A House is a Grave: Sahel situation analysis.


BlaiseP is the pseudonym of a peripatetic software contractor whose worldly goods can fit into an elderly Isuzu Rodeo. Bitter and recondite, he favors the long view of life, the chords of Steely Dan and Umphrey's McGee, the writings of William Vollman and Thomas Pynchon, the taste of red ale and his own gumbo. Having escaped after serving seven years of a lifetime sentence to confinement in hotel rooms, he currently resides in the wilds of Eau Claire County and contemplates the intersection of mixed SRID geometries in PostGIS.

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33 Responses

  1. North says:

    Informative and helpful. I strongly endorse your prescription. The US has no need to be in that morass.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to North says:

      Thanks, North. The USA will play with fire, as it has played so many times before. As in SE Asia, first it’s observers, then trainers, then overflights, then bombing, then buying into our own propaganda a few little bases, you know, the redoubts of democracy, legitimizing corrupt governments. There’s a pattern of early, sweeping victories and an enemy we can’t quite identify in the crowd.

      We know how the story ends. The harder we pound the problem, the flatter it gets.

      Africa can absorb every watt of goodwill radiated in its direction. Eventually, obeying Planck’s laws, all that money begins to re-radiate than energy in the infrared of corruption and malfeasance. At some point we have to let these guys fail so they can learn to get up for themselves.Report

      • Bob2 in reply to BlaiseP says:

        This sort of behavior seems to happen when people try to force top/down revolutions or policy. It might seem unrelated, but this seems to be case to me when Michelle Rhee and other education reformers decided to implement policy while being extremely rude to locals and not taking their concerns seriously. It always seems that getting the locals empowered would be the solution, but they’re never going to fully trust carpetbaggers. Like you say, the US would have to own the situation, but not only that, they’d have to make sure the locals owned the situation also, otherwise they’re going to act like Afghanis and ask for free rides on things like digging wells.

        As far as education reform went…. after leaving a disastrous situation for their successors, they still fooled enough people that they were allowed to take over other school districts or get cushy jobs with think tanks. Maybe not the most perfect of analogies, but to me, this pattern of behavior you describe repeats itself not only with international conflicts, but with local government issues and the financial industry in terms of regulation and reform.Report

        • Bob2 in reply to Bob2 says:

          Sorry if I don’t have much to add about Mali, but thanks for these posts. There’s so much detail in posts like this that I think you can see why it’s hard for people to comment without feeling way out of their depths.

          But yeah, Darwinian survival of the fittest evolution is not the most efficient, but rather evolution of cooperation. Mutualism almost always works better for all parties involved in nature if it’s an option, which is what I wish certain political philosophies would understand. And it’s really difficult to go from bombing the crap out of a country (survival of the fittest) to organizing a country so it has a functioning political and police structure (cooperation).Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    Blaise, I don’t know much at all about Africa policy or the dynamics of African nations and cultures. So I thank you for the insights and knowledge you’ve placed on offer here. I wish I could offer more than an echo, but you should at least know that you’ve been read and understood.Report

  3. Kolohe says:

    Do you mean repeating the mistakes in Afghanistan in the 90’s or the different ones in the 00’s (to the present day)?

    There’s no way we’re going to repeat (whether or not you consider it a mistake) the large-ish BOG effort in Afghanistan anywhere soon, nor double down on it based on COINista triumphalist sentiment borrowed from a completely different and wholly un-analogous conflict.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

      The latter. As for “there’s no way”, gosh, as Marx said, first as tragedy then as farce. I believe the USA will continue to meddle and will get its fingers burned.

      More money! More training! Yeah buddy. We trained the Afghan army too, those non-hard-fighting sons of bitches. We trained the Malian army too, they shat themselves and ran away. Well, they’re brave enough to come back and shoot civilians now, so I guess some of that training must have paid off. So now we gotta train ’em Some Moar.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

        You’re mixing up three different lines of effort though.

        There’s the training & partnering done by SOF of other first line units. This has been done all over the world, for quite some time now. It works well enough (but not always, as we saw in Mali), and is fairly cheap, as Pentagon budget things go.

        There’s the training provided mainly by contractors that designed to build an army from the ground up. We’ve only done this in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are unlikely to get in that game anywhere else, because We Are Out of Money.

        Then there’s putting a gazillion ordinary military folks with Big Army ruling everything to Clear, Hold, Build in a population-centric campaign. This *definitely* ain’t happening anywhere for at least another decade or two.

        And besides all those, strictly punitive expeditions are still doable at several scales, and what we’ve always done. (for over two centuries now). The trick is getting out when your point is made.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

          Every last bit of all three is crapola. SF goes in there, gets into the Force Aug business. That’s where the trouble starts, they buy friends. Don’t say it isn’t so, I’ve seen it done.

          Then come the contracturds. They don’t build armies from the ground up. They hang around and grow beards and act like they’re All That, which SF actually is, but the contracturds are not. Except the contracturds make a lot more money.

          When it come time to actually fight these wars, we never have Gazillions of 11 Bravos on tap. So with every such iteration, we fill the ranks with substandard mouth breathers. And they never stay in the ranks, the retention rates for good troops is damned near nil. See previous para for why this is so.

          The trick, Kohohe, is to keep your ass from hanging out the window in the first place. The war you prevent is the war you don’t have to fight. I’m not mixing up anything here. The American military is absolutely the worst influence in the world for creating democracies, anywhere.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I ain’t aruging any of that, just the direction of the bureaucratic inertia. Yeah, 10 years ago, the Global War on Terror was about going all in everywhere and anywhere. These days, nobody’s going to authorize (and pay for) anything more than SOF, flying killer robots, and the occasional air campaign / logistic & ISR support to allies. (and the last set depends on who’s President. McCain wouldn’t have got the slack granted to Obama for Odyssey Dawn)Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

              Wars become self-justifying things. If someone dared to suggest denying authorisation for widening yet another SF/Drone-instigated war, the Usual Suspects (the same bunch of yammering idiots now demandin’ explanations for Benghazi) would start screaming again. And they’d get their way. And we both know it.Report

  4. George Turner says:

    How is Carter Ham supposed to come up with a curriculum that teaches generals not to overthrow the elected civilian government? By the time someone carries that rank it’s far too late to rewire them with respect for civil institutions (especially in countries where the civil institutions don’t deserve much respect, and if anything are the main problem).

    As for the airline incident, when the US military returns soldiers from the Sahara it really should put more effort into rehydrating them, as should we all. I consider that a societal failure that could be corrected fairly easily with a Gatorade endorsement. As for his lack of sleep, shifting so many timezones is always going to cause problems.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

      Oh I dunno. Maybe by doing what Niger did, put a Tuareg or two on the general staff. Ackshul Counterinsurgency work, you know, getting the ordinary people on your side. Carter Ham is useless, worse than useless.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

      And as for that jackass Derek Stansberry, no amount of rehydration will cure what’s wrong with his stupid ass. But hey, everything worked out great. Despite making a bomb threat on a transatlantic flight, the Powers That Be made sure he walked out of that courtroom into the light of day and into the rest of his life. Of korse, that was all on the up-and-up, no DoD or State interference in that matter. Nossir.Report

      • George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Hey, I think we’ve all diverted a few international flights with on-board bomb threats and been let go on the promise that we won’t do it again, at least not on the same airline, haven’t we? Oh wait, that really never happens.

        It’s almost enough to make someone suspect that the powers that be really needed the flight diverted for a reason they couldn’t disclose and had someone make something up on the fly (faking a maintenance issue causes lots of paperwork). Perhaps there’s someone else who didn’t get back aboard to finish the journey, or some extra special law enforcement people who boarded to ride the rest of the way “just in case.”

        Let’s just hope the stewardesses will take note of this incident and push that drink cart down the aisle a little faster. Fluffier in-flight pillows would also help.Report

  5. Creon Critic says:

    I think your arguments depend on how widely one draws the circle of US strategic interests. You’ve presented a smaller circle, so come out against basing in Niger and the like. A perspective I find more convincing is that the US is a global power and by definition has a range of strategic interests (both in terms of geography and ideas). Weak and failing states disrupt the benign international environment the US favors, serving as bases for operation for transnational terror networks and other potential malefactors (organized crime, piracy, etc.). Therefore it makes sense for the US to build the capability to project power into these spaces, or minimally keep an eye on what’s going on in these spaces. Set armed drones aside, do you believe surveillance operations as described in the WaPo piece are unwise? Particularly when thinking short-term, immediate wake of 9/11, I can see why a Pan-Sahel Initiative would be attractive. That short-term intervention needs to be married to medium and long-term plans though – so three cheers for the QDDR.

    Last, I think the argument about meddling in Africa is particularly unconvincing when the scope is broadened further to include non-military levers available to the US: trade agreements, foreign aid (PEPFAR comes to mind), support for ECOWAS, the AU, and other intergovernmental mechanisms to build capacity. There are both reasons of principle as well as self-interested reasons for the US to step up engagement with Africa. Yes, hubris would be bad, but futility might be even worse.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

      Global power. Hrm! By definition, too. Where have I heard that argument before? Oh, that’s right, the Domino Theory.

      You’re right about that weak and failing states business, though. The USA has a fine track record of preventing that sort of thing. That regime in South Vietnam sure was a paragon of virtue. All those funfun dictators we propped up in Iran and Africa and Central America, no end of successes there. And our glorious triumphs in Iraq and Afghanistan — all that blood and treasure turned out to be a wise investment, despite the naysayers. Well, that’s what naysayers are for, you know, the confederacy of dunces who arise to oppose the goddamned geniuses of this world, men like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

      Led by men of wisdom, our virile military has screwed many a pooch and sired sons in its own image. Now there’s capacity worth building for yez.Report

      • Creon Critic in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Global power. Hrm! By definition, too. Where have I heard that argument before? Oh, that’s right, the Domino Theory.

        Well you’re right insofar as the US was a global power during the Cold War and the US remains a global power today, but this fact says nothing as to how one would go about applying the tenets, or errors, of the Domino Theory to today’s world. The idea that “instability anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere” does not require unceasing, all-in military responses around the world. You are right that concern over weak and failed states could set one up for massive overreactions, military responses, and quagmires around the world, but an alternative policy emphasizes civil society mechanisms, diplomacy, development, and then if necessary military responses. To oversimplify, that’s Joseph Nye’s “smart power” and the QDDR.

        The USA has a fine track record of preventing that sort of thing.[…]

        A survey of the cases (RAND pdf)shows a mixed record. It is as incorrect to focus on just Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan as it would be to just focus on Germany, Japan, and South Korea. The US has had both spectacular failures in foreign policy as well as pretty worthy successes.

        Overall, I don’t know where a counsel of futility leaves American foreign policy. The US wants certain things from the international system, security, stability, economic prosperity, and so on. Being paralyzed by potential unintended consequences is a means to achieve precisely none of those aims.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

          Ask yourself, what are the differences between our successes and failures when we get involved in these countries? I don’t buy the Germany and Japan arguments: we conquered those countries and occupied them outright and imposed the aforementioned military procurators and satraps. We owned those problems. We hanged people. In South Korea, we’re still there, that war isn’t over: we tolerated some nasty dictators and some pretty vile repression and the South Koreans have not forgotten all that. And unless that’s where you want us to go in foreign policy terms, Germany, Japan and South Korea won’t work as examples.

          Mine is no counsel of futility. There’s plenty we can do to help these nations but first they have to start helping themselves. Stability is not pasting veneer on rotten boards. Stability is not training a nation’s military when they don’t have a working justice system. Stability is not propping up dictators. We just gotta stop all that immediately. It’s worse than a bad parent coming in to rescue his stupid kid every time he screws up. These are not our kids.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

      But to fisk through the rest of your comment, I no longer buy into the Global Power argument. If the USA wanted to project power in the world at large, it would be on the basis of being a good example and not some vicious colossus astride the world, dispensing Hellfire justice off a missile rail at a 68,000 USD a pop.

      Training a bad country’s military doesn’t produce a good country. I repeat myself: our military with its training camps is no less disruptive to the developing state than the guys who run the terrorist training camp we despise. We have an ideology, they have an ideology. We have some Democratic Utopia in mind, they have an Islamic Utopia in mind.

      Now I’m not one of these hand wringers, moaning and weeping about US imperialism and all that. Pluralistic democracy and capitalism are the great engines of human progress and wealth and by God someone ought to stand up for them in the face of their enemies. But the greatest evils are done with the best of intentions and let’s face it, what we’ve done since the end of WW2 is counterproductive.

      Two aspects to this failure: we don’t want to own the problem and therefore we cannot own the solution. Americans are democratic enough to see the cruelty of imposing our own satraps and procurators on these places. Our enemies don’t have such scruples, they can and will install their own leaders by force.

      Truth is, if we’re going to invade somewhere, the first thing those people want and need is security. So here’s an easy rule of thumb for anyone who would like to play the Counterinsurgency Game. If you’re running a city of a quarter million people — in peacetime mind! — you need about three full time police officers per 1000 people. In smaller jurisdictions, you can maybe get away with two but one won’t do. And you’ll need police stations and comm and vehicles and courts and jails and some civil law mechanism to support law enforcement. And you’ll need some means of defending the accused, you can’t run kangaroo courts.

      Notice where terrorists attack our inchoate democracies: police stations. They like nothing better than to dress up as police officers and boy howdy do they have a justice system, complete with summary justice for thieves and prostitutes and they make no bones about their War on Sin — except for the drug dealing, kidnapping warlords who pay their wages. They know the score: if we can’t install a working justice system, they’ve won. Even if the population thinks we’re great guys, if we leave their ville without a working justice system, they’re not going to take our side.

      There are about 120,000 policemen in Afghanistan. That’s about half again as many policemen as we have on a per-thousand basis in the USA. Parenthetically, Mali is the absolute worst on that list below the link. But because they’re not getting paid regularly and there’s no effective justice system, most of those Afghan cops are corrupt. There are about 260,000 soldiers in the Afghan Army. Most of them are corrupt, too. We trained all of them. But both the police and the military are alienated from the people. And American taxpayers are paying their salaries, all of them, policemen and military. Our training camps produced bad product and it’s high time we faced those facts.

      We don’t own that problem, can’t own that problem. If we had serious corruption issues in a police department, there would be complaints, allegations, investigations. If we had generals and officers taking kickbacks from the grunts, there would be no end of it. So why are we paying for an untenable situation? We’re too timid to enforce our own standards of behaviour on these chumps in Afghanistan, a situation where we had every right to overthrow that government for tolerating jihaadi training camps. But those same camps have cropped up in Pakistan — and guess what, folks — we’re throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at Pakistan in hopes they’ll do something about terrorism.

      It has to stop. If some regime wants our money in future, it has to meet our standards. Otherwise we stay the hell out of those situations. Our money only makes things worse. We can’t own the world’s problems. But we can own the problems we create in the course of what we do in these situations.Report

      • Creon Critic in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I mentioned terrorists, organized criminals, and pirates. The US is to do what now? Be a good example! That’s marginally better than a counsel of futility, but only just. I’d submit that however beautiful the US example, the committed foes of US interests will be a lot more responsive to Hellfire missiles and the fact of preeminent military power.

        If I had to choose only between deterrence and the US being a bright shining star to the international community, I’d go with deterrence. But fortunately, the US faces no such choice. As I mentioned, the US can use civil society mechanisms, diplomacy, development, and then if necessary military responses. The US should be a good example, but we should also carry a big stick. (And certainly nothing I wrote advanced the idea that training a bad country’s military produces a good country.)

        But the greatest evils are done with the best of intentions and let’s face it, what we’ve done since the end of WW2 is counterproductive.

        I think this is an overly large periodization (I’d divide at least between Cold War and post-Cold War), but sticking with it, the examples of the defeat of the Warsaw Pact nations speaks against the simple “counterproductive” label. I wouldn’t call US foreign policy throughout the Cold War a triumph of American values, but to simply ball it all together as counterproductive is to ignore one of the signal triumphs for freedom in the 20th century.

        If some regime wants our money in future, it has to meet our standards.

        Would that the world of international relations were so simple. What about regimes with various factions vying for control and each controlling different apparatus of the state? What about situations where the US has both allies and enemies within the same intelligence service of a single state (ahem, ISI). And even supposing we’re conceptualizing Pakistan as a single, unitary actor what about the US interest in Pakistan’s nuclear arms being secure? Or the US interest in keeping the Pakistan-India relationship from derailing and becoming something more akin to the Israel-Palestine relationship? Or the US interest in containing Iran (the potential TAPI Pipeline for instance)? Simply put, these relationships, US-Pakistan for instance, are complicated and a simple on-off switch is unresponsive to this complexity.

        Lastly, it isn’t a matter of electing to own the world’s problems or not. As the most powerful actor in the international system, the US already owns the world’s problems (a great deal of them anyway).Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

          When Hitler was marching his troops across Europe, there was still some talk of appeasement in Great Britain. When the first bombs fell on civilian populations, all such talk stopped. Want to instantly get a population to hate you? Bomb them or shell them with long range artillery. I’m not saying drones don’t have their place; they do. But we are not going to bomb our way to victory in a war of ideas.

          Deterrence is pretty much a dead argument these days. The world has seen the limits of our warfighting machinery. We aren’t invincible. Our enemies know how to outlast us on the battlefield. We’d better get that through our thick heads.

          Our military solution always involves training, that’s where it always starts and did start in Mali. And Vietnam. And Central America. Shit, for years, the School of the Americas was a goddamn dictator factory only now what the hell do we call it, now that SOA has gotten such a bad name in the world? Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. We have not abandoned this misguided strategy of huggling up to these cannibals and seem intent upon perpetuating it.

          We won the Cold War by default. The USSR collapsed from within because they kept lying to themselves. Veneer on rotten boards.

          As for regimes with various factions vying for control and each controlling different apparatus of the state, if that regime doesn’t have a free press and locks up its dissidents, no US money for you. True story: Guatemala’s civil war went on for 36 years. Finally, Bush41 got a serious case of the ass at one particularly awful dictator (whom Ronald Reagan had called a great freedom fighter) and cut off all the military funding. Mirabile dictu! within six months that civil war ended and a peace treaty was signed in Mexico City and there hasn’t been a military coup since.

          As for Pakistan, I wouldn’t give them a dime. They are not our good buddies. I can’t believe we still give them money. They need to get right. Cutting off the money is a fine start.

          We are not the most powerful actor, not on the other side of the planet. Power varies with the inverse square of distance.Report

          • Creon Critic in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I think you’re understating the mileage the US gets from deterrence. Even if, for the sake of argument, the US has been awful at picking up the pieces after military intervention, we can be sure that some key objectives will be met beforehand. The US doesn’t need invincibility, in calculating their own interests an adversarial regime should be aware that the US is capable of creating great difficulties from multilateral sanctions to military intervention. Of course the aftermath matters a great deal, but for the purposes of influence on a given regime it comes in handy.

            We won the Cold War by default. The USSR collapsed from within because they kept lying to themselves. Veneer on rotten boards.

            Another can of worms. Maybe amounting to differences in emphasis: We won the Cold War by default versus We won the Cold War by default.

            As for money to Pakistan, what if a portion of the funding is just to lower the amount of fuss made over US counterterror operations in their country? Is it money well spent?

            We are not the most powerful actor, not on the other side of the planet. Power varies with the inverse square of distance.

            There’s some truth to this, there are limits to US power projection, especially acting unilaterally. On the other hand aircraft carriers and aerial refueling go a long way to making others take notice.Report

            • Errata, that’s understating not overstating, and the ‘We won the Cold War by default’ had a distinction in the html that didn’t show up – emphasis on the by default or not.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Creon Critic says:

              Deterrence only works if people believe the threat. Nobody believes the USA can deter anything in Afghanistan any more. The Taliban operates under our noses, we can’t cope.

              A man walks down the street,
              It’s a street in a strange world.
              Maybe it’s the Third World.
              Maybe it’s his first time around.
              He doesn’t speak the language,
              He holds no currency.
              He is a foreign man,
              He is surrounded by the sound, sound ….
              Cattle in the marketplace.
              Scatterlings and orphanages.

              That’s the American soldier doing COIN work. As useless as titties on a boar hog. What do we think we’re doing there? Helping someone? Arresting someone? Not when we can’t say one intelligent sentence in that person’s language.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:

          the examples of the defeat of the Warsaw Pact nations

          That assumes that “we defeated them” is a meaningful construct, as opposed to “they collapsed from within and would have done so–sooner or later–regardless of what we did.”Report

        • Lastly, it isn’t a matter of electing to own the world’s problems or not. As the most powerful actor in the international system, the US already owns the world’s problems (a great deal of them anyway).

          I agree with most of Blaise’s reasons for why this shouldn’t be so, plus another one. Many of the things that US strategic power defends are public goods — eg, keeping Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz. Arguably, Europe and Japan benefit more from the Strait being open than the US does, as a larger portion of their oil passes through that choke point. Arguably, they really ought to be paying a substantial fee for what is now a public service provided at US expense. For a couple of decades after WWII they did pay a fee, at least indirectly — while they were rebuilding their economies, they bought an enormous range of manufactured goods from the US. These days, the trade balance is tipped the other way but the US is still footing the bill for the strategic military power.

          The three major branches of the US military all recognize one of the serious threats to the US being able to continue to foot that bill: expensive petroleum-based fuel. The more recent Joint Operating Environment documents spell it out pretty clearly. The military’s official position is that without cheap petroleum, the US and other developed economies will struggle. Without large quantities of cheap petroleum (about 5% of US petroleum consumption is the military, and going up), the US military will have to cut back on both training and deployments. All three branches are funding active research programs into petroleum alternatives. At least when the Republicans will let them; Republicans have introduced a variety of bills that would stop such research, or ban the military use of non-petroleum gasoline/diesel/JP-8.

          Opinions vary, but mine is that we’ve seen the end of cheap petroleum (absent a global economic crash larger than the last one). In another 25 years, the US won’t be able to project strategic power at anything like the level it can today. Regional powers are going to have to pick up the difference.Report

          • Many of the things that US strategic power defends are public goods[…]

            Entirely fair point. The US should press allies to meet defense spending to GDP percentage commitments.

            As for fuel prices, I tend to think we’ll figure it out, particularly given sufficient lead time to transition to alternatives.Report