June 27, 2007

The Left-Hand Side of the Spectrum

Ambassadors and Advisors in Future U.S. Strategy

The failure of “preemptive war,” the irrelevance of rapid, decisive operations, and the inability of high-tech weaponry to bring success in Iraq and Afghanistan all indicate that American planning between the 1991 Gulf War and today’s Iraq War resulted in major mismatches between ends, ways, and means in the early years of the twenty-first century.1 Clearly, the United States needs a new military strategy, but after five years of war we are only now beginning to adjust our aims for the future.

Some may disagree. Inevitably, as the United States grapples with two unpalatable insurgencies and other challenges, a possible conclusion from our recent history is that counterinsurgency is too protracted for the American public, that our security strategies should be centered on our strengths in technology, and those strengths should enable the U.S. to avoid the kinds of chest-to-chest grapple that characterizes our current operational focus. While this argument has some power when applied to traditional nation-state conflicts, it is the wrong response to the threat the United States and its allies face from a surging jihadist movement that poses an existential threat to Western civilization.

The “spectrum of conflict,” a term coined by military doctrine writers in the 1970s, is useful to illustrate the range of possible conflicts that chal¬lenge U.S. security strategies. With “conventional” warfare in the bar’s center, the far right of the spec¬trum was reserved for nuclear war. The left-hand side was labeled “insurgency,” or, if one was preparing responses, “counterinsurgency.” Doctrine writers in the days of Mao and Che Guevara understood that the insurgent’s objective was to develop sufficient strength to succeed at the left end of the conflict spectrum, and then push rightward along the spec-trum until he could succeed in conventional war and the final stage of consolidating his gains. Meanwhile, the counterinsurgent strove to keep the insurgent as far to the left as possible, and there to undermine his strength and eventually reduce him to incon¬sequence. In Vietnam, as in China, the insurgent prevailed; in El Salvador and thus far in Colombia, the outcome has been different.

The new conditions of warfare occasioned by the rise of radical Islam have returned U.S. attention to the left-hand side of the spectrum. Indeed, the religious aspect of the threat—the appeal to the religious faith of individuals—acts on a level even more subtle than the socio-political appeal of communism that attracted millions in the last century. The effect has been to push the left-hand side of the conflict spec¬trum even further to the left, into pre-insurgency or pre-terrorism.

This shift has created a new and profound challenge for the United States. Supporting states threatened by virulently anti-Western and anti-U.S. ideologies is clearly in our best interests. But intervention once a religious movement has acquired armed status inevitably means that U.S. troops risk “foreign devil” status even before they disembark from their ships and planes. Deployment of U.S. forces into local conflicts that have been already defined in religious terms puts U.S. objectives and forces at a disadvan¬tage before operations even begin.

We can do better. The most effective U.S. strategy in opposition to the spread of jihadist ideology is subtle, sensitive, and well integrated U.S. support for struggling states threatened by jihadism begun in advance of crisis. This report argues that the most effective way to achieve these aims is by better integrating U.S. country teams and their military adjuncts forward, in the host countries, where the effects of U.S. policies are most immediately felt. Integrating American diplomacy and military advice should focus first on bottom-up reinforce¬ment of the tip of the spear—that “spear” being the U.S. diplomatic and military presence in a threatened country—without waiting for top-down interagency reform in Washington. While interagency cooperation inside the Beltway is a laudable goal, more immediate results will come from reinforcing the efforts of the men and women serving in U.S. missions abroad who are meeting the daily challenges posed by jihadist ideology.

The concept of providing military assistance to struggling U.S. allies is not new. This paper will use the term Military Advisory and Assistance Group (MAAG) indiscriminately to refer to all military forces in a host country charged with advising and assisting that country’s military forces, minus military attachés assigned to the embassy or visiting U.S. conventional or Special Forces training teams. At present, over 50 different forms of mili¬tary assistance detachments—some called MAAGs, others Military Liaison Officers, and still others U.S. Liaison Officers, or a range of alternative designa¬tions—are serving in various countries across the globe. Quite often, the label is developed with an eye to local sensitivities; not all countries want to receive “assistance,” but they are willing to host “liaison” teams that do roughly the same thing.

Likewise, for the remainder of this report, the term “country team” or “U.S. mission” will indicate those civilian agencies—and military attachés—like the CIA, Commerce Department, FBI and so on, plus of course the core of U.S. State Department officers who reside in the U.S. embassy under the control of the U.S. ambassador. The ambas¬sador him or herself may be referred to as either the ambassador or as the chief of mission (COM). Public law gives COMs “control” over the various forms of military units in their countries, and appropriately so. It does not, however, give them “command”—a critical military distinction, and one which this paper suggests is essential for maxi-mizing MAAG success.

Advocating a shift in military strategy toward longer-term, forward-stationed advisory missions is not meant to suggest that conventional combat forces are unimportant. While this paper is about preventing open conflict before it occurs or, if it occurs, assisting host countries’ security forces to dampen and contain conflict without direct U.S. involvement. But not all conflicts can be so contained. The danger is that conflict, once underway, is difficult to tamp down—and if preventive efforts on the far left-hand side fail, future open warfare may well combine simulta¬neous conventional, irregular, and even nuclear conflict, with horrific consequences (for example, consider U.S. military operations in a collapsed North Korea or Pakistan). The failure of U.S. strategic thinking to date has been the neglect of both ends of the conflict spectrum in favor of the conventional middle. Recent events, and the poten¬tial for even more serious conflict, call for a more innovative, expanded perspective of war and U.S. capabilities to protect against it.



1 “Ends, Ways, and Means” is a phrase used by strategists to delineate the difference between goals that a state wants to achieve (ends), the policies followed in pursuit of those goals (ways), and the resources devoted to the policies (means). See John Collins, Military Strategy: Principles, Practices, and Historical Perspectives (Washington D.C.: Brassey’s, 2002), p. 5.

2 U.S. Department of Defense, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD-SO/LIC), The Country Team in American Strategy, (December 2006), p. 2.


  • USA (Ret.)

  • Robert Killebrew

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