Category All Things DC

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

[Book Review] I kept bumping into excerpts from this book while I was in grad school, but just recently got around to reading the whole thing.

While I know nothing about COIN aside from what I read in grad school and gleaned from working with sundry folks overseas, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife certainly seems like a helluva sensible book – and not just on Vietnam or for historians, but for anyone interested in the performance of the U.S. and British armies, past, present, and future.

The author, John A. Nagl (retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel), examines the performance of the British Army in Malaya and the U.S. Army in Vietnam to gauge how effectively each organization learned and adapted to fighting a counter insurgency. The Brits come off rather well, having won their fight against communist guerrillas in what became Malaysia. The U.S. Army comes off much worse, appearing bureaucratic, ossified, and unable to change or adapt, even when ordered to change by higher-ups or shown how to adapt by junior officers.

Not just a historical examination, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife provides guidelines for helping any organization: bureaucratic, military, or otherwise; learn, adapt, and succeed when confronted by unexpected challenges. Pity this advice wasn’t better known or heeded in DC back in the aughts.

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Amtrak’s DC to Orlando Auto Train

UPDATE (29 JAN 2014): Skipped the Auto Train this year and tried the Miami to NYC ‘Silver Meteor’. While slower than the Auto Train, thanks to many more stops, Amtrak’s Silver Service trains go beyond the Orlando and DC only destinations of the Auto Train, making things more convenient for traveling outside those two areas – though without the benefits of carrying your car.

UPDATE (2 JAN 2013): I tried the Auto Train once again this holiday season and found it much the same – the convenience, relaxation, pleasure at avoiding both I95 and the airports, all were just as enjoyable as last year. The restrooms can get a little gamey after a few hours, but still a solid way to get to/from Florida.

While not as classy as the City of New Orleans between Chicago and the Big Easy, Amtrak’s DC-Orlando Auto Train is convenient as hell for getting you and your car to/from Florida. You drive up to the station, hand your keys to an attendant, grab the stuff (change of clothes, toiletries, booze) you want to take on the train, then walk inside the station and prepare to board.

                                                       
Vehicles load onto Amtrak car carrier – Images courtesy Amtrak

Once you drop off your vehicle (anything from a motorcycle to an SUV), an attendant will drive it onto an enclosed car carrier. This will be the last you see of your vehicle until arrival, so be sure and get everything out of it you want on the train.

Once inside the station, you wait in line to pick up your boarding pass and schedule dinner in the dining car – with nearly 500 people on the train, the evening meal is served on a rotation. And the dining car attendants do not take kindly to anyone arriving late or dallying through a meal.

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NYT’s Kristof in Iran

New York Time’s columnist Nicholas Kristof recently spent some time in Iran and posted some interesting columns (including videos) on the trip: Hugs From Iran, Pinched and Griping in Iran, In Iran, They Want Fun, Fun, Fun, and Not-So-Crazy in Tehran.

He was able to travel without a guide, which I envy. While I learned a lot from Professor, my guide during my trip, some of the most interesting experiences in the country happened when I was alone. I’m curious what else Kristof was able to come away with that he couldn’t/didn’t fit into his writings and videos.

I was most heartened by his final take, “We can’t do much to nurture progress in Iran, but promoting Internet freedom, shortwave news broadcasts and satellite television all would help. A war would hurt. [...] Iran looks childish when it calls America the ‘Great Satan’ or blusters ‘Death to America.’ Let’s not bluster back or operate on caricatures. And let’s not choose bombs over sanctions and undercut the many Iranians who are chipping away at hard-line rule in tiny ways — even by flashing their hair.”

This was not so far off from my take in 2006, of Persians as a group of people that loved their country but hated their government – so long as no one attacked it. Iran is one of the few places I’ve traveled where most people, especially the young and educated, seem to genuinely like Americans. Given time and appropriate encouragement, this will help further U.S. interests far more than bombing Natanz.

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Pyongyang adds new Kim Jong-il statue to skyline

In less time than it takes DC to repair an escalator, North Korea added a giant new statue of Kim Jong-il to a hill overlooking Pyongyang. Shown here (image courtesy the Washington Post), is the new statue of Kim, apparently built since his death in December, standing next to the statue of his father that has long overlooked the Pyongyang skyline.

I’ve been to the monument and stood at the foot of the older Kim Il-sung statue and can attest that pictures do them no justice.

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North Korean Missile Launch

A couple of thoughts on North Korea’s recent missile launch:

1. Rather than a sign of the North being up to its old tricks, agreeing with the U.S. one minute, then ‘crazily’ breaking the agreement in order to launch a missile the next, the confusion is likely a sign of factional struggle and lack of clear leadership in Pyongyang. One silo group, more technocratic and concerned with food shortages, pushed for the food aid agreement with the U.S. and got it. Another group, more military and ideological, pushed for the test, regardless of any agreement. This group also got what it wanted. A lack of clear guidance from the top allowed the second group to cancel out the work of the first. A sign of new, confused leadership still trying to navigate (rather than manage or dictate to) the various entrenched factions of NK’s government, not a sign of craziness or some nefarious plot to make the U.S. look bad.

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North Korea Continues to Expand Cyber Capabilities; Cheap, Domestic Alternative to Buying Weapons from China, Russia

Partly for work, partly for personal interest, I’ve been following reports on North Korea’s efforts in cyberspace, including a cyber-attack on Korea University, an attack on the South’s agriculture bank and cooperative, Nonghyup, and speculation that Kim Jeong-Eun was behind at least some of the cyber attacks prior to taking over the country in December upon the death of his father.

U.S. defense officials are also tracking North Korea’s cyber activities, saying in testimony on Capitol Hill today that the North has added “sophisticated cyber attack capabilities” that mark “a skilled team of hackers” as the newest addition to North Korea’s arsenal.

Given the limited ability to definitively trace and prove the origin of cyber attacks, I’m not sure how these new capabilities fit in with the North’s unique method of international relations. A method whereby the North intentionally creates and escalates international tension, before trading away a reduction in those tensions in return for aid from China, South Korea, and elsewhere. If cyber attacks can’t be traced to the North, how can the North use them as a bargaining chip?

Instead, the new cyber capabilities appear to be exactly what they were called on the Hill today – military weapons. The North will likely continue to expand and hone its cyber capabilities, including attacks on outside countries, viewing them as a cheap, domestically-produced alternative to weapons purchased from Russia or China. A weapon capable of use with far less backlash, or evidence, than shelling South Korean islands or torpedoing South Korean warships. These new cyber assets are less about generating aid than about improving military capabilities in a cost-effective, easily testable, relatively safe manner.

After all, which is easier, cheaper, and offers less potential blowback – building and testing a missile that can threaten the U.S., or developing a cyber capability that can accomplish the same thing?

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The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda

[Book Review] Leaves the reader angry, frustrated, and fed up. Not however, because the book is bad, precisely because it is so clear, detailed, and powerful, making the best case I’ve seen yet for why torture doesn’t work and the U.S. shouldn’t be doing it.

The book was written by Ali Soufan, one of the FBI’s former top Arabic interrogators, one seemingly involved in every investigation from the East African embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, to 9/11, Gitmo, and beyond. As the book progresses, you can feel the steady increase in the author’s frustration and tension with the bureaucratic, DC way of doing things, including torture, versus being allowed to use his experience, training, linguistic, and cultural knowledge. In the end, completely frustrated and only days after being referred to as, “the future of the FBI,” by the FBI director, the author resigned and left the government.

While the DC bureaucracy in general comes out looking pretty bad, between the author’s reporting and the CIA-mandated redactions (left in the book as black lines through sentence after sentence, page after page of text, including through publicly available Congressional testimony), the CIA comes out looking like bumbling, arrogant, bureaucratic assholes (admittedly, not that hard, but still). State, at least in Yemen, doesn’t come out looking too good either, but the main beating is laid on Langley.

The book has some errors that detract from its credibility, mainly the Soviets invading Pakistan, instead of Afghanistan, on page 26, and the occasional confusion of the words “dessert” and “desert.” Still, overall, and in spite of the anger and frustration the reporting causes in the reader, well worth your time.

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FP Magazine: The Black Hole of North Korea

Great article (subtitled: What economists can’t tell you about the most isolated country on Earth) on the North Korean economy by Marcus Noland.

While the best quote comes at the end of the article (“Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale once counseled me that anyone who claims to be an expert on the North is a liar or a fool.”), the piece is an excellent reminder on the scarcity of accurate data coming out of the North. Take a look if you have time – a 10-minute read.

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Riding Amtrak Cross-country

Great story in last Saturday’s Washington Post on riding Amtrak from DC to San Francisco, via Chicago. With comments like, “Sleep came easily — the train is surprisingly smooth and quiet,” “Train etiquette seemed to involve asking strangers where they were headed and why they’d chosen the train,” or “The amount of space between rows on these trains makes a joke of airplane legroom,” it’s obvious the author is somewhat new to long-distance train travel, but appears smitten with the new/old option. Welcome.

As someone who was long ago taken with train travel, having ridden lines from Saigon-Hanoi to the Trans-Siberian, and written about trains from Chicago to New Orleans and Tehran to Istanbul (excerpt), I heartily recommend stepping away from the plane, hitting the pause button on your rush (unless you’re taking an actual bullet train, then by all means, enjoy the rush), and trying a little travel. You may be disappointed, you might overpay, it may be unpleasant (i.e. Tehran to Turkey), but it just might be worth it.

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New AP Bureau in Pyongyang Provides Photos, Video of NK Live Fire Exercises

The new Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang (which opened in January) has brought some more unique coverage out of the North, this time on North Korean live fire exercises near the DMZ. The North’s drills reportedly come in response to joint U.S. – South Korean exercises, no surprise there. What is a surprise are photos, as shown here (apparently soldiers in every army around the world wedge blocks under vehicle wheels), and video from the exercise, both courtesy the new AP bureau. I don’t see the bureau providing much hard news, but it is good to see some new reporting coming out of the North.

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Latest U.S. Deal with Pyongyang: good for hungry North Koreans … barren cupboard for U.S., SK

UPDATE (13 March): Right down to the word “tribute.” Compare the post on the recent U.S. deal with North Korea, below, with yesterday’s editorial from the Washington Post on the same subject. Thanks for coming out guys, way to be the ball, way to lead.

UPDATE (2 March): The AP’s new Pyongyang bureau weighs in on the new agreement in this article from the Washington Post. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Pyongyang allowed to speak to the AP are mistrustful of the U.S. and not very hopeful of any reduction in tensions. Going forward, it will be interesting to see what kind of reports this new bureau will be able to dispatch from the North.

Not to be overly pessimistic, but unless you are a starving North Korean, the recent headlines (JoongAng Daily, Washington Post) about North Korea agreeing to suspend nuclear weapons testing, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activities for U.S. food aid really don’t mean much.

As South Korea trades in electronics, cars, and the rest, North Korea trades in international tension. The recent deal allows the North to acquire 240-300,000 tons (accounts vary) of badly needed food aid from the U.S. in return for hitting pause, not stop, on its nuclear and long-range missile development programs. Once the food arrives, there is little to prevent Pyongyang from resuming either of these activities.

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China Ignores Seoul, International Treaty Obligations; Repatriates North Korean Defectors

For the better part of a week, South Korea has been worrying over and protesting China’s return of North Korean defectors caught inside China. The South has even discussed bringing the issue to the UN – a move that would mark a radical (and long overdue) departure from South Korea’s normal kowtowing to quiet diplomacy with its much larger neighbor.

It’s high time that China lived up to its international treaty obligations and stopped returning defectors to a country, in this case North Korea, knowing full well the dire consequences awaiting the refugees upon their repatriation. For its part, the South needs to be firm with China about protecting a group of people that, under South Korean law, have the right to become South Korean citizens. This may have short-term trade repercussions for the South with its largest trading partner, China, but long-term economic trends will mitigate any momentary damage to the relationship, plus provide domestic political and diplomatic benefits for the party willing to take a stand.

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New Feeds Added for International Development, Foreign Affairs Job Listings

Thanks to a heads up from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service Alumni group on Linkedin, I’ve added new international development and foreign affairs related job postings to the jobs feed along the right side of the page. I also fixed, again, the near perpetually broken feed of international jobs from USAjobs (and yes, you should take this as a sign of what its like to work for the U.S. government). The new feeds, from AlertNet and Reliefweb, add a strong new flow of non-US job listings to the site.

Enjoy, and please let me know if I’m missing anything solid, especially if it has an RSS feed.

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Hoya Saxa!

A quick congrats to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service – the top MA program in International Relations, as reported this month by Foreign Policy magazine.

How to pay for it? I would suggest winning the lottery, adoption by Bill Gates, or getting a job at the university. I’ll put in a good word for you.

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