Monday, January 16, 2006

# Posted 12:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE BRITISH PERSPECTIVE ON IRAQ, PART II: Yesterday, the Post ran a sizable excerpt in its Outlook section from British general Nigel Aylwin-Foster's critique of American counterinsurgency efforts. Also, I thought it would be interesting to post the lead paragraph from Thomas Ricks' article on the Aylwin-Foster essay from Wednesday's WaPo:
A senior British officer has written a scathing critique of the U.S. Army and its performance in Iraq, accusing it of cultural ignorance, moralistic self-righteousness, unproductive micromanagement and unwarranted optimism there.

His publisher: the U.S. Army.
So it's not surprising that Aylwin-Foster's article has generated so much interest, even though he himself never says anything nearly as blunt as Ricks. Then again, Aylwin-Foster may have been thinking exactly what Ricks was writing, although he understood the importance of not antagonizing a military audience which he could expect to disagree with his opinions.

All together, you might say that it's a perfectly uncoordinated good cop-bad cop routine. As the Post points out, the Army chief of staff has said that he will distribute a copy of Aylwin-Foster's essay to every general in the Army. That wouldn't have happened if not for the WaPo. But it also wouldn't have happened if Aylwin-Foster's essay itself weren't so courteous.

(I didn't quote any of his courtesies in my previous post, but there are plenty of them even on the first page of the article.)

Also consider the following from lower down in Ricks' article:
"I think he's an insufferable British snob," said Col. Kevin Benson, commander of the Army's elite School of Advanced Military Studies, referring to Aylwin-Foster.
Col. Benson should watch his words, since journalists make quite a habit of implicitly attacking positions they oppose by showing that the position's advocates resort to ad hominem attacks instead of substantive debate.

It's quite a clever tactic, really. It involves quoting only those with whom one disagrees, so if the author is challenged, he can simply say that he was fulfilling his duty to air both sides of the debate.

Yet often, quoting an ad hominem attack stands in for quoting an intelligent one. In Ricks' article, there is one other criticism of Aylwin-Foster:
"I think he's overstating the case," said another military intellectual here, retired Col. Gregory Fontenot, who led U.S. forces into Bosnia in 1995. But he added, "whether he's right or wrong, what's important is that the Army understands it has a problem, which it does."
In other words, Aylwin-Foster is mostly right, but just slightly given to overstatement.

Now, I'm willing to guess that at least a few American officers disagree with Aylwin-Foster on substantive grounds. If a novice like myself could pick up a few flaws in Aylwin-Foster's logic, then surely a colonel or general who disagrees could do much better. Yet somehow, their opinions didn't make into print.
(2) opinions -- Add your opinion

One comment I would have is to sort the ranks out. A British Brigadier is not a general. He is a brigade commander, i.e. not a flag officer.

In the US Army, a brigade is commanded by a Colonel. The same rank as the critics you post, and with the same level of experience. So what you have is equivilent-rank officers from different services disagreeing with one another. That is not terribly surprising.

The confusion comes from the fact that in the US Army, we have a rank of Brigadier General. Brigadier Generals are in terms of duty postion one notch above a UK Brigadier. Each division has two of them as Assistant Division Commanders. They are generally (probably exclusively) former brigade commanders and rank between the brigade commanders and the Commanding General of the Division.

A second, less picky comment is that at this level officers tend to have their institutional biases well ingrained. The Brigadier criticizes the US chain of command for their institutional way of doing things. Maybe that is justified, but is anyone considering that the British Army has its own institutional biases?

One of these is well known enough to be stereotype. The British Army is a small (and under Blair, getting smaller), well-trained, but chronically ill-equipped and underfunded force with a proud history and a tendency to think very highly of themselves for their ability to overcome their underfunding through pluck and stiff upper lip. It breeds a certain confidence that strikes others as arrogance.

The Colonel's characterization of the Brigadier as a snob may or may not be justified, but the British Army critique of the US Army as over-reliant on technology isn't exactly original. It has been a more or less constant refrain since the days when every Tommy complained "over paid, over sexed, and over here." Go down to any Royal British Legion and I guarantee you will hear the same refrain from every rank, and every generation. You have to ask at what point does repeating your institution's ingrained conventional wisdom become insightful?
I think when that institutional prejudice is backed up with real-world experience and examples, as well as the reality on the ground. For instance, the dramatic increase in the use of airstrikes to fight the insurgency throughout the last year. No matter how precise, a 500-lb. bomb cannot do daily patrolling or maintain control of a neighborhood.

No matter what you think of Rumsfeld's attempt at RMA, I don't think anyone can say that the noises about coming troop cuts in favor of keeping weapons systems is anything but an indication of just how correct Aylwin-Foster is.

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