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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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Competitive Strategies Interview by Manea

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Just a quick link, but check out the SWJ interview that Octavian Manea has done with former DoD policy planning deputy Dr. Thomas G. Mahnken:

Lessons From Previous Competitive Strategies

SWJ: A key concept that Andrew Marshall and ONA developed and shaped is that of competitive strategies. To what extent did the concept of competitive strategies provide an intellectual construct for winning the Cold War and managing the great power competition during peacetime?

Thomas Mahnken: At one level, the term “competitive strategies” is a redundancy – one certainly wouldn’t want to implement uncompetitive strategies. Indeed, the very notion of competition lies at the heart of strategy.  That having been said, the logical notion that one should pay attention to one’s enduring comparative advantages and exploit a competitor’s enduring comparative weaknesses can at times be an alien way of thinking in a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon and the national security community.

One of the things that the Office of Net Assessment did from its founding in the mid 1970s was to tap into thinking in the business and management literature about how to formulate and implement a long-term strategy for competition. A competitive strategy is focused on peacetime interaction and is about the peacetime use of military power to shape a competitor’s choices in ways that favor our objectives. That is, it is concerned with the development, acquisition, deployment, and exercising of forces, as opposed to their use in combat. A competitive strategy assumes that the choices that the competitors have to make are constrained. A competitive strategy seeks to identify and exploit these constraints.

This overall concept did play a role in U.S. strategy in the 1970s and 1980s by pushing the senior Defense Department leadership to think more in these terms. That meant thinking more about areas of comparative advantage and disadvantage, about areas where we needed to be ahead and areas where we could afford not to be ahead. Over time, that approach played an important role in the U.S. strategic effectiveness, particularly in the late Cold War. First unconsciously and later consciously, the Defense Department carried out a series of competitive strategies against the Soviet Union and in the end that approach played a role in convincing the Soviet leadership that they couldn’t compete with the U.S. in a whole series of areas. 

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Manea interviews Kilcullen at SWJ

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

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

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of Small Wars Journal, steps up with an interview with COIN guru and former USG senior adviser Dr. David Kilcullen:

Future of Warfare in a Post-COIN Conflict Climate

[....]

SWJ: Should we expect that when we see all these clustered elements conflict is more likely, the societal environment more conflict prone?

David Kilcullen: There are two different ways to look at this set of relations. If we look at this from the standpoint of the military or law-enforcement, then it is pretty clear that we really need to get comfortable with operating in a very littoral, very urban and very highly networked environment because that is where the bulk of the people on the planet are going to live in the next generation. If you are not comfortable operating in such an environment you are not going to be effective. But this doesn’t mean that the solution to this problem is a military one. Seen from the perspective of the city in itself, it is pretty clear that the solution is not to bring the hawk cops in, and apply hard power tools to stabilize the environment. This is often a recipe for disaster. The paradox is that, on the one hand, there are no military solutions, but at the same time there are no solutions at all without security. Someone will provide that security and it is better for it to be the locals, but if the locals cannot do it, then history suggests that we will be drawn into this kind of conflict with about the same frequency as in the past.    

SWJ: You emphasized in your book, and also at the New America Foundation launching event that in the future we will face operational continuity and environmental discontinuity. What if the environmental discontinuity can in itself be a variable able to change the operational continuity?

David Kilcullen: That’s possible, to the extent that we have data — information based on historical patterns. On one hand, it seems that there is a lot of unwillingness on behalf of the American politicians to contemplate future engagements like Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has no appetite as we’ve seen in the case of Syria for further military activity overseas. The military leadership is very reluctant to recommend that kind of operation. But going back to the 19th century we see a cyclical pattern in American military history where we repeatedly have leaders coming out with this kind of statement and yet we end up doing these kinds of operations anyway, on about the same frequency. There are deep structures about the way the US is connected to the international community that lead to this kind of behavior. It is possible that we won’t do this in the future, but it is not the way to bet. If you are going to bet on what is likely to happen, the pattern suggests that we are going to see a specific “conflict climate” (shaped by population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness) within which wars will arise.

Read the rest here.

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