Near East Policy; Air power and Asymmetric War

View 839 Saturday, August 23, 2014

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009


The California Sixth Grade Reader (1914 edition) continues to sell steadily, if not quite as well as I’d like.  I am looking into arrangement for a Print on Demand print edition; it’s a big book, with a lot of words, but it’s apparently manageable. Meanwhile the Kindle edition continues to get decent sales and reviews, and many families are reading it together. adults and children alike.  At one time books like this united America in that we all had a large common background of stories and literature.  Some of the stories are “hard’,  but one of the joys of life is the discovery that it is worth all the work you have to put into learning to read good books and stories.

Various wars continue in the Middle East, and along the Russian/Ukrainian border, which is conventionally the “border” between Europe and Asia, or at least very near to it. That in itself says a lot about the proper US response to it. Our first President warned us not to make entangling alliances – NATO is a good example – and not to become involved in the territorial disputes of Europe. He was right on both counts. We needed and alliance with France to become independent; it is highly unlikely that we could have won independence without that alliance, and the resulting French Royal Army regulars (and at least as importantly the French Royal Navy) in the Yorktown campaign. That did not mean that we should make a permanent alliance with France. Indeed, by the time the United States was a functioning entity, the France we might have allied with was no more, and while Jefferson and Paine had enthusiasm for the French Revolution, the other Founders saw further.

We made no enduring alliances, and thus avoided most of the Napoleonic wars that redrew the map of Europe. We managed to endure the War of 1812, and Andrew Jackson turned what had been a humiliation into something more triumphal with his defeat of Wellington’s Regulars at New Orleans. And from all that experience John Adams boiled it down to:

And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….

America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.

Which does not mean that we will not go forth and destroy monsters who threaten our liberty. It does not mean that there are no just causes for war far from our borders. There is still substance to the notion that it’s better to fight them in the Philippines than California. And some conflicts are over more than territorial boundaries in Europe.

As Peggy Noonan notes well in today’s Wall Street Journal Column “A New Kind of Terrorist Threat”,

The question "What should we do about ISIS?" is not the same as the question "Do we want to go back to Iraq?" One is about facing up to an extreme and immediate challenge, which we have to do. The other is about returning to an old experience, which almost no one wants to do.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is not just a grandiose army of freelancers and fanatics. They’re something different in kind from the al Qaeda of old—more vicious, more organized and professional. George Packer in the New Yorker estimates ISIS controls 35,000 square miles of land. "The self-proclaimed Caliphate stretches from the newly conquered towns along the Syrian-Turkish border," through northern Syria, across the Iraqi border, "down to the farming towns south of Baghdad." ISIS funds its operations not like primitives but sophisticates: They sell oil and electricity and empty banks in the areas they seize. (A CNN report put their haul from the oil fields alone at $2 million a day.) They also make money from kidnappings and what they call taxation. Mr. Packer quotes a former Pentagon official: "ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations."

We can’t ignore the Caliphate. It has declared war on us, and it has made its intent clear; and now is the best time to put paid to that. We have a stable ally in place, so we do not need any large expeditionary force. Our contribution is logistic and supply – and very high technology military action. It is the perfect place for this, as was our original intervention in Afghanistan before we were gulled into the notion of bringing about the end of history through the progressive wave of liberal democracy sweeping the earth. That was a delusion, and we were smacked down for having it.

Eliminating the Caliphate is a matter of arming allies and killing enemies, and we have the capability to do both. We should get to it.


Continuing the discussion on air power in the modern world


We don’t need an Army Air Force. We just need AF and Army missions which are properly coordinated and have the right tools for the job.

It doesn’t matter what the paint on the side says. All that counts is the job being done, and that’s a function of the command chain.

The cost of a USAAF would be prohibitive. Giving the Army helos makes sense, because it’s easy to build heliports. It’s not so easy to build airfields suitable for advanced aircraft, and the Air Force is already tasked with that.

Other costs of the USAAF would be pilot selection and training — jobs also already being done by the Air Force. It’s not until training is well under way that pilots are assigned to the Wide World of Warthogs, and this comes as one of a number of potential career paths. A USAAF would offer only air-to-mud, which isn’t the right fit for a lot of the pool of potential recruits.

Sure, the USAAF could possible draw from the AF training channel (as the Marines draw from the Naviators), but, what would make it worth the cost?

Having known a few Warthog pilots, I have never detected the slightest lack of enthusiasm on their part for the air-to-ground tasking. They have a saying: "It doesn’t matter how well you sweep the skies if you come back to base and find the enemy tank commander hosting lunch in the Officer’s Club." Yet not one has ever said they wished that they were in the Army. Thus, the esprit de corps of a USAAF might not be appreciably different from that among the A-10 squadrons — but if anything, I predict that it would be LOWER. A Warthog pilot knows that he has a promotion path that can put him or her in command of everything that the Air Force has, while a pilot in the USAAF that you envision would be forever in the air-to-ground environment. To put it into computer terms, this would be comparable to requiring a techie to only work on Windows-based computers for his entire career, no matter how much he wants to get into other architectures.

Given all of the above, the really is no point to giving high-capability fixed-wing back to the Army.


I thoroughly disagree. I have watched the Air Force decisions for fifty years, and they have always been in favor of the Independent Air Force rather than the interests of the United States. The Air Force has good doctrines for winning and keeping air superiority (including refusing to believe in “air superiority”: the goal is air supremacy), and needs to control the means for doing this. The Army does have strategists who understand the importance of the air arm in combat – Patton was one – but Clark Gable’s magnificent speech in the movie Command Decision – which if you have never seen, you really need to see – has a lot of truth in it.

But the Air Force has always treated support of the Field Army as a secondary goal, and this simply will not do. Air supremacy doesn’t win wars and territories. You can fly over the land, you can bomb the land, you can make it uninhabitable, but it’s not yours until you can stand a 19 year old with a rifle on it. Promotion paths in both Army and Air Force for tactical operations pilots and crews have always been a problem. A good P-47 close support pilot in 1944 was enormously valuable to the war effort, but not necessarily very good at anything else. The Air Force understood that Air supremacy was key to victory; good close support pilots weren’t part of that. The promotions went to those who were fanatic on Air Force independence. They still do. Yet the tactical support mission remains a key element of war, particularly in these asymmetric wars we find ourselves in.

I don’t much care about esprit de corps. I do care that those given the tactical mission understand its importance, and are subordinate to those who control the battlefield. It’s part of the principle of the unity of command.

But it is not at the operations level that the problem lies. The Air Force will never have close support enthusiasts in its higher echelons because they never will get there; and when it comes to allocations resources, the Warthogs will have the short end every time. An Army that has to support both tanks and Warthogs will learn quickly which is useful where.

I do understand some of the logistics problems. The USAF is the world’s largest employer of civil engineers, and has to build tactical air bases from scratch – but in short times again, that takes away from other activities more critical to the air supremacy mission. There are many other complexities like that. But in this era of asymmetric war, when two squadrons of Warthogs properly handled with good air coordinator Rangers working with the local forces could effectively wipe out the Caliphate — except we don’;t have any way to deploy two squadrons of Warthogs to Iraqi Kurdistan, and put them under the control of Rangers, do we?

For now we will have to make do, and we had better get to it fast before the Caliphate has a chance to dig in and build infrastructure (as for example tunnels). But we need to think forward because this isn’t the last of the asymmetric war. We still have monsters to destroy even though we do not go abroad seeking them; and we need to do it with the fewest Legions possible.

Since the Air Force apparently still fears the ghost of Billy Mitchell will come back to haunt them if they let the Army have ground attack aircraft, why not give ground troops to the Air Force? I propose the creation of a United States Airborne Corps, which would work with the Air Force in the same manner as the Marines do the Navy. The Navy and Air Force would divide the expeditionary mission between them, leaving the Army to focus on heavy, sustained mechanized combat (which is what it really wants to do anyway). Everybody’s happy, and the jobs get done.

John Stephens

You propose a new kind of Legionary Expedition Force. The Marines want that role also.


On the reliability of alliances:

You write "The Kurds have a good reputation for keeping their promises".

Ah, no, they haven’t, not in that part of the world at least (disclaimer: I was a child in Iraq in the ’50s, and my father later told me much of the background, while my mother passed on the horror story she had heard from our Armenian nanny’s own infancy, which I will not repeat). I recently posted the following as a reply to someone else’s blog that was suggesting they were pro-American, and it will serve for this:-

The Kurds are not pro-American. The Kurds are for the Kurds. Far from "the Kurds, unlike Barack Obama, do not forget their friends", just about everyone in that part of the world "has learned that there is no more treacherous and unreliable ally" than the Kurds. If you don’t believe me, read up about the long career of Mustapha Barzani, one of their leaders [addendum: he switched back and forth between every side there was to help the Kurds, betraying each that he deserted, and his son is notable now], and recall that the Kurds were at the cutting edge of the Armenian genocide (guess who got the Armenian land).

Almost the only exception was Saladin, who was detribalised.

Yours sincerely,


I understand that the Kurds – descendants of the Medes as in Medes and Persians – have been to some extent Arabized, but then they have had to deal with them as allies. I don’t mean that we should make any long time alliance with them; I do say that they deserve our support at this time, and a strong and independent Kurdistan in North Iraq with her own revenue sources would be a far better outcome to the Iraqi adventures than any other likely event. Kurdish interests and our interests in the region coincide, and the one thing the Kurds have not been known for is religious fervor. As to Saladin, he became “the Light of the World” but the center of that power was his Kurdish bodyguard which helped him unite the other factions – as bitterly opposed in the time of Coeur de Lion as now.


Iraq, ISIL, Historical Context

Dr. Pournelle,

I greatly enjoy reading your site, including its many contributors. Recently I read an article which corresponds nicely with much material that you have mentioned.

This article is a useful corrective to much media coverage lately about the disasters being visited upon Iraq by ISIL. The writer points out that these behaviors have been seen in Islam since the time of Mohammed. They happened in Iraq (to Yazidi’s, Christians, and any other people judged to be insufficiently "Muslim") even during the time of our vaunted "surge" when U.S. troop levels were high. However, the really interesting thing that I have NOT seen reported before is that according to the testimony of some of these people, the ISIL is not their worst enemy. Their worst enemies are their own neighbors. And lastly, 81.5% of the Mosul population was HAPPY that the ISIL and other insurgents took over the city; they felt safer.

Based on this, I see no productive, worthwhile way for us to be involved over there, except in providing aid to any group which supports freedom and the right of liberty and religion for all peoples. The Kurds currently seem to do that more than most others over there.


Quoted from the end of the linked article:

Dr. Munqith M. Dagher, is a bona-fide Iraqi pollster. His polling organization, IIACSS, Iraq, during June 2008, following â€more than two years of testing, monitoring and evaluation€ of its research practices, was recognized as a full member of the Gallup International Association. Dr. Dagher was kind enough to send me a recent slide presentation he put together, entitled, “ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] in Iraq: A disease or just the symptoms? A public opinion analysis.” His presentation, made soon after Mosul fell, included these sobering data (verbatim) which underscored that the violent changes in Mosul were wrought by an indigenous, broad-based Sunni insurgency:

The population of Mosul is around 2,000,000. Most of them are Arab Sunni.

Total number of security forces in Mosul was between 120,000 to 150,000 armed with light, medium and heavy weapons including tanks and air force.

Who is Fighting in Mosul and the Sunni Areas of Iraq?

10-20% ISIL; Several Iraqi armed groups with full coordination on the ground:

1- Baathist (6 different groups including former Iraqi army officers under the name of Jihad and Liberty Front).

2- Moderate Islamist [note: whatever that means!]

3- Tribal rebels

Dagher concluded, with understatement, “IS/IL benefited from the wide, strong dissatisfaction among Sunnis.” Most striking, were data from 200 telephone interviews of Mosul residents conducted in the period of June 19-21, 2014, i.e., after the city had come under control by the Sunni insurgents, including the jihad terror organization ISIL. Two key sentiments were apparent in the immediate aftermath of the Sunni takeover, as revealed by Dagher’s polling data:

81.5% of Mosul’s predominantly Sunni residents felt more secure after the Sunni insurgents seized control of the city; they overwhelmingly rejected—i.e., 84.5% — U.S. involvement with the (longstanding Iranian proxy) Maliki government to repulse the Sunni insurgents, including ISIL.

Dagher’s hard data—combined with the independent testimonies of Yazidi and Christian survivors of this Sunni jihad—put the lie to another false notion promulgated by mainstream conservatives: that the bloody exploits against the Yazidi and Christian minorities of northern Iraq were somehow committed solely by IS/IL “extremists” in the absence of widespread Sunni Muslim support. Both Yazidi and Christian refugees from these jihad depredations have explained how local Sunni Muslims, their erstwhile “neighbors,” not only aided and abetted IS/IL, but were more responsible for killings, other atrocities, and expulsions than the “foreign” invading jihadists. For example, Sabah Hajji Hassan, a 68-year-old Yazidi, lamented,

The (non-Iraqi) jihadists were Afghans, Bosnians, Arabs and even Americans and British fighters. But the worst killings came from the people living among us, our (Sunni) Muslim neighbors. The Metwet, Khawata and Kejala tribes€”they were all our neighbors. But they joined the IS [Islamic State; ISIL], took heavy weapons from them, and informed on who was Yazidi and who was not. Our neighbors made the IS takeover possible.

Jamal Jamir, a 23-year-old Yazidi university student from Sinjar, told CNN that following IS/IL’s arrival in his town, his Arab neighbors turned on the minorities and assisted in the killings

â€They join them, and actually they kill us.

“People you know?” CNN asked.

Yes, he responded. People our neighbors!

Another confirmatory account was reported by Der Spiegel, which revealed how refugee Yazidis

described Muslim neighbors,

…who suddenly became turned into their enemies, becoming accomplices to the IS. This attack, it appears, followed a pattern established in previous offenses. First, a discrete network of informants was established over a long period of time, including Arabs from surrounding villages, Turkmens and even some Kurds.

The Yazidi observations independently validated this prior, concordant assessment (video here) by a Christian refugee from Mosul:

[Unnamed Christian refugee]: We left Mosul because ISIL came to the city. The [Sunni] people of Mosul embraced ISIS and drove the Christians out of the city. When ISIS entered Mosul, the people hailed them and drove out the Christians. Why did they expel just the Christians from Mosul? There are many sects in Mosul. Why just the Christians? This is nothing new. Even before, the Christians could not go anywhere. The Christians have faced threats of murder, kidnapping, jizya [deliberately humiliating poll-tax, per Koran 9:29, imposed upon non-Muslim Jews/Christians/Zoroastrians, vanquished by jihad, along with a slew of other sacralized debasing regulations] This is nothing new. […] I was told to leave Mosul. They said that this was a Muslim country, not a Christian one. I am being very honest. They said that this land belongs to Islam and that Christians should not live there.

[Interviewer]: Who told you that?

[Christian refugee]: The people who embraced ISIS, the people who lived there with us¦

[Interviewer]: Your neighbors?

[Christian refugee]: Yes, my neighbors. Our neighbors and other people threatened us


Dr. Pournelle;

Rambling? For those of us who are about 20 years behind you… I would argue against your interpretation of your reminiscence. In my opinion you are presenting an oral history that conveys the details of our common history. I, for one, am interested in your "ramblings and would respectfully request that you carry on.


I find it frustrating that for the larger issues which we are all concerned about, there is not much we can do. But the myriad of small actions we can take daily are essential in keeping our civilization functioning. So I very much liked your ramble about your orioles. Keep on rambling


More data:

"Icelandic Met Office has moved the warning level for air traffic up to Orange level…GPS measurement have confirmed magma movements inside Bárðarbunga volcano and this movement is fast."

This means that the quakes are harmonic tremors indicating magma movement into the chamber, and the movement is "migrating to the north-east over the past 10 to 18 hours… Earthquake activity in other parts of Bárðarbunga have quieted down for the moment, that *might* change without warning."

Stephanie Osborn

Interstellar Woman of Mystery <>



Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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