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New Book ! Global Radical Islamist Insurgency

Friday, February 19th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Torn from the pages of Small Wars Journal…..

Global Radical Islamist Insurgency: al Qaeda and Islamic State Networks Focus Vol. II 2012-2014  edited by Dave Dilegge and Robert Bunker

New and looking to be very useful. Right up the alley for our own Charles Cameron and friends of ZP blog like Tim Furnish and Leah Farrell. Another one,  Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has written the foreword.

From SWJ:

….This anthology-the second of an initial two volume set-specifically covers Small Wars Journal writings on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State spanning the years 2012-2014. This set is meant to contribute to U.S. security debates focusing on radical Islamist global insurgency by collecting diverse SWJ essays into more easily accessible formats. Small Wars Journal has long been a leader in insurgency and counterinsurgency research and scholarship with an emphasis on practical applications and policy outcomes in furtherance of U.S. global and allied nation strategic interests. The site is able to lay claim to supporting the writings of many COIN (counterinsurgency) practitioners. This includes Dr. David Kilcullen whose early work dating from late 2004 “Countering Global Insurgency” helped to lay much of the conceptual basis focusing on this threat and as a result greatly helped to facilitate the writings that were later incorporated into these Al Qaeda and Islamic State focused anthologies. This volume is composed of sixty-six chapters divided into sections on a) radical Islamist OPFORs (opposition forces) and context and b) U.S.-allied policy and counter radical Islamist strategies.

The editors are well known to many ZP readers with Dave being SWJ Editor-in-Chief while Dr. Bunker is the Futurist in Residence for the Strategic Studies Institute. Somewhere along the line though, I somehow completely missed the roll-out for Volume I.  Guess my review copy was lost in the mail….cough 🙂 I will be ordering both.

In all seriousness, I’m very glad to see the valuable work done by the editors and contributors at SWJ compiled into book form. Small Wars Journal is literally a national resource of military thinking, theory and open debate that operates on a shoestring and love of country ( consider making a tax deductible donation here).

Clausewitz and Center of Gravity

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

At Small Wars Journal a provocative essay by Col. Dale C. Eikmeier:

Give Carl von Clausewitz and the Center of Gravity a Divorce

….Because we love Carl von Clausewitz and the center of gravity concept, we need to grant them a divorce- for our sake.  We tried for years to make it work, but it’s time to face reality, together they are just too abstract and confusing for us to embrace.

 The center of gravity concept, a mainstay of the US military “operational art” since 1986[1], has never fully satisfied doctrine’s intent.   According to Dr. Alex Ryan, a former School of Advanced Military Studies instructor, the concept is, “so abstract to be meaningless”[2]  Now if a ‘mainstay’ is so ‘abstract’ that subject matter experts declare it ‘meaningless’ we have a doctrinal problem.  The genesis of this problem is a doctrinal foundation built on dubious authorship and editing, underdeveloped theory, imprecise metaphors, and flawed translations. [3]  This Clausewitzian foundation, which was never very solid, is now collapsing under the weight of 21st century warfare.  For this reason it’s time to end our reliance on Clausewitz’s On War as the authority on the center of gravity concept.

….Crack Four.  Another problem is flawed translations.  Clausewitz never used the term “center of gravity”, or in German, “Gravitationspunkt”, he used the word schwerpunkt, which means weight of focus or point of effort which is different from center of gravity, hubs or sources of power. [9]   But it is easy to understand how an English translator when picturing this point of effort could think of a center of gravity which further illustrates the danger of metaphors.  Milan Vigo in Joint Operational Warfare Theory and Practice provides a detailed analysis of the evolution of schwerpunkt from focus of effort to center of gravity which is summarized below:[10]

  1. Schwerpunkt – main weight or focus or one’s efforts.
  2. Mid 19th century, schwerpunkt is associated with an enemy’s capital as the point of focus. Germans and Austrians used the word schwerpunktlinie to mean a line of main weight or effort that links one’s base of operations to the enemy’s capital. This is where the schwerpunkt as ‘the target’ understanding comes from.
  3. Late 19th century it comes to mean a section of the front where the bulk of one’s forces are employed to reach a decision. Schwerpunkt is now the ‘arrow’ not the target.  This is a subtle shift from the point of focus on a target, to the arrow or what is focused.  Count Alfred von Schlieffen and German military practice used the ‘arrow’ understanding up to WW II.
  4. Colonel J.J. Graham’s 1874 English language translation of On War  mistranslated Schwerpunkt as “center of gravity”[11]
  5. Post World War I German military progressively adds a new meaning using schwerpunkt to mean the focus of planning efforts.  This is a natural evolution of the late 19th century hybrid of ‘the arrow’ and the ‘target’ understandings.
  6. The Bundeswehr (German Army) now uses the English term “center of gravity” while the Austrian Army uses the German term “Gravitationspunkt” which translates to “center of gravity”. 

Hence, English translators took Clausewitz’s “schwerpunkt”, ‘the target or point of focus’ meaning mistranslated it into center of gravity which morphed into the source of power or ‘the arrow’ meaning. 

I’m not understanding Eikmeier’s hostility to the employment of metaphor as a device for learning as it is a conceptual bridge for understanding without which human society would not have made much progress.  Yes, metaphors can be misunderstood or abused but so can just about everything else. Most important ideas were either understood by or are most easily explained by metaphor and analogy.

“Center of gravity” in Clausewitzian theory is often misunderstood by non-experts or incorrectly identified in the enemy in practice in the midst of a war, but the same can be said of many other valuable concepts. Ask people to explain “gravity” itself and see how precisely scientific an explanation you receive, but that hardly means we should abandon the concept.

Regarding translation from On War, Eikmeier may have a more valid point but I am not qualified to assess it. I have a fair grasp of the political-historical context but not the linguistic and cultural nuances of early 19th century German language expression. Maybe Seydlitz89 will care to weigh in here?

SWJ: Casebooks on Insurgency

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

This looks to be an invaluable resource. From SWJ:

Casebooks on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare 

US Army Special Operations Command and Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory National Security Analysis Department have put together a useful reference for small wars students and practitioners entitled “Casebook on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare Volume II:  1962-2009.”  The resource is available for download in PDF format here.  If you are wondering where Volume I is, that government document covers post-World War I insurgencies and revolutions up to 1962 and can be downloaded in PDF here.  The original was published by the Special Operations Research Office at The American University in 1962.

Volume II is broken down by conceptual categories as can be seen by the table of contents….

Read the rest here.


Nagl: “COIN is not Dead!”

Monday, February 6th, 2012

 Octavian Manea continues his excellent series at SWJ, interviewing the leading theorists, practitioners and critics of pop-centric COIN.  This most recent interview is with Dr. John Nagl, formerly president of CNAS, author of Learning how to Eat Soup with a Knife and currently a professor at the Naval War College.

Nagl has been, it hardly need be said, one of the major proponents of pop-centric COIN and an important figure in the debate over the “Surge” in Iraq and it’s second iteration in Afghanistan:

COIN Is Not Dead: An Interview with John Nagl 

Q: Have we basically relearned, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the old lessons and principles in countering an insurgency? Are the broad historically proven principles of countering an insurgency, still valid guidelines for today?

Nagl: History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. I am currently teaching a course at the US Naval Academy on the history of modern counterinsurgency campaigns. And it is interesting to see how the same principles continue to present and reassert themselves, that the same mistakes are made early as armies adapt to the challenges of counterinsurgency and they learn the same lessons time and time again. They learn lessons like the importance of being keenly sensitive to the human terrain, of understanding its hierarchy of needs, of comprehending the culture, the ethnicity, the religion of the insurgents and of the population. Protecting the population is the key to success. It is important to get the population on your side in order that you can derive intelligence from them on who the insurgents are. It is important that you reform governance to give people hope that if they do side with the government and the counterinsurgents, their lives will be better. It is important to provide inducements to the insurgents. Very rarely are you going to kill or capture every insurgent, although you may coerce some of them away from the fighting. All of those lessons could be drawn from the headlines of the past few weeks on the fight in Afghanistan. I am increasingly convinced that the classic historically tested counterinsurgency principles broadly apply across cases and they continue to apply today, although with variations for the particular country, region, ethnicity, and grievances faced by the population.


Q:What would you respond to the many critics that point out that pop-centric COIN is just a “collection of tactics” and techniques not a strategy in itself?

Nagl: I would say that they missed the first chapter of the FM 3-24. The strategy is to strengthen the government while weakening the insurgents in order to reach an end state in which the government with minimal outside assistance can defeat internal threats to its security. There are a number of tactics required to achieve that, both the killing and capturing of insurgents, strengthening host nation security forces, and improving governance. It all adds up to diminishing the strength of the insurgency, increasing the capabilities of the government and its forces and reaching a crossover point where the host nation forces can carry on with minimal outside assistance. We are about to test this hypothesis in Afghanistan over the course of the next two years.

Read the whole interview here.

It may be that Dr. Nagl uses the word “strategy” in a different sense than I do, or perhaps in a much narrower, context.

Strengthening a third-party government could be a broad US policy expressed in a variety of ways.  Or it may mean, the US military training and equipping certain host nation agencies for particular tactical skills, or leading these allies in counterinsurgency operations.  By itself, “strengthening” appears to me to be better described as a form of “Ways” in the classic “Ends-Ways-Means” triad of strategy. It may or may not be the best option to take – some governments are truly their own worst enemies.

Whether it is a good idea for the US to take upon itself the task of strengthening the host nation state in the first place, is a more strategic question.

A Culture of Punitive Raiding

Saturday, July 9th, 2011


Robert Haddick agrees with me, albeit with greater eloquence and length ( hat tip to Colonel Dave).

From SWJ Blog:

This Week at War: Rumsfeld’s Revenge

….Rumsfeld’s and Schoomaker’s redesign of the Army into a lighter, more mobile, and more expeditionary force seems permanent. Gone is the Cold War and Desert Storm concept of the long buildup of armor as prelude to a massive decisive battle. Instead, globally mobile brigade combat teams will provide deterrence, respond to crises, and sustain expeditionary campaigns. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current Army chief of staff (and soon to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) recently described a sustainable brigade rotation system, an expeditionary adaptation that the Navy and Marine Corps have employed for decades. In addition, both the Army and Marine Corps have drawn up plans to shrink their headcounts back near the Rumsfeld-era levels. Rumsfeld’s concerns about personnel costs sapping modernization are now coming to pass.

There now seems to be a near-consensus inside Washington that the large open-ended ground campaigns that Rumsfeld resisted are no longer sustainable. The former defense secretary’s preference for special operations forces, air power, networked intelligence, and indigenous allies is now back in vogue. Even Gen. David Petraeus, who burnished his reputation by reversing Rumsfeld’s policies in Iraq, will now implement Rumsfeld’s doctrine in eastern Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the U.S. will counter the deteriorating situation there not by shifting in conventional ground troops for pacification, but with “more special forces, intelligence, surveillance, air power … [and] substantially more Afghan boots on the ground.”

While we agree that this is “Rumsfeld’s revenge”, unlike Haddick, I would not choose “doctrine” to describe it. This is really about a “Community of Operators” across services , agencies and their White House superiors adopting a culture of punitive raiding for at least the medium term. A doctrine might come along later but there are downsides to institutionalizing punitive raiding that have already been very well expressed by others (see comments section at SWJ). I’d prefer punitive raiding remain a flexible tool rather than a reflexive response ( it might help if we created a “Community of Thinkers” before we get too comfortable as an international flying squad).

At this point, I will stop and recommend a fine piece by Adam Elkus on the subject of punitive raiding, From Roman Legions to Navy SEALs: Military Raiding and its Discontents. A good primer on the history, implications and drawbacks.

Why is this happening?  Economics and the subsequent electoral politics of a finance-sector driven global depression. The same thing that brought COIN to an end and then finally killed it as an operationally oriented policy.

Punitive raiding is relatively cheaper. It permits defense cuts in the size of the Army and Marine Corps that are badly desired by the administration and Congress. It preserves and justifies investments in naval and air striking power that will bring joy to the Lexington Institute and satisfy many MoC concerned about defense jobs for constituents. On a point of genuine importance, this also hedges against near peer competitors (ahem…cough…China).

Is it a done deal? Unless the economy roars back, yes.


Check out these two directly related posts by Pundita and Joseph Fouche:

America’s Light Footprint Era (Revised) 

Unhappy Medium: The Perils of Annoyance as Your Strategic Default

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