Mar 11

On July 31, 1997 the NYPD averted a terrorist attack by Islamic extremists that could have killed hundreds of people. Never heard of it? Neither had I.

Enter Seven Shots: An NYPD Raid on a Terrorist Call and Its Aftermath, a non-fiction account of this event written by longtime On Violence reader “Jaylo” (actual name Jennifer Hunt). Jaylo blogs about police, TV, the NYPD and the military, in addition to other subjects at

Instead of my summary, I’ll let Hunt’s introduction take it away. “A six-man Emergency Service Unit (ESU) team raided the apartment of two Middle Eastern terrorists who were in possession of bombs that they planned to detonate in the New York subway that morning,” Hunt writes at the opening of Seven Shots. “In less than seven hours, one Muslim informant, six New York Police Department (NYPD) Emergency Service officers, two Bomb Squad detectives, supporting units, teams and commanders narrowly averted the nation’s first suicide bombing.” Hunt tells this story, and continues on to the contentious aftermath of the raid as the police officers deal with fame, awards, anger and NYPD politics.

Seven Shots opens with a very academic twenty page history of Hunt’s background with the NYPD, and then a thirty page introduction detailing NYPD cultural norms and history. Hunt is a sociologist and college professor, so this makes sense. That said, as I wrote in my notes, “for an academic book, it is crazy novelistic”, especially during the first 100 pages or so. This is a big compliment. Some of the character descriptions, like police officer Keith  Ryan’s bird racing hobby, are just fascinating.

The academic slant makes for an ironclad approach though. Hunt includes a nine page explanation of her method which--if you’ve read my series on memoirs--you’ll know I appreciated. She explains who she interviewed and how; every book should.

Some takeaways from Seven Shots:

Terrorism has always been with us. This may seem obvious. I mean, since the 1800’s, some group or another, from nihilists and anarchists to Muslim or right-wing extremists have used terrorism as a means of intimidating larger society. But the conventional--and accepted--narrative is that something changed on 9/11. But Seven Shots is basically a long, convincing anecdote proving the opposite.

I wonder what would have happened if 9/11 had been averted. Who doesn’t? But Seven Shots forces the realization. The threat of international terrorism lurked around America and abroad throughout the 90’s, but America didn’t change the way it lived. It took a successful attack to change the way we live.

Seven Shots could be considered one long argument for human intelligence. The NYPD stopped the attacks because Mohammad Chindluri alerted them to the attack. This is a classic example of “good ol’ fashioned police work”--read Human Intelligence--saving the day. Watch or read “Top Secret America”, and realize that we waste billions on fancy tech, when all we need is good detectives/human intelligence.

Anti-Muslim bigotry and racism actively endangers Americans. Watch this video from last week. Think about the Muslim community center protests from last August. Think about people who mistakenly describe Islam as not a religion but a political system. These anti-Muslim actions endanger American lives, by discouraging Islamic informants (Read my above point). Racism isn’t just offensive; it is actually dangerous.

Anti-Muslim bigotry also includes falsely detaining people based on race or religion. Which happens in Seven Shots. On page 87, Hunt describes how the police detained five Pakistani people from the apartment building where the raid took place.

Is the NYPD the most crazy political organization in the world? After reading Seven Shots, I’d say yes. The department needs severe fixing. This problem, though, seems to exist in the Army as well.

This story is really cinematic. And it’s odd it hasn’t been made into a movie yet, or incorporated into a larger film.

(Full disclosure: On Violence received a copy of “Seven Shots” from The University of Chicago Press. We thank them for the book and the opportunity to review it.)

Mar 09

Last Wednesday, I said I would provide a solution to the “killing more bad guys” problem, and I explained the difference between security operations and counter-force operations. On Monday, I explained why the U.S. military fails at offensive operations. Today, I provide the solution.

What is that solution? In three short words: tiny unit patrolling. Or as it used to be called, long range surveillance (in the world of military theory, you have to coin new words to stay relevant). In the special operations world, this is called special reconnaissance. Whatever the terminology--in addition to conducting local security patrols, training the Afghan security forces and developing economic capacity--America needs to send out very small teams of skilled, light infantrymen to recon enemy positions, and kill insurgents using air and fire support.

What’s keeping us from doing this right now? Force protection, maybe the biggest buzz word developed during the war on terror. In terms of patrolling, this usually means mandating that all patrols have a minimum number of people, vehicles or specific weapon systems, as I mentioned on Monday.

Most force protection requirements ruin or eliminate the element of surprise. I can’t get into specific numbers. Just know that mandating a specific (usually large) size, precludes effective offensive operations. Size does not equal surprise.

Thus, the most effective form of offensive operations Afghanistan is lost. When we sat at the KOP wargaming the war in Konar province, we always came back wishing we could use tiny unit patrolling. In my conception (and I made up the word to describe a technique we wished we could use), four to six man teams, without body armor or helmets, in full ghillie suits and camouflage only armed with M4s would move out deep into enemy held countryside.

These units would ambush the Taliban insurgents that have freedom of movement around our US COPs and FOBs. For me, this is the untold story of Afghanistan. Right outside U.S. COPs and FOBs the enemy can maneuver as much as he wants. In Konar province, abutting Pakistan, the enemy moves between sanctuary and the battlefield with regularity, and we don’t have an effective method to stop him.

These teams would avoid ambushing units themselves--they would call in field artillery and air support--and would use concealment for force protection. These missions would be more dangerous than twenty man patrols in the short term, but would save lives in the long term.

Of course, a four-man patrol would have to have other ways to protect itself. A quick reaction force would be on standby. Ideally these patrols would have close air support, field artillery, and maybe even AC-130 on standby. (Yes, this means that the regular/conventional Army needs more AC-130s.)

Two possible counters. First, didn’t tiny unit patrolling cause the disaster of Lone Survivor nee Operation Red Wings? It did, and that is probably part of the reason why minimum patrol sizes started. And that will happen long range surveillance missions. However, the SEAL Team probably should have inserted by foot as opposed to helicopter, and they needed working radios. Second, don’t Special Operations guys do this anyways? Yes and no. What I really want to see is regular, conventional units return to this method of offensive operations. With Ranger School, Recon Surveillance Leaders Course and Snipe School, our regular infantrymen (especially scout platoons) are more than capable.

With tiny unit patrols nee long range surveillance patrols, we could finally start ambushing Taliban logistics elements moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan. We could, with limited manpower, start killing the enemy the way Bing West and “war-is-war”iors want, without risking the local population or eliminating Rules of Engagement. It’s a win-win.

Except for the Taliban, they would lose.

Mar 07

Last Wednesday, I used an analogy about “swords and shields” to describe the the two types of violence in a counter-insurgency. A lot of “war-is-war”iors want us to use the sword more in Afghanistan. They don’t realize that we already use the sword plenty.

We just aren’t very good at it.

Counter-force operations are primarily the domain of special operations troops, mainly Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Delta Force/CAG, Army Rangers and other units who fall under the Joint Special Operations Command. Conventional troops try to get in on the counter-force missions too. Whoever is doing it, we aren’t killing nearly enough Taliban/insurgents to win the war outright.

Here are a few problems with our counter-force/offensive operations in Afghanistan.

1. Lack of intelligence. Our “special” troops don’t have access to the same level of intelligence as our maneuver forces. A special forces team usually works in the same size area as a conventional battalion. That battalion has over thirteen platoons--with attachments--constantly patrolling and collecting human intelligence. Yet special operations troops don’t mix well with conventional troops, particularly when they come from outside a province to conduct an operation. Conventional forces usually don’t share information with the special operations folks. This means bad intelligence. Bad intelligence means dead civilians.

Look back through all the allegations of atrocities or major civilian casualties in the last few years. They almost always involve special operations troops. Conventional units live and patrol where they conduct operations; they almost always know where the civilians live or don’t live.

Even conventional troops suffer from bad intelligence. Our dearth of trained and experienced human intelligence collectors--especially non-contractors willing to leave the wire--hampers operations on a daily basis. Further, none of our human intelligence folks speak Dari or Pashtun (or so small a minority as to be insignificant).

2. We’re too heavy. Think heavy as in mechanized. Whenever the “special” guys go anywhere, they go with helicopters, AC-130 gun ships, and often a hundred Afghan special operators (who aren’t that bad really). U.S. conventional forces do the same thing, usually without an AC-130, and with regular Afghanistan National Army folks.

While the exact details are classified, ISAF sets minimum patrol sizes--either number of vehicles or number of men who have to go on the patrol. While the actual details are subject to operational security, understand that this drastically hampers the ability of U.S. forces to surprise the enemy. Helicopters make noise. Vehicles make noise. Any number of ground troops over six makes a bunch of noise. Heavy equipment, like body armor, makes noise.

Noise does not equal surprise.

3. It is tough terrain to kill the enemy. The terrain in Afghanistan provides the enemy with excellent stand off. They can see us from a long way off, and respond accordingly, especially if we are rolling heavy. If the Afghan insurgents used Russian built tanks, no problem. As irregular fighters, it is devastating.

In Konar province, the enemy hid out on mountaintops. We knew this. Trying to get there was the hard part. Even for special operations, getting to these areas with hundreds of people usually yields no bad guys. The helicopters flying in give everything away.

I have a solution to these dilemmas on Wednesday. It’s risky. It’s not terribly original. It would violate ISAF minimum patrol requirements, but it would work.

Mar 02

(To read the entire "war is war” series, please click here.)

Bing West made an appearance on The Colbert Report last week, and his thoughts are illustrative:

“You are dealing with honest to goodness stone killers who believe in this Islamist version of history and the only way you can deal with them is to put them down in the earth. And as long as we try to win hearts and minds, we’re diverting ourselves.”

“American soldiers, handcuffed by strict rules of engagement, have surrendered the initiative to their enemies.”

“We’re winning hearts and minds. We’ve been doing it for ten years. And at some point we have to say, why would they still be allowing people to do this if they were on our side. And the answer is you have to win the war first.”

“The third thing we should do is just take our troops and get them back to warfighting.”

Yep, illustrative of the “war is war” position. Mr. West, welcome to the club.

Bing West gets to the heart of my criticism with “war-is-war”-iors, whose philosophy I’ve been debunking over this series of posts. They want to kill more bad guys, but don’t care to offer an alternative. I do, however, have an outlandish idea for how to kill more bad guys. To get there, I first have to explain a couple of things. Today, I am going to describe the two uses of violence in a counter-insurgency: security and counter-force.

All violence isn’t created equal, in warfare. Said more clearly, all violence doesn’t have the same purpose. By violence, I mean the confluence of maneuver and fires to kill the enemy. Some violence is offensive and deliberate in nature; other times it is reactive and defensive. Both are necessary, and a counter-insurgent most be versed in both.

Most of the time a counter-insurgent is defensive, focused on the security of the local population. Think of this like a shield. The counter-insurgent patrols roads to fend off IEDs. The counter-insurgent walks down the street to prevent crimes. The counter-insurgent places themselves between the insurgents and the population. Security patrols don’t set out to cause violence, but deny the insurgent the ability to operate easily.

Security isn’t just the realm of foreign counter-insurgents or even the government. In Iraq, the best example of security patrolling were the Awakening groups that rose up. Afghanistan has failed to create a similar movement, and its primary security force, the Afghan National Police, are inordinately corrupt.

When “war-is-war”iors preach their gospel about getting “back to warfighting”, what they mean is conducting more “counter-force” operations. This is the other branch of counter-insurgency, the sword (sometimes called the stick, though On Violence doesn’t compare other people to animals).

Counter-force missions attempt to kill or capture the insurgency. This means raids, counter-sniper missions and specialized reconnaissance designed to fight the enemy, the insurgent and other destabilizing forces. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army tries to do this all the time. Tries. We call it “targeting”. Usually, because of a lack of intelligence (that comes from good security operations), the missions don’t yield dead bad guys, and the threat networks can easily rebuild.

“War-is-war”-iors often don’t understand this nuanced role of violence in warfare. When they say they want us to “win the war first”, “war-is-war”-iors really mean they want a different ratio of offensive to defensive operations. That doesn't sound nearly as hardcore. Sometimes they advocate softening our Rules of Engagement. All this does is risk more civilians during security operations. That harms our strategy in the long run.

I’ll admit, you can’t win a battle with only a shield. “War-is-war”-iors love to compare us COINdinistas to care bears more concerned with “winning hearts and minds” than killing.

I’m not. I know that we need to have a sword and a shield. Whether that sword should be precise like an Epee or unwieldy like a broad sword, that is what we’ll discuss on Monday, when I'll explain why the military--especially Special Operations troops--fails to kill bad guys in Afghanistan.

(I first came across the term “counter-force” in this manuscript called the “Tao of Counter-Insurgency”.)

Sep 20

Back in June I wrote a post about how terrorists have rules of engagement. Though they come from a completely different culture, Islamic terrorists still have an extremist ideology that governs their ability to fight war.

In other words, they have rules of engagement.

As if to prove my point, in the Spring issue of The Journal of International and Security Affairs, Mary R. Habeck penned an article called the “Jihadist Laws of War”. Ms. Habeck doesn’t use the same terminology, but she describes the various fatwas that al Qaeda created to regulate its fight against America, detailing how al Qaeda views the issues of combatants versus non-combatants, prisoners of war, and the spoils of war. Not surprisingly, they all radically diverge from the Western Laws of War, but terrorist ROE does exist.

Of course, al Qaeda’s rules of engagement lack any restraint when it comes to Westerners or non-Sunni Muslims. Osama Bin Laden and his followers “established that citizens of the United States were combatants” regardless of whether they wield weapons or not. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi would later twist rulings on combatants versus non-combatants “to declare all Shi’a--men, women and children--worthy of death.”

All of which I find interesting because al Qaeda is concerned with perceived legitimacy from the larger Islamic world. They feel the need to justify their actions in an Islamic context. Even though they twist Islamic law to endorse the murder of innocents, they desire religious approval--probably because deep down al Qaeda knows they are flying in the face of accepted Islamic law.

Mary Habeck makes this point very well, that terrorist (or takfiri or extremist) ideology does not meet the standards imposed by mainstream Islam. She admits that “salafi jihadis number...a tiny minority within the Muslim-majority world.” She also notes that Osama bin Laden specifically “uses violence to undo the interpretations of modern Islam.”  In sum, al Qaeda has rejected “both international legal norms and modern Islamic law.” If all US decision-makers mentioned this discrepancy more--and supposed “Ground Zero Mosques” less--we might actually have a shot at stopping extremists.

Mary Habeck’s article provides amazing insight on how al Qaeda views this conflict, a view many more US diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers need. It also proves a point I have had about ROE for years: insurgents and terrorists have rules of engagement, they just don’t look like ours.

But they have rules of engagement.

Sep 13

(Real quick: technical issues stopped this post from going up last Thursday. We'll be back on schedule this week.

Two weeks ago, I looked back at some of my earlier posts on the Rules of Engagement. One post described techniques US Soldiers use(d) to skirt the RoE in Iraq. Today I describe a technique used in Afghanistan.)

In Afghanistan, the Rules of Engagement are simple: soldiers can only shoot at targets they can see, targets that are directly threatening their lives. Putting it simply, this sucks. Ask any Afghan combat veteran. In that rugged countryside determining the exact location of the enemy, or even seeing him, verges on impossible.

Soldiers presented with tough ROE, and tough fighting conditions, often find work-arounds. In Afghanistan, they developed “observer training.”

“Observer training” means someone--the Forward Observer, the Platoon Leader or even just Soldiers--calls a fire mission, then the artillery or mortars fire that mission. If you are off target, you correct until the rounds go right where you need them to go. It is a vital skill for Soldiers, and has been since World War I.

In Afghanistan, many units realized if they called up a mission as “observer training” they could fire at suspected enemy locations. Now, these areas had to be empty of civilians, or at least not populated areas, but they could have rounds fired into them.
Here’s an example of abusing “observer training.” Armies have been intercepting radio signals since World War I. And shortly after they started intercepting them, they learned to find the direction they were broadcast from. The US Army can figure out the location of insurgent radios; many times, we can come close to pinpointing the locations of insurgent command and control (C2) cells.

Yet, that isn’t, in most cases, positive identification. Especially, if they are far out of range from the actual battle, all we know is a location is broadcasting. If a battle is going, and the right code words are being used, then we are close to a positive identification. Unfortunately, we still aren’t there, and that is why units conduct “observer training.” Using hunches and suspicions, and labeling their actions “observer training,” units can get away with firing at the enemy (or what they suspect is the enemy).

But all of this misses the most important point about using "observer training" to fire on suspected enemy positions: it does not work. Firing at unknown locations in the hopes of killing enemy based on scant intelligence does not work. In Afghanistan, our Army frequently protects itself with firepower, even though this makes us weak in the long run.

Sep 02

When General McChrystal took command of all international troops in Afghanistan last June, the rules of engagement became the hot new topic for politicos debating our policies in Afghanistan. Since General Petraeus replaced him, the number of pundits opining about policies “tying our Soldiers hands behind their backs” has only increased; Congress is contemplating legislation on this issue.

As a huge fan of both population-centric counter-insurgency and restrictive/tight Rules of Engagement, I have issues with these criticisms, which can be seen in some of my earliest posts at On Violence.

- In “Arcs of Fire”, I describe how our weapons are designed to saturate an area with lead and explosives, not the ideal weapon for a precision counter-insurgent.

- In “Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities”, I talk about a technique common during the Iraq war to avoid prosecution for possible war crime violation.

- In “Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires”, I take a common military tenet--overwhelming firepower leads to victory--and show that, in a counter-insurgency, it really doesn’t.

These early posts weren’t just about the rules of engagement; in many ways, they were more about good counter-insurgency. The rules are the same either way though, the principle behind them.

Particularly, my post on “dropped weapons” still strikes home. Even with great policies, Soldiers will try to figure out ways to game the system. Unless the know the principles behind the policy, the why behind their actions (which at times put them in very dangerous situations) they won’t do the right thing. Next week, I am going to talk about a tactic I saw in Afghanistan that skirts the rules of engagement.

Jul 14

On Monday, I described an ethical dilemma that supposedly shows how America’s extra-restrictive rules of engagement endanger our troops. Today I am going to debunk that story. (Click here to re-read it.) This hypothetical doesn’t prove that rules of engagement (ROE)--even really restrictive rules of engagement--are immoral or ineffective.

Monday’s story obscures the most important part of the story: the facts. The narrator barely describes the woman in question. Was she hysterical or calm? Was she screaming or quiet? Did she try to communicate to anyone in the platoon? She might seem like a spotter, but if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that our troops lack cultural awareness. They are even worse at trying to divine the intentions of locals who don’t speak English.

Yet the story was told to me with a certainty that is impossible to find through the fog of war.

Other facts are questionable as well. Where is the sniper exactly? If his fire is so accurate, why aren’t there more Marines casualties? Did the Marines have a time crunch? Was this a single operation or a larger battalion-sized mission? The point is we don’t know. And if we don’t know all the facts, the we have to question our conclusions.

To really go meta with this analysis, though, I need to explain why the facts are obscured. To do so, I am going to borrow from Eric C’s tool kit, and use literary criticism. Basically, we have a unreliable narrator, with a clear agenda: proving that ROE gets Soldiers killed. The best way to do this is to limit the options of the Marines to either kill, or be killed.

Like the last ethical dilemma I criticized, the Marines have more than two options. In fact, they have dozens. A Marine platoon has several different weapon systems to employ against a sniper, from machine guns to rifles to A-10 warthogs. They also have access to higher headquarters, and the additional resources they bring to the fight. The Marines could have maneuvered around the building or held their position until nightfall. They could have tried the back door. They could have waited until someone could spot the sniper. They could have tried to detain the woman, or at the very least, they could have tried to communicate with the woman.

But the narrator who wants to prove how bad ROE is will never give you ten options, he will make it a dilemma. This or that. Violate ROE, or be killed.

And this is a false dichotomy.