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 31 Jan 2011 @ 10:08 AM 

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.

Tags Tags: , , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, analysis, Stability Operations
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 31 Jan 2011 @ 10 08 AM

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 20 Jan 2011 @ 12:08 PM 

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.

 05 Jan 2011 @ 12:38 PM 

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.

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