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Belmont Club

Burning the Steak

May 23rd, 2014 - 5:15 pm

Last fall I met up with an old friend in the security consulting business. We met for breakfast at an upscale hotel in the DC area. As he was having a second cup of coffee he leaned forward and said, “I’m going to say something crazy, but I can be frank with you.” He paused and added, “what we need is a new East India company.”

“Go on,” I said, mildly surprised.  And he continued in a lowered tone, but not without looking first to the left and right.

He went on to say that one of the problems in the US response to terror has been in the conduct of stabilization operations — the critical task of building up a country after the kinetic battles have been largely won.  These operations have been costly, prolonged and have largely failed. Billions of dollars spent on traditional aid approaches in Iraq and Afghanistan; and in countries changed by the ‘Arab Spring’ have yielded but little result. Often they have ended in abject disaster.

Part of the reason for the failure, he explained, was that ‘nation building’ is not a good approach in countries which are not nations, but tribes. The nation state is a modern, largely Western concept, the ideal to which many post-colonial countries are supposed to conform. But in reality the world is still very much a collection of tribes.  We can’t admit this, however, and continue to act as if Afghanistan were a Pashtun equivalent of Belgium and laws meant the same thing there as in Brussels.

Yet in some cases the tribal structure has been transformed by the imposition of a “Pax” — a peace imposed by an imperium, the best known of which were the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana.  Our methods for imposing the Pax were to use either of two idiotic methods. Either by using US Armed Forces for nation-building or employing United Nations and similar agencies for a similar purpose.  Nobody in his right mind would do this, but since those were the only two choices on the menu, they were givens.

However things were not always thus. A few hundred years ago the British Empire recognized that the best way to deal with tribal societies was not by imposing the nation-state structure on them but to take them as they were and to impose the Pax via the far more flexible structure of enterprise. This was possible through structures such as the British East India Company — a private company whose freedom of action far surpassed that of any modern bureaucrat. The officers of the Company actually became part of the social fabric of places India and acted to improve certain outcomes without direct reference to a ‘nation-state’ as such, limited only by British foreign policy and their ability to convince the inhabitants with whom they worked.

So what we needed was a new version of the old Company because that had a far bigger chance of working at stabilization than the methods to which we were currently wedded. I realized why he had looked both ways. His idea was so likely to work, so politically incorrect, so outre that one feared that the people in the neighboring tables might at any time spring up and denounce us for a thought crime.

The key, he went on to say in sotto voce,  was to allow such a Company to profit from stabilization. To align the incentives of the stabilization agent with the success of the country. The only people who could make Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan a success were those who were willing to make those countries rich.  The incentives of aid agencies, he said, were exactly the opposite; to keep the country poor so that the parade of victims would remain unabated and hence the fund-raising from the West would continue.

Now he’s really done it, I thought to myself. He wants to make the world better by using private enterprise. Even I looked from side to side.

“It all makes perfect sense,” I told him. “But you realize,” I added, “that this idea is so politically incorrect that we would do well to avoid being burned at the stake.” He snorted and asked for the bill.  And so it lay. That conversation lay dormant in my mind for months until I came across an article today in Time Magazine.  ”A General Writes the First After-Action Report on the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Why We Lost”.

Recently retired Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, who played key roles in Afghanistan and Iraq in his 35-year career, wasn’t coy when it came time to titling his upcoming book Why We Lost. …

“By next Memorial Day, who’s going to say that we won these two wars?” Bolger said in an interview Thursday. “We committed ourselves to counterinsurgency without having a real discussion between the military and civilian leadership, and the American population —’Hey, are you good with this? Do you want to stay here for 30 or 40 years like the Korean peninsula, or are you going to run out of energy?’ It’s obvious: we ran out of energy.”

The military fumbled the ball by not making clear how long it would take to prevail in both nations. “Once you get past that initial knockout shot, and decide you’re going to stay awhile, you’d better define ‘a while,’ because in counter-insurgency you’re talking decades,” Bolger says. “Neither [the Bush nor the Obama] Administration was going to do that, yet I was in a military that was planning for deployments forever, basically. An all-volunteer force made it easy to commit the military to a long-term operation because they were volunteers.” …

“They should have been limited incursions and [then] pull out — basically like Desert Storm,” he adds, referring to the 1991 Gulf War that forced Saddam Hussein’s forces out of neighboring Kuwait after an air campaign and 100-hour ground war. The U.S. wasn’t up to perpetual war, even post-9/11. “This enemy wasn’t amenable to the type of war we’re good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo.”…

Bolger said his views on the wars grew more sour during his three tours. “My guilt is not having earlier figured out what was going wrong, and making a more forceful case and working with my peer generals to make a better military recommendation,” he says. “What eats at me the most is the 80 dead people I had in my command over my three tours, that eats at me a hell of a lot.”

I realized at once that Bolger was talking about the same problem I had discussed over breakfast with my friend last fall. But whereas Bolger has only identified the problem, my friend had actually made a start on a solution.  My guess is that a lot of people in DC have had similarly blasphemous thoughts about stabilization operations but are even now looking over their shoulders to check if anyone is watching them read the Belmont Club because they too fear being burned at the stake.

Maybe Bolger’s book will bring the problem out in the open without starting a pyre of heretics.

As it happened, I spent 3 hours last night reading Hill 488, a nearly forgotten engagement of the Vietnam War. Sixteen guys with M-14s who held off the better part of 3 NVA companies over the course of a whole night. It brought home the fact that while American troops had won almost every tactical engagement in that conflict, it had failed in the end because the strategy in Washington was wrong.  The failure was strategic, rather than tactical.

This is even more true of Iraq and Afghanistan. The military almost never loses a fight, but the mission fails notwithstanding not because the tool fails to do its job but because it’s the wrong tool for the job. Bolger might well ask himself: “why did we lose”. But the answer is not his to give. That’s the point. The failure lies above his pay grade. It is Washington itself that must ask: is our strategy really rational?

And the answer is probably that even they know the strategy is irrational, but they stick to it as the only political course possible. It’s the old story of the drunk seeking his lost watch by the lamp-post. He didn’t lose it near the lamp-post but the lamp is the only place with light enough to look.  ”Losing” is the inevitable result of pursuing certain immutable agendas in which Washington and business have a deep vested interest.  It’s constrained. America can’t beat its foes without stepping on a lot of toes. In the end it is politically cheaper to “lose” rather than win.

And so the system chooses in effect, to lose, because winning cannot be put on the menu. As the world lurches towards a new era of uncertainty, there will be many proposals to buy new weapons, acquire whiz-bang technologies or invent gizmos as the answer. But these will be of only marginal value, because none of our failures have ever been tactical, they have always been strategic.

The key to victory lies in changing the politics of the thing. Our defeats are rooted in a lack of mental honesty and and a poverty imagination.  And that of course is a Hill 48,800. Too high to climb.

Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.

The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History
Hill 488
How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: 11 Rules for Winning the Argument
One Second After
The New Physics
Wilson Electronics Sleek 4G – Vehicle Cellular Signal Booster for Single User
To Lose a Battle: France 1940

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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Top Rated Comments   

Your breakfast companion, Richard, overlooks one salient fact. The British East India Company was dealing with rich old Maharajahs and not with a religious war of extermination against the West. We have not yet accepted this as fact, though most understand that it is so, deny it as they will. There is only one end to a religious war, and that is the extermination of one of the parties. At the moment only the Muslims understand this, and understanding it, prevail. What they don’t understand is that the West, specifically the United States, will not quietly and meekly acquiesce in its extermination, though acquiescence must seem inevitable to the Muslim religious warriors given the facts on the ground. They see their failures at Tour and Lepanto as temporary setbacks, and are determined to settle affairs with a weakened and weak willed West. The Muslim tide will roll in again, and they will be slaughtered, to lick their wounds for another thousand years.

We deal not with a rich old Maharajah
But Muslim zealots who will gladly die
Just for the chance to kill us as we sit there
Believing that the warning signs all lie
We choose the side that looks to be the winner
But while they kill each other they both know
The time will come when Infidels are slaughtered
And friendship with the West is just a show
But when it comes the ending will be Roman
We make a desert and we call it peace
And leave survivors shaken and despairing
And wondering if their deaths will ever cease
And yes I know some say I’m bloody minded
That we must understand why we’re all dead
But history has shown there’s but one answer
And that’s to fill their hearts with blood and dread

40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Even more basic than the strategic error is the PC belief that everybody are all just the same folks and that all cultures have the ability - indeed - the Right to be successful.

Boko Haram is the same as the Rotary Club; we just need to help them rewrite a few of their bylaws. The tribes of the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan are just as capable of running a modern country as are Americans. And here at home the poor are poor because they ain't got no money; pump enough bucks into the ghetto and they'll be upright respectable Middle Class with homes and manicured lawns - giving them a great deal or low interest mortgages will help that a lot.

The Elites tend to think that there are The Elites and then everybody else. And everybody else is the same, all over.

Failing to recognize that some people, and more importantly some cultures, have a natural ability to cross thread a bowling ball is the ultimate strategic failing.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Allen West describes what he learned about Benghazi.

"And I learned, as I presumed, that there was a covert weapons scheme going on in Libya, Benghazi. We had been supplying radical Islamists with weapons against Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, effectively supplying the enemy and destabilizing that country. And it seems that there was a CIA weapons buy-back program, the aim of which was to ship the retrieved weapons out of Libya through Turkey, and to the Islamist forces in Syria.

Benghazi and the operations in Libya are shrouded in a fog of lies, deceit, manipulation, threats, intimidation, coercion, abandonment, and worst of all, potentially treason.

No, it was not about a kidnapping scheme, it was about something, as I’ve stated, that will make Iran-Contra look like Romper Room. The web of lies spun is coming apart, and all other committee hearings on this matter should be shut down."

Well you would think that. It seemed the obvious explanation as those who've read know. It's not hard to guess.

But I wonder whether Obama's 'reconstruction and stabilization' efforts, his dalliance with the tribes over the backdoor, weren't some kind of perverse and mutant version of the East India Company idea.
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40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (70)
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First off, I love Belmont Club. Now, I may have missed it, but it seems none of the commenters here were actually in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was in Iraq, only twice, 2003-2004 and again in 2005. Gen. Bolger is reacting to the soldier losses he feels very strongly about.
Here is my take, we threw our chance to have a solid democracy in Iraq with our pullout under Obama, and we are about to do the same in Afghanistan. I think Austin Bay raised the issue of having a better set up for nation building that would have included State and other US gov't departments/agencies involved in the planning for reconstruction before any invasion.
My anger is at the Bush Admin clowns who sold the idea that reconstructing Iraq would be "relatively" easy, and that with enough techno gadgets we did not need a lot of ground troops. I was an Intell Analsyt in the Texas Army National Guard, I went Iraq with a Guard unit to porvide bodies to fill in gaps at the 82nd Division Rear HQ in Anbar. It was the Fall of 2003. My job was to prepare the briefing slides for the morning briefing foe a Division Rear CO, a Col waiting to pin on his Star. I do not think I am breaking security by saying that the "Significant Event" reports I read night after night had me thinking that we could fing gainful employment for another Division just in Anbar. Also, Sadr's name and his organization showed up very often on reports from down south. My point is that we did not go in with enough troops to police and control Iraq.
One more point, I have noticed that commenters and some pundits here, like Mr. Goldman tend to write of Arabs, and other foreigners, as if they were not quite real people. I have read a fair number of "Bomb them to Stone Age" and "Let them all die" themed comments. I had, admittedly limited, contact with Iraqis while in country and then a bit more back here in the US after my retirement when working for about a year and a half as a "Civilian on the Battlefield: roleplayer training troops here at Ft Hood. Guess what? They are real people, and so are their children.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well said.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
GRRRR! Sorry for the typos! Rifle 308.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Colin Powell idea that I think he called the Pottery Barn Pronciple--"You broke it, you bought it," always seemed idiotic.

Afghan should have been a punitive expedition. Go in, clean 'em out, kill a bunch of bad guys, set up some half-plausible fellows (Northern Alliance?) and leave, making it clear that we don't care what you do as long as no more hostile acts come form your country to ours. And if they do, we'll be back and do it all over again, starting with you.

Nation building where there's never been a nation is a chump's game.

Or, we need a Colonial Office and Service, and a generational comitment. Yeah, right.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Understand the Company analogy is not to be taken literally. But.
There were no non-profits in Britain funded by the maharajahs politicking against the company. There were no organized political groups dedicated to opposing the ultimate result.
There was plenty of belief that what the locals did to each other as a matter of business was worse than that which Company troops and police did. So the manufactured outrage at the treatment of the indiges did not appear.
The company army was big and well-equipped, made up of locals recruited from the fighting tribes, and some white regiments fighting with the company, backed up by--depending on the era--a small, or a non-existent, British army presence. There were no foreign elements funding the resistance.
That said, the charitable, non-racist view of the conservatives was that, given an election, jeffersonian, New England town-meeting democracy would inevitably follow. The racists were right. The wogs aren't ready for democracy.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
One characteristic shared by the English, Dutch, Portuguese, and French mercantilists was a profound sense of cultural superiority. Note: I did not write "racial superiority" - that would come later as an excuse for the abuses of the insatiable African slave trade.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The English and Dutch both supported such monopolies until 3-4 unintended wars made the cost prohibitive. It was great while it lasted, though.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Reading this thread I would observe that the most taboo term of all is


Those who wish to be a part of the Civilized World observe Natural Law.

Boku Haram is a part of the uncivilized world. The black Nigerian "vigilantes' are a part of the Civilized World.

Natural Law is the codification of unalienable rights.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ——"

Dealing with them takes the courage of a Harry Potter, who dared to speak the name "Voldemort" out loud, instead of "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named".

40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
60 Minutes did a segment on The Pope.

They got this reply:

"Why do you promote religion?"
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
From 2/69 to 9/70 I served with 3/82 Arty; 196 LIB. We served in the area of Hill 488. Specifically I was on LZ Center, LZ West, Tien Phouc, LZ East, and Kham Duc. LZ East was also overrun on 11 June 1969. My section had been moved from there the previous month.

The area was breathtakingly beautiful with the mountains and terraced paddies.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Best to you sir, on this Memorial Day.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Constitution grants Congress the power to grant letters of marque and reprisal. Congress has chartered corporations, too (TVA, Amtrak, etc., link:

There must be a penumbra somewhere that would allow such a thing?
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dust off whatever paper FDR's pettifoggers used to enable the AVG, Lend - Lease the soon-to-be-scrapped A-10's and their supply train to Poland and India. 0's pen shouldn't raise any umbrage over that, right ?
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Pat Caddell on Congress, Consultants, Cronyism, and Corruption in DC
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The central problem with both Iraq and Afghanistan was the fact that after the organized military opposition was crushed (within a very short time in both places) we did not act as conquerors, but rather as "liberators," which in retrospect was foolish nonsense. Our troops were forced to act as dim witted social workers rather than soldiers. We were more concerned with the feelings and self-esteem of the native populations than with the lives and safety of our own people.

How NOT to run things:

Forbid your troops from engaging organized resistance because they're holed up in a mosque. Don't fire back. Don't call in airstrikes. Negotiate with them.

Forbid your troops from being seen eating in the daytime during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Cater to them. Don't make them angry. Be sensitive to their culture. Show your subservience.

How to do Things:

The British pretty well stomped out the practice of Suttee in India. When members of the higher Hindu castes died their bodies were burned on funeral pyres. If their wife survived them, she was thrown (alive) on the burning pyre as well. According to one story the British built a gallows near the site of a funeral and were present at the ceremony. An Indian protested, saying that the practice was their custom. A British officer is said to have responded "And it is the custom of my people to hang any man that burns a woman alive." The widow was spared.

40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Forbid your troops from engaging organized resistance because they're holed up in a mosque. Don't fire back. Don't call in airstrikes. Negotiate with them."

The ROE, and willingness to sacrifice our troops were criminal.
When a young Marine was sacrificed in a 7 hour gunfight with a lone sniper in a Mosque, instead of calling in a Blackhawk, I checked out.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
New feature at PJM:

I just accidentally clicked "like" on one of my posts and it got counted!

I should pull a Harry Reid, not tell, and have different rules for me than the Rabble here.

Can it be fixed, or are the webbies as broken as DC?
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Pardon the OT, but re:

UPDATE: 7 Dead in drive-by near UC Santa Barbara...
Killer details murderous intentions in chilling video...
Claims to be virgin rejected for years...
'I will slaughter every single blonde s**t I see'...
'Day of retribution'...
Gunman Son of 'HUNGER GAMES' Assistant Director...
driving a BMW 3 series...

10 or 15 years ago another Hollywood rich kid drove his (parent provided) car through a crowd of kids in Isla Vista.
Apparently this criminal employed his BMW 3 for that purpose a couple of times, also.
When I first started listening to podcasts from LA, I was astounded at the amount of drugs and level of decadence everywhere.
Now I'm just saddened.

I guess I could have paid to watch a movie or two and learned the same lessons while supporting their sickness. I didn't.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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