danalwyn: (Default)
So, people are bombing Iraq again. You might remember this from several previous incidents. We're doing the whole thing again.

As usual, it's not going to work. Or rather it's better to say that all it's going to do is provide some minor assistance to the folks on the ground. For an example, I turn to the BBC.

To summarize, two GR4 Tornado aircraft (each costing about $15 million by past accounts) flew about 920 km one way (you don't want to know what the gas bill is for that), piloted by pilots who need hundreds of hours of training in expensive simulators, cruised around a target zone for a time, hit a "heavy weapons" station (capabilities unknown), and then spotted an enemy technical (also known as a pickup truck with a gun on the back). They fired at least one Brimstone missile (estimated cost $240,000), and hit and destroyed a truck (probably a couple of thousand dollars even in the US) mounting what was probably something similar to a ZPU (a dual purpose anti-aircraft gun first manufactured by the Soviet Union back in 1949, and probably about the same cost as the truck).

The point is not that this didn't do anything. It probably killed someone if they didn't bail out. If there were Kurdish or Iraqi troops around, it reduced the immediate threat to them. If it was in the middle of a fierce battle, it opened a hole in a position and allowed the shape of combat to change rapidly. Soldiers pinned down could advance, perhaps catching ISIL off-guard. At the least they weren't being shot at quite as much, and that's always a good thing.

But if the truck was just sitting near a command post, it does very little. ISIL will get a new truck and a new gun (both readily available on the black market), and replace the driver. The coalition will run out of missiles due to budgetary concerns and aircraft from the wear and tear long before ISIL runs out of second-hand Toyota trucks.

So if the RAF drops a state-of-the-art missile on a truck in the middle of Iraq and no friendly troops are around to take advantage of the situation, does anybody care? Probably not.
danalwyn: (Default)
Perhaps to be specific, when I said there would be no war in Ukraine I should have said there will be no western war in Ukraine. Whether there will be a long drawn-out revolt and proggle in Eastern Ukraine is still up for debate, but the West seems particularly uninvolved. Perhaps luckily, for once nobody in the West seems too interested in fighting a war on Russia's doorstop. We may be happy to encourage the Ukrainians to fight one, but we're staying out of it - at least directly.

As to what the Ukrainians and the Russians do, well, that's largely up to them.
danalwyn: (Default)
As befits the actual nature of the situation, it's now been several weeks and there's been no sign of war in Ukraine. In fact, things have gotten a little calmer, with the Russians deciding to withdraw a battalion of the 15th Motor Rifle brigade back to its home base.

The BBC article and every analyst in the world will tell you that this doesn't mean much. The Russians have about 40,000 troops surrounding Ukraine, and the withdrawal of the 500 or so troops in a motor rifle battalion isn't going to seriously affect the balance of combat power. It could just be that this was a group that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and hence got roped into standing guard while only half-ready for war. It could be just a standard bureaucratic shuffle given significance only by coincidence.

But it adds strength to the narrative - the threat of war is over. At least in Ukraine the standoff is getting less and less tense. Despite a lot of posturing, Crimea was an easy sell, and a place Russia already controlled. The early idea of a Russian army marching lengthwise across Ukraine, laying waste to the countryside and returning the country to Soviet rule, just hasn't been panning out. Nobody seems to want WWIII today. Of course the pundits will spin it all sorts of different ways, US strength, European weakness, Russian weakness, whatever, but the truth is probably closer to inertia. It takes a lot of effort to rock the boat in this day and age - and the Russians don't seem to want to expend that effort. Neither does anyone else. Easier to pretend it never happened.

Don't worry though, I'm sure the Koreans or the Nigerians will soon provide a new place for those who missed out on their war to be all worried about.
danalwyn: (Default)
So I have to admit, I didn't get Crimea right. I was betting on an independent quasi-Abkhazia in place of Crimea, a sort of Russian puppet state, not outright annexation. Annexation is a dangerous step, since it's the first outright annexation of a major territory by a larger country that I can remember since India and Sikkim, and with even less justification. It was peaceful at least, which means that things weren't terrible but it doesn't exactly set a good precedent for an uncertain future.

Not that this is necessarily bad for the West, or even for Ukraine, but it's certainly not a good thing. A return to land-grabbing power politics could make the next few years very interesting for Central Asia, where the borders aren't very clear, although in the end it probably sows the seeds of people's destruction. It's just not going to make this next year any more comfortable.
danalwyn: (Default)
Within twenty-four hours there may be a war in the Ukraine. Or there may not. It's hard to tell. At this point, most speculation is trash, and will rapidly become unhinged by events. What I have noticed is that, at least among the commentators I read, there is a fairly narrow window of possibilities to the only question that matters: How will this all end?

The Road We Might Take )

That being said, nobody really knows what's happening next. The current bet seems to be on some level of unpleasant, realpolitik sanity prevailing, but really? Sanity has usually been the first thing to go in these affairs, so hang onto your hats and don't trust in it too much. But still, so far Russia tries to keep things under control, so don't prepare for the end of the world quite yet.
danalwyn: (Default)
A lot has happened in Libya in the past few weeks, culminating with this weekend's push into Tripoli. A lot that seemed clear a month ago is no longer clear, and a lot that seemed impossible is no longer impossible.

If there's anything that should be clear from the Libya situation, it's that military affairs, social affairs, and economic affairs take time, where pundits take none. When the loyalists were on the verge of taking Benghazi, everyone was frightened that the end of the world would happen right there and then, that the war was lost for the rebels. This was part of what pushed the strong NATO intervention. When that intervention failed to win the war for the rebels in the first week, the words quagmire and "no end in sight" were tossed around. As the stalemate continued, that perspective gained strength, until the whole western intervention looked like just another bungled disaster. Now the interventionists are basking in their glory, and gloating to their more pessimistic colleagues.

Many people predicted the same thing - the war would be won for the rebels if they could figure out how to operate effectively and cohesively in the west against Gaddafi's greater firepower. They also predicted that, despite contrary appearances, international isolation was hurting Gaddafi's regime. Both those predictions appear true, as the rapid folding of regime forces has indicated. But it took time. Not that it took a long time - for a civil war to last only months is remarkably short, even in the age of motor transportation. All complicated affairs, and wars most of all, take time. For all we know, the rebels will suffer another reverse and be driven out of the city (although that looks unlikely).

That's probably the most important lesson we can learn about whatever happens in Tripoli today (the situation is still not clear), these things take time. Wars are not ended in days, effects are not instantaneous. If it takes half a year for a popular rebellion across an oppressed country to seize the capital of a hated and outdated leader, imagine how long it takes for a foreign country to occupy another and then try and change its entire political and social structure.

Oh, and the other thing to learn - people can take care of themselves if you give them the chance.
danalwyn: (Default)
It's been over a week since the Obama speech, and the bullets have mostly stopped flying. For now.

I've spent some time ruminating over various arguments, especially from the strategic minded, and I've come to three conclusions on Afghanistan, none of which I particularly like. I know that nobody bothers to read what I write when it comes to news and politics, but here they are anyway.

Three Things About Afghanistan )
danalwyn: (Default)
One of the most widely discussed, and completely misunderstood, topic in history is the struggle between civilization and barbarianism. Really we're speaking about the historical battle between between older civilizations with large, robust economies and strong cultural heritage coming into conflict with younger civilizations with a militaristic bent. The younger civilization does not consist of barbarians as we think of them in popular culture; rather they tend to be would-be empires of their own. In a battle of cultural influence, in economic power, in trade or diplomacy, they cannot hope to match their older cousins. But they exploit one advantage; their toughness and experience, born of constant strife, makes them excellent warriors, and they use this to conquer their elders.

This has created a powerful political narrative, one that has been twisted from historical fact. It is convenient to indulge in the idea that the self-sufficient, hardship-enduring frontier warrior, far removed from book learning and education, and all those other fruits of self-indulgence that an adequate food supply brings, is superior on the battlefield. That the weak man of civilization, with his philosophy and abstract knowledge, is unable to stand up to the tide of the simple, uncomplicated barbarian warrior. This has become a philosophy of anti-progress; the idea that all these fruits of civilization, all these ancient and mighty cultures, are no match for a straight-forward frontier warrior fresh out of the wilds.

In the west, this is a philosophy dominated by Rome. To certain commentators, Rome was a glittering civilization toppled by unlettered barbarians from beyond the pale. Barbarians who, by their closeness to ancient ways, by their warrior culture and society, their martial bent versus the cultural and economic bent of Rome, were somehow more morally pure, and perhaps favored by the divine hand of history. The barbarians who overwhelmed the weakness of civilization.

I propose another example. A large, growing, vigorous young empire, deeply militaristic, filled with thousands of men who had known nothing but war all their days, and an unending stream of conquests, turned its eyes to the border regions, where farmers grew fat off land farmed by indentured workers who were essentially slaves, under the aegis of a far-off kingdom that was a stranger to war. Eventually the conflict between the two sparked into open warfare, armies marched across ill-defined borders, provinces larger then some countries were called to muster, and in the end, Ulundi was burned, the Zulus Empire was shattered, and the British Empire, barely having expended even a fraction of its strength, went right back to ignoring them.

Somewhere between Rome and the Zulu Wars, the world changed. Suddenly it was not enough to simply be familiar with war; you had to be able to afford to build the weapons, be able to build them, and be able to understand them. Suddenly all that book learning had direct application in the form of applied physical violence. And now, in an age where robotic warriors take the human element away from the battlefield, and the barbarian advantage is neutered by death via remote control, the barbarians are doomed; their sole advantage, the ability to conquer their neighbors, removed.

Boko Haram desperately wants to persuade us that they are not going to walk the path of the barbarians. Perhaps they have realized that time of the luddites, or going backward, of embracing ignorance, is over. But I think it's too late for them. Like some of the advocates of warrior culture in the US, their eagerness to rid themselves of the corrupted fruit of civilization is likely to squash the flow of information, independent thought, and creativity among their own population. They want to be more like the Zulus then the British.

Well, maybe spending more time in the dustbin of history will teach them something, but I don't intend to join them. Maybe some day the rest of the world will look in on how the barbarians are doing, but I doubt anybody will care.


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