Counterinsurgency parameters

I was perusing the latest issue of Parameters this weekend and there are some worthy articles of note:

Counterinsurgency 3.0 by Peter Charles Choharis and James Gavrilis.  First let me say that I absolutely HATE the title.  I didn’t think I was going to have much nice to say about the article either when it stated.  I was totally put off by this statement:

First, the Anbar Awakening established a successful precedent of US military partnering…that could be considered ‘COIN 1.0’

Next, COIN theorists led by General David Petraeus described the Clear-Hold-Build strategy…that can be termed ‘COIN 2.0’

There remains, however, a substantial doctrinal need to move from tactical methods…to the strategic use of international aid to defeat insurgencies broadly and decisively.  The authors term this new strategic approach…’COIN 3.0′.

There are a LOT of problems with that formulation and framing of both the actual and theoretical histories this way that I don’t think do anyone any favors. It makes this whole COIN thing seem like it’s on a linear, inevitable progression and that what happened in their ‘COIN 1.0’ and ‘COIN 2.0’ realities were somehow inferior to COIN 3.0.  I think that gets us into dangerous waters of thinking that there’s one, ultimate COIN strategy and once we find that we can plop it into any insurgency and get success.

But, if you strip that silly talk out of the article it’s pretty good and they get into some valuable discussions about the role of aid and development in insurgencies.

…civilian and military policy-makers have incorrectly assumed that international development aid is inherently beneficial to local population; necessarily fosters stability; and invariable leads to a grateful populace that will shun insurgents, thereby advancing US strategic goals.

They argue that current thinking about how to stabilize Afghanistan is focused too much on a top down system and that generally the problem is seen as one of ‘not enough’ instead of ‘not allocated properly’.

A couple of interesting points here.  The first is that we probably shouldn’t think of our efforts in Afghanistan as a zero sum endeavor.  A ‘win’ for us or the insurgents needn’t automatically translate into a ‘loss’ for the other.  It’s possible to think of scenarios where the local population could have an increasingly negative view of both groups (A pox on both your houses).  It’s also theoretically possible, although highly improbably, for a scenario to occur in which both groups win positive support from the locals.  What I’m saying here is that maybe we need to be a bit more explicit in figuring out which scales we want to slide and how best to do that.  Let’s go to the 2×2 matrix for a look…

The second is that the authors point out that aid has a dark side to it that we need to take into account.

But as anyone who has ever implemented a foreign assistance project knows, aid in inherently disruptive and potentially destabilizing, and development does not necessarily translate into pro-American or pro-Afghan government sentiments…It can distort traditional labor markets, depress prices of locally produced goods while inflating prices of other commodities, and strain natural resources…[it] may upset established economic relations between family members, villagers, clans and tribes, and among villages and towns…

Development affects who and what is respected, valued, admired, and obeyed.  Thus, aid designed to quell violence might actually unleash dynamics that generate conflict, as individuals and groups compete for new sources of wealth and power.

So, not just when talking about combat operations but even in aid distribution it’s critical we understand the consequences of what we do and how we do it.  This is why it’s critical intelligence assets not only look at the capabilities and intent of enemy forces but also friendly forces and other actors.  A tall order under the best of circumstances.

But, our current organization and incentive system is designed to do things the unhelpful way…

…local commanders often have little time or expertise to assess and implement the full strategic potential of development aid.  Frequently, the civilian aid workers assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) have to focus on specific projects and are evaluated according to standard development metrics, such as the number of schools built, roads paved, or wells dug.  Given the emphasis on finishing aid projects before PRT deployments end and the brevity of certain deployments, as short as a few months in some cases, there is little opportunity to tackle challenges that require extended, fundamental change.

They kind of lose me at the end of the article because their suggestions seem pretty general and vague.  The problem is, as they readily acknowledge, that’s the hard bit.  So, saying community members will help develop, design and monitor projects sounds great but how do you do that while gaining “the support and trust of a traditional society even as foreign aid transforms it”?

Second, I really (REALLY) recommend Combating a Combat Legacy by Chad Serena.  He argues (and this is an underlying theme of most of the articles in the issue) that the Army is gong to find itself committed to a wide range of missions for the foreseeable future.  Many of those missions are going to have components outside of traditional, conventional combat and there is no indication that any other actor (within the US government or in the international community) will be doing those things so either the Army develops that capability in preparation for those operations or we can bumble around for a few years until, out of desperation, we throw something together only to forget it as soon as possible.  Serena is the most explicit, saying:

The combat-centric legacy of the US Army is stable and durable…Its persistence impedes the ability to conduct either sequential full-spectrum operations…or simultaneous full-spectrum operations.

And really, who IS going to do the stability, nation-building, humanitarian, good governance, etc. stuff?  Are we any closer, 9 years into our missions, of designating someone other than our militaries to do this sort of stuff?  If not, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by sticking our fingers in our ears and repeating ‘We only do manuever warfare’ or ‘Not my job’.  Personally, I’d like to see someone explicitly given the tasking (along with the resources and authority) to do such work and it would be great if they were outside the DoD umbrella.  But really, is that going to happen?  Is there anyone in power today actually advocating such a thing?

So, since we can’t expect any real change on that front we would do well to be prepared for what is likely to come.

According to Serena, our doctrine is a confused jumble of undefined terms that allow the bureaucracy to carry along doing what it likes (big, conventional warfare stuff) while wearing enough of a fig leaf to claim to be totally into the full range of potential operations.

…it seems that the pre-9/11 definition of full-spectrum prevails and the Army will continue a gradual shift towards a combat-centric force and away from the full-spectrum force developed in Iraq.

This is also because of the claim that the expansion of our capabilities since 2001 have, in fact, made us less capable of engaging in full spectrum operations (and a big problem here is that the term ‘full spectrum operations’ is as vague as a fortune cookie and can mean different things to different people).

This claim suggests that the US Army’s efforts to become a full-spectrum capable force in OIF actually diminished its ability by thinning its capacity to engage in HIC (High Intensity Conflict) or MCO (Major Combat Operations).  There is some truth to this claim.

You know there’s a ‘but’ coming, right?

There is also quite a bit of truth to the argument that were the US Army not so fundamentally incapable of conducting full-spectrum operations in support of strategic imperatives on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, such a radical adaptation would not have been required and the force would not be out of balance, however balance is defined.  Additionally, it is highly likely that potential future adversaries learned quite a bit from this process and will react accordingly by dispersing operations across the spectrum.

My gut reaction reading this was “Yeah, but it’s an army” and I felt like the combat portion of its mandate was being reduced from its sole mission to, maybe, first among equals or even just one in a crowd.  I don’t think Chad would agree with that and I’m not sure I’d even agree with it but it was my impression.  That gave me pause since I’m a tree-huggin’, flower power, tofu eating kind of guy and if I think we’re deemphasizing the combat portion of the military too much I get a bit worried.  So, I need to reflect a bit on why that nagged at me a bit.  Maybe that’s why I liked the article so much.  Good stuff to chew over.


One response to “Counterinsurgency parameters

  1. What would Sun-tzu do?

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