I apologize for not writing on the blog this week. I have a lot of posts in my head but have been busy with other activities -- and writing for other websites.
Judah Grunstein of the World Politics Review commissioned a debate over the future of counterinsurgency and got responses from Steven Metz, Bing West, Michael Mazarr, and Starbuck. I contributed a piece arguing that the debate really misses the larger issue of what the hell our ground forces -- and especially our army -- are supposed to do.
Judah wryly noted that my article was itself textbook counterinsurgency: "Redefine the center of gravity (not COIN, but US Army); secure it from unnecessary collateral damage of kinetic ops; and construct narrative to encourage buy-in from on-the-fencers."
Anyway, I am always proud to participate in such debates, especially with other thinkers I very much admire. My article bears strong resemblance to a talk I gave earlier in the week at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in which I did my best to occupy the middle ground on a panel discussion with Gian Gentile and Max Boot.
On another note, SEAL Team 6 is doing its very best to make the president immune to Republican attacks that he's Jimmy Carter. My analysis of the hostage rescue operation in Somalia can be read on the website of the BBC.
According to the Correlates of War dataset, roughly 83% of the conflicts fought since the end of the Napoleonic Era have been civil wars or insurgencies. And while scholarship (.pdf) suggets more recent civil wars are less "irregular" than those fought during the Cold War, it's safe to assume irregular wars will continue to be phenomena military organizations will wrestle with. That's why David Ignatius largely gets it right in his recent op-ed on the "COIN bubble." As the United States draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can cut some of those ground forces -- as my colleagues recently argued -- that you need for large-scale, resource-instensive counterinsurgency. (Because if you have to assume risk somewhere, it's easier to build new combat brigades on the fly than it is to research and design a new weapons system.) But it is a mistake to assume the U.S. military will never fight these wars again. We've done that before, with disastrous results. Ignatius:
There’s a consensus in the country that the big expeditionary ground wars of the past decade should end, and Panetta has his budget priorities right. But it would be wrong to repeat the mistake that followed the Vietnam War, when hard-learned counterinsurgency tactics were jettisoned in favor of conventional weapons for fighting quick “winnable” wars.
During the COIN years, the Army and Marines learned how to adapt and fight in the most difficult environments. What a waste if those skills, acquired at such cost, were discarded and lost.
LTG Dave Barno, Matt Irvine and I have a new policy paper out at CNAS, which you can read here. This paper is in a lot of ways the logical follow-on to our Responsible Transition report from December of last year, which, looking back, still seems quite relevant. (Check it out if you have the time.)
LTG Barno and I sat down with about a dozen journalists this morning and went over the particulars of new report. Our primary concern -- and the reason why we felt the need to write this report -- is that U.S. and allied commanders in Afghanistan have not yet made the mental leap that, whether they like it or not, the United States and the rest of the NATO coalition are transitioning in Afghanistan. In 2008, the situation in Afghanistan may have required large-scale counterinsurgency operations to buy time and space to build up Afghan security forces. (And I argued, in 2009, that it did.) Some would argue the situation still demands such large-scale operations, but with the transition already under way, the time to make the switch from counterinsurgency to security force assistance is sooner -- while you still have the relevant enablers in the country -- rather than in 2014. If those Afghan units you have been building are lemons, you also want to know that sooner rather than later.
Some U.S. and allied officers might argue the United States and the rest of the coalition are already working by, with and through the Afghans, but the reality on the ground suggests that is the exception, not the rule. In 2009, the NATO/ISAF command in Afghanistan stood up NTM-A to train Afghan soldiers and police, and that effort, while flawed, has been a lot more successful than what came before it. But the old training-and-advisory component of the mission was folded into the combat command in Afghanistan, and that work has since been uneven. "Partnering" -- which Gen. Stan McChrystal felt would allow Afghan units to fight alongside U.S. and allied units and thereby increase the development of the former -- never really materialized. U.S. combat units have been more proficient at finding and killing the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, so they have done the jobs themselves.
But developing security forces is like any other development work. What matters most is not whether or not the school or dam gets built but rather the process through which you take the host nation government to build a school or dam. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan now need to take short-term security risks in order to get Afghan units into the lead. The time to do this is now, not in 2014. Among the forcing mechanisms available to a president are to change the mission, change his commander, or change the resources. President Obama has already done the second and third this year. He should now do the first as well.
Anyway, read the whole report here and sound off in the comments section.
Yesterday, I wrapped up a really fun and interesting trip to Israel and, briefly, the Palestinian Territories. For a long time, I have insisted that there is really no substantive connection between the way in which the United States has waged counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way in which the Israelis have waged what I will call, for lack of a better term, stabilization operations in the Palestinian Territories.
Others, of course, have claimed the United States and Israel have both waged highly similar operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories, respectively. Often this claim is made in some clumsy leftist "America and Israel are evil colonial powers" kind of way and is ignorant of the ways in which each country's military has independently developed doctrine as well as tactics, techniques and procedures. Sometimes, though, this claim is made by serious scholars, such as Laleh Khalili in her recent IJMES article -- with which I strongly disagreed but recommend because I think her argument is carefully researched and interesting.
Balloons have made me reconsider my earlier position.
Last Saturday night, I was walking around the protests in Tel Aviv with Jason Reich and noticed a tethered aerostat high above the crowd. He mentioned Israel had been using the balloons for years, long before we Americans, and sure enough, the following Friday, as crowds flooded into the Old City of Jerusalem for Friday prayers, I saw another aerostat. Bing West has argued U.S. use of aerostat systems in southern Afghanistan has had a revolutionary effect on the battlefield, and I'm pretty sure this is something we either borrowed from the Israelis or learned long after the IDF.
The Israelis learned other lessons from their 2002 campaign in the Palestinian Territories that have also been learned by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. These lessons include the need to push independent intelligence capabilities down to the company level and also to provide miniature UAVs to rifle companies. I'm not sure, but I think the Israelis beat the U.S. military to both of these innovations by a couple of years.
All of this, of course, concerns tactical innovation. U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine developed without much input from the IDF or Israeli scholars and practitioners. But on further reflection, I think it is unfair to say, as I have, that the U.S. military has learned little from the Israeli experience in stabilization operations. I also may have underestimated the informal relationships that have been built between officers in the U.S. and Israeli militaries over the years. All of this, of course, would make for a really interesting case study on military innovation and learning.
I have just spent the past several days talking about small wars and insurgencies with the brilliant graduate students who make up this year's SWAMOS class. I lectured all day Wednesday and stuck around to hear Conrad Crane talk on Thursday about the development and implementation of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. One of the topics that kept coming up was the ways in which FM 3-24 needs to be revised, so I was pleased to see Carl Prine, Starbuck and Mike Few tackle this very issue in a paper for the Small Wars Journal (.pdf). Jason Fritz then piled on over at Ink Spots.
My primary criticism of the doctrine as it is currently written is the doctrine's weakness with respect to waging counterinsurgency as a third party, something both Charlie "Erin" Simpson and Steve Biddle have written a lot about. Any doctrine that borrows heavily from lessons learned in the colonial era will not take into account the fact that when you yourself are not the sovereign power, you have a whole 'nother set of issues to deal with. The main issue is that of what Steve calls interest alignment. As the doctrine is written, there is a naive assumption that our interests line up with those of the host nation, which is almost never the case. As a consequence of that assumption, though, we fail to think through how we need to use our leverage over the host nation to be successful.
You might think that the father of the doctrine, Con, would be really protective of it. Not at all. Con was taking a lot of notes yesterday and seems excited about revising the doctrine to incorporate lessons learned as well as to fill gaps where the doctrine is weak. He's a lot more open minded about the doctrine, in other words, than a lot of the doctrine's most vehement critics.
There are two items of note I want to highlight to which I was not able to draw attention while traveling. The first is this post by my friend Steve Negus on Issandr's blog on how Libyan rebels are learning to fight by ... playing video games. Alternately fascinating and hilarious.
The second item to which I want to draw your attention is this paper by Doug Ollivant* for the New America Foundation challenging the "new orthodoxy" about what led to the dramatic drop in ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007. This is an excellent paper. Doug knows enough to know that we cannot definitively determine what caused the 2007 drop in violence, but he advances what he calls "an alternative, counter-narrative" to those offered by Tom Ricks, Bob Woodward, Kim Kagan, Linda Robinson and others.** (Which is in itself interesting in part because Doug is one of the heroes of these other narratives -- most especially that of Robinson.)
Doug is one of the smartest thinkers on counterinsurgency I know***, and his piece is littered with interesting observations, though again, it is as tough to prove Doug's narrative is any more valid, given the lack of evidence, than that of Tom Ricks or, say, Peter Feaver. There are just too many variables out there, and as I have argued ad nauseum, the best we can hope to do in the absence of causality is to establish correlation among all the things that happened.
Some of the more interesting observations, though, concern Afghanistan, from where Doug recently returned after a year spent as John Campbell's counterinsurgency advisor. Here are a few choice excerpts. This first one echos a point I made yesterday:
The President’s statements have been ambiguous, ever since his West Point speech of 2009, during which he both authorized an increase in troop strength, and gave a July 2011 date for the beginning of their withdrawal, recently confirmed in an address on the future of the war. This mixed message from the President (which continues to resonate despite post-Lisbon Conference messaging about 2014, and not 2011, being the key date) has been echoed by his administration. This ambiguity is almost certainly driven by the desire to reconcile the largely incompatible goals of permanently and decisively denying al Qaeda safe havens and Taliban establishment in Afghanistan, while simultaneously avoiding long-term intervention and nation building at astronomical cost. So in short, while the troops have arrived in Afghanistan, the unambiguous message of support and presence that accompanied the 2007 Iraq surge has not. We should not be surprised when politicians in both Afghanistan and Pakistan react accordingly.
This second bit is more sobering:
...it is unlikely that a push of more forces, better tactical counterinsurgency, and the arrival of a highly talented commander can compensate for a lack of political commitment and absence of shared goals between the host nation and the intervening power.
*Hahahaha, I love Doug like a brother, but he needs to change his profile picture. "Oui, c'est moi. Je suis au musée du Louvre parce que je suis un homme de culture. Regardez l'angoisse sur mon visage parce que je ne peux pas se permettre une coupe de cheveux."
**Carl Prine dings me for citing Robinson and Ricks in my recent IFRI paper (in his otherwise very touching, thought-provoking post), but I did write that this was an incomplete sample and not a full review of the literature. At least I did in the initial draft I turned in.
***It struck me as so weird and stupid that Doug is set up as some kind of anti-COIN rival to my boss (and his longtime friend) John Nagl in this snarky, argumentative National Journal piece. Doug is as much a card-carrying COINdinista as anyone, and those who understand the continued scholarly and policy development of counterinsurgency know there are genuine operational and strategic differences of opinion concerning COIN and how it should be applied in Afghanistan. (Big footprint with lots of general purpose forces? Small footprint with more special operations trainers? Some combination of both? All of that is counterinsurgency -- it's just different ways of doing it.) More to follow on this...
I'm off to a wedding this weekend, but here's some stuff to start a few discussions in the comments while I am gone.
1. Doug Ollivant knows more about counterinsurgency than almost anyone I know and also knows quite a bit about eastern Afghanistan. So when he says we've gotten ourselves into a mess by taking sides in a war we should have stayed out of, listen. If you've ever heard me lecture on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, you will hear me make the kind of point that a MacDonald of Glencoe whose family settled in the East Tennessee Mountains understands intuitively: people live in the mountains because they want to be left the bleep alone.
2. I was in the meeting spoken of in the first few paragraphs of this article and am not surprised to see this particular detail leak, such was the number of journalists in the room. But this article follows closely on the heels of several articles the day of the president's Middle East speech in which Dennis Ross was already being set up as the bogeyman, and I'm not sure I'm buying it. Yes, I know Dennis Ross has always been runner-up to only Ariel Sharon as the bête noire of the Palestinian cause, but it sure seems to me as if everyone in the administration is more or less singing from the same hymnal this week. I got the chance to ask some pointed questions of Ross as well as some other administration officials a few hours after the Middle East speech, and I did not sense there to be much disagreement. I have always really liked and admired Ross myself, even when I have been inclined to disagree with him on a policy issue, so maybe I am not the best person to weigh in here. But in the end, I think I am most likely to agree with Aaron David Miller, who provides a needed reality check for the king of Jordan and others when he notes:
Dennis is viewed as the éminence grise, a sort of Rasputin who casts a spell over secretaries of state and presidents. But in the end, it’s the president who makes the ultimate decisions.
...consider this a continuation of our discussion of the economics of counterinsurgency.