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Archive for July, 2010

Ucko on Counterinsurgency and its Discontents

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

At Kings of War, Dr. David Ucko has a must-read post on the kulturkampf of COIN (hat tip SWJ Blog):

Counterinsurgency and Its Discontents

….It might be interesting to trace how an idea so welcome less than four years ago has since fallen from grace. Was it the perceived confidence with which the concept was rolled out? Was it the perceived automacity of its widespread acceptance? Is it anger at the arguably simplistic explanation that counterinsurgency, and counterinsurgency alone, won the day in Iraq? Or is it due to a perception of counterinsurgency experts gaining power and prestige in DC by peddling a theory that is not working so well in Afghanistan?

I strongly suggest reading Ucko’s post in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

Attempts to disaggregate theory and practice has in turn engendered the accusation that counterinsurgency is like Marxism, in that its supporters insist on the doctrine’s infallibility and claim it simply hasn’t been implemented properly. It is a powerful analogy: a concept that survives only on paper has very limited worth.

But counterinsurgency principles have shown practical value, not just in ‘counterinsurgency campaigns’, but also in other campaigns concerned with stabilisation, pacification, peacebuilding – call it what you want. This is not wholly surprising, as many of these principles are quite banal, even commonsensical:

Agree with Ucko here. If COIN’s promise has at times been oversold by its advocates, its critics have occasionally swung in the opposite direction, penning highly ideological jeremiads equating the American use of COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq with the history of 19th century  European colonialism, capitalist-imperialism a la Lenin and Hobson, as a Democratic trojan horse for GOP neoconservatism and as Ucko mentioned, even Soviet Communism. This is dressing up the less exciting valid criticisms that can be made about COIN, in theory and execution, with highly polemical nonsense typical of cable TV news shoutfests.

A powerful reason why counterinsurgency today is so unpopular is because its principles are looked upon as strategy in their own right. As should be clear, the principles and theory of counterinsurgency are only relevant as a means toward a strategic end, which itself may be more or less realistic: to help a country recover from protracted conflict; to bolster the legitimacy and reach of a government, etc. Even then, the theory is not a silver bullet but mere guidance – a collection of lessons learned – that may help in the design and implementation of an effective campaign plan, a plan that must, as counterinsurgency theory clearly stipulates, be adapted for specific environments.

Strong agreement. I have written much the same in the past as have many others. Hopefully, if it is repeated often enough the ongoing COIN debate can begin to generate more light and less heat.

But if counterinsurgency theory is just ‘useful guidance’ or ‘some ideas’, what good is it? I think our own Faceless Bureaucrat hit the nail on the head in a previous post: ‘I have suspected for a long time that COIN itself is merely the knee-jerk answer to a previous question, “Do kinetic/conventional/body-count campaigns work?”‘. I’m currently reading Keith L. Shimko‘s The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution, which provides a bitter reminder of the muddy RMA-type thinking on war within the Pentagon as it invaded Iraq. The discovery of counterinsurgency as a body of theory and lessons was definitely a step forward, but today it is no longer the antithesis, but itself the thesis. Its function as a reaction to muddy thinking is still being served, but it is also being held up in its own right and subjected to critical scrutiny.

….So there is definitely a need for criticism, but the aim of such a debate should be to improve on rather than kill the scholarship. There seems to be a desire to resign the whole ‘counterinsurgency’ concept to the intellectual wastebasket, which risks sacrificing what the concept has provided: a useful starting point to understand and discuss armed conflict and political violence, issues that today need to be discussed, whether in terms of ‘counterinsurgency’ or not.

Some of this desire to “resign the whole counterinsurgency concept to the intellectual wastebasket” is actually an indirect political campaign for other things. Namely, a more isolationist/non-interventionist foreign policy and secondly, a Weinberger-Powell military posture where the US is geared up to fight the Soviet Union’s closest facsimile of the moment, is buying a half-dozen aircraft carriers and F-35’s by the hundreds and the military “doesn’t do windows” – i.e. the 95 % of security threats since the end of the Cold War. Well this is policy for a world COIN critics wished we inhabited and not the one in which we have to live.

I’m not excerpting Ucko’s conclusions, to better incentivize your reading them for yourself.

What I would add to Ucko’s list of the reasons COIN is currently under harsh scrutiny are the variables I sugggested in The Post-COIN Era is Here – economics and the tie-in to domestic politics. States like California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey are in varying degrees of financial meltdown, as are some EU/NATO nation-states, which has brought belt-tightening back into vogue, whether it is coming from tea party rallies or pious lectures by the German Chancellor. Increased competition for scarcer dollars (or euros) is already impacting defense budgets which have to be weighed with other societal needs.  COIN, which is intensive in terms of both time and personnel, begins to look less attractive to politicians than does FID, CT, drone and cruise missile strikes or the huge contracts going to shipyards and defense companies which employ their constituents back home.

Islamist insurgency may be global but all politics remain local.

“The Enemy of my Enemy is…?”

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

This is interesting. Age-old, conventional strategic wisdom is supported by social network mapping research involving 300,000 ppl:

‘The Friend of My Enemy Is My Enemy’: Virtual Universe Study Proves 80-Year-Old Theory on How Humans Interact

ScienceDaily (July 20, 2010) – A new study analysing interactions between players in a virtual universe game has for the first time provided large-scale evidence to prove an 80 year old psychological theory called Structural Balance Theory. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that individuals tend to avoid stress-causing relationships when they develop a society, resulting in more stable social networks.

The study, carried out at Imperial College London, the Medical University of Vienna and the Santa Fe Institute, analyses relationships between 300,000 players in an online game called Pardus (http://www.pardus.at/). In this open-ended game, players act as spacecraft exploring a virtual universe, where they can make friends and enemies, and communicate, trade and fight with one another.

Structural Balance Theory is an 80 year old psychological theory that suggests some networks of relationships are more stable than others in a society. Specifically, the theory deals with positive and negative links between three individuals, where ‘the friend of my enemy is my enemy’ is more stable (and therefore more common) than ‘the friend of my friend is my enemy’.

….The authors found that in positive relationships, players are more likely to reciprocate actions and sentiments than in negative ones. For example, if player A declares player B to be their friend, player B is likely to do the same. If player A declares player B to be their enemy, however, player B is not likely to reciprocate.

The research also revealed strong interactions between different types of links, with some networks overlapping extensively, as players are likely to engage in similar interactions, and others tending to exclude each other. For example, friendship and communication networks overlap: as we would expect, friends tend to talk to each other. However, trade and hostility did not overlap at all, showing that enemies tend not to trade with one another.

Dr Renaud Lambiotte said: “This may seem like an obvious finding, as we would all prefer to communicate more with people we like. However, nobody has shown the evidence for this theory on such a large scale before.”

Read the rest here.

First, I wonder what Valdis Krebs thinks of this study?

Second, does this bear out on larger scale entities that cultivate primary loyalties?

Kindle Launch: The Handbook of 5GW

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010


The Handbook of 5GW Dr. Daniel H. Abbott, Editor

Nimble Books has published the first authoritative book on the competing interpretations of the military and political theory referred to as “Fifth Generation Warfare“, edited by my friend and colleague Dr. Daniel Abbott. The many contributing authors include academics, journalists such as David Axe, and many blogfriends associated with the former theory site, Dreaming5GW.

My chapter was entitled “5GW: Into the Heart of Darkness“. It is oriented more toward historical case studies than theory and is not in any way, shape or form, a “feel-good” piece. Here is a snippet:

“….This brings us to the probability that for the aforementioned states, their actual options for their ruling elites for adapting to the threat of 4GW will be between accepting varying degrees of failure-from conceding a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) to rebels, to being overthrown, to imploding into anarchy as insurgents encroach-or “taking the gloves off” and using the indiscriminate, unrestricted violence of genocide to annihilate real and potential enemies before the international community can mobilize to prevent it. History suggests they might well succeed.”

The views within The Handbook of 5GW vary widely, as does the disciplinary approach of the authors, intending to stimulate thought, explore possible scenarios that range from the pragmatic and real to the imaginative and ideal.

Hardcover launch in September, 2010.

Angelo Codevilla – America’s Milovan Djilas

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010


Older readers may recall the once famous but now largely forgotten Cold War figure of Milovan Djilas. While other dissidents from Communism like Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Whittaker Chambers acheived a more epic historical stature, Djilas was the first high Communist official, the adviser and likely successor to Yugoslavian dictator Tito, to turn against Communism as a system. More importantly, Djilas wrote New Class in 1957, a damning analysis that accurately castigated the hierarchy of Communist Party and government officials an exploitive and tyrannical ruling class that in the Soviet context was later termed “Nomenklatura“. For this act, Djilas would suffer in Tito’s prisons, but he outlived both Tito and Communism and his Party enemies were never able to shake off the truth of his bitter critique.

Claremont scholar and Boston U. international relations professor Angelo Codevilla has published in The American Spectator a very lengthy, often brilliant, sometimes meandering, essay that is part analysis, part cri de coeur, but primarily the most devastating attack on America’s emerging, bipartisan, technocratic Oligarchy that I have ever read:

America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution

….Never has there been so little diversity within America’s upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America’s upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and “bureaucrat” was a dirty word for all. So was “social engineering.” Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.

Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.

The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century’s Northerners and Southerners — nearly all of whom, as Lincoln reminded them, “prayed to the same God.” By contrast, while most Americans pray to the God “who created and doth sustain us,” our ruling class prays to itself as “saviors of the planet” and improvers of humanity. Our classes’ clash is over “whose country” America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. The gravity of such divisions points us, as it did Lincoln, to Mark’s Gospel: “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

That passage captures the zeitgeist. Read Dr. Codevilla’s article in in its’ entirety here.

I am not in harmony with everything Codevilla has written. Neither is Dr. James Joyner. Codevilla’s personal, very socially conservative, cultural preferences are not mine and, like Joyner, I would quibble with some of his descriptions as immoderate. In general, this essay would have benefited from either having been edited down to be more concise or expanded into a book to leverage greater evidentiary support of diverging political worldviews, which is out there. What is hard to deny though, is that Codevilla is pointing a finger at a visceral problem of a self-aware ruling class in the process of ossifying and separating itself culturally and legally away from and over the ruled – an alien thing in American history. Something the ancient Greeks as well as the Founding Fathers would recognize as anoligarchy“, a threat to democratic self-government and constitutional liberties.

Unlike Milovan Djilas, Angelo Codevilla will not face prison or lose his job for his criticism. Our oligarchy is in its newborn infancy, but it is hungry for power, venal in its corruption, covetous of security, impatient of democratic accountability and intolerant of dissent. Beware of legislative moves, cloaked in high-sounding phrases, to regulate speech, circumscribe criticism of public officials, grant police powers to private corporations like BP, tax farm the many to benefit the few, and generally exclude the public from important policy decisions by making citizen participation in governmental process more complex, opaque, indirect, financially burdensome and personally risky.

If any proposed government action would seem likely to legitimize an activity that would be unethical or illegal if an ordinary person did it, that is a time to make your voice heard against going down the slippery slope.

Vandergriff Joins Fabius Maximus Blog

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Noted expert on adaptive leadership, military education, strategy and 4GW, Don Vandergriff, has become a contributor to the Fabius Maximus blog. A thought leader on the subject of military reform, Don is the author of Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War, Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions, The Path To Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs and Spirit, Blood and Treasure and his official site can be found here.  I know Vandergriff will make an excellent addition to FM’s well regarded blog.

FM declared last week to be “Don Vandergriff Week” and here are links to FM’s posts regarding some of Vandergriff’s ideas:

A new addition to the FM website team: Don Vandergriff

Donald Vandergriff has joined the team of writers on the FM website.  He’s one of the select few who are incomparably more influential after they retired (but still alive).  This week we’ll run excerpts from some of his works.


In the world of military theory today there are many people on the cutting edge.  Historians like Martin van Creveld, analysts like John Robb and Chet Richards, visionaries like Thomas Barnett, even some crossing across these categories like William Lind.  But there are few developing solutions that can be implemented today.  By solutions, I mean large-scale programs (not incremental improvements) requiring no substantial political or institutional changes.

One of the best known on this short list is Donald E. Vandergriff.  He retired in 2005 at the rank of Major after 24 years of active duty as an enlisted Marine and Army officer.  He now works as a consultant to the Army and corporations.

Why is Vandergriff’s work an important contribution to preparing America for 21st century warfare?

Summary:  The second chapter in Donald Vandergriff week on the FM website, introducing his work to those readers not already familiar with it.  This chapter briefly sketches out why his work is critical.  People – not doctrine or technology – are the key to winning 4th generation wars (the many factors are always important, of course).  Recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining our men and women in uniform

Vandergriff: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”


Outcome-based training teaches the art in a manner that encourages retention while fostering independent and creative means of obtaining the end goal.

War is an art and as such is not susceptible of explanation by fixed formulae. Yet, from the earliest time there has been an unending effort to subject it’s complex and emotional structure to dissection, to enunciate rules for it’s waging, to make tangible it’s intangibility. One might as well strive to isolate the soul by the dissection of the cadaver as to seek the essence of war by the analysis of it’s records.
– “
The Secret of Victory” by General George S. Patton Jr.  (1926)

Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions

Today’s we have a excerpt from the Preface to Don Vandergriff’s book Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions (2008).  Posted here with permission of the author.

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
– John Boyd (Colonel, USAF, 1927-1997), “A Discourse on Winning and Losing”, unpublished briefing,  August 1987, p. 5-7.


Like the United States today, Rome faced multiple challenges in 107 B.C., and was hard pressed to field adequate forces; the number of men who were qualified to serve, who could equip themselves was running out. The Jurgurthine War in North Africa had been going on far too long for the liking of the Roman Senate, a task that counsul (general) Gaius Marius took upon himself to resolve. German tribes had already defeated several Roman armies and threatened Gaul (southern France) as well as Italy.

Marius was a man of vision and acted upon the need to secure Roman provinces with the resources at hand. He did not have a technological revolution at his disposal to solve his strategic problem.  Marius turned to an intangible solution, the way the Roman Army was manned, structured and fought its legions as the solution. 

Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force

Chapter six:  Training (and Educating) Tomorrow’s Soldiers and Leaders

There is no standardized entry test for U.S. Army commissioning.

  • 10%-15% of officer cadets come through the United States Military Academy at West Point. Here, academic excellence takes priority over military proficiency and many of the places are allocated on the basis of Congressional patronage.
  • Most of the rest of cadets (future officers) join through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) located at 270 schools throughout the US and its territories.
  • A small, but growing, percentage comes through the 16-week Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA. This course has been frequented more by former noncommissioned officers (NCOs) than by those who have met the minimum entrance standard with a degree and only basic training prior to attending, which is good for the Army if those former NCOs are not tied to the old way of doing things.  (See “OCS expanding to turn out more officers“, Army Logistics News, Nov-Dec 2000)

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