Friday, January 30, 2009

Terry Gross, host of the radio show Fresh Air, interviewed P.W. Singer, author of the book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, on the effects of the military’s increased use of robots in war. The military relies on robots in the air and on the ground to support military operations. Un-manned “Predator” drones (top picture, thanks to wikipedia), planes that fly over Iraq and Afghanistan to both collect intelligence and conduct hunter/killer missions, are piloted remotely from bases in Nevada. Ground-drones called “Pack-Bots” (lower picture, thanks to wiki again), made by the hands-free vacuum cleaner company iRobot, were at first used to collect intelligence and now are used to hunt and diffuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A robot whimsically dubbed “R2D2” because of its shape is an automated machine gun that eliminates incoming motor rounds faster than human soldiers are able.

Scientists tout that it is more advantageous to send robots than soldiers in military situations that are dull, dirty or dangerous. Robots are able to overcome certain human physical limitations in that they do not need sleep, food or potty breaks. Neither are robots susceptible to biological or chemical weapons and by using them in dangerous situations the military is able to avoid risks to human soldiers.

Yet, I could not help but wonder how these new widget-warriors might create divergent spaces of war and what the further effect on the soldiers might be.

The result of robots operating in-theatre but being controlled by non-deployed soldiers in the United States is the creation of divergent spaces of war. In one space, a soldier controlling a device actively engaged in war is responsible for the bombing of targets, killing of enemy forces, and providing support to men on the ground in the fight. However, this soldier works a shift with regular hours and drives to work and drives home, eats with her family and by all traditional notions of engagement would not be considered a combatant. Yet, her day-to-day activities suggest that she is engaged in the fight. She is a cubicle-warrior.

The other space is the conventional space of war. The physical war space: men and women actually deployed overseas supported by the robots – and the cubicle warriors. In this space, soldiers experience enemy fire, they return fire and none of it happens over a computer screen. They rely on support given by the robots, but there is anecdotal evidence (as mentioned in the interview, supra) of the machines getting preferential treatment – being spared from danger in certain instances. How do we reconcile the proclaimed advantage of machines to reduce the risk posed to soldiers with anecdotal evidence that the government’s expensive toys are being favored over our boys? While this may, in some cold-hearted world, make sense economically, how would it be explained politically?

In both these spaces of war, soldiers are fighting the “good” fight, they are both on the same side, but would the second recognize the experience of the first as equal to his own? Does society? The experience of the first soldier, however, should not be downplayed. I would argue that this divergent space of war creates a psychological impact. The virtual soldier, who causes real death and destruction, may not be able to completely empathize with images on a screen that resemble those of so many popular warfare games. This certainly has to desensitize a person from the realities of their actions. This experience over the course of an eight-hour shift juxtaposed with the family dinner scene shortly thereafter must create a rift in the psyche.

Yo! Shape up ISI.

Somebody needs to tell those yokels to shape up and get it right ... (They're getting sloppy).

The spectre or reality of a resurgent Taliban has been a smoldering problem for the duration of U.S. action in Afghanistan. Obviously, such a variable challenges the stability of Afghanistan and the long-term interests of the United States. The fact that elements of the Taliban safely hide and raid from areas within Pakistan has made their prosecution diplomatically and operationally more difficult. Furthermore, the history and reality of direct support of the Taliban by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has categorically undermined U.S. efforts.

However, according to recent reports the problem of the Taliban may no longer be limited to U.S. and Afghan interests. As aforementioned, the influence and operations of the Taliban have been intermingled with the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But now it appears that members of the Taliban have made moves against Pakistan proper and exercise an alarming level of control within the territory of Swat.

Swat, located North of Islamabad and well within Pakistan has witnessed increasing attacks by mobilized Taliban members with the intent of engendering their strict interpretation of Islam. Operating under the cloak of night and utilizing the radio in the vain of "Tokyo Rose" the insurgents have effectively terrorized the local population and carried out numerous murders of policeman and "targeted" individuals.

Unsurprisingly, this developing situation is of grave concern for the three main actors in the region at this time: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States. To begin, the unchecked operations of the Taliban within Pakistan, and against Pakistani citizens, begs the question of whether the ISI - who for so long has supported and directed the extremist force - has at last lost control of the beast. Secondly, the reality of a freely operating force within Pakistan exposes the possibility that the Pakistani Central Government is either unwilling or incapable of restricting and terminating a insurgent force within its borders. Finally, for the interests of the United States, the reality of expanding Taliban influence and success generates great concern for the stability of our main ally in the theater and the successful conduct of the war against the remnants of al Queda and the Taliban.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Goodbye to GWOT?

A curious thing happened during the confirmation hearings of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, soon to be confirmed Attorney General Eric Holder, and several lower level Pentagon appointees. It wasn't so much what they said as what they didn't say. None of them mentioned that phrase which has been at the the center of American national security policy for the last seven plus years: "war on terror."

This hasn't held in all cases, DCI designate Leon Panetta did use the phrase in prepared remarks after his nomination and Obama himself, while not using the GWOT phrase directly, did claim in his inaugural address that "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." But it does seem clear that the term has lost some of its cache now that we are eight years removed from the 9/11 attacks and in the early days of the Obama administration.

Is the GWOT moniker useful anymore, if it ever was? Should we keep it? Replace it with something else?

I think it's clear that, if it was ever useful, the term has certainly outlived its usefulness.

First, the GWOT approach tried to lump too many disparate groups, problems, and conflicts under a single umbrella. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently made this point, arguing for putting the kibosh on GWOT because the term "gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda [when] the reality is that the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate." Intrepid Patterson School blogger OMARCOMIN! made a similar point in a post from last semester.

Second, as we discussed in class Tuesday, we aren't actually treating our Al-Qaeda enemies and other assorted ne'er-do-wells like combatants in war, and rightly so. The war moniker doesn't seem to fit the approach. We aren't for example, exempting "enemy combatants" from prosecution for their actions during "wartime."

Finally, wars on "things" just don't seem to work. See, for example, the current one on (some people who use) drugs or the abandoned one on poverty. Now, obviously, we would like to see the tactic of terrorism used less and less and for its complete unacceptability to become an international norm, but I'm not sure declaring war on it was or is the best way to accomplish this.

So, what do you say? Keep GWOT? Ditch it? Why or why not? And I wonder what this War on Terror video game (pictured) is like.

Blackwater no longer allowed to operate in Iraq

Since we were talking about Blackwater and mercenary armies in class, I thought this article from Army Times might be interesting for everyone.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

U.S. Military Tackles Major Problem Source: The Pakistani-Afghan Border Region

More than seven years into the conflict in Afghanistan, the U.S. military and its allies are finally realizing that a change needs to be made in protecting the porous 1,200 mile long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to this article in Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military is instituting major changes in their collaboration with the Afghani border patrol forces.

The U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan, which has begun late last year, is of course a response to the increasing violence in the region on both sides of the border and the greater Afghanistan in general.  After the beginning of the invasion of Western troops in the country in late 2001, the Taliban was officially dethroned and "defeated."  In reality, it only retreated into more rural areas and kept a low profile. Currently, insurgent activity is increasing, which seems to be carried out by a mixture of Taliban and other militant tribal groups.

The U.S. has repeatedly used unmanned drones to target insurgent hideouts on both the Afghan and Pakistani side of the border, accepting a certain amount of civilian casualties, or euphemistically speaking, collateral damage.  And this has not won them the hearts and minds of the people.  Quite the opposite is happening and it seems as if these attacks were actually serving to spark further civil unrest in an already devastated country.

Like in Iraq before, the U.S. and its allies have been trying the approach of "Afghanistanization," trying to prepare Afghanis to exert their own authority when the time comes for foreign troops to leave.  This serves to reinforce trust and confidence in  and identification of the people with their security forces and to institute a certain amount of independence from Western troop presence.  Not only have the ISAF forces been training Afghani police and military units in the past, but now are working on border security, a quite crucial issue. In the past, the allies have used small teams of advisors to train local military and police forces, but the U.S. is now expanding these efforts. U.S. battalions are now increasingly being dispatched to work with Afghan border security battalions.  A border police basic training course is being instituted, which equips its students with weapons and gear and pays them. The U.S. is also working on constructing 165 new outposts on the border, which will greatly increase security capabilities.

However, many security forces recruits still fail drug tests and often don't come back after they have been issued their weapons and uniforms and receive their first pay.  This seems to be the product of a deeper rooted trait of Afghan culture. The primary allegiance for most Afghans has been mainly to their tribal heritage.  A lack of allegiance to the nation state itself has characterized the country's history, which is understandable considering the top-down creation of the borders of the state of Afghanistan by the British, neglecting any respect of tribal areas. 

Western troops need to increase their sensitivity for the cultural implications of dealing with Afghans, if they want reliable security forces.  But they also need to be able to rely on the Afghan central government led by Karzai for cooperation.  In recent months, Karzai has repeatedly condemned U.S. drone attacks on insurgent hideouts because of civilian casualties and today large demonstrations took place against U.S. attacks.  But Karzai needs the U.S. and without coalition troops, he probably would not be in power too long before being overrun by Taliban forces again. The coalition troops need more time to reinforce their efforts of creating reliable security forces and winning the hearts and minds of the average Afghans, who also have to learn to begin trusting the central government.

Friday, January 23, 2009

This screams "There are deeper problems here"

(Hat tip to Foreign Policy and Tom Ricks)

According to this Stars and Stripes article, there was a gang initiation beating that killed an Army Sergeant back in 2005. The sergeant in question was being inducted into the gang by some Air Force airmen. Three service people have already been convicted in court-martials, and another is currently undergoing a court martial. Others involved were given immunity for their cooperation, and more may be tried.

My major question is simply this--how does a street gang, one that starts fights in bars and uses drugs, form within the military? I was always taught that the military (these days) instilled strong "discipline" in its members, and that it was impossible to get away with things like that in the military. I was taught to have a very healthy respect for MPs and such (despite never being in the military myself).

Ricks suggests that it indicated the declining discipline within the military. Given that this was 3 years ago, it makes me wonder if things have gotten better or worse since then. (Also, this was in a US base in Germany, not in a fight zone where worse explosions of violence could be at least better understood.)

I hope that this has caused the heads of the military to at least look into the incident, and make sure that it's a single isolated case, not a growing trend. The idea of gang members as our military frightens me.