been able to quickly hunt them down. Having no place to hide, those militants who are not immediately arrested or killed frequently leave the country and end up in places like Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan (and sometimes Jersey City). Over the past three decades, many of these itinerant Egyptian militants, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, have gone on to play significant roles in the formation and evolution of al Qaeda — a stateless, transnational jihadist organization.

Even though al Qaeda and the broader jihadist movement it has sought to foster are transnational, they are still affected by the unique dynamics of place, and it is worth examining how these dynamics will likely affect the movement’s future.

The Past

The modern iteration of the jihadist phenomenon that resulted in the formation of al Qaeda was spawned in the rugged mountainous area along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This was a remote region not only filled with refugees — and militants from all over the globe — but also awash in weapons, spies, fundamentalist Islamism and intrigue. The area proved ideal for the formation of modern jihadism following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, but it was soon plunged into Muslim-on-Muslim violence. After the fall of the communist regime in Kabul in 1992, Afghanistan was wracked by near-constant civil war between competing Muslim warlords until the Taliban seized power in 1996. Even then, the Taliban-led government remained at war with the Northern Alliance. In 1992, in the midst of this chaos, al Qaeda began to move many of its people to Sudan, which had taken a heavy Islamist bent following a 1989 coup led by Gen. Omar al-Bashir and heavily influenced by Hasan al-Turabi and his National Islamic Front party. Even during this time, al Qaeda continued operating established training camps in Afghanistan like Khaldan, al Farook and Darunta. The group also maintained its network of Pakistani safe-houses in places like Karachi and Peshawar that it used to direct prospective jihadists from overseas to its training camps in Afghanistan.

In many ways, Sudan was a better place for al Qaeda to operate from, since it offered far more access to the outside world than the remote camps in Afghanistan. But the access worked both ways, and the group received far more scrutiny during its time in Sudan than it had during its stay in Afghanistan. In fact, it was during the Sudan years (1992-1996) when many in the counterterrorism world first became conscious of the existence of al Qaeda. Most people outside of the counterterrorism community were not familiar with the group until after the August 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and it was not really until 9/11 that al Qaeda became a household name. But this notoriety came with a price. Following the June 1995 attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (an attack linked to Egyptian militants and al Qaeda), the international community — including Egypt and the United States — began to place heavy pressure on the government of Sudan to either control Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda or eject them from the country.

In May 1996, bin Laden and company, who were not willing to be controlled, pulled up stakes and headed back to Afghanistan. The timing was propitious for al Qaeda, which was able to find sanctuary in Afghanistan just as the Taliban were preparing for their final push on Kabul, bringing stability to much of the country. While the Taliban were never wildly supportive of bin Laden, they at least tolerated his presence and activities and felt obligated to protect him as their guest under Pashtunwali, the ancient code of the Pashtun people. Al Qaeda also shrewdly had many of its members marry into influential local tribes as an added measure of security. Shortly after returning to Afghanistan, bin Laden felt secure enough to issue his August 1996 declaration of war against the United States.

The rugged and remote region of eastern and northeastern Afghanistan, bordered by the Pakistani badlands, provided an ideal area in which to operate. It was also a long way from the ocean and the United States’ ability to project power. While al Qaeda’s stay in Afghanistan was briefly interrupted by a U.S. cruise missile attack in August 1998 following the East Africa embassy bombings, the largely ineffective attack demonstrated the limited reach of the United States, and the group was able to operate pretty much unmolested in Afghanistan until the October 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. During their time in Afghanistan, al Qaeda was able to provide basic military training to tens of thousands of men who passed through its training camps. The camps also provided advanced training in terrorist tradecraft to a smaller number of selected students.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan radically changed the way the jihadists viewed Afghanistan as a place. U.S. military power was no longer confined to the Indian Ocean; it had now been brought right into the heart of Afghanistan. Instead of a place of refuge and training, Afghanistan once again became a place of active combat, and the training camps in Afghanistan were destroyed or relocated to the Pakistani side of the border. Other jihadist refugees fled Afghanistan for their countries of origin, and still others, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, left Afghanistan for the badlands of northern Iraq — which, as part of the U.S. no-fly zone, was out the reach of Saddam Hussein, who as a secular leader had little ideological sympathy for the jihadist cause.

Pakistan’s rugged and remote Pashtun belt proved a welcoming refuge for jihadists at first, but U.S. airstrikes turned it into a dangerous place, and al Qaeda became fractured and hunted. The group had lost important operational leaders like Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan, and its losses were multiplied in Pakistan, where important figures like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were captured or killed. Under extreme pressure, the group’s apex leadership went deep underground to stay alive.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iraq became an important place for the jihadist movement. Unlike Afghanistan, which was seen as remote and on the periphery of the Muslim world, Iraq was at its heart. Baghdad had served as the seat of the Islamic empire for some five centuries. The 2003 invasion also fit hand-in-glove with the jihadist narrative, which claimed that the West had declared war on Islam, and thereby provided a serious boost to efforts to raise men and money for the jihadist struggle. Soon foreign jihadists were streaming into Iraq from all over the world, not only from places like Saudi Arabia and Algeria but also from North America and Europe. Indeed, we even saw the core al Qaeda group asking the Iraqi jihadist leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for financial assistance.

One of the things that made Iraq such a welcoming place was the hospitality of the Sunni sheikhs in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle who took in the foreign fighters, sheltered them and essentially used them as a tool. Once the largesse of these tribal leaders dried up, we saw the Anbar Awakening in 2005-2006, and Iraq became a far more hostile place for the foreign jihadists. This local hostility was fanned by the brutality of al-Zarqawi and his recklessness in attacking other Muslims. The nature of the human terrain had changed in the Sunni Triangle, and it became a different place. Al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, and the rat lines that had been moving jihadists into Iraq were severely disrupted.

While some of the jihadists who had served in Iraq, or who had aspired to travel to Iraq, were forced to go to Pakistan, still others began focusing on places like Algeria and Yemen. Shortly after the Anbar Awakening we saw the formation of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and a revitalization of the jihadists in Yemen, who had been severely weakened by a November 2002 U.S. missile strike and a series of arrests in 2002-2003. Similarly, Somalia also became a destination where foreign jihadists could receive training and fight, especially those of Somali or other African heritage.

And this brings us up to today. The rugged borderlands of Pakistan continue to be a focal point for jihadists, but increasing pressure by U.S. airstrikes and Pakistani military operations in places like Bajaur, Swat and South Waziristan have forced many foreign jihadists to leave Pakistan for safer locations. The al Qaeda central leadership continues to lay low, and groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have taken over the leadership of the jihadist struggle on the physical battlefield. As long as the ideology of jihadism persists, transnational and itinerant jihadist militants will continue to operate. Where their next geographic center of gravity will be hinges on a number of factors.

Geographic Factors

When one looks for prime jihadist real estate, one of the first important factors (as in any real estate transaction) is location. Unlike most home buyers, though, jihadists don’t want a home near the metro stop or important commuter arteries. Instead, they want a place that is isolated and relatively free of government authority. That is why Afghanistan, the Pakistani border region, the Sulu Archipelago, the African Sahel and Somalia have all proved to be popular jihadist haunts.

A second important factor is human terrain. Like any militant or insurgent group, the jihadists need a local population that is sympathetic to them if they are to operate in numbers larger than small cells. This is especially true if they hope to run operations such as training camps that are hard to conceal. Without local support they would run the risk of being turned in to the authorities or sold out to countries like the United States that may have put large bounties on the heads of key leaders. A conservative Muslim population with a warrior tradition is also a plus, as seen in Pakistan and Yemen. Indeed, Abu Musab al-Suri, a well-known jihadist strategist and so-called “architect of global jihad,” even tried (unsuccessfully) to convince bin Laden in 1989 to relocate to Yemen precisely because of the favorable human terrain there.

The importance of human terrain is very evident in the Iraq example described above, in which a change in attitude by the tribal sheikhs rapidly made once welcoming areas into hostile and dangerous places for the foreign jihadists. Iraqi jihadists, who were able to fit in better with the local population, were able to persist in this hostile environment longer than their foreign counterparts. This concept of local support is one of the factors that will limit the ability of Arab jihadists to operate in remote and chaotic places like sub-Saharan Africa or even the rainforests of South America. They are not indigenous like members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Sendero Luminoso, and differences in religion and culture will impede their efforts to intermarry into powerful tribes as they have done in Pakistan and Yemen.

Geography and human terrain are helpful factors, but they are not the exclusive determinants. You can just as easily train militants in an open field as in a dense jungle, so long as you are unmolested by an outside force, and that is why government is so important to place. A weak government that has a lack of political and physical control over an area or a local regime that is either cooperative or at least non-interfering is also important. When we consider government, we need to focus on the ability and will of the government at the local level to fight an influx of jihadism. In several countries, jihadism was allowed to exist and was not countered by the government as long as the jihadists focused their efforts elsewhere.

However, the wisdom of pursuing such an approach came into question in the period following 9/11, when jihadist groups in a number of places began conducting active operations in their countries of residence. This occurred in places like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and even Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where jihadist groups joined al Qaeda’s call for a global jihad. And this response proved to be very costly for these groups. The attacks they conducted, combined with heavy political pressure from the United States, forced some governments to change the way they viewed the groups and resulted in some governments focusing the full weight of their power to destroy them. This resulted in a dynamic where a group briefly appears, makes a splash with some spectacular attacks, then is dismantled by the local government, often with foreign assistance (from countries like the United States). In some countries, the governments lacked the necessary intelligence-gathering and tactical capabilities, and it has taken a lot of time and effort to build up those capabilities for the counterterrorism struggle. In other places, like Somalia, there has been very little government to build on.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has paid a lot of attention to “draining the swamps” where these groups seek refuge and train new recruits. This effort has spanned the globe, from the southern Philippines to Central Asia and from Bangladesh to Mali and Mauritania. And it is paying off in places like Yemen, where some of the special counterterrorism forces are starting to exhibit some self-sufficiency and have begun to make headway against AQAP. If Yemen continues to exhibit the will to go after AQAP, and if the international community continues to enable them to do so, it will be able to follow the examples of Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, countries where the jihadist problem has not been totally eradicated but where the groups are hunted and their tactical capabilities are greatly diminished. This will mean that Yemen will no longer be seen as a jihadist haven and training base. The swamp there will have been mostly drained. Another significant part of this effort will be to reshape the human terrain through ideological measures. These include discrediting jihadism as an ideology, changing the curriculum at madrassas and re-educating militants.

With swamps such as Yemen and Pakistan slowly being drained, the obvious question is: Where will the jihadists go next? What will become the next focal point on the physical battlefield? One obvious location is Somalia, but while the government there is a basket case and controls little more than a few neighborhoods in Mogadishu, the environment is not very conducive for Somalia to become the next Pakistan or Yemen. While the human terrain in Somalia is largely made up of conservative Muslims, the tribal divisions and fractured nature of Somali society — the same things that keep the government from being able to develop any sort of cohesion — will also work against al-Shabaab and its jihadist kin. Many of the various tribal chieftains and territorial warlords see the jihadists as a threat to their power and will therefore fight them — or leak intelligence to the United States, enabling it to target jihadists it views as a threat. Arabs and South Asians also tend to stick out in Somalia, which is a predominately black country.

Moreover, Somalia, like Yemen, has broad exposure to the sea, allowing the United Stated more or less direct access. Having long shorelines along the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, it is comparatively easy to slip aircraft and even special operations teams into and out of Somalia. With a U.S. base in Djibouti, orbits of unmanned aerial vehicles are also easy to sustain in Somali airspace.

The winnowing down of places for jihadists to gather and train in large numbers continues the long process we have been following for many years now. This is the transition of the jihadist threat from one based on al Qaeda the group, or even on its regional franchise groups, to one based more on a wider movement composed of smaller grassroots cells and lone-wolf operatives. Going forward, the fight against jihadism will also have to adapt, because the changes in the threat will force a shift in focus from merely trying to drain the big swamps to mopping up the little pools of jihadists in places like London, Brooklyn, Karachi and even cyberspace. As discussed last week, this fight will present its own set of challenges.

The Big Gun

The Business End (c) Michael Yon 2010

There is no doubt that the A-10 Warthog is one of the coolest aircraft ever, no argument…it was designed to do one thing and one thing only: kill tanks. Against the mass exposed targets so thoughtfully provided by the Iraqi Army in 1991 and 2003, it proved eminently successful. So successful that the fast jet jocks who run the US Air Force that were scheming to do away with the A-10 were forced to back down and implement long overdue upgrade programmes. Unfortunately the production jigs for this flying tank had already been destroyed so what we have now is what we’ve got.

The thing about the A-10 that makes it so successful is not just its big gun but the fact that, in addition to dishing it out, it can take a ton of punishment as well everything about this aircraft is designed to bring the aircraft and its pilot back after a hard day converting armour to pillars of smoke. The same could not be said for the A-10’s proposed replacement, an F-16 with the 30mm GEPOD pod strapped to its belly. Not only does the F-16 totally lack the armour and built-in survivability features of the A-10, e.g. like two engines, experience with the gunless versions of the F-4 Phantom showed just how much you lose with a bolt-on gun and how little extra you might gain in ‘adaptability’. That then A-10 for all its utility in the complex environment is a diminishing resource is due to the undue influence of ego over fact within the senior echelons of the USAF. Similar mindset in the Navy maybe why the A-6 Intruder’s successful career was prematurely terminated after Gulf 1 in favour of multi-role-ism.

Similar ego-fed posturing seems to be behind the US hard-line attitude towards Iran and its nuclear programme. The sole redeeming feature of the current US rhetoric is that it appears to have more substance than the WMD arguments that led it into Iraq (and didn’t that work out well?). The nuclear genie is well out of the bottle and the US just needs to get over it, more so since it tacitly supported Israel’s nuclear weapons programme in the 60s and 70s; has opted to partner with Pakistan against the Taliban (also supported by Pakistan!), and take a ‘hope it turns out OK’ approach to xenophobic North Korea. The Sunday Herald reports that the US appears to be restocking its base in Diego Garcia with a range of earth penetrating bunker-buster munitions – of limited utility in Afghanistan except against cave complexes but ideal for disrupting work in underground research and storage facilities.

This is a worry on two counts. Firstly, you’d like to think that the most powerful nation in the world might be able to shift weapons around the planet without some journo plastering it across the media. Secondly. you’d also like to think that senior staff in the US Government might get over the unfortunate events of THIRTY YEARS AGO, get with the 21st Century, and realise that one of the reasons that the Islamic world burns effigies of The Great Satan every Tuesday is ego-driven idiocy like this. As Scott Atran says in his Edge article Pathways to and From Violent Extremism:
The Case for Science-Based Field Research

In sum, there are many millions of people who express sympathy with Al Qaeda or other forms of violent political expression that support terrorism. They are stimulated by a massive, media-driven global political awakening which, for the first time in human history, can “instantly” connect anyone, anywhere to a common cause — provided the message that drives that cause is simple enough not to require much cultural context to understand it: for example, the West is everywhere assaulting Muslims, and Jihad is the only the way to permanently resolve glaring problems caused by this global injustice.

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the spritual of the road gangs is Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran

Round Up

Just a quick round up of what’s happening around the blogspace – have loads of domestic duties this week so focusing on those while the sun shines…

Europe Descends

Neptunus Lex continues to chronicle the decline of Europe as a major power, if it every was in the first place – certainly some of its member nations may have been – once – but EU Europe definitely seems to be less than the sum of its parts…Britain, Eire, Netherlands, Greece, Russia

Keep 558 alive

At Paper Modelers, there is a request to support XH558, the last flying Avro Vulcan bomber. 558 took to the skies once more in 2008 but exists only on donations and some minor corporate support…have a look at the Vulcan Trust site and at least sign the supporters card – give a little if you can….

Is this not both beautiful and super cool?

Birmoverse – The Movie

Following the creation of a Facebook page calling to Hollywood to option John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy, Cheeseburger Gothic called for ideas on who should play who in the movies…still room for your 2 cents…

Mr Birmingham is also off to Puckapunyal again next week for another get together with Force Development Group on what future conflict environments might be like…interesting to be a fly on the wall for that chat…

RIP Charley Wilson

Coming Anarchy carries a brief obituary for the orchestrator of the mujahedeen victory against the Russians in the 80s.

Natural Selection in Action

Some would-be bombers in Adelaide have gone to a better place…

Be older and happier

Discover Magazine reports on a survey that finds we get happier as we get older – something to look forward to…

Kilcullen on Metrics

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy is carrying a series of new material from David Kilcullen:

Kilcullen (I): Here’s what not to measure in a COIN campaign

Obviously more to follow on the nuggets in these articles…


More thefts from Army Museum Stop dodgy crims at Crimestoppers.

And we should respect your traditions in our countries why?

Valentine’s police see red as Saudis crack down on Valentine’s Day…