June 2nd 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Greens: the political equivalent of bilgewater

EDITORIAL Malaysian election sends shockwaves across South-East Asia

GENDER AND SPORT Transgender playing in women's football league gains attention

CANBERRA OBSERVED Beyond tomorrow a bridge too far for politicians to plan

ENERGY Why renewables destabilise the power grid

LAW AND FREEDOM Exemptions: at issue with Dr Zimmermann

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Behind the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Two to tango: Where to now for U.S. and China?

LIFE ISSUES So, is this not pro-life?

POLITICS AND CULTURE The West won the world but may lose its soul

MILITARY BIOGRAPHY Commanders: the men who resolve questions of life and death


MUSIC Eurovision: Wailing and gnashing of teeth

CINEMA Superhero movies: A Chestertonian consideration

BOOK REVIEW A man for all seasons and hemispheres

BOOK REVIEW Mid-century gem of Catholic fiction



ECONOMICS Vatican document nails some of the causes of the GFC

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Commanders: the men who resolve questions of life and death

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, June 2, 2018

Human beings are by nature gregarious. That means that they form groups. Then these groups form hierarchies.

Military power wins battles, but spiritual power wins wars.

U.S. Army General George C. Marshall

Social anthropologists found long ago that group formation and hierarchical structures are two halves of the same coin. It doesn’t matter whether the group is a football team or a group of world leaders at the G20. Group structures will emerge. We are gregarious because we are fond of company. Humans are social beings. Hierarchies are ranked by reference to status and authority. This insight is the basis of contemporary counter­insurgency warfare theory, as demonstrated by Australia’s David Kilcullen.

Some organisations have a formal hierarchical structure, such as military forces. An organisation like the Catholic Church may have a hierarchical structure, but within that structure, the hierarchy is constrained by formal and informal precepts.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has only one general secretary, but within the totalitarian CCP there are many factions, based on ethnicity, territory, economic interests and so on. Terrorist groups have a hierarchical structure, but they may be spread over a variety of nations, and regions within those nations. Killing Col. Sanders would not put KFC out of business, nor did killing Osama bin-Laden put an end to al Qaeda.

General Stanley McChrystal

It is thus somewhat surprising that David Kilcullen’s concept of Disaggregation, as outlined in Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State (Quarterly Essay, Issue 58, 2015), caused so much controversy. Kilcullen is a former Colonel in the Australian Army who specialises in counter-insurgency warfare.

The usual theory of asymmetrical warfare is that combat is restricted to one theatre. Kilcullen’s insight is that contemporary terrorist groups are hierarchically organised with multinational structures. “These regional and global players prey upon, link and exploit local actors that are pre-existing” (p7).

To attack these multinational groups, one must first decapitate the organisation, and then clean out its tentacles. For example, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the reclusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claimed to be Caliph, which means he was the leader of all Muslims. The last Caliphate ended in 1924, when the Sultan of Turkey was deposed. Muslim insurgents in the large southern Philippine island of Mindanao acknowledge the Caliphate, recharging the Muslim rebellion there, which had been quiet in recent years.

This could alter the strategic balance in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Baghdadi is apparently still alive; we don’t know for certain. The assassination of Osama bin-Laden in May 2011 by U.S. Navy SEALS was a blow to al Qaeda, but it regrouped.

Kilcullen did not see the necessity of the Second Gulf War. As he points out, al Qaeda was not established in Iraq before the intervention of the coalition led by the United States, and no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were ever found in Iraq. The people whom Saddam Hussein abused were his own countrymen, whom he cowed into submission. Kilcullen worked in the U.S. State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and advised NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The man brought in to clear up the mess in Iraq and later Afghanistan was General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal, like many other American fighting men, was of Scots-Irish descent. He was a West Point graduate, though he was known as a goat for his insubordination. Goats usually come from the bottom of the class, though McChrystal was actually a surprisingly good student.

His autobiography, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (Penguin, 2014), outlines how he crafted a strategy to deter the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan with military intelligence and targeted operations against senior guerilla leaders. When threatened, Afghani insurgent leaders often slipped across the border into Pakistan, which was an “active sanctuary”. With the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as “drones”, such fugitives did not always find the sanctuary they sought.

It is said that President Obama personally approved drone missions. No one could ever be sure which side the Pakistanis were backing, although they were formally U.S. allies.

McChrystal had a background as an officer in Special Forces. It is unusual for someone with a leadership role as an Airborne Ranger to be given command of a theatre of conflict, and even more unusual for a Special Forces officer to be appointed a four-star general.

McChrystal made significant progress in reining in the insurgency in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is not known as the Graveyard of Empires for nothing. The British could never control Afghanistan. The disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan bled the USSR to death. McChrystal studied the Soviet experience, and decided you could not bomb Afghanistan “back to the Stone Age” and win the confidence of the people. Indeed, his “light touch” methods and restrictive “rules of engagement” made him unpopular with his troops on the ground. McChrystal shunned Soviet- style carpet-bombing.

Stanley McChrystal was a soldier and a scholar. He thought like a soldier. He trusted his staff. Unfortunately for him, he also trusted Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist attached to Rolling Stone magazine. Rolling Stone is aimed at twenty-somethings. Anyone much past that age would be likely to find its front-page features on Lady Gaga and other such celebrities an insult to their intelligence.

But McChrystal and his team trusted Hastings, naturally thinking he would not betray their confidences, but “The Runaway General” (Rolling Stone, July 8, 2010) did just that. Hastings couldn’t believe his luck.

McChrystal did not end up on the cover of Rolling Stone, but Hastings’ article created a political earthquake nevertheless. President Barack Obama never pretended to like soldiers, and when he read McChrystal’s candid comments, he sacked him; or, to be correct “McChrystal offered his resignation”.

Michael Hastings’ book of this incident, The Operators (Orion, 2012), goes into McChrystal’s actions and the war in Afghanistan in some depth. Hastings says that Chrystal’s replacement in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, “is politics” (p325). McChrystal, however, was a warrior, not a politician.

Whether you support him or not, President Barack Obama was a significant president. He did not start any wars but he did withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He was always conscious of his anti-war base.

McChrystal was a soldier’s soldier. He didn’t care much for politicians, of whatever stripe, although he is a Democrat by persuasion.

Strategists will study his unique fusion of intelligence and operations long after he is gone. McChrystal wanted to cut off the insurgents’ head and tentacles but he “met the enemy and he is us”.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm