Shock and Yawn

Foreign Policy is a terrible magazine. As of today I promise to never, ever link to another FP article (yay!) and it is officially being de-listed from my reader (hip-hip!). This is all for my personal health, you understand. In a world increasingly characterized by violence, chaos, and genocide, to say nothing of persistent poverty and “reality” TV, I need to find small ways to tap the ridiculousness of this planet, offer a geographic perspective that “elevates the discipline”, but in a way that won’t see me dead of a heart attack by 35. Challenge ACCEPTED!

But first, I need to comment on “Silicon, Iron, and Shadow” or as I would sub-title it: “We learned nothing in a decade!” The author, educated at the U.S. Military Academy (grad. ’76) and born in 1954, betrays the biases associated with that earlier generation. This isn’t necessarily bad, but to project these biases forward as the “three wars that will define America’s future” is short-sighted and probably, wrong. The three wars are, wars of Silicon, of Iron, and in Shadows (couldn’t continue the “of, sad). Of course, this tells you nothing and keeps with the long “Western” academic and political tradition of coining phrases and sound-bites that are catchy, but short on substance.

Besides bias for glitz and show, the article focuses on American’s penchant for glitz technological fixes. Need to win a War of Silicon (i.e. cyber)? Ensure (through “aquisition” – read new toys) access to long-distance standoff for naval, ground, and air forces. Not just “cyber” though, Wars of Silicon are a “deadly trifecta of cutting-edge technology, advanced military capabilities, and substantial financial resources.” Isn’t that every new conflict, ever? Harnessing and promulgation of gun-powder? Sail? Steam? Rail road? I could imagine a similar sentiment issued at the birth of the “tank” in World War I – a new cutting-edge technology, an new advanced military capability, that happened to require substantial financial resources. My point is that this definition of Wars of Silicon is a truism, not good analysis or prediction. If I were to say that the U.S., or anybody’s military, needs to be ready to confront new technology, capabilities, whilst maintaining financial resources you’d probably say “duh.”

Then there’s the “Wars of Iron” which are supposedly different from Wars of Silicon, but aren’t really. I suppose its a different focus of the more general War. Whereas Silicon Wars could include cutting-edge tech (Silicon), Iron wars are all the stuff we’re “familiar” with tank battles, division, brigades, and so on. Think Operation Desert Storm. That our military leaders continue to emphasize that this will be the “bulk of potential conflicts” is alarming. In a human activity driven by the need for asymmetry (which is why “asymmetric” always bugged the shit out of me), to think that we’ll have something like Desert Storm in the offing is wishful thinking. I’m sure there are plenty of crazy tin-pot dictators who think their military can go toe-toe with the U.S. military in a stand-up fight, but that’s not who we should be concerned about. After all, by this very scenario we have little to fear except the casualties (of which war produces an abundance). Certainly other militaries are going to go toe-toe with each other (Georgia-Russia, 2008) but is that going to persist with U.S. involvement? Perhaps, until the conflict changes to account for U.S. superiority in a “war of iron.” The problem of our predominance is, of course, presented in material terms. We’re not investing in fighting “other wars” notably the silicon one.

Finally we have the “Wars in Shadows”, popularized by the movie Zero-Dark-Thirty. The first utterly farcical notion is that we are “well-prepared” to fight in this domain. I suppose it depends on your definition for “fight”. Can we go in and gun down folks, cowboy-style, at midnight, from helicopters, producing scores of new “terrorists” overnight without regard for implications of our actions at a more strategic level? You betcha. Can we address the roots of why we’re there in the first place? We could, probably, but it doesn’t look we’re trying very hard. There’s a counter-insurgency manual (FM 3-24) that’s a great cultural geography resource (not kidding, its in my thesis!), but given our lack of sticky success in Afghanistan and Iraq we either haven’t applied its lessons or, worse, don’t care to refine and update it. Part of the reason lies in this FP article. We’re obsessed with tech. In this example the focus is on “drones”, though it makes the case for “special operators” with actual human skills, it caveats this with adding planes and helicopters and conventional forces. And finally, this who “wars in the shadows” are presented as reactive, rather than proactive. You see the problem, the author wants you to pay for stuff to fight other states (wars of silicon/iron), while maintaining a capability for preemptive wars in the shadow.

Rather than repackaging this model of state-state conflict with the occasional state-actor conflict, the author missed an opportunity to actually tie all of these things together.

Let’s start with definitions. War, you think of World War II or Vietnam. Easy, identifiable, fits into a nice little box. This isn’t historically accurate. So I abandon that in favor of something more historical, conflict. What do you think of? Perhaps the French or American revolutions, perhaps Darfur, Rwanda or Bosnia. But let’s expand it further, include the cyber “warfare”, the Silicon war, into this conflict. We can add in things like the Abbottabad raid and other one-off sorties. Conceptualizing conflict in this way we can break out of the out-dated (from World War II) model of warfare. That model witnessed the “West’s” superiority, so its understandable why we would want to cling to it (irrational, but understandable). But since every, rational, state seeks to gain unfair advantages in conflict (asymmetry) we should expand our own model to account for, let’s face it, the things we suck at: cyber (Silicon) and insurgency (not really shadow). That the article doesn’t even address this type of warfare leaves me speechless, perhaps they couldn’t figure out a catchy name?

Wars of the Flea, to borrow the book title. Could you imagine one military, say the U.S., facing off against another state’s military with an established policy to immediately go insurgent? States built upon previous insurgencies, like China, have literally written books on that method of warfare. THAT should be a future war of concern to the U.S., because it combines the resources (economic, political, demographic) and power available to a state (which isn’t typically available to a non-state entity) with the novelty of being a method of warfare that we not only have demonstrated ineptitude at dealing with, have now disavowed as a possible future. Appalling is one word to describe it. Part of the problem, moreover, is that the article’s (and the U.S.’s) fascination with techy fixes. Insurgency isn’t solved with techy fixes. The “hearts and minds” approach does. But one wonders if the U.S. military is the right organization to engage in this approach, or if it even wants to.

The U.S. needs to figure out what the military does, or doesn’t. After this the government needs to figure out a unified conflict strategy that accounts for the various levers of American power and how it can be used to bend another country’s political will, at least in situations when negotiations and direct engagement (diplomacy) fail. Violent conflict using the military is just one facet of U.S. power. For a unified conflict strategy to work, it needs to have the right components to apply the various forces. If the U.S. decides that the military is for killing and maiming, only, then so be it. But will such an organization beat an insurgency? Yes, if it breaks the Geneva Conventions. Since the U.S. isn’t looking to break those documents, it won’t. So some other organization needs to fill that role. Taken one way, the FP article doesn’t talk (at all) about things like development. Yet “development” exists within the military, there are doctors, corpsmen, and civil affairs, not to mention the “special operators.” One wonders if the author is silently agreeing with the point that the U.S. military can’t, and doesn’t want to, deal with non-combat aspects of insurgency.

In my thesis I talk about the need for development and security to solve an insurgency puzzle. The application here is obvious. The U.S. military needs to be involved in counter-insurgency, at least in what it does best, killing and maiming (read: provide security). But perhaps USAID and the State Department need an expanded role in counter-insurgency? The practical application of that question is more money for non-security “counter-insurgency” operations.

Conflict, to include “war,” is the application of multiple levers of state power, to include new military technologies and tactics, to bend another country’s government to a desired political outcome. The funny thing is, this has been war/conflict all along. But we’ve forgotten or unlearned that (very old) lesson. The U.S. wanted its independence so colonists refused to fight on-line with the British. Why would we stand toe-to-toe with drilled regulars? If your people know the land, are better shots, and there’s fewer, play to your strengths. In the end this new “tactic” bent the British political will to our desired outcome. In the next war, perhaps a government threatens to shut off the power in New England during Christmas, or Russia decides to switch off the oil to the Baltic (wait a second…), aren’t these acts of aggression? To illustrate our unlearning this lesson, see Vietnam. Militarily the U.S. and its allies smashed the Tet Offensive, yet ultimately lost the war. Why? Because North Vietnam “won” American hearts and minds. They understood, after all they beat French years before, that shaking the political power in the “West” isn’t through a military defeat, which would be largely impossible, its through making the public believe it was plausible. With the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam convinced Americans that it was a pointless, fruitless affair.

The Geography of Conflict (War) has changed, the Vietnam War exemplified this. And the U.S. still hasn’t caught on. It hasn’t caught on to the real geographic meaning behind Abu Gharib, it understands that people are upset with the atrocities there. But it doesn’t grasp the geographical and temporal implications. Those pictures got out and immediately reached eyes from Los Angeles to Phnom Phenh. A singular tactical engagement, say an attempted bombing of the British High Commissioner in Sylhet, Bangladesh, can be disseminated throughout the known world, immediately. These incidents might seem to be militarily, tactically insignificant. But a string of these “minor” events, have meaning at a much smaller (wider) scale. Drawing back on the Bangladesh example, the 17 August 2005 countrywide bombings (a bomb went off in almost all 63 districts) resulted in 2 deaths and limited damage to businesses or anything else. Militarily these bombings were completely insignificant. But the coordination to make them all explode within 30 minutes of one another, across the entire country, was an obvious strategic statement. What about less obvious things? Examining the wealth of data (which simply takes time, a pair of eyes, and half a brain) bombing patterns emerge. In Bangladesh, bombs typically targeted one of only a few venues: the main (at the time) opposition party, the Awami League, movie cinemas and local celebrations, and offices of Bangladeshi-run non-governmental organizations. Of course, this data was only available in hindsight and the bombings themselves occurred over years. But the lesson was still there: whoever was doing it had a strategic goal in mind. The group was targeting the center-left, most “secular” political party. It was targeting symbols of a “decadent” Bengali culture, films and “obscene” village plays. It was targeting NGOs working for the advancement of… women.

None of this made it into the Foreign Policy article. So let’s compare. One scenario of America’s future war is three different conflicts characterized by high-technology enabled warfare, top-down state-state fights, and limited brush-fire engagements. The other scenario is an actual revolution in military affairs, where America finds itself drawn (against its isolationist tendency) into another internal conflict, we’ll arrive late (like Kuwait) but confident of a quick victory. After all, we have technology! We arrive, but the Marines land unopposed. The Air Force enforces a no-fly zone on no one in particular. And the Navy sits, at harbor, bored. Where 50,000 enemy combatants should have at least provided something of a greeting, there are crickets instead. Except they’re not crickets, they’re fleas. And these “fleas” look suspiciously like the locals. They’re militarily-trained but the tactics are completely unfair, they should stand in line! Fight in red, I mean digital camouflage, uniforms like we do! And the U.S. public shall know, via Twitter and Facebook, that there is no hope to fight this enemy that I shall call North Chirania. And we shall leave.

And then like every good insurgency eventually does, they fill the power vacuum. They don their uniforms, and establish their insurgent state which makes use of the existing infrastructure and state apparatuses but isn’t the state.

And the U.S. asks questions of itself, and buys another Joint Strike Fighter.

Military Geography and Mali: the Afghanistan-effect

There’s one good thing about international crises of the day, they always provide good fodder for blog posts, particularly those blogs concentrating on Geography. Foreign Policy seems to allow almost anyone to write a guest column and I always find myself commenting on it. If anyone at Foreign Policy should happen across this blog, I hereby volunteer myself to write! I’ve discussed Mali twice now, first in general terms of the organic state concept, and then again to discuss the Council on Foreign Relations’ view of the Malian situation (with the requisite plug for organic state).

A recent article from FP (on Mali) boldly states that “Mali is not a Stan”. For those not in the know, a ‘Stan, is what the kids these days call the Central Asian republics – Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Dagestan, Uighurstan – you know predominantly Islamic in religious orientation, fairly poor economically (Kazakhstan doing somewhat better), and with a bit of a problem with radical Islamist militancy. Let me be clear here: Islamism is not Islam, the -ism is a political ideology based on the religion that is the latter. So when I say radical Islamist militancy, I’m talking about violent militants espousing the idea of a state structured on Islamic principles. Typically the stated way to get to this state is to overthrow the current one, violently. Of course, who gets to decide what principles are “acceptable” in this new state is usually decided by the militant with the biggest gun. Go figure. So in FP’s view, Mali is not a predominantly Islamic, economically poor state with bit of a problem with radical Islamist militants. Curious. As the most cursory search engine research engine will tell you – 90% of Malians claim to be Islamic, the economy is in shambles (like the state), and there is most definitely a problem with violent Islamists. But to FP’s credit, Mali is most definitely not in Central Asia.

Mali in West Africa (via NatGeo)

What they actually meant is that Mali is not AfghaniSTAN, or more accurately that Mali isn’t a place where France will bogged down, like the U.S. did in Afghanistan. The first piece of evidence offered is that Mali has some history of centralized rule, unlike Afghanistan. The prime example of this? The Malian Empire which lasted about 300 years, from the 13th to 16th centuries. If we’re playing the “I-had-an-ancient-empire” game than Afghanistan had at least one too, the Ghaznavid dynasty, granted they were Turkic and Persianized, but they ruled from Ghazni, Afghanistan. In addition, the Ghaznavid’s empire was several times larger than the Mali Empire. Maintaining an empire over increasing distances implies some degree of centralization, though admittedly there is also a good chance of decentralization as inefficiencies develop (an organic state model would be useful in depicting this, I really need to do this!). And there’s a more glaring problem with FP’s assertion, the Mali Empire didn’t even stretch in the area of Mali that is home to the Tuareg tribes and violent Islamists today, check out the map below. So while there may be “some history” of centralized power in Mali, the prime case didn’t even include the vast northern reaches of the country. Though it’s topographically dominated by sand dunes, people still live, work, and make their homes there.

the Mali Empire, ca. 1350 (via wikipedia)

The second piece of evidence is that France supposedly has a deep knowledge of the country and that they are “practically drowning” in expertise, thanks to their colonial history. On top of this “most educated Malians still speak French” making “it much easier for French forces to relate to average Malians.” This last sentence doesn’t even make sense. Most educated Malians speak French, therefore French forces can relate to average Malians? According to Ethnologue, a generally reliable source of data, a whopping 9,000 French speakers exist in Mali (I actually find that hard to believe), based on 1993 data. Perhaps this is the number of speakers of near-native French proficiency, French is taught in school and is the official language but Bambara is the most widely understood (and I bet the French troops aren’t speaking Bambara). And then there’s the colonial legacy of “expertise” I’m sure the French were “drowning” in expertise with respect to Algeria and Vietnam, both countries they had colonized, both countries experienced anti-colonial revolutions, and both earned their independence (in addition to two others:  Laos and Cambodia). In fact, I would argue that having a colonial history with a place probably results in chauvinistic attitudes, especially when the former colonizers are confronting what they consider to be “backwards,” “uneducated,” “tribal,” guerrillas.

Third, FP asserts that Mali isn’t Afghanistan because ethnicity isn’t the same basis of contention that it is in Afghanistan. Rather, differing interpretations of Islam is the most interesting “social dynamic”. And, absurdly, FP states that “there is no neighboring state or individuals in that state who share militants’ ethnicity and have the backing of elements of a hostile spy agency.” First, the Tuareg’s range is FAR beyond Mali’s borders encompassing Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Of course, I’m not privy to whether or not the Tuareg militants are back by a spies, but do they need to be? With most of Africa now awash with small-arms any movement (not just violent Islamist ones) could acquire weaponry at very modest prices. More importantly, FP’s framework for religion and ethnicity is completely monolithic. To FP, ethnicity and religion are separate identities, this is erroneous. Ethnicity and religion have been, and will probably always be, linked. The reason is that these are aspects of a person’s identity. Academics often speak of a person’s “multiple” identities and this is probably the reason for the confusion. Rather, each of us has one identity with roots in a social communities. One person may be Irish and another person English, but another aspect of their identity could be religious: Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Zoroastrian Another aspect could be sexual orientation, language, gender, social class, education, and any number of “observable” social markers. Which one is “most important” to an individual, to an organization, or to a “nation” is difficult to predict and varies based on who you talk to, when you talk to them, and who you are. Ultimately, all aspects of an individual’s identity do matter because organizations and movements largely form around one or two aspects in order to not only delimit membership in the group but also to make inclusive of as many people as possible. By the same token, these movements and organizations adapt which part of the identity is emphasized based on the needs of the movement. Attributing a conflict to one aspect of identity is dangerous, uncritical, and lazy. As humanity routinely demonstrates, we have a fantastic ability to differentiate between each other and organize ourselves accordingly.

map of significant Tuareg populations (via wikipedia)

Finally, I mostly agree with the article’s final point that France’s political objectives are much different from the United States’ in Afghanistan in 2001. Most importantly, the article observes that it is unlikely for the French to “stick around” and “attempt to govern on their own terms,” adding that “the bulk of peace-building” will be undertaken by African forces. The stated goal of French intervention is simply “to rid northern Mali of Islamist militants.”

To me France’s objectives are not to solve the root of northern Mali’s violence, but rather to provide a bandage to a sick old man. I’ve written about the need for increased state capacity in previous posts, the French intervention for worse, isn’t about that. But you can’t really blame the French government, the French government isn’t beholden to Malian voters and French taxpayers certainly aren’t going to tolerate expending cash and coin in creating a functioning state apparatus with the ability to project itself into the Saharan wastes. Neither should we be held in awe by France’s actions, the stated goal is to push the rebel-insurgent state back, then leave. Does France really expect African states to be able to create state capacity in Mali when most of them can’t assure state control over their own territories? One thing that is novel is the articulation, before the beginning, of clear objectives for intervention – General (retired) Rupert Smith articulated this in a great book, The Utility of Force.

In closing, I’d argue that every conflict has the opportunity to become somebody’s “Afghanistan.” Geographers and historians are uniquely positioned in academia, they are often forced to look at a variety of scales and times and through multi-disciplinary lenses. Historians focus on time and must be able to follow the threads of economics, politics, culture, and a myriad other disciplines. Geographers focus on place and must do the same, remaining cognizant of the influence of terrain, economics, social groups, and other specialist disciplines. Often, you begin to realize that though there are always stark differences there are also striking similarities spanning places, and times. Geography’s disciplinary emphasis on physical terrain and human activity leaves many well placed to analyze military conflicts, in fact there is an “official” sub-discipline in Geography called, “military geography.” Consider this recent article from the Times of India on violent Islamist activity in Mali, “the Islamists have put up little resistance, many of them fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif around Kidal, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves…” Sounds a lot like Afghanistan doesn’t it?

Integrating Geographic Tech in Conflict: India’s GPS solution?

The Times of India recently ran an article on a proposal to fit the weapons of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel with GPS units. The proposal comes on the heels of a bloody ambush of the CRPF conducted by Maoist (colloquially called naxalite) guerrillas in the country’s interior. The CRPF hopes that by including GPS units on their weapons, they will at least get some tactical information on the whereabouts of guerrillas when they loot the weapons. However, I doubt that this will be much of a solution for the CRPF and India.

The article, and the CRPF, both state that the current battery life of GPS units available to fit are woefully inadequate – less than a day’s charge. As the CRPF notes, the insurgents tend to move on foot and so a few day’s worth of data is necessary in order to build a somewhat reliable pattern of direction and speed.

In addition to this technical aspect, there are two geographic hurdles to this potential solution. The first is physical, looking at Google Maps, Latehar (Jharkhand state) is close to the Gotang Forest, which is marked as Maoist. Assuming that my GPS watch is a normal representative of GPS unit, it has significant difficulty (and this is documented) in acquiring reliable signals amongst tall buildings and trees. Since its likely that the Maoist are actually in the Gotang Forest, the accuracy of the GPS units will likely suffer though I couldn’t say by how much. Looking at my runs in the city though, even running down a street in a straight line can cause my plot to fall on top of buildings or on the other side of the street (so maybe a 50 foot circle of error).

The other geographic hurdle is human. This whole idea is the typical (Western) state response to difficulty – get technology! As the article (and an astute commenter) point out, the CRPF has a poor intelligence network in the Maoist areas. This is partly due to coordination deficiency with other Indian agencies (not geographic) and partly due to the local “tribals” supporting the Maoists, rather than the state. Interestingly, the article points to the “lack of state penetration in tribal areas” as the cause. I believe this statement subtly hints at the real problem. Rather than laying the onus for Maoist support on the tribal communities, it lays it on the state. The Maoists are, according to this statement, fulfilling a governance vacuum – they are an insurgent state. In other words, the Maoists are the state. The Indian government is the encroaching, foreign intruder.

And therein lies the real solution to the ease of ambushing the CRPF and the larger conflict with the Maoists. Win over the local communities, through good governance and opportunity growth, and demonstrate why your state is better than the current one.

Organic State and Islamist Militancy: Flashpoint Mali

Fellow geograblogger Catholicgauze asserts in, the always informative, Geographic Travels that geography is against the Taureg Islamist expansion in southern Mali in a recent post. Z Geography would like to build some caveat and context, for I think that Catholicgauze overstates that geography is a barrier and “against the Islamists as they try to take over the rest of Mali.” Catholicgauze’s cogent argument for this conclusion focuses on the differing ethnic makeup of the south (human geography) and the more complex nature of the terrain (physical geography), but while he interprets this as a difficulty I believe it is an opportunity for the Islamist movement.

Let’s draw on the organic state concept. The movement’s demesne is already largely independent of the Malian state, the primary evidence is that Azawad exists in the first place. In effect, the Taureg Islamists have already reached the status of maintaining a parallel state within Mali. This control of a geographic area and its constituent population (albeit small) allows the creation of an insurgent state (borrowing geographer Robert McColl’s terminology). For the moment, the movement must accomplish two things, first the movement needs to maintain this insurgent state, which is easy considering how remote the area is and how inept, corrupt, and under-equipped the Malian state is. In addition, the movement needs to adapt to spread.

This second adaptation in tactics would require time. Whereas Mao switched his revolution from the urban areas to the rural, the Taureg Islamist must do the opposite. Rather than base their appeal on an ethno-centric basis (centering on the Taureg) I would expect they would loosen some of the ethno-cultural ties of the movement and emphasize the necessity of pan-Islamism (political Islam) to resonate with non-Taureg groups. As already state, the Malian state is already corrupt so locals probably aren’t in love with the regime or the state and may be easily swayed to supporting a redefinition of the state. Look at the success of political Islamists in Bangladesh, there the Islamist political party emphasizes its Islamic credentials and the corruption of the more secular parties (though the party is just as corrupt…).

Of course, this second adaptation is much more difficult. Humans love to group themselves and exclude “others,” perhaps the Taureg won’t see the necessity in including other ethnic communities? If they do, new ethnic groups in the movement would need to be convinced of the value of this new state, see the spoils offered, and be reasonably sure that it continue in the future.

This internal conversation within the Taureg Islamist movement would essentially indicate the organic change in their insurgent state. Should the state become more inclusive, spreading into southern areas, putting the recognized state on the defense? Or should it simply maintain the status quo of a practically independent Azawad? This, of course, is a purely political question. Broadening their appeal to the non-Taureg southern communities would also necessarily bring about different tactics, away from the pickup cavalry, I would imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Egypt or the Algerian independence movement’s actions in the 1950s would be instructive in this regard.

And then there’s the French. Their actions also fit into the organic state framework. France is acting as the agent of the Malian state, extending (or at least attempting to) the state’s reach and turning back the insurgent state. Of course, this beggars thoughts on a future without France.

To me there are three potential scenarios. First, an independent, sovereign Azawad, which would be most beneficial to the Taureg who would have enjoyed popular sovereignty (an American dream remember?). Second, a newly resurgent Malian state that somehow manages to extend itself into “Azawad,” which would also be beneficial to the Taureg communities as they gain access to the spoils of the state (though whether these are enough to satiate rebellion would remain to be seen). And the third (and most likely), the status quo, Mali (with international help) defeats Azawad, extends its writ for 5 years, retreats under corruption and lack of capacity, and Azawad fills the vacuum.