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Octavian Manea interviews John Nagl at SWJ

Monday, October 27th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

 

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice by John Nagl

If General David Petraeus was the Pope of the COINdinistas, Lt. Col. John Nagl was at least the Archbishop of Canterbury. Few men alive were more closely identified in the public mind with the revival of COIN doctrine and the “Surge” in Iraq than Dr. John Nagl.

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of SWJ, interviews Nagl about his memoir, Knife Fights:

Knife Fights: John Nagl’s Reflections on the Practice of Modern War

SWJ: What are the lessons that we need to remember from the post 9/11 campaigns as we move forward?

  • American conventional military superiority will drive our opponents to irregular warfare:  insurgency and terrorism.
  • In conventional war, identifying your enemy is comparatively easy, but killing him is hard.  In irregular warfare, the converse is true:  finding is hard, but killing or capturing is easy.
  • In conventional war, politics stops until the war is over.  In irregular warfare, politics and economics continue throughout the war, and are in fact key weapons of war.  This combined political/economic/military challenge is what makes irregular warfare “the graduate level of war”.
  • In conventional war, the civilian population is essentially an obstacle to progress.  In irregular war, winning the support or at least the acquiescence of the civilian population is key to winning the war; their safety and long-term support are essential to the success of whichever side wins.
  • For a number of reasons including American conventional military superiority and the existence of nuclear weapons, conventional war has been on the decline since the 20th century.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that irregular warfare has been a growing challenge over the past two centuries, and the information revolution, demographics, and resource scarcity make it likely to be the kind of war the United States is most likely to face for the rest of this century.  It’s hard, and it’s not going to go away, so we’d better get better at it if we want to win.

SWJ: Why this title “Knife Fights”? I remember that the title of your previous book “How to Eat Soup with a Knife” intended to give us a sense on a special kind of warfare. Do you refer now also to these fights waged on the Washington battlefield to change the American way of war?

Both. This book begins with a tank fight during the Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraq war, one fought at long range where you could identify the enemy by uniform and by the vehicles that they were driving. And I compared that war with the wars that I’ve studied at Oxford whose character was so well captured by T.E. Lawrence’s reflection that “war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife”. Having fought a long range conventional war in Desert Storm, having studied irregular war, I fought my irregular in Anbar province, in Iraq in 2003-2004, a war fought at very close range, very different from the kind of war that we were prepared to fight. We were fighting people at ranges so close that our alleged situational awareness, our intelligence resources, everything that the American military invested billions of dollars wasn’t helpful. They were fishes swimming in the sea of the people so it was very difficult to identify who the enemies were.

From Al Anbar, I went almost directly to the Pentagon, working for Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz and engaged there also in very close range battles trying to change the way America was fighting, how America thought about counterinsurgency and helping the Army, DoD and State Department to understand the kind of war in which we were actually engaged in. I continued this with the publication of FM 3-24, a knife fight largely with friends. The title refers to my previous work but it is also a good descriptor of the kind of battles I fought in Iraq and in Washington.

SWJ: What is/was the center of gravity on the Washington battlefield?

It is certainly messy and slow. It doesn’t always appear to have a center of gravity. The center of gravity shifts rapidly. Astoundingly, probably the most important person in making the decision to surge forces into Iraq that General Petraeus led into 2007, the center of gravity of that decision was a man who had no official position in Washington, Retired US Army General Jack Keane.  He became a sort of intellectual father of the surge which was probably the most important decision of the Iraq war other then the initial misguided decision to invade there. Power, like insurgency, is fluid and it changes over time.  And just as it takes a network to defeat an insurgent enemy, it takes a network to change policy in Washington.

Read the rest here.

COIN theory in the mid-2000′s ultimately suffered from the transformation that Colonel John Boyd once observed where today’s doctrine becomes tomorrow’s dogma.

That said, Nagl is correct that irregular warfare is here to stay because it is a cheap and it is an effective form of warfare for the less powerful and impoverished facing the strong and the wealthy.  I think however that the “hybrid warfare” postulated by Frank Hoffman and seen most recently in Ukraine is likely to become the more dominant variant of irregular warfare in the 21st C. rather than stand-alone 4GW type insurgencies like al Qaida, ISIS or the Lord’s Resistance Army or the classical Maoist model insurgencies because hybrid warfare is now too attractive to many authoritarian, revisionist, ambitious powers like Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran. It plays to their strengths at unconventional and political warfare, terrorism and the like while providing the “plausible deniability” (even if obviously absurd, as in Ukraine) to ward off an overwhelming response from the West or the United States. The ROI is dramatic and it “levels the playing field” from the perspective of “have not” powers.

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Manea Interviews General Zinni at SWJ

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea, Small Wars Journal’s interviewer par excellence, talks with retired USMC General Anthony Zinni: 

Reflections on the Modern Battlefield: A Discussion with General Anthony Zinni

SWJ: You open your book with a blunt statement: “that wars are not always decided entirely on the battlefield”. Having in mind the post 9/11 decade, what are the other variables, the off the battlefield components that must be in sync in order to wage war successfully?

General Zinni: I think that one of the things that are important off battlefield is the political context. Clausewitz said that a war is basically just an instrument of politics so you have to be clear why the decision has been made, what interests are being protected or promoted, what threats you are dealing with, and how significant are those threats to require the use of military force. The way you decide to approach it is also very important. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam we went in there to try to rebuild nations –  remodel governance systems, social programs and economic systems. Is this feasible, what is the cost? Do you have the support of the American people, of the international community for what you do? And how do you correlate the strategic and political goals? What do you want to achieve? Before that first soldier puts his boots on the ground you may have already created through all these decisions I mentioned the environment that helps him succeed or handicaps to a point failure. People, especially the Americans, when they look at these interventions look only on the battlefield to determine whether we succeed or fail by the performance of the military on the ground when there are so many other conditions and variables that go on off the battlefield – mainly at the level of political leadership, civilian and military leadership that could shape whether we are going to win or lose.

SWJ: What does it take for the US to produce good civilian strategic leadership schooled in the Clausewitzian art of understanding that war is a political instrument and a political responsibility? What does it take to produce good civilian strategic leadership, more Marshalls, more Kennans?

General Zinni: You hit the problem right on the head. We don’t put enough emphasis on the need for a strong and viable strategy. Often times we launch these interventions without an understanding of what the strategic goals are, what the approaches we are going to use are. Just look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part way through we declared mission accomplished, than it’s not, than we add more troops and the surge, we never understood how this is going to pan out in terms of the governance of Iraq, our future relationships and our sustained military presence. We were making it up as we went along. I would say the same thing happened in Afghanistan as happened in Vietnam. Without a clear strategy you have this problem. In our system every 4 years we turn over an administration. And we are fascinated with bringing in people outside Washington that desire to change Washington. The problem is that they come with no experience on the international scene or in understanding the implications in using the military. We don’t talk in terms of strategy, we talk in terms of military programs, we put budgets together, and provide funding. It is almost as if our political leadership sees no relationship between their political responsibilities and their military responsibilities. They miss Clausewitz’s most important point. War is a political act from start to finish. The political leadership, the policy developers and the operational commanders must be in sync. We should never fail to align policy, politics, strategy, operational design and the tactics in the field.

All those things lead to not having the Marshalls that we need. One of the reasons that we were so successful in WWII and in the first decade after it because it set us up for success in the Cold War and we wanted people like Marshall and Kennan in the positions where they provided the strategic underpinnings that could think through what we needed to do. The greatest period in the US in terms of strategic thinking was the period from the WWII to 1950. We had the Marshall Plan, the 1947 National Security Act to restructure our government for a new world, we created the National Security Council, the Joint Chief of Staff, we developed the IMF, the containment doctrine and NATO. There was a whole series of things that we did in recognition that the world has changed as the result of the war. There were new threats, new conditions and it prepared us and set the stage to get us through almost 50 years of Cold War. When the Cold War ended none of that thinking went on. We were talking about peace dividends and new world order, but nobody was out there rethinking the strategy. We have a strategy and a government structure that hasn’t really been rethought and no one values developing and certainly putting into position people who could perform like a Marshall or like a Kennan and that is part of the problem.

Read the rest here.

An interesting passage.

George Marshall’s strategic acumen was the product partly of having enjoyed a critically important WWI mentorship in France, followed by a career embedded with professional reading, reflection, discussion and then enacting and testing his ideas. George Kennan was the fortunate recipient of an Ivy League education (unusual for his background) followed by a brief State Department program to invest in young Foreign Service Officers to develop experts on the Soviet Union. Like Marshall, Kennan was also an autodidact who read, discussed and wrote seriously in his professional field the length of his very long life.

That is how you develop professional strategists and General Zinni is right that we stopped doing it a long time ago. We are now living with the results.

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Quick Link: Manea interviews General John Allen

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]


Octavian Manea, the David Frost of SWJ, interviews General John Allen, USMC on the lessons learned on the Post-9/11 military campaigns.

Lessons from the Post 9-11 Campaigns

Octavian Manea

General John R. Allen, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) is a distinguished fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, working within the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence. Prior to joining Brookings, Allen commanded the NATO International Security Assistance Force and United States Forces in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013.

“The outcome in Afghanistan was not going to be decided by military operations alone. It was to create the security platform operating in the hard end of the hard-power spectrum that then permitted us to leverage those outcomes in governance, economic development and civil society, which was going to deliver the knockout blow to the Taliban.”

SWJ: In the past, the US military trained for high-end maneuver warfare and intensive firepower – historical key ingredients of the American way of war. Since 9/11 we’ve seen a totally different approach. What has changed, in your experience, in the nature and the character of war, in how you wage war?

General John R. Allen: War is fundamentally a human endeavor; the character of war may change, but not its nature. Conflict may be characterized by high intensity firepower and maneuver dominated operations and campaigns or we may find that the character of war is dominated by counterinsurgency operations, or even cyber operations. But the nature of war still continues to remain the same, a human endeavor. What was unique about Iraq and Afghanistan was what we undertook after the decisive phase of the campaign, because both of them were seen as part of a paradigm that emphasized the traditional application of the American way of war. In the aftermath of those campaigns we ultimately undertook the kind of capacity building and nation-building that would be necessary for that state to endure. We wanted to make sure that what emerged after the destruction of both central governments is something that we could live with. That required and caused us fundamentally to change the manner in which we conduct operations in both theaters.

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Manea Interviews Colby on Air-Sea Battle

Friday, November 8th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea branches out from COIN to the realm of power projection:

The Role of an Air Sea Battle-Centric Posture in Strategic Reassurance: SWJ Interview with Elbridge Colby 

SWJ: In a time when the PLA is intensively investing in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, how would you characterize the Chinese way of war? What are they preparing for?

EC: My understanding of what the Chinese are trying to accomplish is the ability to effectively counter a third party intervention. If you look at the strategic landscape in the Western Pacific, more or less starting from 1945, the US dominated the aerial and maritime spheres. Obviously, we had less success on the Eurasian landmass, but the whole system was predicated on the ability of the US fleet and airpower to dominate the Pacific.

The particular contingency for which this was most relevant was Taiwan. Now, the US continues to have a policy guided by the Taiwan Act which, at the very least, suggests that we might intervene militarily. This is something that the Chinese are not comfortable with. It [the claim to Taiwan] is a core element of their regime’s legitimacy. This issue became more salient after the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995/1996. That was a wakeup call for the Chinese, and in its aftermath they decided to build up the ability to try to effectively push back the US military. The trajectory of Chinese military development has therefore been to build forces that would potentially enable them to prevent the US from operating effectively in the areas that we need to be able to dominate if we decide to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese military attack or attempted coercion. In this context they have spent a lot of time and resources on more accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, aerial forces and naval forces, basically with the overarching idea of creating an A2/AD bubble in order to deny the US the ability to exercise its power in the Western Pacific. That challenge to our power projection ability has been compounded because of the centralization of the US military posture following the Cold War, becoming increasingly focused on Guam and a few other nodes in the Pacific region.

SWJ: What are the implications of China’s military build-up for the United States?

EC:  As we go forward and the Chinese economy likely continues to grow, they will presumably continue to put significant resources into these military capabilities. If we think about the basic military problem, the US is trying to project its power across the greatest expense of water on the globe, very far from our shores, using naval and airpower, all while the Chinese are operating from their mainland. The Chinese basically are trying to frustrate our ability to enter, while we are trying to get there and accomplish our objectives. As the Chinese military become more sophisticated, it will become a great problem for us.

SWJ: Are the Chinese A2/AD capabilities a long-term threat to the credibility of the deterrence capital that the US is providing to the region?

EC: Absolutely. We can see this in the case of Japan, where we see a lot more interest, focus, and essentially need for a stronger military posture. Publicly the Japanese are talking about North Korea, but what they are really worried about is China. The Senkaku Islands are the tip of the iceberg. A few months ago the Chinese state-affiliated press started to talk about the Chinese claims on the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is a part. It is a classic example of the downside of accommodation or appeasement in that the potential adversary can get hungrier rather than sated due to accommodation. And Taiwan’s closer relationship with mainland China is, in part, a result of the shifting regional military balance. More broadly, in these kinds of strategic competitions, perceptions of capability and resolve are crucial. If everyone thinks we are growing weaker, then they are likely to behave accordingly. 

A lengthy interview – read the rest here.

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Two Manea COIN Interviews at SWJ

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski AKA "zen"]

Octavian Manea has two excellent interviews up at SWJ; for those interested in COIN theory and history, these are must-reads:

Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency

SWJ: What is the relevance of post-9/11 counterinsurgency campaigns for future Western expeditionary operations? What are the challenges you expect to see repeated in future campaigns? Is the past a prologue to the future?

Robert Egnell: In a simplified version, General David Petraeus already answered this question: “the counterinsurgency era is not over [because] the insurgency era is not over.” So long as the operating environment looks as it does today, so long as the character of conflict looks as it does today, the lessons at the tactical level of the last ten years remain highly relevant. Even if we can debate the concept of counterinsurgency and its application today and tomorrow, the lessons of operating in urban environments, foreign languages and foreign cultures will be relevant also in the future. Expeditionary powers cannot escape these challenges. It is not going to get easier: how to engage with a civilian population, how to establish and maintain civil order, how to collect and process human intelligence, how to operate in a foreign environment, how to provide basic services. These are challenges that are here to stay with us as we move forward.

David Ucko: Beyond these common operational challenges, one of the most pressing lessons from the cases discussed in the book is the need for greater strategic thinking. This sounds like a cliché these days, and becomes a catchall explanation with little substance. But despite great talk about the need for strategy, I don’t think the term or the art is widely understood. Looking at what happened in the last ten to fifteen years – whether we call it counterinsurgency, war, contingency operations, it doesn’t really matter – the ability to craft and implement a viable strategy is absolute, for any power involved in any kind of expeditionary operations. This is the relevance of the post-9/11 expeditionary operations and our book seems to place counterinsurgency within this strategic context. There are great lessons from these campaigns and we would be absolutely foolish to dismiss them as aberrations just because we don’t like the word “counterinsurgency.”

and

Gangs, Slums, Megacities and the Utility of Population-Centric COIN

SWJ: Are these trends here to stay with us? Are we heading towards a world that provides more opportunity for these dark networks to proliferate, to incubate? On one side, we see concentrated urbanization in coastal, hyper-connected areas that will need to accommodate more and more waves of rural immigrants. Presumably this will put pressure on an already overstretched city infrastructure. On the other side, we see what Moises Naim is talking in his latest book the decline/decay of power, the decoupling of power from size, the decoupling of the capacity to use power effectively from the control of a large Weberian bureaucracy.

VF-B: They will definitely stay and perhaps will intensify, partially for the reason that urbanization is taking place in a way and magnitude with which many governments struggle to cope. Much of Mexico City, a megacity of 20 millions people, for example, is really disconnected from the central government and the central business areas. Another example is Karachi: yes, the blood bath that we see there is partially instigated by state actors, but it is also a phenomenon of a very tenuous and limited control of the state in many areas of the city. I am intrigued by the Moises Naím’s suggestion of the decoupling of the effective exercising of power from the Weberian bureaucracy. I would say that the Weberian construct of power has never been as widespread as we imagine. Many areas in the world, Africa being the prime example, have had a different notion of the state, one much closer to the medieval conceptualization where the purpose of the state and the purpose of power competition for controlling the state apparatus is to make money for oneself as opposed to the public service state whose main raison d’etre is to deliver public goods to citizens in exchange for legitimacy and sustainability. In the end the social contract emerged because the self-interested elites understood that they need to offer something to the population. The notion that the state is weakening and collapsing might not be really appropriate for many parts of the world where the state has always been defined as a mafia bazaar. You take over the state so you can issue exceptions from law enforcement to your friends, so that you and your friends can make money.

In other parts of the world, the state might have also not been quite conceptualized in terms of social contract and Weber like notions.  For example, in parts of Latin America, the state lies somewhere in between the European/Western model and some of the Asian or African states. In Latin America, the state is often captured by and serves a very narrow elite. Many countries in Latin America are still highly exclusionary. Even in places like Colombia with all of its progress over the past decade, there is still a fundamental unequal society. Yes, the middle class is increasingly able to participate in state making, along with the political and economic elites, and being able to demand accountability. But still vast segments of population are really not experiencing the state in any positive manner or not experiencing the state at all. Much of Central America faces massive challenges: tax collection might be as low as 10%, and the political and economic power is enormously concentrated in the hands of narrow  elites.

All that said, the future, if troubling trends are not mitigated now, might bring some fundamental challenges. Imagine if in the long term, there is substantial global warming, major sea level rise, and large parts of Bangladesh, for example, are submerged. This will generate huge waves of immigrants, but also radically empower the non-state actors who are able to provide some sort of protection and public goods to the population.

Read the rest here.

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