We know that we want to move the internal struggles inside a country away from violence (warfare) and into (or back into) the political realm. We’ve had a general look at what insurgencies consist of, why they start and what fuels them. We know that the existence of sanctuaries don’t ensure insurgent success, but are practically necessary for insurgents to have any hope of success. We know that the military/security line of operation is only one of three main lines of operation. We know that a well-developed insurgency is, at its roots, a competition to govern. So how do we resolve the insurgency without the collapse of the government and the complete take-over by insurgents?
Counterinsurgents cannot stand still and wait it out. They cannot simply continue upon their course without continuous movement and adjustment to conditions on the ground and in the population. They must choose actions and take them. Every counterinsurgent chooses actions and takes them, but a significant number of them (3 or 4 out of 10) are unsuccessful. Is there a pattern of behavior that counterinsurgents establish that is successful versus those that aren’t?
First, the counterinsurgent must understand the roots of the conflict. Usually, insurgencies don’t carry a head of steam where there is effective governance and plenty of it. The counterinsurgent must take a really good look at what the weaknesses are of the system he or she is trying to support. Sun Tzu pointed out that a combatant must understand not only his enemy, but also himself. A counterinsurgent must understand what his strengths and weaknesses are and he must be honest about it. The counterinsurgent must also understand the environment, both physical and societal, in which he operates. Finally, understanding insurgencies in general, he must understand the insurgency he faces.
While there are commonalities in insurgencies, every insurgency is obviously different. A counterinsurgent must understand the particulars of the conflict. In Afghanistan, for instance, we created a vacuum in government followed by the construction and installation of a government from, more or less, scratch. This was done in a nation where the society had been existing amidst conflict for decades. The previous “government” was scarcely a government at all. There was ongoing warfare from 1979 to the present. The only thing the previous government maintained was law and order, administering swift, often brutal justice for any offense. The economy was a shambles. Infrastructure that had once existed had largely crumbled. Electricity was scarce. Education was minimal for boys, nonexistent for girls. Communications were horrible. Local warlords still held sway in parts of the country. Remnants of the old regime still held out in isolated areas.
While Afghan society had enough coherence to hold its basic fabric together, it was often at the most basic levels of that fabric; the family. Traditional resiliencies, the influences that kept Afghan society flourishing, were severely damaged at each local level. At the national level, there was very little coherence. The fledgling government took years to push influence out into areas that had been, at least nominally, cleared in 2002 of the influence of the previous regime. In the meantime, those influences seeped back in or never completely left.
Being a politically-motivated internal war, the goal is political, and all politics is local. Therefore, insurgency is local. Counterinsurgency needs to be localized, and cannot be adequately performed at a national level in the absence of acceptable local governance. That is why we have so many problems measuring nation-wide progress. In order to measure things, we need to choose and analyze metrics.
National metrics are exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to choose and measure. Metrics indicating success in one discrete area may or may not indicate measurable progress or loss in another discrete area. Afghanistan is a patchwork of valleys and villages. This insurgency is more localized than most, not less. Leadership at the national level needs to look at each area and measure it by the metrics that are meaningful for that particular area. It is difficult to put the pieces together at the national level to create a mosaic that makes sense. There are various and sundry depictions of the conflict, many varying wildly from others. These are constructed by utilizing whatever metrics support the argument of the individual making the argument. It’s difficult to impossible to know which depictions to trust.
This difficulty in producing a coherent picture does not lend itself to centralized command and control. That is why COIN doctrine talks about something called, “Mission Command.” Mission Command means that the local commander, at the lowest level possible, has command over the decisions made at the local level. He is most likely to understand how the pieces of the puzzle are arrayed locally. He is most likely to understand the complex, three dimensional chess game being played against the influences of the insurgent.
We know that the local commander, given Mission Command, must come to understand himself (including his allies), the insurgency and the local dynamics (terrain and society) that set the situation he must deal with. This is a tremendous amount of information. In Afghanistan, we have seen a number of initiatives designed to help the commanders gather and analyze this information. The Human Terrain System, for instance, is an effort to bring the science of anthropology to bear on understanding the intricacies of local society. But a military commander has the largest number of information gathering assets of any of the counterinsurgents in the area; foreign counterinsurgents, anyway. Local Afghans will already possess most of the information that the rest of the counterinsurgents will find helpful, but they usually do not know what to do with it or don’t have the resources.
So, using every source of information available, the commander, at the lowest level possible, must develop a “picture” of the environment in which he operates. He gathers information, but there is so much of it that it is hard to separate out meaningful information from the white noise of the information flow. It’s like trying to paint a picture of the rocks under a waterfall just by the way the water is falling. That’s why the commander needs to take a methodical approach to not only gathering, but also in organizing and correlating the information he can gather to put together a comprehensive picture of the operational environment and its challenges. It’s a job never ends, because while the terrain will change little or not at all, the society will constantly change. People will gain and lose influence. People will die and others will take their places. With the societal aspect in constant flux, the commander must track the changes and adjust as necessary.
Keep in mind that this commander is only on the ground for about a year. When he leaves, his successor needs to have the same information. Military commanders are used to organizing tactical information in certain ways. For instance, tactical graphics on a map are consistent. If one walks up to a tactical map in nearly any area, he can understand the tactical information on that map because he knows what those map symbols mean. There is an entire book on Operational Graphics. When it comes to depicting the things that affect societies, there are no standard map symbols. Commanders have organized this information as they have seen fit, but that doesn’t mean that it is easily understandable to those who follow them. A standard method of organizing and correlating the information is necessary. This not only makes the information easier to understand, but a relatively standardized format means that the incoming unit will be able to easily understand it as well. It will be what they are expecting to see.
Our doctrine lays out specific elements of information that are recommended for counterinsurgents to understand in order to obtain this grasp on the local situation. The COIN Training Center – Afghanistan has taken the two recommended sets of information and cross-referenced them. This system has now been signed off on by COMISAF, COMCENTCOM and the SECDEF. This system takes the analysis of ASCOPE (Areas, Structures, Capabilities, People and Events) and crosses it with PMESII (Political, Military/Security, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information).
Each column is referenced against the other. So, when we are looking at Areas, for instance, we look at Political Areas, Military/Security Areas, Economic Areas, Social Areas, Infrastructure Areas and Information Areas. What does an Information Area mean? In Afghanistan, it may mean an area of radio station coverage. It also means areas of cell phone coverage. Those are just examples. The end result is that people have a consistent way of painting the picture that is consistently read by others who see it.
How does the commander collect this mass of information? He uses all of his assets. If he has HTS available, for example, he discovers what they are best at and tries to use the information that they can give him. However, he does not necessarily control the HTS or any of the other actors. He does control his own troops, and so he generates PIR’s (Priority Information Requirements), IR’s (Information Requirements), and FFIR’s (Friendly Forces Information Requirements) based on where he sees information gaps and then he relentlessly pushes those out and gathers the results. This focuses troops on actually being sensors. If the commander explains why he needs the information, the troops have a deeper sense of purpose and a more realistic sense of what they are actually trying to accomplish. Plus, understanding the commander’s intent gives young leaders the chance to find ways to contribute. They can act more appropriately in the absence of orders as well.
Noncommissioned officers can then reinforce the things that are important to counterinsurgents. Discipline has one purpose; to ensure discipline on the battlefield. In a counterinsurgency, the battlefield doesn’t always include combat, but every action or inaction is combat. Drill and ceremonies, that visual example of military discipline, was initially developed to use directly on the battlefield. It was training. Now it is an outward symbol of discipline, but marching formations are not used in combat. Uniformity and other regulations are made to instill the discipline that can be put to use in combat, the only place where it really, really matters. It is how soldiers can do unnatural things in stressful, dangerous situations. We usually think of this in relation to kinetic combat, but it also has meaning in non-kinetic counterinsurgency operations. NCO’s enforce standards, and when the commander is generating standards based on his needs in counterinsurgent combat, the NCO’s can understand and enforce those standards. The sidewalk discipline of garrison life must then morph into the battlefield discipline needed to be successful on the ground. The appearance of uniforms means nothing in the face of failure in the valleys and villages of Afghanistan. Commanders and senior NCO’s who understand and focus military discipline in Afghanistan gather and organize tons of information.
Masses of information need to be analyzed. The commander and NCO’s discussed above are at company level and below. The higher up the “food chain” you go, the more separated from the nitty gritty reality of the “eaches” you are. This is not how battalion and brigade commanders are trained to function. In maneuver warfare, the more information the higher level commanders possess, the better they can maneuver and influence the battlefield. We have developed magnificent tools for commanders to see exactly what is going on at the individual vehicle level. He can see where it is and he can check on what it is doing. He can control it if he wants to. In counterinsurgency, a battalion commander interjecting himself directly at the tactical level can be disastrous. At best, you have the least informed person in the chain making the tactical decision. The principle of Mission Command is critical. Violating this principle can have debilitating effects.
So what are higher headquarters good for in counterinsurgency? Platoons have nearly zero analytical horsepower. Companies have very little. Company level intelligence support teams (of various acronyms) were developed to help solve this problem. Battalions have more information crunching assets, and brigades have significant analytical capabilities. Lower echelons are awash in information, but creating a useful picture out of it is difficult at the lower level due to the lack of analytical capability. Higher echelons support lower echelons by providing the ability to analyze information and convert it to useful products for the lower echelons to make use of according to Mission Command. They help the lower level commander to visualize his operational area. The battalion and brigade commander need to be able to recognize poor counterinsurgency behavior when they see it and provide adjustments as necessary, but they should not be dictating the actions of subordinates in the same manner as they would in a maneuver fight.
Once a thorough understanding of the operational area is obtained, the counterinsurgent mission commander begins to decide upon his actions.
Simply stated, the main goal of the counterinsurgent is to bring conflict back into the political end of the spectrum and out of the realm of warfare. Political conflict through participation is the goal, even if there is a robust opposition movement. As long as violence is no longer a political tool, and the existing framework (government, constitution?) remains in place, the counterinsurgent is successful.
First of all, who are the counterinsurgents? Commonly, they are usually thought of as combat forces, but that is not true. They fall, simply, into one or more of three main lines of operation; Military/Security, Political (or Governance) and Development. Certainly the host nation government’s job is to counter the insurgency. We always think of the host nation military and other security forces, but what of the “line ministries?” We have already seen that it is a competition to govern, so they are to be included. What about foreign forces? We assume that the foreign military forces are counterinsurgents, but what of the other arms of foreign policy? What about IGO’s (International Government Organizations) like the UN? Government organizations (GO’s) such as the US State Department and USAID are counterinsurgents as well, but they may not see themselves as defined by this term, preferring the stability label. They often think of counterinsurgents with the combat label, too. Nonetheless, they are counterinsurgents. They are political and development counterinsurgents as opposed to those in the military/security fields.
Host nation government ministries and security forces are active counterinsurgents, or should be. Citizens who in their hearts want to support the government, or who want to see the government succeed, are unofficial, largely unmobilized counterinsurgents. Part of the job of the active counterinsurgents is to mobilize as many of these unmobilized counterinsurgents as possible. Trinquier wrote extensively about his concept of how to actively organize these unofficial counterinsurgents. Galula approached the subject more indirectly, discussing how the government needs to succeed in the competition to govern, bringing more active support from unofficial counterinsurgents by improving governance. Some have identified the tipping point in various counterinsurgencies as the “moment” when these unofficial counterinsurgents began to mobilize to action in significant numbers. “Action” does not necessarily mean picking up arms. It may mean the willingness to make a phone call, or to participate in or attend a local shura. It may mean letting their female children attend school. It may mean avoiding supporting the insurgents.
Members of the international community fall into two groups; counterinsurgents and unaligned humanitarian organizations. Unaligned organizations jealously guard their neutral status. They are NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) whose charters lead them to attempt to provide humanitarian services, such as medical services, in order to alleviate the suffering that populations are subject to in a war zone. They are unlikely to coordinate or share information with active counterinsurgents, but they are quite likely to consult frequently with insurgent leadership in order to gain access to populations held under insurgent sway or influence. They will not travel with counterinsurgents, but they will accept the protection of the insurgent. Counterinsurgents find this enormously frustrating, and it sometimes appears that the NGO’s are in bed with the insurgents. But counterinsurgents need to be realistic about it. Counterinsurgents will not, as a general rule, prevent access to NGO’s, whereas insurgents may not only prevent access but murder the NGO’s employees. The maintenance of neutrality, seemingly almost in favor of the insurgents, can be the difference between life and death.
NGO access is also often the extent to which insurgents are able to provide, or claim to sponsor, social services to the populations they “serve.” Again, the provision of social services has not been demonstrated to be a significant factor in the success of either insurgents or counterinsurgents, although counterinsurgents may put a lot of effort into providing social services in the (apparently mistaken) belief that this will sway populations. This is a common misinterpretation of the hated “hearts and minds” phrase.
The word, “victory,” is hard to define in an insurgency. Reading examinations by historians of various resolved insurgencies, it is remarkable how frequently the tipping point, or even the modality of how that tipping point was reached, is identified differently by different historians. Just take a look at the differing examinations of the Iraqi “surge narrative.” Even the defeat of the Malayan insurgency by the British has been subject to different historians reaching different, sometimes conflicting conclusions. In any case, insurgencies don’t end in obvious victory. There is no flag-raising. There is no triumphant moment when a platoon reports having reached the final objective, that resistance has ceased, and that the main follow-on forces are in sight, ready to consolidate their hold on the key terrain. None of that exists in a counterinsurgency operation. The word, “victory,” may only be used well in retrospect. The word, “success,” better describes what will be seen in the near to mid term.
When you set out on any endeavor where success and failure are possibilities, if you don’t have a goal in mind, it’s hard to even construct the plan. First, we must look at the causes and conditions that either gave rise to the insurgency or enabled it to develop. While instability does not always give rise to insurgency, instability will always be a feature of insurgency. We know that we have a domestic political situation which has entered the realm of warfare, and we know that conducting stability operations will be necessary. So you have an idea of what you’re there to do… or do you?
You have to understand what you’re in for.
There have been insurgencies against well-established governments, but the insurgency in Afghanistan is not one of those. There was no government after the Taliban vacated those offices. With the help of international assistance, whose individual national responsibilities were largely outlined in Bonn, a new government was constructed from the top down.
Remember, at the point of the Bonn Agreement no one, with the possible exception of the native Afghans involved in the process, whose numbers were limited, really knew what the internal problems in Afghanistan were/are. No one knew what the needs of the average Afghan were except in very broad human terms. Faced with the need to create an entire government from scratch, the western nations took a very western, top down approach. There appeared to be plenty of time to push governance out into the provinces, and it was assumed that there was no real competition to govern. The armed component appeared to be a counter-terror fight; stomping out brush fires of warlordism or Taliban leftovers, not a budding insurgency.
In retrospect, it could have been anticipated. However, the urge to lay blame for failures in the early stages shouldn’t be heeded. When we are too busy laying blame, we are not learning. This is about learning, not blaming. So, where we are is that we didn’t anticipate the emergence of an insurgency and tried to manage what appeared to be residual violence perpetuated by armed leftovers from the previous regime.
Having been established with the help of western democracies, the legitimacy of the government itself is in question. This is a consistent feature of insurgent IO (Information Operations, or their narrative); that the GIRoA is illegitimate, a puppet of the anti-Islamic west installed to subjugate the Afghan people to nefarious ends. Again, this doesn’t have to be true; just plausible in the minds of the receiving audience. In Afghanistan, this is plausible in the minds of enough people that this part of the insurgent narrative has not faded. It is also not diminished in the minds of those who have come into contact with corrupt elements of the Afghan government, whether it is ANP shaking them down for a few hundred Afghani at a checkpoint, a minor functionary demanding baksheesh for doing his job or a judge accepting a bribe to release a guilty man from the promise of justice.
All of this presents a significant challenge. How do the counterinsurgents bring the conflict back into the political end of the spectrum and out of the realm of warfare? Isn’t that the $64,000 question? It would seem if it were all that easy to define, we would have done it by now.
Much has been made of the provision of sanctuary to Afghan insurgencies by Pakistan. Whether it is completely voluntary on the part of Pakistan is open to debate, but there is no doubt that there is a certain amount of collusion on the part of, at a minimum, the ISI and the several insurgencies. Conventional wisdom states that an insurgency that has an external safe haven will win. Conventional wisdom is often roughly equal to pop-culture wisdom. It may have it right in general and still be deeply flawed.
It turns out that safe havens are certainly an enabler to insurgencies, but by no means a guarantee of success. In rural insurgencies such as those in Afghanistan, safe haven may be had one valley away from a relatively strong government presence. A more deciding factor in rural insurgencies is not whether there is a safe haven available, but if the government can actually assert its presence in these rural areas. In Afghanistan, it’s a combination of being present and being effective. Afghans love effective people. They refer to them as, “active.” If an Afghan says that a government official is “active,” he usually means that the official is effective, at least as far as that man is concerned. It’s effectiveness in a local context.
The failure to do this is more linked with failure for counterinsurgents than the ability of the insurgent to find safe haven.
We have been using data provided by Rand to explore why insurgencies end, and it turns out that they looked at the issue of safe havens as well. The Rand study examined 53 insurgencies that have been decided which included sanctuaries. Of these, 30 ended with government victories or mixed outcomes. That’s a 56% rate of a favorable or less than catastrophic ending with the existence of sanctuary. That’s opposed to 18 out of 21 when there was no sanctuary. What does this tell us?
This tells us that with the presence of a sanctuary, a successful or acceptable outcome resulted 8 percent less than two thirds of the time. This is a slight decrease from the overall outcomes discussed in the last post. But, in the absence of an insurgent sanctuary, the success rate of the counterinsurgents is much higher. The existence of sanctuary does not presage an insurgent victory.
Conventional wisdom busted.
The absence of sanctuary makes the counterinsurgent’s job much easier. So, lamenting the presence of sanctuaries in Pakistan is like crying because your car is the wrong color. It is what it is, but that does not mean that the insurgents will necessarily be successful. The presence and effectiveness of the government in rural areas is a much greater indicator of success or failure for counterinsurgents.
This does not mean that the Pakistanis should not be continuously pressured to step up. It means that safe havens are not a deal-killer. It also tells us where to focus our efforts. But, since we already know that insurgency is a competition to govern, it’s really no surprise that focusing on providing acceptable governance is really more of a key to success than whether or not the insurgents have a place to hide.
Insurgencies do not usually end with a bang. They usually end in a whimper. Statistically, according to Rand, out of 73 concluded insurgencies, 47 ended with either a government win or what Rand calls a “mixed outcome.” Rand considers a mixed outcome to be a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Government victories and negotiated endings are almost always whimpers. Insurgent success is usually with a bang. Almost exactly two thirds of insurgencies end in whimpers.
Galula described this effect, and described the political win as rendering the insurgent “irrelevant.” Galula pointed out that the goal of the counterinsurgent is to make the insurgent irrelevant and then the “true believers” are reduced to the level of violent criminals. When this happens, it is eventually a “win” for the government. But, I would consider a negotiated settlement a win as well.
Why would a negotiated settlement be a win? Let’s narrow down the bang and whimper thing. Insurgencies end with either the reintegration into the (non-violent) political process of the greater part of the insurgency, they end with a total changeover of the government (insurgent win), or they end up with the annihilation of the insurgent. Annihilation of the movements themselves are rare. The most recent example is the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan government. But there are few similarities and significant differences between the Tamil Tigers and Afghan insurgencies.
From what we see, nearly two thirds of insurgencies that have been decided ended either with reintegration of enough of the insurgency into the process to make further insurgency irrelevant or the total destruction of the insurgent. Let’s look at the first case, since the second is much rarer. Reintegration sometimes happened by the government responding to the legitimate concerns of the people and reducing the level of dissatisfaction (grievances) while simultaneously protecting both its own employees and the people themselves from insurgent influence. It sometimes happened through negotiating to bring the insurgents back into the political process. Either is acceptable, so long as the core values of the government are not breached. A combination would also work. The point is, when the political violence ends or ceases to be a serious threat to the government, the issues and contenders exit the realm of warfare and enter the realm of domestic politics. That is success, because the insurgency is effectively over, and it has not completely unseated the legitimate government.
The particulars of whether it is by reformation, negotiation or any mixture of both are irrelevant. The end result was the inclusion or re-inclusion of the formerly violent opposition into a civil political process, ending their participation in hostilities. That, truly is the goal of the counterinsurgent. Any other outcome is either indecisive or a loss for the counterinsurgent. Indecisive is when the fighting continues.
When the government wins, it is often not even apparent for some time. Governments usually win by a combination of factors that include some type of political reform. Either the government gets better, or it will likely lose. In a competition to govern, one path to success is to actually win in the area of governance. The violent component of insurgency can interfere with this to a great extent, so security is a key feature of success as well.
The most ideologically-driven insurgents will often “fight on” for years, but eventually become a criminal problem rather than a real political threat. Nonetheless, the apparent continuation of hostilities will often give the illusion of continued insurgency, but there is a point, which is very hard to describe or pinpoint, that insurgency degrades into a condition that looks more like Timothy McVeigh and less like Mao. That is the true tipping point, but it is often not clearly seen except in retrospect. That is a challenge for the government under threat of an insurgency, but it is even more of a challenge for the public support of international counterinsurgents; the home front.
National will is tested severely in counterinsurgencies. The will of the nation beset by an insurgency is severely tested, and the lives of its citizenry are at risk and often made miserable by the contest. The national will of nations assisting a counterinsurgency are also seriously tested, as we see in our own country. The significant delay in perception of when momentum actually shifts in a counterinsurgency is not a positive when it comes to maintaining public support for a course of action that includes active counterinsurgency by an international force.
The insurgency itself is also tested, and continuously so. Insurgents have natural strengths, such as the ability to remain largely difficult to detect. But they also have weaknesses or challenges to overcome, including morale, funding, recruitment, losses and sometimes even the basics like food and shelter. Weapons are not free, and neither is ammunition. In Afghanistan, it is remarkable that in many areas the insurgent can only afford to engage once every few days. This provides pressure on the insurgents to keep supplies coming. When governance improves and security is improved, local public support becomes harder to come by and information regarding the insurgents will begin to trickle in.
If things continue to improve, many pressures are put on the part-timers to quit showing up for ambushes. Finally, the local die-hards don’t quite quit at that point and probably never will. These long-term local engagements with insurgents are the real chess games in Afghanistan. They are like that weird 3-D game of chess on Star Trek, because each instance of the game will have three main components; military/security, governance and economic development. This game of 3-D chess is normally played out between locally savvy elder insurgents, generally one or more local GIRoA officials, and a series of Captains and Lieutenant Colonels who are on the ground for a year at a time. In the past couple of years, it has increasingly included USAID and State Department personnel. The insurgent competes in the military/security and governance lines and sometimes in the development line, although the insurgency itself provides little in the way of economic development.
By exception, in Afghanistan, poppy provides a significant example of how insurgents can provide development to serve their purposes. Of course, it’s not what we would like to see in long-term, sustainable development, but I submit that it is an example of insurgents manipulating the economy and providing employment opportunities. Insurgents may also control the access of humanitarian organizations to create the impression of providing services or development. However, there is no strong evidence that not providing social services has ever led to the failure of an insurgency. There is also no strong evidence that the provision of social services will result in a government win. Providing effective and acceptable governance, on the other hand, unarguably does often result in government wins. The provision of social services is a feel-good action that is not synonymous with good governance.
Statistically, the longer an insurgency is dragged out, the incidents of counterinsurgent wins actually increase slightly. But the loss or unreliability of foreign support has been a significant factor in a number of insurgent wins. Foreign forces engaged in counterinsurgencies are successful a little less than 50 percent of the time; if “government wins” is the measure of success as used by Rand. However, if we consider a success to include negotiated solutions that bring an end to insurgency, then the success rate of foreign active interventions is 12 of 17 or 70%.
As we’ve seen, about two thirds of insurgencies end with what could be termed success for the sitting government. While the outright collapse of insurgencies is included in that two thirds, more often it is by degrees and may include negotiated settlements. Quite often, it is months after the tipping point is reached before it is apparent that an insurgency is subsiding.
This describes how insurgencies have tended to work out, and a few examples of how these principles apply in Afghanistan. Obviously, we are trying to work this one into the two thirds of “successful” outcomes.
A success will sound more like a whimper than a bang. This doesn’t sit so well in a country that likes touchdowns, home runs and actually seeing someone win on “The Biggest Loser” or “American Idol.” Yet, that’s exactly what we are striving for. The next question is, “How do we fit Afghanistan into that successful, whimpering two thirds?”
There were some questions and comments left in comments on the last post, and they deserved response. I’d like to answer these questions and add some observations to the comments.
This would be appropriate to ask….is what’s happening in Egypt and what happened in Tunisia, insurgency?
I haven’t been tracking on Tunisia long enough to know if there was an insurgency there or not prior to the outbreak of popular demonstrations. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence and so they are not an insurgent group, although they have some of the hallmarks of being a nascent insurgency. One of these hallmarks is being outside of the normal political process; but Muslim Brotherhood candidates instead run as independents and hold seats in the Egyptian legislature, which makes them part of the political process.
Insurgency is where politics meets violence, but not all political violence is insurgency. For instance, Timothy McVeigh thought he was an insurgent, but he had no significant base of support and very little organized militant support. Instead of sparking a more widespread insurgency or, his dream response, a popular uprising, he was captured, charged, tried, convicted and executed as a criminal.
An organization like the Muslim Brotherhood could have developed into an insurgency quite easily, though. One of the reasons is because they have been banned by the Egyptian government on several occasions. This would push them towards not being able to participate legally in the political process. However, the members simply ran for Parliament as independents. The group still had political input and took part in the legitimate political process.
What appears to be happening in Tunisia and Egypt is every insurgent’s dream… sparking a spontaneous popular uprising. However, I see no evidence that either of these was sparked by insurgents. Opposition groups may have had a hand in their origins or propagation, but that is the difference between insurgency and popular uprising.
If the Egyptian uprising is quelled, especially by government violence against the people, without resolving the causes and conditions that sparked the unrest in the first place, an insurgency may (likely will) develop. If the government finds a way to address the grievances of the people and they return to their homes in a sign of acceding to the rule of the government, then change has been brought and the government survives. If the government does not succeed in assuaging the anger of the people, it may face either a popular revolt too powerful to quell or a launch into insurgency. This is a very delicate situation and could head in any of these directions based on the response of the government and particularly its choices regarding violence against the people.
Are insurgencies popular-led, or are they person-led?
Insurgency is that place on the political scale where one or more groups either fails to engage or is unable to engage in the “normal” political process and they become willing to kill in order to get their way. The willingness to kill is what separates it from just another opposition group.
Insurgencies must have leadership. The three things that exist to create an insurgency are grievances, leadership to direct that dissatisfaction into action, and a (real or perceived) weakness in governance. The weakness in government can be physical or ethical/ideological. Physical weakness is the inability to provide governance. Ethical/ideological weakness is the inability or unwillingness to govern in such a way that is acceptable to the people. This does not mean all of the people. It means that there must be a large enough portion of the people who are dissatisfied to support an insurgency. As we see in Afghanistan, that percentage can be quite small.
Most of the popular grievances will likely be based on ethical weakness, such as corruption or incompetence. However, the leadership of the various insurgencies are only taking advantage of these weaknesses in order to further their cause against the government, which is ideological. The higher up the insurgent strata we go, the more we will find ideological differences. Most people aren’t willing to kill over a bit of corruption in their local government. It can be brought to that point by leadership with either the promise of a new system that solves all of their problems (if those problems are severe enough) or a competing system that has the ability to dominate their lives on a relatively consistent basis. I believe that we see the latter in goodly areas of Afghanistan.
There are enough popular grievances against the existing government that some local residents are willing to throw in with the ideologically-based leadership. In Afghanistan, we find an ideological core that finds itself capable of competing for governance in many areas. This ability is often for lack of sufficient GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) presence to actually govern. In the lack of opposition or competition, the presence of that government may have been sufficient, but there is by definition competition to govern in these areas; they have designated “shadow governors” and administrations to varying degrees. Therefore, the weak government presence practically invites successful competition. Often the first organ of competitive government in Afghanistan can be found in the form of courts.
The leadership can be based upon one main leader and a lot of subordinate leaders, or it can be based on a disparate group of leaders who begin to cooperate. Local leadership is usually necessary, as otherwise the violence has no focus and becomes disconnected from the political goals. The thing that separates an insurgency from simple criminality is that the violence is performed in pursuit of a political goal, so that linkage has to be there. In any real insurgency, there will be leadership. That leadership will often be more ideologically driven than the part-time members or casual fighters.
Being ideologically driven, they will be students of insurgency, and so they will often study relevant materials (open-source warfare, anyone?). One of the things that Moa did extraordinarily well was to teach how to incorporate the real grievances of the people into the ideologically-based narrative of the insurgent. The number of “true believers” will be much smaller than the whole, but the rest of the whole needs to be mobilized. If you are an ideological insurgent leader, once you have mobilized more people, then you can work on their ideological “education.” They are already on your side at that point. But they are not overwhelmingly drawn to your cause initially by ideology; you mobilized them due to their personal issues and concerns.
One of the strengths of insurgents is to identify these issues and concerns, real or imagined, and play upon those themes. They make it part of their narrative and work to convince the people of either the rightness of their cause or the inevitability of their victory.
Is an insurgency necessarily armed or can it be an action against, without again necessarily looking at a foreign power/ occupier or incumbent presidency (who by extension are supported by foreign powers)?
Insurgencies often do not start as armed movements. In Afghanistan, we have a previously armed group who were never dissolved. They melted away in the last days of the victory of the Northern Alliance, who were being assisted by American air power and combat forces, but they were never either annihilated or reintegrated in any way with the new government structure. Many did simply return to their homes or they never left them. Some, more recognizable to, for instance, American commanders had to flee. There a few FOBs built on land that is/was owned by absent Taliban leaders. One that I have visited several times, FOB Khogyani, was literally built around a Taliban commander’s house.
In any case, there was an armed cadre left over from the old regime. Some were “hiding in plain sight” and still intimidating their neighbors. Others fled to Pakistan, from whence some have returned and some find it more useful to remain safe. But they pre-existed the current government. After a period of latency, they reasserted themselves. The insurgency, like the counterinsurgency, has evolved.
But, by definition, insurgency opposes a government or other “ruling force,” like an occupation (which our forces in Afghanistan are not). The Afghan insurgencies oppose GIRoA and seek to overthrow it in favor of their own form(s) of governance. As opposed to an opposition group (which may grow into an insurgency), an insurgency has crossed the line into violence. Must they be armed? At a minimum, they must be armed with a fist. Upgrades are often necessary to compete with the government asserting its monopoly on violence, however. Our modern insurgents have graduated from fist to RPG, AK, PKM and IED.
Last, is popular-people-power the new future of war and how are governments prepared to settle these conflicts, if they are?
This is a little more of a higher-level question, but it goes to Stability, so let’s take a shot at it a little.
The short answer is yes; at least for the foreseeable future… but it isn’t really a new problem. It’s a problem as old as governments themselves, but with the added capabilities that globalization has provided to sub-national or trans-national organizations.
People will take a lot of crap in order to maintain the status quo, but they can only be pushed so far or kept down so long. When there is enough popular disapproval, or pain, they will potentially explode at the slightest spark; like what we have in Egypt right now. Popular-people-power is how we believe, as Americans, that government should be established. What we seem to forget sometimes is our commitment to “self-determination of peoples.” In other words, if popular-people-power rises up and takes down a government, and the majority of them want to install a king rather than elect a president, as long as the people consent to be governed in that fashion, isn’t it in our best interests for that government to actually govern?
In any case, popular-people-power has been the ascendant power for centuries. Stable governments are cautious of it and actively address the concerns of the people. At a minimum, they don’t make them miserable. Instability can occur where there are either ideological or ethical issues with the government. In areas where there are both, all hell can break loose. A sitting government can actively address the concerns of the people and potentially remain seated, but by the time there are revolts such as the one in Egypt, it may be too late. The key figure in that government may have become personally reprehensible to the people. Such situations are rarely successfully salvaged.
So, the “new future of war?” No, we see this throughout history, such as our own history, or say, the French Revolution. However, if we look at the future of war in the near term, do we see large peer-competitors looming in the immediate future who seem bent on taking actions such that we would have to oppose them with armed might? I submit that the only potential competitor of such a nature would be China, and there is no real evidence at this point that they will embark on a scheme of world domination by force of arms.
North Korea is another potential flash point for conventional war, but South Korea is much more capable than most give credit for, and I don’t believe that North Korea could successfully attack South Korea. I feel that this is unlikely to occur, though constant saber-rattling is to be expected.
We are currently faced by an ideological outbreak that is fueled in part by political, social and economic factors that drive people to look for answers. This is not an isolated instance of this. For some throughout history, the answer has been religion. For others, the answer was more secular; like Communism. Regardless, there are a bunch of people who are looking for answers as to why their situations suck; and what can be done about it. For this particular outbreak, the seekers are Muslim and for many, the answer found is in religion. For the hardcore ideologues, their interpretation of the religious basis for their solution includes a couple of ideas that make them remarkably poor world citizens… and a danger to the citizens of nations whom they deem to be a part of their problem; like us.
They are driven by an ideology that includes, as have some interpretations of Christianity that have been accepted down through the ages, the concept that God has commissioned them to conquer the world for Him. It is their duty. Does every Muslim subscribe to this theory? No, clearly not. But the ones who do are transnational ideologues who are not constrained by national identity. In fact, the weaker their host, the more they like it. Good examples of excellent host entities would be the Afghan government under the Taliban, the largely ungoverned spaces in western and northwestern Pakistan, Yemen and various African nations. Ungoverned or under-governed spaces are good havens for global insurgents.
You asked about the nature of warfare, but it’s not just a warfare challenge. It could also be considered a foreign policy challenge. We are learning in Afghanistan that these challenges are not always best dealt with militarily. Fully two thirds of the effort in Afghanistan is actually civilian in nature. Stability is not simply reliant upon security or the ability to project force effectively. It also depends upon governance and economic capacity.
Stability is a good thing for other nations, particularly well-developed nations, because we get blamed for the perception of “being in control.” That makes us a target, because we are seen as part of a system that keeps the governments in place that many consider to be oppressive, such as that in Egypt.
It appears that the future of conflict in the next couple of decades will be driven by non nation-state entities who have the ability to project violence on what was formerly a nation-state scale. But that doesn’t mean that it is just a military problem. As we are learning in Afghanistan, there are other tools of foreign policy that can be leveraged to avoid conflict altogether. Of course, cutting all funding for USAID, as proposed recently in Congress, is not going to make it any easier to deal with these issues through capacity building and raises the likelihood that the problems will progress to a scale where military intervention becomes more attractive.
The question is whether we choose to deal with potential safe havens for extremists via a shift in foreign policy oriented towards capacity building or whether we will depend on our intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security and eventually punitive or regime-changing military action. Our recent experiences with regime change demonstrates how difficult, expensive and dangerous that can be.
I still cannot understand, even after seeing it firsthand in OIF, the ability of a small number of violent insurgents to cow whole villages into silence. It’s not like weapons are scarce in either Iraq of AFG, so why does it take so much for the people to fight back?
A good parallel to the situation in places like Afghanistan or Iraq is what happens in a neighborhood here in the United States when the neighborhood is beset by drug-related gang violence. As a matter of fact, police departments are studying COIN doctrine because there are so many parallels. The dynamics of insurgency are remarkably similar to the dynamics of organized criminality. The parallels even go to the point that strong drug-funded gangs sometimes actually compete for governance, becoming “the law” in discrete areas where even the police are intimidated, never mind the local population. Relatively small groups of armed individuals can cow entire communities with the threat of violence. Sometimes they can overwhelm local law enforcement with their capabilities.
The real difference between criminal drug gangs and true insurgents is that the gangs lack a truly political goal. This demonstrates the political nature of insurgency. But the dynamics are similar, and so we can see how a group of people can be cowed into submission by a much smaller group that is ready and willing to use violence as a tool.
Now add to that the conditioning that Afghan civilians have undergone in the past several decades. Survival strategies include avoidance of commitment. The average Afghan isn’t so different from the average American in a lot of ways, including a desire to just make it through the current troubles and emerge on the other side… whatever that may look like… still alive and with their family more or less intact. When the end result of taking a stand can include death, it may seem reckless to take that stand. Keeping those people on the fence is part of the insurgent strategy.
But none of that will work until you can clean out most of the corruption. Even clean cops won’t help if the lawyers and judges are dirty.
Great point, and very true. This is precisely the issue that causes the most heartbreak for GIRoA in many areas of Afghanistan. The Judicial system is a wreck, and you are right; clean cops who keep running into this wall of (in)justice get frustrated and often wind up taking part in this “race for corruption.” Every person who enters the system becomes a potential miniature gold mine. Those who can’t pay are eaten.
That is precisely one of the conditions that not only keeps the insurgency alive by convincing people, one family at a time, that the current government does not serve them. It is also that weak link that insurgents target to provide shadow government services, in this case courts. Courts that the people will willingly use because they are swift, enforceable and (relatively) incorrupt. Absolutely Maoist in strategy and behavior, the Afghan insurgency is finding that in this area they can easily out-govern the government.
Now ask me how that can be overcome.
This is a snippet made by Robert Jones over at Small Wars Journal.
We need to evolve. As I said, Pop-centric COIN was a half-measure evolution. A change of tactical focus without the requisite change of strategic perspective. The change of strategic perspective is that causation for insurgency radiates out from the government, and that in today’s world the interests of powerful external states are better met by helping populaces have the governance THEY want, rather than forcing them to submit to the governance that WE want.
I enjoy many of the comments that Robert C. Jones puts up over at SWJ. He’s one of the most considered and intelligent commenters who frequent the site. His thought above is very brief, but it encompasses a set of ideas that bears a tremendous amount of reflection. It is also something that we attempted to teach at the CTC-A. At least, some of us did.
While many critics of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan speak of strategy, their use of the term is an excuse for failure to visualize. It is all too often used as some sort of overarching trump card which then excuses the inability to resolve a difficult and complicated issue. Words like, “strategy,” and “national interest” are often used by many who want to put their own spin on what those things are, to provide their own interpretation. Over time, a chorus of voices saying these things can generate memes that mutate and replicate. This is especially true when such memes alleviate responsibility for truly appreciating complex issues that require more than a military response. Killing is easy. Building the capacity to govern is not. Building the capacity to govern in a locally acceptable way is even more difficult. Using such terms as “strategy” and “national interest” as exculpatory trump cards excusing intellectual laziness is unacceptable.
I don’t know if my thoughts on a “requisite change in strategic perspective” agrees with Mr. Jones’, although I do agree with his simple statement. I don’t agree with anyone who insists that “pop-centric COIN” has truly been adopted as the strategy employed in Afghanistan. I do think that there are units that are doing it fairly well, and those who simply cannot employ it due to a number of factors. To me, what we have is a strategic perspective that has significant static inertia facing a world that requires some movement of this perspective. While Mr. Jones’ statement appears to relate to strategic perspective as it applies to forcing a certain type of governance on any given population, I see it as larger than that. I also see the the issue of what is in our national interest as larger than what many critics seem to think.
Population-centric COIN has been described as a failure. It is a failure because we cannot perform this function, not because it is a flawed approach. I have seen it applied in discrete situations, and it has been effective when applied adequately; meaning that it does not have to be done perfectly. The failure occurs because we are demonstrating ourselves to be institutionally incapable of adaptation. Is this driven by strategic perspective? I would have to say, “Yes.”
This brings us to the second part of Mr. Jones’ statement; that the interests of powerful external states are better served by helping populaces have the governance THEY want, rather than forcing them to submit to the governance that WE want. This accepts the presumption that our interests are served by populations being governed. As we see in places like Yemen, ungoverned spaces and peoples provide dangerous breeding grounds for what we have come to call “terrorists.” We all agree that terrorism is a problem, and one that our approaches over the past 50 years have neither contained nor diminished. In fact, the problem has gotten worse. The old policies of military might and specialized anti-terror units attempting to contain terrorism has not brought good results. Afghanistan was a largely ungoverned space, and what government was provided was in sync with the leadership of groups who espoused the use of violence to attempt to influence our national policies. Ungoverned spaces and peoples are not good for us. But what to do about that?
The United States has long gone on about “self-determination of peoples.” I would submit that throughout the Cold War, we did not truly subscribe to our own theory. Direct interference led to such debacles as the installation of the Shah in Iran. It turned out that the Shah was a despot, and when he was eventually overthrown, we then concealed and protected the Shah from his own people who, as people who have suffered despotism are wont to do, wished to try him according to their laws and customs and probably put the ailing Shah to death. “What would our other allies think,” our politicians and state department officials wondered, “if we demonstrated that we do not ‘have their backs?'”
Well, it might have given them the idea that they were, indeed, subject to being accountable to their own people.
By protecting the Shah and providing him medical care during his battle with cancer, we earned the long-lasting hatred of the Iranian people. We proved our own talk of self-determination to be just noise. We betrayed our own national values. Our leaders at that time would say that they did it for a greater purpose; to contain the spread of Communism. It is not clear if installing the Shah in Iran hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. It is not clear if providing sanctuary to the Shah in exile hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. It is unlikely that evoking the everlasting ire of the Iranian nation and suffering the ignoble occupation of the US Embassy and the holding of over 50 Americans hostage for nearly two years hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. But it did leave a legacy which had nothing to do with the Soviet Union and follows us decades after the dissolution of that threatening specter.
During the Cold War there were numerous instances of such manipulations in the internal politics of other countries. We supported a number of questionable regimes simply because of their staunch anti-Communism. We trained and funded the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan and Pakistan because they were a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union, and when the Soviet Union fled Afghanistan, we fairly abandoned the Afghans to their fate. Whether our strategic perspectives contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union is open to debate. But the decisions that we made under that strategic perspective established many of the issues that plague us to this day. Yet we continue to view both the world and our approach to nations such as Afghanistan through lenses ground by the same optician. We set about to make the world safe for democracy, and in demanding that others wind up looking like ourselves, we shot ourselves in the foot.
Governance and well-governed people are good for the rest of the world, and insisting that they emulate our government and lifestyle does not necessarily help us to achieve that end.
The current situations in Tunisia and Egypt show us that the political situation in the Middle East is changeable. There are a number of potential turns this process may take that are positive… and it is just as likely that the changes will not be “positive” to our national interests as we understand them currently. If the government of Egypt falls, for instance, the most organized group that would be prepared to take advantage of the vacuum would be the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m not sure that they would be amenable towards the West in general. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage with them and seek opportunities to be of assistance with regards to building capacity. There is just a good a chance that Baradei will be successful in gathering a coalition and working to provide an Egyptian government that is dedicated to addressing the grievances of the Egyptian people while providing a moderate government. Either way, it is in our best interest that there is no civil war in Egypt. It is in our best interest for Egypt to be a governed space.
The same goes for Yemen. Do those nations have to be western-style democracies? I don’t think that our capacity-building efforts need to be predicated upon this. From what we have seen, even in fairly tightly-controlled regimes, as the population becomes educated and aware of the outside world, they want more freedoms. Witness Iran. Iran has a fairly strict government with an entrenched political leadership, and yet there is a thriving opposition movement. Every government has the opportunity to address the grievances of the people. Insurgencies are fueled by dissatisfaction and revolutions are based upon it. When a government works to address the grievances of the citizens, then insurgencies and revolutions are averted. We sometimes consider revolution a positive thing, but I question whether we are fueling further problems by trying to foment them when it is perceived to be in our interest. Perhaps it is best to work to build capacity and allow the natural development of people take its course. Education and the ability to reach out to the rest of the world through such means as the internet can do more to advance the desire for liberty more than any overt acts by the United States.
From an email from a friend, MP, seeking input on understanding Afghanistan:
I’m missing a narrative for the war in Afghanistan. That certainly needs to start at the very top of the civilian leadership, be reinforced by military leadership, and be lived by all involved.
I mean, if you ask most people what it’s about they might be able to say something about denying the enemy (AQ, Taliban) a safe haven from which to operate and hurt us at home.
And I think many people who read milblogs might be able to tell you a story or two about individual courage and sacrifice amongst our warriors.
But what is totally absent is the whole middle part. In Iraq, the Army didn’t do a great job with that either, but they did put out some stuff that the milblogs were able to amplify with their coverage.
For example, where are the Travis Patriquins of the war in Afg? The COL MacFarlands? They brought Petraeus back but where is he? Where are the stories that Roggio used to cover so well, talking about the Anbar Awakening before it was called that? Or giving context to operations like those which severed the “ratlines” from Syria?
The military doesn’t even seem to bother with dopey stories about opening schools or helping farmers anymore. That’s pretty bad! Because if they did even that, perhaps some bloggers would publish them with commentary that could stimulate thinking and conversation.
What MP is actually looking for is that mid- to low-level narrative that describes what our Soldiers and Marines are doing on the ground. Of course, my response is to go on about statements of national strategy. But that’s where the narrative begins. I will tell you that the mid- to low-level narrative is stronger on the ground in Afghanistan… at least in some circles… than it is here. There is such a tremendous disconnect between the national conversation regarding Afghanistan here in the US and what is actually being done on the ground over there. That disconnect has left gaping holes in the narrative here, and those gaping holes leave broad spaces where there is no ability to connect with what our Soldiers and Marines are actually doing there on a day-to-day basis. This is where MP senses the lack of narrative; it is the narrative that MP looks for and wishes to connect with. And, sadly, it’s missing. From my perspective, that comes from the top.
The missing narrative starts with the civilian leadership and extends from there. The civilian leadership doesn’t know how to clearly articulate its goals in a simple and accurate message. Obama states some fairly nebulous goals that appear to be disconnected from our actions on the ground. I mean, for the average citizen, what does rendering al Qaeda harmless have to do with “nation-building” in Afghanistan? Isn’t al Qaeda mostly in Pakistan now? What about Yemen? The narrative is broken from the top down, from that first sentence. It’s a failure in leadership, leaving a vacuum that is filled with a sea of voices all shouting to be heard. People try to interpret the narrative from that sentence on down, and the lack of clarity in instilling a visualization of what it’s supposed to look like juxtaposed with actions that don’t seem to entirely suit the scant high-level narrative leaves a lot of room for that cacophony to grow. The individual voices in that sea are influenced by their own standpoints and goals. Most just repeat buzzwords and really can’t envision the problem they are trying to solve with any clarity themselves. It’s outside of their frame of reference, which often gets more rigid with age and not more flexible.
In warfare in general, but counterinsurgency in particular, there are always at least three narratives, but they respond to each other and bounce off of each other. There is the official narrative, the unofficial narrative (the media), and then there is the enemy narrative, which is compared to and contrasted against the official narrative. The unofficial or popular (media) narrative is critical of the official narrative; it questions it, explores it and hammers it when it is in any way deficient, false or inconsistent. The enemy narrative is often delivered unfiltered and without substantive critique.
No one here in the US has a clear grasp of what is going on there, but oh so many cry out to be heard. With the “official” narrative weaker than water, it’s easy to lose reality in the sea of voices who shout down each other in competition to become the main narrative. Again, it’s a question of leadership, and at the upper levels, our leadership’s message is weak. The mid and lower level messages will stem from the overarching narrative, but that overarching narrative doesn’t seem to describe what we are actually doing on the ground, and so there is a disconnect. It cannot begin with GEN Petraeus’ narrative. His narrative must support and inform the national discourse. Without the underpinnings of a clear statement that his narrative dovetails with, it is cast adrift and easily derided as being somehow unsupported and unsupportable. The last general who tried to command the narrative, unsupported by the civilian leadership, is now in unscheduled retirement.
Disconnects leave a vacuum, and politics (the narratives are all about politics), like nature, abhors a vacuum. Communications abhors a vacuum as well, and competing interests will always vie for influence over the narrative… especially when the narrative has no central theme. Afghanistan is more confusing than Iraq in many ways, and so the narrative is difficult to begin with, but our national narrative is so scattered that it almost seems not to exist. MP is not the only one who misses it and looks for it. Everyone does in one way or another, and so the dominant narrative here is a disjointed argument over bullshit.
For me, what is most troubling about this disconnect are the memes that arise from the cacophony and eventually become accepted as truths. Folks, a lot of our “talking heads” are talking out of the other end, but they sound so sage while doing it that when they further a meme, you wouldn’t know it. And they’re paid to know what they’re talking about, right? Yeah, in a perfect world. There are only a couple of journalists out there who know COIN from a hole in the ground. It’s like chewing broken glass to listen to them flail away at the concept. It’s stunning that some of most educated observers who do understand it cannot enunciate it clearly, and when they do they are shouted down by the mass of voices competing to gain control of the narrative left adrift, often for their own reasons. There is no room for a consistent mid- or low-level narrative to emerge from this. Military commentators like COL Gentile and politically-driven think-tankers like Michael Cohen wouldn’t be able to propagate their memes if the successes that do exist were properly documented and narrated. They would be forced to think harder and be more rigorous in their criticisms. Cohen and Gentile’s personal narratives haven’t progressed in over three years because they haven’t needed to. They, and others, can criticize a weakly stated strategy easily with broad and unsupported strokes and reduce the narrative to a squabble over tactics that could be put to bed readily with an accurate tactical narrative that didn’t look like a kaleidoscope.
What would our narrative look like? I don’t think that “feel good” type stories of the type that we saw in the early days would do it for me. Building schools always looks good, but it may not be the best thing for a given community at a given time. Stories that give the background of why a decision has been made, that show the details of really excellent stabilization activities would really grab me. I would love to see a narrative about the successes that Community Development Councils have achieved while our Soldiers and Marines helped to provide the requisite bubble of security, working hand in hand with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). A narrative that shows our young men and women, both civilian and military, engaging in reestablishing local capacity to manage their own affairs in a mode higher than basic survival mode would be awesome; because this is happening in discrete local areas in Afghanistan. A narrative that shows that the shift is happening from a centralized government focus to building the solid footing of local governance would be great. A strong narrative would show that these traditional local structures have in the past and can now be linked in an Afghan way to a central government, that this cross-pollination of legitimacy at the local and national levels is an Afghan phenomenon and that we are learning to foster this. A great narrative would put to rest the exotification of Afghans, showing them for the human beings that are more similar to our great grandparents than we are. A great narrative would show the progress that our Soldiers and Marines are risking life and limb to enable, and the hard work being done by smart people from USAID and State to assist. A great narrative would show the heroism not only of these best and brightest that America has to offer, but would also highlight the heroism of our Afghan allies (which I know is there, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes). Now that would be a narrative.
It would also be a narrative that would engender truly thoughtful and incisive criticism which would lead to sharpening the edge rather than being mere oppositional horseshit. A true dialog would be a lot more helpful than a bunch of shrieking voices all in opposition to each other, almost none of which really know what they’re talking about.
Information dominance starts with strongly and clearly stating your objectives and then ensuring that all of your actions are in support of that clearly stated goal. When everyone knows what right is supposed to look like, then they can recognize what wrong looks like and offer truly constructive criticism. A real narrative would look more like a steady stream of consciousness instead of a cacophony of geese staking out nesting sites.
Yeah, MP, we are all missing that narrative.
There’s an interesting article posted over at Small Wars Journal that brings up some thoughts I have on the subject.
In my experience in Afghanistan as both an embedded adviser and with the COIN Center, I had many and various experiences from the military side of the house with civilians of many flavors. In 2007, there was a dearth of US civilians on the ground. In 2009-2010, I witnessed the “civilian surge” and its effects.
My overall impression of Afghan government officials is that they are, to a man, in over their heads. From Karzai on down to the district Sub-Governors, not a one has managed so much as a township-sized administration prior to be being thrown into their current position. Afghanistan had/has no “institutional memory.” If I were put in charge of my state’s Highway Department, although I am unskilled, there is enough institutional memory present to keep things from becoming a total disaster for at least a period of time. People raised within that system know how things are done, and things will get done to a greater or lesser extent. Over a longer period, my incompetence at running a highway department would eventually put a lot of drag on the organization. But in the short to medium term, things would run.
Afghanistan, and many other countries which we would seek to provide stability assistance to, has no institutional memory. Their administrators and managers have long since been run off or killed. COIN does not function as a self-standing strategy for resolving instability, it is a methodology for fighting against an active insurgency, but it does not resolve the causes and conditions that gave rise to the insurgency to begin with. Instability is an incubator for insurgency. The military role in the stability operations required to remove these underpinnings is the lesser of the three main lines of effort.
I have seen a lot of dedicated people doing really great things; things that never get trumpeted or even spoken about here stateside. But 350 is not nearly enough good people to really make the stability progress needed to remove the underpinnings of an insurgency. The Afghan National Army is one of the greater successes in Afghanistan to this point, and its successes have been due to mentoring; being present. Money is not the solution, although it costs money. But these Afghan civil servants with no prior experience and no institutional memory to support them truly need mentoring. Without it, they fall back on the types of behaviors that are spawned as survival mechanisms in “conflict ecosystems.” We use their incompetence as further proof that they do not deserve our “blood and treasure.”
I echo those first two commenters at SWJ who have seen greatly capable people disabled by archaic management. The military has struggled with the massive paradigm shift of COIN Operations with wildly varying degrees of success (and failures that are inappropriately rewarded because Afghanistan is not worth a single officer’s career unless it is an infraction of political correctness… and we can’t punish what we ourselves cannot define as failure, anyway). All the while, the military has dealt with infighting and malcontents who simply do not want to fight this kind of war and dicker endlessly about a doctrine that has never truly been applied across the spectrum. Any argument about FM 3-24 that includes reference to its having taken over the military culture is fatally flawed from the start. Noise and smoke do not a takeover make.
In short, no one is truly leading the way. Everyone is making excuses ranging from, “FM 3-24 simply doesn’t work, anyway,” to “It’s not critical to our national interests,” to the equivalent of, “Afghans are alien creatures incapable of governing themselves and undeserving of our best efforts.” The battle for modernity is not being fought in the villages of Afghanistan so much as it is within our own institutions, and those comments above illustrate this. It is our internal struggle to adapt to the changes that globalization have wrought upon our world. Old world views clash with the concepts that are inherent with the realization that the world has irrevocably changed. Apathy driven by the urge to endlessly examine one’s own navel in a poor economy, the lack of direct impact on the greatest mass of Americans and blaming foreign policy for poor responses to a changing world economy exacerbates this and makes for some strange political bedfellows.
The absence of an obviously existential threat means that no patriotism is required, right? We are all in this for the money and our careers and there is no need for discomfort and risk. Our own tactical commanders often illustrate the resulting risk aversion and zero-defect mentalities (see MAJ Jeremy Kotkin’s recent article at SWJ). If this view is prevalent in the military, then why should civil servants not follow suit? Where is the requirement to endanger oneself or even suffer discomfort; isn’t that what a professional military is for?
I’m not sure that a Civil Service draft is the answer, but this article is a strong statement about the fact that, in a three-pronged approach, we are not doing very well. IF we achieve some limited success in Afghanistan, it will be because there are a lot of smart, energetic people out there (including Afghans) who are doing the best they can, largely unsupported by cumbersome and archaic institutions, and getting some good things done. I do know that on the ground, “Afghan good” is good enough… but we struggle to get to even that standard.