November 06, 2009

Book Club: A Special Abu Muqawama Interview with David Ucko

David Ucko is a friend of the blog and the author of a new book on the efforts made by the U.S. military to transform itself to meet the operational challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan. The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Warsir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=158901488X is really the first of what I imagine will be many academic studies of the U.S. military efforts to come to grips with counterinsurgency in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I enjoyed the book and asked David to answer a few of my questions for the benefit of the readership. Enjoy the following catachism.

1. First off, David, congratulations on the publication of your new book, which I believe is the first serious history of the U.S. military's attempt to adapt to the operational challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan. We are both products of the War Studies Department at King's College London, and I apologize for missing the book launch hosted by CNAS, but I was in Israel trying to finish my own dissertation! Let me start off by asking a question. You say the U.S. military is "learning" counterinsurgency. To what degree do you think it has thus far been successful doing so?

Thank you. I believe that the U.S. military has been remarkably successful in gaining a better understanding of counterinsurgency, given the size and hierarchical nature of the organisation, as well as its prior stance toward these missions. Through an open discussion, and a genuine willingness to learn, those with an interest in counterinsurgency have arrived at a clear-eyed understanding of what these missions require, in terms of time, resources and personnel. The U.S. military has in this regard come a very long way: it is impressive.

At the same time, developing doctrine and publishing concept papers is not a particularly good metric for institutional change: the U.S. military must also prioritises counterinsurgency as a mission that it will conduct, and support that prioritisation by developing the required capabilities. Here, progress has been slower. On the prioritisation, there is an understandable desire to avoid counterinsurgency, and this, along with sheer inertia, has sapped some of the efforts to institutionalise lessons learned in the field. As to the development of capabilities, U.S. troops are clearly learning about the nature of these missions through gruelling, repeated tours. I do not, however, see a corresponding change of priorities within the U.S. defence budget or its force structure. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ influence over the last year is extremely promising but I believe more needs to be done to resource and equip the force for the types of wars it is fighting today and, most likely, tomorrow. Similarly, the great changes over the last few years in Army force structure do not reflect the operational learning of troops on the ground, or are insufficiently targeted to meet the requirements of these very challenging operations.

One big reason for the continuity in these foundational areas is the difficulty of adding without removing: the capabilities and skill sets necessary for counterinsurgency have been brought in from the margins, to be incorporated within the main text without changing its flow or meaning. This is a very problematic means of achieving change. More helpful, yet very unlikely, is a veritable bottom-up review to build a capability that truly reflects current and prospective needs.

2. Do you think the U.S. military's understanding of the challenges and realities of counterinsurgency has continued to evolve? Or has it more or less calcified with the publication of the new counterinsurgency field manual? Along the same lines, what do you see as the major weaknesses of the existing doctrine?

Continued operational experience means continued conceptual learning and refinement. I remember when FM 3-24 came out in late 2006, some people were already saying that we needed a new manual on intervening in civil wars, to reflect the situation in Iraq at the time. So maybe we need another manual today to reflect the particular features of the campaign in Afghanistan? I don’t think so. Of course FM 3-24 will not anticipate the complexity of counterinsurgencies across time and space. It is also necessarily limited. At the same time, none of this invalidates its great contributions: it served as a counter-point to the dominant conceptualisation of counterinsurgency that preceded it and has helped familiarise the military with the counterintuitive logic of counterinsurgency, with the ways in which these endeavours differ from conventional combat. Most importantly, FM 3-24 was never intended to be the definitive guide to counterinsurgency or a silver-bullet solution for such missions. Instead, the manual itself emphasises the need for adaptation, and the need to arrive at a carefully tailored response rather than fall back on templates.

Now, a major weakness in existing doctrine, one that is also becoming increasingly apparent, relates to the transition from military authority at the end of a counterinsurgency campaign. Here, detail is woefully lacking. The doctrine states that authority is passed to civilian agencies or to local institutions, but there is hardly any criteria or guidance for a brigade commander to know when his area of operations is ready for such a shift and what to consider when it happens. Perhaps we will again learn by doing, in Iraq, but it is very serious problem, as a failed transition strategy risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, so to say.

3. Your study seems to support Barry Posen's school of thought on military innovation theory. Outsiders joined up with mavericks within the military -- like Petraeus -- and forced through the adoption of counterinsurgency doctrine over the objection of vested interests. But I noticed that you did not interview any military officers below the rank of lieutenant colonel. To what degree do you think the adoption of counterinsurgency doctrine might have also been driven from the ground up by units in the field demanding new paradigms through which they could understand and fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is there any evidence for that kind of bottom-up innovation? How about the role that websites like Small Wars Journal and Platoon Leader played in pushing through operational and cultural changes at the tactical and operational levels?

Because Western militaries typically fail to anticipate and prepare for counterinsurgency, it has often fallen to the soldiers on the ground to devise a more or less improvised approach to an unfamiliar challenge. Today, fora like Platoon Leader and Small Wars Journal (not to mention your own excellent blog, of course) have helped accelerate bottom-up adaptation. This is very promising, yet I think that the consent, if not active lobbying, of mid- to senior-level officers is required for such bottom-up innovation to affect institutional priorities and resource allocation, and it is that process that I trace in the book.

It takes us back to FM 3-24: many soldiers and Marines already ‘got it’ before reading the manual, because of their experiences in theatre. The point is that until informally arrived-at and informally shared knowledge is picked up and institutionalised, it is dangerously vulnerable to fragmentation and eventual erosion. Indeed, it is the critical failure to institutionalise best practices following each counterinsurgency campaign that has produced what I term the U.S. military’s ‘counterinsurgency syndrome’, a cyclical pattern of failing to anticipate the challenges of these operations, of adapting more or less successfully while engaged, but of then rejecting whatever was learnt at the close of the operation, forcing a renewed process of hurried adaptation once troops are again committed to a similar mission. My book can be considered a call not to let the same happen today.

4. But you only mention critics of the military's new focus on counterinsurgency in passing. You quote Gian Gentile, for example, as saying that "the U.S. Army has become a counterinsurgency-only force." I agree this is surely one of the more ridiculous (and demonstrably false) things Gian has said. But Gian is a gifted historian and has made more cogent criticisms of the focus on counterinsurgency (which is why this blog continues our love-hate relationship with him). Not only Gian but also Celeste Ward and Andrew Bacevich have offered criticisms of the focus on counterinsurgency at every level at which war is fought. The backlash, as you describe it, is real. Which criticisms do you find the most consequential -- and which do you find unconvincing?

The trouble is that almost all of the criticism of counterinsurgency are instinctively appealing: yes, counterinsurgency is difficult, it is costly (in time, resources and blood), and produces results that are often ambiguous and easily reversible. Who in their right mind would like to conduct counterinsurgency? The problem, of course, is that these operations are seldom optional. It is for that reason that the notion of simply ‘avoiding’ counterinsurgency is both unconvincing and dangerous. If I remember correctly, this was the approach favoured by the George W. Bush administration as it invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Therein lies a lesson in caution: the operating environment is dynamic and unpredictable, and there is still a strong possibility that U.S. forces will be called upon to help stabilise a foreign territory, build government capability, or conduct operations against irregular adversaries.

The ‘avoidance’ argument also misses the point that ‘learning counterinsurgency’ is much more than a responding to Iraq or Afghanistan. As I argue in my book, the global trend toward urbanisation; the West’s superiority in conventional combat; the attractiveness and effectiveness of asymmetric tactics to militarily inferior adversaries; the increased frequency of state-building; and the ‘securitisation’ of state failure following 9/11 all point to a future of operations conducted among the people and, most often, with the objective of building governmental capacity. So while it may be some time before the U.S. military embarks on another ‘counterinsurgency operation’ per se, the operations it will conduct will nonetheless involve a similar range of tasks. If territory is to be seized, stabilisation of that territory will be an unavoidable requirement. Also, most future operations will be conducted in urban environments where the local population cannot be ignored but, more often, must be co-opted and even protected against attack. It is for this reason that the sub-title of my book talks about transforming the military for ‘modern wars’, the complexity of which simply cannot be wished away.

In contrast, one of the more consequential arguments against counterinsurgency concerns balance and the need for the U.S. military to master the full spectrum of operations. Counterinsurgency places specific and extremely challenging demands on the force: not only to provide civil control and civil security, but to restore essential services, provide support to governance, as well as aid economic and infrastructural development. Can the capability to do this be developed within the force without seriously undermining its ability to conduct combined arms manoeuvre and other aspect of conventional war-fighting? The Army wants its soldiers to be adaptive, but can we expect a soldier to be both a war-fighter as well as the jack-of-all-trades called for in stability operations? Is it a fair requirement and, as important, can it at all be avoided?

I do not think that this issue of balance has been sufficiently thought through, perhaps because the discussion tends to be inflamed by parochial interests, from both sides. It is also very difficult to get a sense of where the balance between capabilities currently resides. So far the Army’s response has been to aim toward a ‘full-spectrum operations’ capability. This is a step in the right direction, but offers no clear indication of prioritisation. Furthermore, the Army has peddled the notion of a full-spectrum or full-dimensional force for some time, to no great effect. To do better, the Army must think hard about where the balance should be struck to respond most effectively to the likely demands of disparate sets of missions. In the absence of consensus on these questions, the Army’s efforts have typically lacked focus and produced continuity rather than change.

5. Where do you see the debate in five years time? How many of these changes you describe will be institutionalized over the long term? You get at this in the very last chapter of your book, but I was wondering if you would be so kind as to summarize your answer.

It will come down to two issues: will Iraq and Afghanistan be seen as representative of the complexity of modern conflict or as aberrations. In that debate, I hope that the exact circumstances and causes of current campaigns, which one may hope will never be repeated, will not be confused with the skill-sets and capabilities that they have called for, which I believe will be in high demand in future contingencies as well, whatever form they take.

The second fundamental indicator of where we go from here relates to the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, or rather the interpretation of that outcome. Counterinsurgency proponents gained influence due to the security gains achieved in ‘the surge’. If DoD was to move farther in this direction, the learning of counterinsurgency would be aided by the fact that the majority of low- to middle-ranking soldiers and Marines have conducted several tours and gained a hard-won familiarity with counterinsurgency.

The problem is that sustaining a “good-news story” in Iraq, never mind Afghanistan, will be costly, requiring a sustained effort for which there appears to be no real appetite. Should the gains in Iraq be reversed, this will likely tarnish the whole idea of counterinsurgency – ‘is it worth it’? Of course, such a conclusion would be unfair, as the adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was not only extremely limited in breadth, depth and duration, but also tardy. Still, this level of nuance may be lost in the search to apportion blame. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, if Obama does decide to attempt a counterinsurgency strategy there, the result is likely to be very painful and protracted. Again, this will make it difficult to attract support for greater institutional investment in counterinsurgency capabilities. Yet to me, Afghanistan does not prove the bankruptcy of counterinsurgency as much as the dangers of failing to apply some of its core principles, and of then trying to do it on the cheap. It is somewhat unfair to expect the adoption of counterinsurgency, if and when that happens, to reverse eight years of entropy. Nonetheless, poor implementation may in this instance be confused with poor theory, resulting in the baby being thrown out with the bathwater, much as it was after Vietnam.

Informing all of these decisions will be the squeeze on the U.S. defence budget. So far, the limited investment in counterinsurgency-relevant capabilities has been enabled through supplemental budget requests. As these are reduced and increasingly integrated within the core budget, which it too will shrink, the Pentagon will be presented with some difficult choices. If counterinsurgency is in any way tarnished, as described above, its future as a U.S. military priority appears, at best, uncertain. The point to remember is that these complexity of these operations cannot be avoided as it is representational of modern war, and that failing to prepare will only make the eventual engagement more likely and even more challenging.

6. Yes, I like one of the quotes you employed from Sir Michael Howard: "The military may protest that this is not the kind of war that they joined up to fight. [Yet] this is the only war we are likely to get: it is also the only kind of peace. So let us have no illusions about it." Moving on to far more important things, you recently completed a fellowship in Washington and now are in Berlin. We all know the real estate is cheaper in Berlin, but how about the drinking? Thomas Rid heretically swears the beers in America – not Bud Light, obviously, but the microbrews -- are better than in his native Germany. Is that true? What are your three favorite haunts in Washington, and what are the three best bars in Berlin?

It strikes me as faintly ironic that I moved from the land of Bud Light and Miller to Germany, arguably ‘beer heaven’, and find that one of the things I miss the most is the beer. If you want a crisp, clean and strong lager, German beers are as good as they get. But one of the great things about beer in the U.S. is, as you say, the microbrews and the great variety in what you can get. Personally, what I miss the most are the IPAs: I’ve found it almost impossible to find an equivalent to Dogfish, Stone or even something comparably conventional such as a Sierra Nevada IPA around here. So I would agree with Thomas.

As to where to drink these aforementioned beers, Berlin clearly has a few advantages over DC: every nook and cranny in this town hosts a bar, and each has something special to offer, without being gimmicky. If I had to name a few favourite haunts, I’d point to Madam Claude, a former brothel turned basement bar/concert venue where everything is literally upside down; Konrad Tönz, on my own street and a throwback to the late 1970s, and finally, why not, the Badeschiff: an artificial beach on the Spree, complete with sand, deckchairs and pier, which hosts live music and also offers a heated pool that floats on the river, along with a floating sauna in the winter (!). In the somewhat less extensive bar scene of DC, I always enjoyed the atmosphere (and martinis) of Eighteenth Street Lounge, the live music of Bossa (shout-out to the Oscillators, who sometimes play there) and, for its sheer unpretentiousness, Solly’s on U Street. But there are probably other gems that I’ve missed out on – maybe something for next visit…

That sounds like a good couple of bars to me, David. Solly's, I'll remind readers, is the off-pitch home of the Washington Irish RFC and one of my favorite places to drink a can of PBR and watch some rugby. You, meanwhile, should stay at home this weekend and read David's book, which you can order hereir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=158901488X.