Monday, February 13, 2012

Damn the Promotions, Full Speed Ahead!

I'm not ashamed to say that I browse r/politics on a regular basis; I consider it something of a personal research office. Thousands of people scour the internet for new and interesting political scoops in the hopes of grabbing some ultimately useless karma points from fellow redditors, and I get a steady stream of the most up-to-date news on the market.

Most of it is a wash, but that's the price you pay for using such a hefty dragnet. Still, the occasional juggernaut makes its way into the pile, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I received word of this issue from that sordid lot. So, you know, props to them and such.

My MO at this point is to just click anything politics related that has its origins at Rolling Stone. Any publication which has the balls to hire someone as twisted as Hunter S. Thompson and someone as prescient and valuable to the national news scene as Matt Taibbi deserves a great deal of respect, and I take their political reporting very seriously.

It's one of the perks of being known as a music magazine: you get to fly some wild shit from time to time and sneak it in under the radar. Between stints penning up this article I made an effort to find some discussion of the content of the report, but much of what was being passed along from the major news outlets was responses from military brass which were, to say the least, negative. This thing is hot, so it's not surprising that major outlets are keeping it at a distance. The reasons for that are explained rather thoroughly in the report, and I have done my best to summarize them in this article.

What I present to you then is my own synopsis and analysis of the draft report Dereliction of Duty II: Senior Military Leaders' Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort by LTC Daniel Davis, an Iraq and Afghan war veteran. In short, it is a scathing review of the scale of corruption, manipulation and back-patting going on at some of the highest echelons of the military, but to take that twitter-sized summary and walk with it is the equivalent of looking at a derelict Ford Pinto and concluding, "That's a shitty car." You can't truly grasp how far gone it is without getting in and attempting to drive the damned thing.

And drive it I did. Heck, I drove it all weekend and ended up anxious, strained and unnerved. If a Lieutenant Colonel has the brass balls to release a report on his superiors' loss of integrity to the press, and then after it has been delivered inform his chain of command of the action (in an interview with Pete Dominic, Michael Hastings said LTC Davis expected to be "nuked" by Army brass for it), I consider his opinion worth hearing.

I recommend everyone read the entire report, which can be found here, but understand that few will have the patience and background in military affairs to persevere through some of the cryptic jargon. I'm willing to give you the best synopsis I possibly can, rife with direct quotations, so that you can perhaps save yourself an hour or two and still take away what the good Lieutenant Colonel wants you to.

* * * * * * * *

In short, it's a discussion of the lead-up and execution of the surge in Afghanistan, a strategy built almost exclusively off of its more successful predecessor from Operation Iraqi Freedom. It has failed, the Colonel asserts, using casualty data from the last 6 years to justify his claim. The greatest failure, however, is in the senior leaders who continue to assert year after year that not only is the strategy working, but it has birthed spectacular results.

What causes such a disconnect to occur? Information Operations, a military program which seeks to control the narrative of a military operation in the press. Under normal circumstances this is directed exclusively at media within the combat zone in an effort to sway public opinion, but the problem has to do with a bleeding of IO into the domestic market.

This presents a number of problems, not only in terms of its influence on public opinion (do people like the war or not?) but also in terms of influencing policy. It is one thing to manipulate news media with the intent of maintaining public support for the war, but it is quite another to extend that level of propaganda to Congress and other governmental bodies who control purse strings and national policy. Both are equally reprehensible, at least in my view, but the former is quite a bit less frightening than the latter.

Under current legislation, this seems to be patently illegal (see: Smith-Mundt Act), but it's difficult to tell what is "legal" in the Global War on Terrorism. The whole thing is so ethereal as to stupefy even the best policy analysts at times.

The military has always made it a point to control public perception, especially when it comes to warfare. This harkens back to the PR fiasco of Vietnam, a painful lesson the military has never truly forgotten: not that they should avoid getting involved in indigenous uprisings around the world, but that they had better damn well control the media narrative while they do it. Press access to combat zones is strictly controlled and relegated to the safer sectors of the fight. Soldiers are instructed not to avoid press, but when confronted to carefully choose their words. I can personally attest to a number of exercises and scenarios in which we had a "script" of sorts, a grab bag of safe phrases to give to any journalists should they start snooping around. "We are working to secure a brighter future for [blank]." "I have every confidence [blank] will be able to take over by [blank]." "[blank] is progressing at an excellent rate, and I'm proud to serve by [blank] as we work to give [blank] a stake in their own future."

This is all well and good for the common grunt getting drilled by a beat reporter on the ground in Afghanistan, but what of the serving and retired military officers doing the rounds in the media? Some may remember the row when it was found that Rumsfeld had been working with these officers to act as "message force multipliers" for the Bush Administration. This is a fancy way of saying "spit out shit that makes our boy look good, whether it's entirely truthful or not."
In some cases, the report said, military analysts ''requested talking points on specific topics or issues.'' One military analyst described the talking points as ''bullet points given for a political purpose.'' (27)
Another military analyst, the report said, told investigators that the outreach program's intent ''was to move everyone's mouth on TV as a sock puppet.'' (27)
In short, American military brass know they are the gatekeepers when it comes to access to stories related to Afghanistan. With American media strangled by budget cuts, slashing international bureaus and generally pulling their reporting infrastructure inward to the domestic market, they have no choice but to play the Generals' games in order to "get the scoop". Except that there is no scoop in the traditional sense, only the skewed op-ed pieces of the Generals themselves.
And equally as troubling: with the small number of excerpts provided by the DoDIG’s final report I cited above – all of which reveal questionable practices and clearly indicate the Pentagon’s senior leaders were unapologetically [sic] attempting to get their message (and only their message) spread on the news – the Pentagon’s watchdog investigative arm finds the program “complied with regulations and directives.” Meaning, we can be sure that such practices will continue without interruption. (28)
Indeed, and even days after this report was released to the media, it has been difficult to find any major outlets analyzing the document in any meaningful way...and even if they do, there is always the attempted "seeing both sides" in which they quote the very brass implicated by the report.

What's troubling for me - and what must be downright maddening for the author - is that the raw data suggests something totally out of sync with the official brass narrative. I'm going to quote the report verbatim, since there's really no way I can improve on his analysis:
The bottom line in terms of violence and casualties is that no matter how one wants to parse the numbers, it is clear that the Taliban has adjusted to our every move. By any objective analysis, the violence has indeed diminished in a few areas, but increased in others, as it has done throughout the war. But the most troubling category is US Casualties. Since 2009 when General McChrystal reported we were in real trouble, overall violence has almost doubled but our casualty rate has come close to tripling. How can the low numbers in 2009 represent near-disaster while the dramatically larger numbers in 2011 represent success? (30)
Such blatant misrepresentation of the facts necessitates one of two things: 1) someone is intentionally trying to deceive the public, or 2) someone is grossly incompetent and needs to be sacked at once. The author admits as much later:
Imagine if [Undersecretary of Defense, Michele Flournoy] accurately reported to Congress during the hearing this past June: “Well, sir, of the 121 key districts in Afghanistan, not one of them is rated as supporting the government.” What do you suppose the response would have been in that chamber if the truth had been told? Yet that is the truth and Secretary Flournoy knew it when she crafted her speech. Either she knowingly misrepresented the state of affairs in Afghanistan in order to continue Congress’ support, or the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy who is charged by the President for knowing the conditions and then providing accurately to the American public is unaware of some of the most critical information necessary to ascertain whether our mission there is succeeding or failing. In either case, Congress was not given true nor accurate information. (38-39)
* * * * * * * *

If a discussion of troop casualties and ineffective Afghan police makes you well up, the proceeding discussion of the Advanced Warfighter Exeriment and DoD funding will make you commit seppuku. You're more than able to skip this section and move on to the third. Just giving you the fair warning: it's not pretty.

After Desert Storm, the Army underwent a process of trying to develop the next generation of warfighting equipment. This program began as the Advanced Warfighting Experiment. As with reports of success in Afghanistan, top brass either skewed or downright fabricated the success of the program, presumably to ensure that funding for it came in smoothly. To wit:
Virtually no legitimate experimentation was actually conducted. All parameters were carefully scripted. All events had a pre-ordained sequence and outcome. The AWE was simply an expensive show, couched in the language of scientific experimentation and presented in glowing press releases and public statements, intended to persuade Congress to fund the Army’s preference. (42)
This trend continued into the next decade with the Army's Future Combat System, a program that all recent veterans should be well acquainted with. The author goes on a scathing rant about the program's waste, inefficiency and lack of tangible results. He discusses how in simulations against weaker, less technologically advanced foes, the FCS forces performed well. However, once the OPFOR (Opposition Force) was adjusted to have "the same or better technology", the FCS force was "routed," which is the PC military way of saying "they had their asses handed to them on a plate."

I'm going to run his play-by-play of a simulation verbatim, because it is otherwise impossible to explain the sheer ruin that FCS forces were reduced to:
“In the second run, the Red (Enemy) commander decided to be very aggressive. First, we waited until the air was full of Blue (Friendly) Force UAVs, ground attack jets, and other aviation assets. We had previously deployed our anti-air assets but up until that point had kept them turned off. We then simultaneously turned them all on to overwhelm Blue’s ability to counter them and destroyed virtually all of the Blue air assets within 5 minutes. Next we launched all of our UAVs. Although many were shot down by Blue, we had more UAVs than they did missiles. We then massed all our legacy and enhanced forces in the area together in a massive armored spear-head attack and charged at the assembly area with about two battalions. The Global Hawk (used by the Blue Force) continued to fly so that blue forces could use precision fires to destroy many of our elements while they were still out of direct fire range. But Red had precision fires of their own and the surviving Red UAVs identified the most critical elements of the Blue force, which we then engaged with artillery and guided missiles (ATGM) from the tanks.

“When the charge came within 4 km of the Blue forces,” he continued, “the (Red) tanks began to engage with direct fire and it was like shooting fish in a barrel. When Blue attempted to maneuver away, their signature reduction was neutralized and they were immediately shot. Their Active Protection System was unable to help them against the tank’s ATGMs (guided missiles) and Sabots (tank main gun rounds). Blue suffered unbelievable casualties and the run was ended.” As previously mentioned, though this exercise was conducted in support of what’s known in the Acquisition world as “Milestone B” – which determines if the system is valid and is funded to the next level – no changes were made to either the mix of platforms nor to the concepts behind FCS. Mr. Welo provided a possible explanation as to why this might be.

“The green suiters (uniformed members of the Army) that were in charge of the gamers were split in their opinion on the implications of the results,” he explained. “Those who participated in my Red camp said we should run more simulations against an enhanced threat because of the possibility that in the future this could become a real-world disaster, and those that fought with the Blue camp argued that the simulation data and parameters were flawed and that the USA would not be this outmatched any time within the next 50 years. The “neutral” green suiters seemed puzzled at the power of the enhanced threat, and seemed to believe that the result was unlikely to ever happen in real life and not a scenario that was very profitable.” (45-46)
By 2008 or so the FCS program was scrapped entirely, rendering tens of billions of dollars - not to mention millions of man hours - wasted.

I do not possess the placement and access that the author does to judge many of the military's top projects, however I have intimate experience with one, and my observations continue to baffle me to this day. All recent veterans are familiar with MILES gear, essentially the military's version of laser tag with all the fun removed. I trained on the equipment in 2005 during Basic Training, once again in 2006 when I tried at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

At that time, we found the equipment to be awkward, unwieldy and totally unreliable. The sensors themselves weighed several pounds and had to be worn over already bulky combat equipment. Devices attacked to weapons were the size of small bricks and weighed on the order of four to six pounds, making steady aim - and thus any semblance of realistic training - all but impossible. If this were not enough, the devices would either cease to register hits at all, or would register erroneous hits during briefings or when nothing was going on. It took us only a day or two to realize that the device attached to the weapon responded to the recoil of the rifle, and that all we had to do was tap it with our hand for it to start firing. Needless to say, any training that could have been gleaned from the gear was lost immediately.

When I revisited the same equipment in 2011, I was hopeful that those horrific bugs had been removed. I was disappointed to find out that not only had the old defects not even been addressed, but instead new features were added that also suffered from debilitating bugs. A GPS system was added to the equipment, so that in post-mission briefings we could see on the map where we all were during the exercise. Three times out of five I was shown to be outside of the training area; the other two times I either did not register with the system or was shown KIA in the admin area.

When calibrating the system at the issuing facility, I was soon registered as KIA from faulty equipment. As the technicians reset my sensors, I asked one of them, jokingly, "So what DOESN'T set these things off?"

The technician replied, "A lot of things will set these off. Laser pointers, fluorescent light, sunlight coming in through the trees..."

Shit, I thought. After six years the damn thing registered a hit when the SUN shone on it, which wouldn't be a problem if the sun wasn't out for two thirds of the day, and if we didn't rely on the sunlight to train in the first place. We removed the batteries from our sensors the minute we went to the training area and never relied on them when assessing our performance in training. Nobody harped on us for this, as there was an understanding among the soldiers and civilian technicians that the things were a complete waste of time and money.

To read that this is symptomatic of other military programs, including FCS, doesn't fill me with the expected fear and dread. Rather, I find myself disappointed that my personal analysis of military command at or above the field grade level has just been proven a little more plausible: that upward mobility relies heavily on political posturing and networking, which in turn tends to rely on fudging results to paint oneself and on'es superiors in an increasingly positive light. Top brass were more concerned with protecting their pet project - something they had invested large amounts of personal capital in - than ensuring that our military continued to receive the most up-to-date and relevant technology and equipment possible. The author states rather bluntly that: large measure we are, in terms of force composition, technologically at the same place we were after Desert Storm; we are decades behind where we could have been by now, and by all rights ought to be.

None of the leaders responsible for this deception have ever been held to account. In fact, most of them were given remarkable awards for their performance, given promotions, or as in the case of Major General Charles Cartwright, after he retired was hired to be the Vice President of Raytheon Network Centric Systems' Advanced Programs. Raytheon was one of the major suppliers to the FCS program, being named, among other things, as the Ground Sensor Integrator.** (53-54)
* * * * * * * *

So what of the misunderstanding which led us to believe that a troop surge in Afghanistan would yield the same effects as the one performed in Iraq? According to Odierno, our reasons for victory were thus:
Suggesting that the reduction in violence resulted merely from bribing our enemies to stop fighting is uninformed and an oversimplification… It overlooks the salient point that many who reconciled with us did so from a position of weakness, rather than strength. The truth is that the improvement in security and stability is the result of a number of factors, and what Coalition forces did throughout 2007 ranks among the most significant. (60)
Odierno is referring to the Awakening movements, in which Sunni militia who had been fighting Coalition forces dramatically changed course and joined the fight against AQI. Odierno, Petraeus and subsequently the vast majority of the US came to see this as the result of a shift in strategy on the part of Coalition forces. The truth, however, is that after Zarqawi chose to side with AQ, what was once an Iraqi liberation movement morphed into something more sinister. The author points to a number of interviews conducted with members of the Awakening movement, noting that none of the interviewees "suggested there was ever the slightest change of their view of the US military occupation: they continued to despise it....had AQI not turned to such brutality and begin slaughtering what ought to have been their natural Sunni allies, they would have almost certainly never come to the American's side." (65)

The point is not to say that the surge has zero effect, but that it was not the primary motivator of change in Iraq.
I give huge cred it to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaeda. Maybe 75-80% of the credit for the success in the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaeda and joined us in common cause. But, make no mistake, there would have been no Anbar Awakening without the US Forces. It's like asking, "Which element is the most important component in making an engine run: the spark, oxygen, or fuel?" The answer is "all three." (67)
What's crucial is understanding just how bad things had to be for once-liberation fighters to take up arms with the "occupiers"...AQI had to treat them like absolute shit (the author goes so far as to call AQI's actions "bestial") for them to say, "I don't care if it's the Americans, these AQ guys are fucking nuts!"

And THAT is the take-away: while the surge may have provided more fuel for the fire, the spark came from an externality completely out of our control: the behavior of AQI. Thus, when we began trying to mimic the strategy in Afghanistan, we found that the results were lacking. The price we have paid for this mistake has been the blood and limbs of young American soldiers.

Troubling still is that our lack of honesty has been noticed by the our enemies as well as the indigenous population. While Information Operations have succeeded in maintaining public will far longer than it would have otherwise, public will in Afghanistan is desperately lacking. This is additionally harrowing when we consider that the general consensus is that a military victory is out of reach. Negotiating a reasonable outcome with the Taliban will be all but impossible if the latter party is convinced that all of our words are just sound and fury signifying nothing. How can we expect the Afghan people to accept our promises of not abandoning them a second time when they have no reason to trust us now? And how can we continue to deceive ourselves so brilliantly when it comes to the nature and progress of the war in Afghanistan?

* * * * * * * *

I will concede that I am speaking from a rather limited viewpoint, as far as the military is concerned. I have not served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and I don't want to give the impression that I am presuming the worst of senior officers within the service. I have served and continue to serve under some exceptional field grade officers, and regard their mentorship and leadership highly.

My indictment is against the system in which we operate, one which is highly bureaucratic and becomes intensely competitive at the field grade level. It is, to steal a quote from Rousseau, a system "liable to the most frightful abuses," one which by its design encourages favoritism and an intense protection of the reputation of one's superiors (they are the ones, after all, whose opinion will determine your future assignments). I was relieved to read this in the author's closing remarks:
The sad fact of the matter is those few high ranking men wield enormous power when it comes to deciding who gets promoted and who does not; there are many officers who would have made outstanding senior leaders but did not “play the part” to the satisfaction of those leaders and were subsequently passed over for senior positions. (80)
Thus it is not surprising to me that once someone like Petraeus or Odierno issues a proclamation about the "progress" of ISAF/ANA, or ruminates on what caused the success of the Iraq surge, many of their subordinates quickly echo that line of thinking. To do otherwise is demonstrably detrimental to one's career, and only those such as the author who are not overly concerned with future assignments feel willing to express disapproval of present and future operations.

By extension, I suppose that includes me. In fact it does; I intend to serve my term in the service admirably and to the best of my ability, but not to pursue the military as a lifelong career. There is perhaps no single event in my life which has so drastically changed me for the better than my choice to enlist in the armed services. If anyone is willing to serve, and fully understands the sacrifices such a decision entails (and nobody truly does until they're in the thick of it), I would encourage the move highly, but I would also warn against being caught up in the machine. Do not allow yourself to be consumed by it, or consider it as the be-all-end-all of your existence. Many of my friends have wandered down this road. I wish them well, but I do worry about what the experience will do to them.

As citizens, we have an obligation to arm ourselves with facts. In today's day and age, ignorance of the facts is unacceptable; there is a horrendous wealth of information to be garnered, and little is held back. Simply reading the prepared statements of officials is unsatisfactory; pairing these statements with verifiable data is essential to forming a meaningful and informed opinion on current events. Do not be content with the official position, and seek out information that may corroborate or eviscerate it.

Perhaps the most maddening and damning fact of this report is that all of the data provided is publicly available and painfully easy to find. One only needs a cursory understanding of the use of search engines and a desire to find the truth, wherever it may lead.

The next step is to translate those conclusions into actions through our elected officials, but let's take it one step at a time. Selah.

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