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.
I have recently returned from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan working for the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan. I traveled extensively over the East and Southwest Regions, including a fair amount of time spent in Helmand Province. I found it to be expeditious not to blog during most of my tour, as it would have interfered with my full time job and prevented me from being able to accomplish some things that I am very proud to have been a part of. I am returning to the conversation regarding Afghanistan having witnessed and learned much.
COL Gentile has (nearly four months after the fact) commented on my last post. Here is what he had to say in comments:
Insurgencies may be local, but STRATEGY should determine if our response to it if any, should be local. By stating such things like “all” Coin must therefore be local too you commit us to an operational template of clear, hold, build in expeditionary form and along with Old Blue the promise of reenacting David Galula and his counter maoist template in the modern troubled spots of the world.
You guys still dont get it; I am not talking the tactics of Coin, I am talking about the Strategy that should decide if and when and how it should ever be put into place.
Sure Blue, deploy the E card; but just remember Hans Delbruke had no military experience whatsoever yet provided one of the most cogent criticisms of the Prussian military of his time. Yet for you, in how you assert the fact that you have been to Afghanistan therefore know more than others, and the rest of us should just shut up and bow to your experience when we dont agree with you.
Come on my friend, get a clue.
It’s as good an invitation back to the fray as can be found at this point. So here I go…
I agree that strategy determines whether or not to employ counterinsurgency as the approach for resolving an issue. However, if you are faced with an insurgency while working with a developing country, it’s a little hard to justify a different approach, even if your role is simply an advisory one. Just as when a partner country is attacked conventionally, as in the Gulf War, the response is then conventional.
That is, assuming that you choose to respond. We could have chosen to tolerate the fall of Kuwait to Iraq’s invasion and just shrug it off. We found this to be unacceptable and so the response was a forcible eviction of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. COIN would not have been an effective approach to resolve this issue once the decision was made to evict the Iraqis. Just so, once the decision has been made to support the host nation in defeating an insurgency, COIN would be the methodology of choice. So, yes, strategy does determine the employment of COIN. Once that course has been selected, in COIN it is a short throw between strategy and tactics, as there is not a lot of operational art in COIN.
In maneuver warfare, brigade commanders tell battalions where to go and what to do. Battalion commanders tell companies where to go and what to do. Neither usually dictates exactly how to do what they are tasked with doing, but the subordinate elements have pretty precise direction about what they are to achieve as part of the larger plan. For years, we have worked to employ technologies that give higher commanders more and more ability to see and control to the minute level should they choose to. Blue Force Tracker, for instance, gives higher echelon commanders the ability to see to the individual vehicle level what is going on and, if desired, to direct the movements of individual elements. We have seen this in Afghanistan, such as when individual illumination missions have been overridden by a Colonel over 100 Km distant.
I stand by my assertion that insurgency is a political problem. It is the spot on the political scale where the social contract breaks and politics turns violent internally. This is as opposed to an open insurrection (the French word for insurgency is “insurrection,” but in English we do not use the words interchangeably), where there is a popular revolt. An insurgency is typically a smaller political element, the members of which refuse to submit to what we would describe as a legitimate government. We could devolve at this point into a discussion regarding legitimacy, but that would be a digression, so we will skip it. The point remains that insurgency is a political situation turned violent.
That being said, we all accept the statement that, “all politics is local.” If we accept that, then it is manifestly true that, since insurgency is a political problem, then all insurgency is local. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take it to completion; then all counterinsurgency is local.
While the Joint world does not accept, doctrinally, that COIN is a subset of Stability Operations, the Army and Marine Corps seem to understand that it is. In other words, you can do Stability Operations in the absence of an insurgency. I would submit that, applied properly and in a timely fashion, Stability Operations may forestall the progress of a nascent insurgency. By addressing the grievances of a population, fewer people will be willing to kill over them. It’s not what you are willing to die for; it’s what you are willing to kill for. Failing that, an insurgency develops. More people are willing to kill over their perceived grievances. Now all you need is leadership to direct that willingness and… voila… insurgency.
But each of these potential insurgents has his or her own motivations. Those motivations are personal and therefore local. They are political. So, we have a partner country that is beset by an insurgency and we choose not to abandon them to their fate… for whatever our reasons are. The strategy is pretty much chosen at that point. Either you are or are not going to do counterinsurgency. Now the choice is to what extent do you employ your own forces. Perhaps this is what the Colonel means by “strategy.” You can do an advisory and assistance role, or you can engage in COIN operations with your own forces in addition to or in place of the host nation forces. In the case of Afghanistan, a developing government and lack of governmental security apparatus led us into committing more forces in direct action against the insurgency. What we didn’t understand was how to perform Counterinsurgency Operations, much less Stability Operations. You cannot do COIN in a vacuum. It simply doesn’t work that way. You must do Stability Operations as well.
Why must you do Stability Operations when you are conducting COIN? Because COIN is, by definition, to counter the insurgency. It is focused on reducing the insurgency itself. In order to address the fundamental causes and conditions that produced or fuels the insurgency, the grievances of the people must be addressed. These are political in nature, but include development and economic opportunity. Just as Stability Operations conducted effectively and early enough may forestall a full-blown insurgency, diffusing the progression of anger to the level of lethality, so in recovering from an insurgency the effective conduct of Stability Operations take the recovery to the next level. What needs to be addressed? Well, that depends on the causes and conditions in each locality. It varies. There is no fixed solution. It is a process that must be arrived at through knowledge of each local area and discovering what the people there need in order to not be willing to take up arms in pursuit of whatever it is that they are riled up about. And, for those who are not and would not be insurgents, to commit to actively supporting the government and not supporting or tolerating the insurgents in their midst.
Okay, so we’ve arrived at our strategy. Now, there are particular problems of command in COIN. One is that all of these wonderful technologies for micromanagement of tactical resources are available. But there is little or no operational maneuver occurring. Units are typically given an Area of Responsibility (AOR). The lower the element, the more local the AOR. The most important work in COIN is done by lower echelon elements. Companies and platoons make all the difference. You are not slamming a battalion or brigade into a breach in a line. You are sending squads and platoons into an area where some of the residents are willing to kill in order to gain or maintain control over their fellow residents. What those squads and platoons do make a ton of difference. They make all the difference.
Who understands the discrete AOR? Can a battalion or brigade commander understand what is happening at the village level, in detail, in each discrete AOR in his command? Probably not. So, for a battalion or brigade commander to dictate the actions of companies and platoons is generally counterproductive. All of this wonderful technology that enables a field grade officer to manipulate units to the lowest level provides a capability that is rarely productive in COIN… and yet it is often exercised.
So if the role of a battalion or higher officer is not to control the precise actions of companies on the ground, then what do commanders do? Supervise and enable. Supervise means that a higher echelon officer needs to recognize garbage when he sees it and how to direct that it be set back on course. Enabling means providing that which the lower echelon units need but do not possess on their own; like analytical horsepower. Decision support, not decisions (followed by support for decisions).
COIN is information intensive at the lowest level, and yet the lower down the chain we go, the less ability we have to organize and correlate large quantities of information. One of the most effective things I have seen was at Task Force 1 Lancs in Nad e Ali, Helmand Province. The 1 Lancs (1st Duke of Lancaster) Cultural Advisor (CULAD), a British Captain by the name of Ann Seton-Sykes, assembled large quantities of information and organized it into products that helped the company commanders to visualize aspects of their operational areas. She produced overlays that showed land ownership and the areas of influence of various elders, among other very useful information. This took raw data gathered by the type of constant, intensive reconnaissance that COIN necessitates and put it into a format that was most useful to the guys who were selecting and implementing operations on the ground. It helped the company commanders and platoon leaders to visualize the political realities on the ground upon which they operated every day.
The results that the Lancs were achieving were impressive. Perhaps I will do a post dedicated to what I saw achieved in that one area of Helmand. Regardless, they are a brilliant example of a higher headquarters enabling rather than controlling directly the actions of counterinsurgents on the ground. Perhaps that is what the good Colonel is referring to as strategy; command strategy. If so, he has raised an excellent point, and so I must thank him for the topic of a post.
Gian Gentile has not been silent in my absence, nor have his arguments progressed. In the July 2010 edition of Joint Force Quarterly, COL Gentile once again states his long-standing argument that COIN doctrine, now three and a half years old, was never properly vetted. He continues to compare it to Active Defense doctrine of the 1970’s, and he continues to compare his calls for reevaluation of the existing doctrine to the calls which eventually resulted in AirLand Battle doctrine (the doctrine of Desert Storm). There are subtle differences. Two years ago, COL Gentile asserted that FM 3-24 was designed to defeat Maoist insurgencies and that this made FM 3-24 woefully inadequate for the current usage. Then it became widely known that the Islamic insurgents are using Maoist doctrine adapted for Islamic insurgency in Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerrilla War. We no longer hear COL Gentile pressing that particular button.
From the viewpoint of someone who is on the ground and engaged in the counterinsurgency, and who has a fairly broad view of what is occurring, the current incarnation of the Gentile Argument remains short on a couple of points. COL Gentile asserts that the theories upon which the current COIN doctrine are based have not been successfully used elsewhere. Students of the doctrine can easily see where these principles are not new. Many were, in fact, drawn from successful practice by the British in Malaya. There are, on the other hand, no clear examples of where a different approach has been successful. Witness the Germans in the Balkans. The question then becomes, if not this, then what?
Andrew Bacevich claims that just leaving would be entirely acceptable. Of course, this ignores one of our chief impediments in Afghanistan; our own history. We are easily and believably depicted by our enemies as quitters. This is easily believed by significant segments of the population who, being wooed by both sides, must make a choice as to which direction their future lies. Pakistan, too, is being asked to make a choice based on who is going to be present and helpful over the long term. Our history, which Mr. Bacevich would now have us add to, says loudly that it will not be us.
COL Gentile, who finds himself lumped in with Mr. Bacevich in many examinations of the issue, announces the failure of the doctrine without first having empirical evidence that it has been even adequately applied. A good idea, implemented poorly, looks like a bad idea. COL Gentile himself states that his unit, 8-10 CAV, 4ID was doing COIN in Baghdad in 2006. He goes on to prove this by giving us a measure of performance rather than a measure of effectiveness in COIN.
This is a common error amongst military officers who are ineffectually attempting COIN operations. His offering of a measure of output rather than any indication of what effect it actually had leads one to believe that the Colonel doesn’t actually understand COIN well enough to argue effectively about whether it is effective or not. It certainly does not indicate a level of understanding sufficient to declare the doctrine useless or failed. Excellent COIN practitioners know that measures of effectiveness are not universal, but that they cannot be denoted by the number of patrols conducted, the amount of Humanitarian Assistance dispensed or the number of Medical Engagements conducted. One must seek the effect that this had on the population’s perception of their own government as a result of these actions. This is particularly true when the population knows that the presence of the United States is transitory at best. We still see units on the ground in Afghanistan where commanders are struggling to arrive at measures of effectiveness rather than output.
To be sure, one must be able to measure one’s activities, but those activities must be aimed at an effect that is oriented on establishing a relationship between the people and their own government. Granted, COL Gentile’s quote was taken somewhat out of context, but it is consistent with lines of information briefed by units here in Afghanistan. One unit, conducting what amounts to a PR campaign to salvage its reputation after having been removed from its original operational area after failing to conduct effective COIN operations, literally produced a slick document in which it provided “proof” of its excellent COIN operations. The preponderance of information, provided in easy-to-read pie chart and bar chart format, was on how much money they spent. To a counterinsurgent, that could just as much be a damage estimate as a measure of effectiveness. We can do a lot of damage with our money. How did they spend that money? Did it help bring he people closer to their government? Did it add to a perception of GIRoA effectiveness? We don’t know. I doubt that they do, either. IF it was what was important to them, they would have briefed that information. If COL Gentile had had measures of effectiveness to discuss in his articles, he would have used them.
The Colonel also describes COIN doctrine as “prescriptive.” Again, this shows a lack of grasp of the doctrine, which is based on principles and methodologies that commanders then use to arrive at their own conclusions about how to conduct operations in their discrete areas. All politics is local, therefore all insurgency is local, therefore all counterinsurgency must be local. FM 3-24 recognizes this. In fact, it states it. In Armor terms, each area requires a tank-discrete CCF (Computer Correction Factor).* There is no fleet CCF for COIN. Just like the Tank Gunnery manual (doctrine), where there is a methodology for determining a discrete CCF for each tank when required. This is what FM 3-24 and FM 3-07 do for commanders. This is not prescriptive, it is a thought process laid out for a commander to use to adequately appreciate the area in which he is operating.
COL Gentile’s latest article is a re-hash of his old argument. But, it is consistent. One of the greatest areas of consistency is that it fails to offer a viable alternative. The Colonel also has a tendency to insist that what was being done prior to the publication of FM 3-24 was basically working. He points to successes by officers such as COL (now BG) H.R. McMaster which preceded the surge. BG McMaster was using lessons he learned from reading works by such men as Galula and applying them in the absence of doctrine. We see the results of his COIN effects. We know that 8-10 CAV did 3,500 patrols. Do we know what that accomplished as far as COIN effect? No. Is that an indictment of 8-10 CAV’s Soldiers or leadership? No more than when one Soldier is awarded a Silver Star and another a Bronze Star w/ “V” device. Which one sucked? Neither. One did his job very well and one did it extraordinarily well. We need to be able to divorce learning from blaming. This is not something that we are doing well.
Finally, before anyone argues that COIN has taken over the Army, it should at least be a true statement. COIN is just now making its way into the NCOES. A former instructor from the COIN Training Center – Afghanistan went straight to the Captain’s Career Course and was confronted with truly terribly COIN training. The institution has not quite caught up with the training. It is moving that way, and there are a lot of people who are doing the best that they can. But it’s not there yet. This is the war that we are in, and this is the one that we need to learn to win. It is possible that not a single soul who is currently in a uniform will still be wearing it when the next major peer-to-peer or near peer-to-peer conflict happens. Crying out about losing our warfighting edge is a bit premature at this point. Particularly when the only alternative being offered is to lose this one in favor of winning the one that may or may not happen in the unforeseeable future. For a pretty frank discussion of that side of the COIN (so to speak) see this post at Travels with Shiloh
* In the ballistic computer of an M1 tank, there is for each type of ammunition a mathematical CCF. This is the fleet CCF (the CCF for the fleet of vehicles). This tells the computer that, for instance, when HEAT is selected, the round will have certain characteristics in flight. This enables the computer to adjust for such variables as range, barometric pressure, crosswind and the temperature of the propellant before it is burned to adjust the position of the tank gun’s barrel relative to the target. Each tank, when boresighted, fires a round of each type of ammunition at a target. For various reasons, every once in a while a tank cannot hit with a fleet CCF. There is a procedure detailed in the Tank Gunnery manual for determining a tank-discrete CCF for that type of ammunition, which is then recorded on the 2404-8 for use in the future with that same type of ammunition on that tank.
There is a tremendous conversation going on now that the firing of GEN McKiernan fits right into. There are many voices, with standard bearers on each side. It is a conversation that contributes directly to whether or not we actually succeed in the current conflict. Many of the posts on this blog have been outliers to this central conversation.
Central players in the conversation like David Kilcullen, John Nagl, COL Gian Gentile and Andrew Bacevich have been going ’round and ’round for quite some time now. I have sparred a bit with Gentile, and more recently with Michael Cohen, a relative late-comer to the conversation.
I’ve heard the arguments. I even hear the others, who are not “spokesmen” for one side or the other. For quite some time now, I’ve said that a lot of this is diversionary. Recently, a comment string had me about to tear my hair out as the conversation turned to such things as whether or not COIN was done in Somalia, which is pretty inane, really. (It came from my assertion, in refuting Cohen, that there had been no nascent nation-building in Somalia.) Some men who consider that they have a grasp of counterinsurgency, at least strong enough to intimate that my understanding is not quite up to their standards, wrote authoritatively about Afghanistan, though they had not been there. In putting forward my opinion, I was running into quibbling over such things as terrain denial and purely kinetic operations being possibly the direction that we need to head in Afghanistan. I’ve also run into some kind of derision about population-centric COIN, which is interesting in that it doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Strangely, if you call it something else, they will often agree that the action would be a good idea. They suggest things that are part of pop-centric COIN as if they weren’t, and that’s fine with them, too. There’s some kind of knee-jerk negativity, but it seems to be emotional, which I find strange.
There’s something that I would like to point out; there is very consistent feedback coming out of the veterans of Afghanistan. There are a number of us now, and there are a number of us who write, and we all say very similar things. Whether or not we are fans of Galula or of FM 3-24 or whatever. We differ on small points, but our feedback is remarkably similar.
Discussion can be a lot of fun. It can be stimulating. It can be maddening, especially when those of us who have been there, particularly those of us who have been there as advisors, keep saying the same thing over and over and those who have their opinions about COIN or the war or both just brush past it dismissively. I can point to a number of bloggers who say similar things, who have provided similar feedback, and this has not changed in several rotations.
I can still say that I’m encouraged. Prof. Bacevich may not like it, as his viewpoint is clearly marginalized in the new administration, but I’m encouraged. We may not be doing a great job here in the States preparing our NCO’s for leadership in COIN environments, and that’s more than a shame; it’s dangerous. I’m still encouraged. I was encouraged when the strategic plan for “AfPak” was released, and I’m even more encouraged now. Sec. Gates, ADM Mullen and GEN Petraeus have shown that they are career-ending serious about what we are doing. That’s the kind of message that has been a long time coming.
The message that the advisor veterans of Afghanistan have been bringing back for years may not be clicking with all of those who enjoy the various discussions; but it seems to have caught on with those who are calling the shots now. Don’t get me wrong; I have no illusions that this is being read by those leaders. GEN Petraeus was the driving force behind the manual which lays out the doctrine.
The point is not lost on me, though, that advisor veterans say very similar things and we have pointed out a number of things consistently… and when the leaders who proposed the doctrine for counterinsurgency get their time in the barrel, they appear to be moving in a direction that addresses those concerns.
Many argue, as COL Gentile does, that other factors were more responsible for the improvements in conditions in Iraq than was GEN Petraeus and “the surge.” They claim that Iraqi just happened to get tired of the violence right at that point. They argue that the “Sunni Awakening” occurred independently of American actions or any change in behavior on the part of our leadership. They speak convincingly, and they have an audience. It is their argument against a narrative which would tend to disprove their assertions. Basically, they argue fortuitous circumstances that magically made it appear as if the surge in Iraq worked. While to me their narrative seems a bit self-serving, here comes Act Two.
If this team is able to begin to reverse our recent fortunes in Afghanistan, it will still be argued that other factors beyond our control were responsible. It’s going to ring a little more false, though.
In my opinion, the self-serving narratives of the COINtras, though persuasive, are diversionary. Counterinsurgency is the most complex environment that can be imagined for a military leader. With so many factors, there will always be plausible alternate explanations. Here’s what I know; if you do the right things, a lot of different moving parts will begin moving in the directions that you need for them to. This is not a science, it’s an art with a lot of science involved. COL Gentile says that COIN requires a lot of leaps of faith. I can see where he would get that. I would say that it’s just my observation, but it’s more than just me, who has seen both good and bad done and seen the results.
Following a series of moves over the past few months, particularly the past seven weeks, I have found room for optimism. Not all of my fellow advisor veterans share my optimism. They have come to distrust the system, or the administration, to too great a degree and have gone into “show me” mode. Again, understandable. I have a lot more faith in this team from the Secretary down, and they have shown that they have teeth that they are willing to use.
In an email exchange today with a few veterans, we all acknowledged having seen horrible leaders who were just breezing through disastrous combat tours and still getting promoted. I don’t think that this team is going to completely eradicate that type of behavior; but I do think that they’ve sent a strong signal.
I’m more encouraged than I was after reading the strategy review.
Now, a real telling point will be what the civilian governmental agencies such as State and USAID do to handle their responsibilities in the new strategy. All of the military changes in the world are not going to amount to much if Afghanistan’s government is left with such corruption, and if there is no economic development the outcome will remain very much in doubt.
From the time following the election, there was an increasing pace of articles, papers and interviews geared towards “informing the President’s decision” about the way forward in Afghanistan. Since the plan was announced just over a month ago, there has been a swelling cry amongst those who did not find their opinions well-represented in the new plan. These people knew, with the appointments of a number of those who champion opposite views to influential positions in the Pentagon and elsewhere, that their chosen paths were probably not going to carry a lot of weight. The reaction has been to raise a hue and cry in an attempt to catch hold of any lack of commitment or loss of enthusiasm due to difficulty.
This has resulted in some strange actions, such as calling Andrew Bacevich during Senate hearings dedicated to hearing from Afghanistan veterans. It has also made for some strange bedfellows. The website AntiWar.com recently published an interview with COL Gian Gentile, which many would find odd, in that a serving officer and department head at West Point would grant such an interview. The author of the article does rather stridently go after Gentile’s ideological opponents, presenting his opposition argument in a purposely dim light. This prompted one commenter on Abu Muqawama to point out that the author, Kelley B. Vlahos, is a correspondent for Fox News and a writer for conservative publications, labeling her among the “Paleo-Conservatives.”
Regardless of the political affiliation of the author, it is very odd that a military officer who has become a lightning rod for the traditionalists in the military establishment would find, or accept, such a warm embrace from AntiWar.com. In fairness, COL Gentile explains that he did clear the interview with the West Point PAO. I would expect nothing less, really, nor would I expect a different answer from that PAO. That does not make the interview less odd in its character.
Those who are on the side of the argument that hasn’t found favor in the administration are arguing strenuously that the administration is continuing to pursue “failed policies of the Bush administration,” which has become the ultimate political slam, the equivalent of labeling someone a racist to those who use it. Of course, those who advocate the adoption of the “new” strategy for what has come to known as “AfPak” are painted with that same brush here. COL Gentile comes out looking like the great patriot, while those who differ with him are painted as, well, not as patriotic. In fact, Gentile is painted as being the one who is sincere for simply being willing to embrace AntiWar.com, while his opponents receive a slightly different treatment.
Gentile laughed when he thought of the ribbing he might get among the COIN-set, being interviewed by a site with the name “Antiwar.” Ultimately, he doesn’t care. He is driven by a sincerity his detractors cannot touch, and a personal mission not to let current war doctrine go unchallenged. He might just have a ghost of a chance.
A sincerity his detractors cannot touch. Nice. Sincerity, for a military officer, is now defined by their willingness to interview for AntiWar.com. We’ve come a long way, baby. Note the overwhelming sincerity below that cannot be touched by the likes of Nagl:
Deny it they may, says Gentile, but today’s policymakers are promoting a similar Surge strategy for Afghanistan (See congressional testimonies by Flournoy and Chief Af-Pak envoy Holbrooke this week: clear, hold and build, with more boots on the ground, more civilian experts, more COIN). As an active duty officer, Gentile won’t question current plans outright, but he left me with this:
“As soldiers, our role is to do whatever we are told to do by our civilian masters. However, my experience is, that the idea of using military force to change entire societies — to use John Nagl’s words — at the barrel of a gun, is highly problematic and it is not as clean and as clear and as sensible as I think our own COIN doctrine makes it seem to be,” he said. “I saw what it is like changing the entire society at the barrel of a gun in Baghdad in 2006, it wasn’t as simple.”
The wording of this quote is unfortunate. Nagl has made the statement about changing societies. I cannot find any reference to this change being, “at the barrel of a gun.” There are several instances of Gentile saying this, however. It’s actually a phrase that he resorts to repeatedly. It’s part of his schtick. Now, I may be wrong, and I’d have no problem with having it pointed out, but while I have found those two elements linked together frequently in Gentile’s writing and again in quotes from him, but I have not found an instance of it said by Nagl.
It may also be cleverly worded, especially in the quote above, to appear that Nagl has said that the Army, “can change entire societies at the barrel of a gun.” Now that’s sincerity that cannot be matched. Clever = sincere.
Overall, this is an exercise in First Amendment rights, and I support it as such. No problem there. Other than that it is quite the display of odd bedfellows. It was also a great way to challenge the patriotism of his ideological opponents, and specifically Nagl, without having to say so himself. Nicely played. I can’t say that it added to COL Gentile’s stock in my book, but it was well played.
No, not John Nagl. Not in this lifetime. No, we’re talking about Democracy Arsenal’s Michael Cohen who, for a fellow at a think tank and a former speechwriter for the United States Representative to the United Nations is pretty thick on a subject into which he has been putting a lot of study. He’s been taking on the COINdinistas and being a bit condescending about it at that, which is ironic. In a May 1st post on Nagl and Burton’s article in the April edition of The Washington Quarterly, Cohen writes some pretty silly stuff.
More after the jump.
The COIN-danistas deterministic notion of future military conflict is particularly hard to reconcile with Nagl’s later point that “U.S. conventional military capabilities still qualitatively outstrip those of potential adversaries to a significant degree. Such capabilities are too costly and infrastructure-intensive for most countries to develop, purchase, or field. Instead of playing the U.S. game, current and potential enemies have turned to asymmetric approaches designed to neutralize our strengths and exploit our relative weaknesses.”
Well wait a minute here – if no country can qualitatively match the United States and if our enemies only approach for confronting the United States is through asymmetric approaches then wouldn’t this suggest that the United States has a rather fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to fight wars?
Ummm… no. It gives us a fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to react to being attacked by non-state actors. It gives our nation a fulsome inability to have someone against whom to declare war because we don’t have an institutional memory of declaring hostilities against a non-state. It gives current and potential enemies a fulsome and demonstrated ability to confuse us, play against our demonstrated weaknesses and strike against not only our homeland but those of other nations with whom we share good relations.
Simply, it puts us in the position not of actor but of reactor. Our conventional primacy in the world precludes any nation-state from having a direct conventional assault on our interests or allies. As Nagl points out, likely scenarios for traditional state-state war are pretty scarce. This forces those who would see the United States taken down a peg to resort to the unconventional, asymmetric insurgent type behaviors that we have a demonstrated difficulty in dealing with.
It does allow us to determine how, when and where to react. Cohen points out that in the days following 9/11 we had choices in how to pursue al Qaeda. This is true. While he points out an obvious truth, even divining the method of our reaction, there is an essential failure in his logic; that our conventional primacy completely failed us; we had been attacked. We had been attacked not on the fields of Europe, not by a nuclear strike by a conventional power, but on our own soil by a non-state actor. We did not choose the fight. We did choose, in the aftermath, to fight. In the end, citing a favorite childhood movie, Cohen advocates choosing not to fight.
Take it on the chin, America, and just say no.
This is simplistic at best. Simplistic answers in a complicated world are absolutely worthless.
In another post, made the same day, Cohen tries to tackle Nagl again, this time on the subject of failed states.
Note to Cohen: Dude, you are so totally out of your league. You thoroughly miss the point, and for someone with your credentials, this is absolutely frightening. Truly sad.
Nagl is not an advocate of COIN for the sake of COIN. Nagl is an advocate of being able to prevail in the conflicts at hand, and for never again being such utter failures at having the ability to achieve what this nation’s civilian leadership decides is in the nation’s interests. We are not out of the woods yet; not by a far sight. The Army has a long way to go, and will likely never really commit culturally to accepting the abilities to overcome an insurgency. There are points of light, though, and they are increasing in both number and influence.
Nagl is an advocate of being capable of facing the threats that face us in the modern world, where the new phenomenon of globalization has given non-state actors the ability to strike within the shores of the United States on a scale that has never been done by any state actor since the War of 1812.
This is highly misleading. The experience of the US military in Somalia was a disaster and conveniently ignored is the fact that this intervention — where we sent ground troops and tried nascent nation-building — was stunningly unsuccessful. As for the Balkans, the United States did not intervene with ground troops (peacekeepers) in Bosnia or Kosovo until only after a peace agreement/cease fire had been reached in both locales – and it was not our military that did nation building in either country, it was the United Nations and other civilian agencies. And while Nagl is right that the demands to intervene militarily in places like Darfur and Rwanda have grown, doesn’t it tell us something that such demands have gone unmet? It is hardly accidental that the United States did not send ground troops into kinetic environments as nation builders in each of these situations.
Failed and weak states represent areas of potential threat to the US, but Nagl’s response – counter-insurgency and nation-building — is not only political realistic it makes little sense from either a strategic or tactical perspective. Above all, it is a disproportionate response to what are, for the most part, not vital threats to the United States.
What horrible analysis. Somalia was nothing like Afghanistan or Iraq, nor were the goals. There was no “nascent nation-building” in Somalia. It was a humanitarian intervention and, while terribly ill-conceived, had nothing to do with any real or perceived threat to our national security. The Balkans was, again, a response to a humanitarian disaster. In both cases, it was a military response to a humanitarian crisis. They are great examples of why Nagl is right, but horrible examples of why he may be wrong.
Nagl does not advocate counterinsurgency as a driver of national policy. What he does is point out that because of our conventional primacy, we are unlikely to face a conventional threat. He also points out that most military activity in the past 60 years, that which our nation has asked us to do, has been unconventional, asymmetric and often insurgency-related. He points out that the real threats to our country are now and are more likely (than conventional) to be asymmetric. He also points out that the civilian capacity to avoid using military force to assist in stabilization is woefully lacking.
Why people like Cohen find John Nagl to be threatening and feel a need to argue with him or discredit his ideas is beyond me. There have been military thinkers over the years who have examined the failures of Vietnam. Most got it wrong. Much of the military analysis has been flawed in the favor of blaming the civilian government for the failures of the Army to figure it out. They have ascribed abilities to supposed counterinsurgency in Vietnam that wasn’t there. Even in the wake of asymmetric failures such as Somalia retrospective analysis failed to do more than reflect a desire to force the Powell Doctrine (a military solution to counterinsurgency that amounted to the Cohen Doctrine of “just say no” on the civilian leadership) to the level of law. Nagl never would have written his book Learning to eat soup with a knife had such efforts been successful.
Oh snap; Cohen calls for the Powell Doctrine, too.
COINdinistas, who Cohen treats with derision, are not advocates of looking for more opportunities to do COIN. John Nagl doesn’t advocate COIN as national strategy. Nagl advocates COIN as the proper doctrine for achieving the goals of our civilian leadership in cases where failed states harbor asymmetric threats to our national security. Use a hammer to drive a nail, use a shovel to dig a hole. As our experience in Iraq has shown, when you put down the shovel and pick up the hammer, suddenly it’s easier to drive the nail.
COL Gian Gentile makes much more cogent arguments, fundamentally flawed but intellectually honest, than Cohen. Cohen’s arguments are driven by a conclusion already arrived at. Cohen has been studying COIN not to see what it offers but to see how to discredit it. He has done a terrible job.