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“In the twenty-first century, wars are not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield”

LTC. John Nagl had an article, not yet available online, in the prestigious RUSI journal where he used his review of The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War by Brian McAllister Linn to drive home a geopolitical and grand strategic reality that I offer here with my subsequent comments( major hat tip to Lexington Green for the PDF):

In the twenty-first century, wars are  not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield; in fact, there may not be a uniformed enemy to fight at all. Instead, a war is only won when the conditions that spawned armed conflict have been changed.

 Fielding first rate conventional militaries of local or regional “reach” are inordinately expensive propositions and only the United States maintains one with global power projection capabilities and a logistical tail that can fight wars that are both far away and of long duration.  Economics, nuclear weapons, asymmetrical disparities in conventional firepower, globalization and the revolution in information technology that permits open-source warfare have incentivized warfare on the cheap and stealthy at the expense of classic state on state warfare. The predictions of Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War are coming to pass – war has ratcheted downward from armies to networks and blurs into crime and tribalism. In this scenario, kinetics can no longer be neatly divorced from politics – or economics, sociology, history and culture. “Legitimacy”, stemming from getting actions on the mental and moral levels of war right, matter tremendously.

‘Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world.

 This is “Shrinking the Gap” to use Thomas P.M. Barnett’s phrase. The remediation of failing and failed states not to “utopia” but basic functionality that permits a responsible exercise of sovereignty and positive connectivity with the rest of the world.

Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.

Taken literally, Nagl errs here with two polyglot regions, especially Afghanistan where the popular expectation of a “good” central government is one that eschews excessive meddling while providing – or rather presiding over – social stability and peace. Taken more broadly to mean a gruff acceptance by the people of the legitimacy of their state so they do not take up arms ( or put them down), then nagl is on target. Realism about our own interests vs. global needs and our own finite resources requires a ” good enough” standard be in place.

Winning the Global War on Terror is an even more challenging task; victory in the Long War requires the strengthening of literally dozens of governments afflicted by insurgents who are radicalised by hatred and inspired by fear.

 We might want to consider prophylactic efforts to strengthen weak states prior to a major crisis arising – more bang for our buck – and this should be a major task of AFRICOM. Strengthen the Botswanas, Malis and Zambias before wading hip-deep into the Congo.

The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies – and not all of those soldiers will wear uniforms, or work for the Department of Army. The most important warriors of the current century may fight for the US Information Agency rather than the Department of Defense

Nagl has internalized an important point. The “jointness” forced upon the U.S. military by the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the late 1980’s and 1990’s needs to be broadened, first into true “interagency operational jointness” of American assets then into a full-fledged “System Administration” umbrella that can integrate IGO’s, NGO’s, and the private sector along with military-governmental entities to maximize impact.

Like SecDef Robert Gates, LTC. Nagl “gets it” and we can hope now that he has joined the ranks of policy wonks that an administration job is in his future.


Check out this post at Kings of War – highly relevant.

And at the SWJ Blog

20 Responses to ““In the twenty-first century, wars are not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield””

  1. Fabius Maximus Says:

    "‘Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world. "

    This seems a bit muddled.  We "protect" them and "allow them to control their territory."  While a commendable, it has a neo-colonial tone to it.  This is the sort of thing that leads "them" to suspect our intentions. 
    When internalized by our forces it encourages mixed objectives — as it has in Iraq — confusing the strategic goal of building a legitmate state with tactical effectiveness fighting the insurgents. 

  2. Smitten Eagle Says:

    Zen-Agree with you to a point, although F.M. makes a great point.

    "Protecting" implies a range of tactical tasks, including seizing and holding.

    "Allowing them to control their own territory" seems to be a possible strategic objective, although were they not controlling their own territory before military action on our part (I’m speaking generically here, not specifically Iraq or Afghanistan).  If so, then why seize, hold, and protect, only to hand the territory back?  It seems that a better objective might be to change the form of government, with the endstate defined as allowing the inhabitants control their own territory.

    These nuances are important, because if you confuse your End State with your Objective, or even your Strategy, you will probably be disappointed.  Likewise confusing strategy with tactics is dangerous.

  3. CKR Says:

    Or maybe it’s not soldiers that will bring those positive results.
    Or maybe we could pre-emptively address societal problems.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    I can’t speak for what Nagl meant but a true Sys Admin footprint would probably be about 75 % civilian in composition. The State Department, USAID will need more $$ and more people to be able to step up here – they will also need internal changes in terms of personnel policy ( so will DoD) and culture.
    Hey FM & Smitten,
    It’s the role of our political leaders and statesmen to set and keep the two objectives clear – too often, they muddle them either for personal political reasons or because they have no real understanding themselves

  5. Wiggins Says:

    Excellent post.

    Zen and Cheryl,

    I agree, but would take the SysAdmin argument one step further: we cannot expect that the skill set we have labeled "solider" can expand to be able to achieve Nagl’s goal of "chang[ing] entire societies."  Many of those who have the necessary skills (located at the State Department, USAID, NGOs and the private sector) will bristle at being labeled a soldier.  Getting away from the assumption that these skills need to be (or can be) incorporated into the military represents a key step in moving towards SysAdmin.

    Incidentally, once we clarify this, it begins to address the concerns voiced by FM and Smitten (as the distinction between enabling stability and enforcing stability through colonial control becomes clear).

  6. Fabius Maximus Says:

    I agree with all of the above comments, at least in the sense that of their truth after we administer the "super soldier serum" to our FSO’s (both current and the vast hordes of new recruits), creating the SysAdmin Force.  (That’s a bit over the top, exaggerated for emphasis).
    Now, back to the world of today… My concerns about Nagl’s strategic formula seem not only valid, but perhaps even determinative.  We risk not only our senior decision-makers being infected by this neo-colonial view, but of everyone right down to our strategic corporals.

  7. Lexington Green Says:

    "Taken more broadly to mean a gruff acceptance by the people of the legitimacy of their state so they do not take up arms ( or put them down), then nagl is on target. Realism about our own interests vs. global needs and our own finite resources requires a ” good enough” standard be in place."

    We need to be realistic about how much "we" can "close the Gap".  As long as it is primarily military, we cannot even get going.  If we create a government-wide intervention capacity, we could be of use and assistance.  But as Barnett correctly points out (1) the bodies for this labor intensive work will have to come from lots of places, not mostly the USA, or it can’t work, and (2) once the basics are in place, the private, profit-seeking sector will do most of the "Gap closing". 

    I am not particurlarly worried about the USA going neocolonialist.  We don’t have the will or desire for it.  The historically miniscule casualties in Iraq have had immense political blowback.  We need to do things in a quiet way, or by invitation, and send in the shooters only when there is solid case to be made for it.   Also, since any state-building venture will require a coalition effort, I just don’t see how much neocolonialism can come out of it.  What the Chinese are doing in Africa has a colonial feel to it.  What Nagl and Barnett are proposing is much less so.

    Also, we need to be more humble than Nagl seems to be.  We don’t even know how to create fully viable, lawful societies in Roxbury, Massachusetts or the West Side of Chicago or East LA.  Africa, Andean South America or Central Asia are much tougher nuts to crack.  Set the ambitions small enough to succeed, case by case.

  8. zen Says:

    "Set the ambitions small enough to succeed, case by case."
    An important point. Going in with a Six Sigma yardstick invites disaster. One Sigma and Two Sigma societies will have quite enough on their plate trying to digest and integrate Three Sigma solutions ( and will most likely be very happy with the relative difference, if it can be pulled off). Potable water is a better place to start than, say, comprehensive enviro policy; relatively honest and independent police and judiciary beats a fine-tuned electoral system with American-style political consultants, polling and advertising. Priorities matter.

  9. Fabius Maximus Says:

    I strongly agree with Lexington Green’s comments.

    Except for the the China vs. Barnett/Nagl comparison.  That I do not get at all.  In fact, it seems the opposite IMO. 
    China typically provides loans and long-term commercial purchase contracts — the combination taking out much of the risk for emerging nations.  These are more attractively than western contracts, which usually require an ownership interest by the western multi-nationals.  How is this colonial in intent or practice?

  10. zen Says:

    Hi FM,
    The Chinese are starting to run into friction in Africa with some of their on the spot practices, mostly from sharp dealing or importing too much of their own labor in high unemployment countries. Or even the perception of brusqueness anddistance vis-a-vis the locals. Not a major issue but probably an inevitable one when any outsider enters a country for the first time in significant numbers

  11. Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military « Fabius Maximus Says:

    […] Third, this puts on us the burden of structuring these foreign polities.  I have said this many times, in many ways, so here will quote Lexington Green: […]

  12. Seerov Says:

    We risk not only our senior decision-makers being infected by this neo-colonial view, but of everyone right down to our strategic corporals. (-FM)

    I’m pretty sure that this is exactly what Barnett has in mind. Now I know he’s quick to say "empires involve enforcing maximal rule sets, in which the leader tells the led not just what they cannot do but what they must do" whenever someone calls him on this, but what exactly is the difference between telling a group of people what they can do, and what they can’t do? 

    Imagine that you live in a community that has a community organization. This organization limits you on the colors that you can paint your house. It gives you a list of colors that you are forbidden to paint your house with.  After reviewing the list, you notice that the only colors you can paint your house with are white, grey, or tan. All other colors are off limits. Isn’t this the same thing as telling you that you can only paint your house white, grey, or tan?

    So now lets think about this at the Nation-State level. Country A is not permitted to regulate migration (therefore, they WILL have open borders). Country A must not have a  State planned economy (therefore, they WILL embrace a neo-liberal economic system).

    I can’t figure out how a man of Barnett’s intelligence would allow for this kind of self deception?

    If you really want to watch Barnett squirm, ask him if he’s comfortable with foreign sysadmin troop operating in the United States?  He won’t give a strait answer?

    The first debate that must be had is whether or not the US (and other states with similar interests) (a) have the right to "close the gap. (b) Have the ability to "close the gap?" We should first examine this, and along with it, examine who exactly favors these actions the most? Next, we need to ask how we as Americans will benefit from this? Barnett has ran in elite circles for nearly his whole adult life. How many of his ideas are the result of "group think" after years of hanging out with international financiers and defense industrialists?

    Please understand that I do respect Barnett’s ideas very much. The first time I seen "the brief" I was blown away. If after a long debate, we do decide that "shrinking the gap" is in Americas best interests, then there is no doubt that his ideas are superior to anyone else’s. 

  13. Seerov Says:

    Note above: I meant "He won’t give a straight answer" and not "He won’t give a strait answer."  I’m not prepared to have a discussion on geo-strategic choke points or other issues involving that kind of geographic feature. 🙂

  14. zen Says:

    Hi Seerov,
    Serious and fair questions. Here’s my take:
    Markets and empires are different things because the former involves at root, voluntary exchange and the other military force. Letting people have options that armed minorities do not want them to have and actually becoming the armed minority that forces them to do or not do something are different things.
    Very often you have states where the "state controlled economy" is not so much, say Sweden but a small, unelected, gang holding power by force  and terror who are a vampire class, siphoning off billions from the economy at their people’s expense (Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan, North Korea etc.) for whom they are the "gatekeepers" to contact with the rest of the world. It’s hard to argue that this scenario represents a sovereign choice in political economy by the citizens of these countries. Tom is not arguing for intervention in states with functioning, legitimate, governments and mixed economies. Or even intervention everywhere where there are not these things.
    Then there are failed states without a functioning government that export nothing but spillover costs to their neighbors and the larger international community in the form of refugees, famine, disease, insurgencies, piracy, narcotics, terrorism and so on.
    The above situations describe the Gap in Tom’s worldview.
    On the question of "rights" to intervene, IMHO the "right" to intervene in another sovereign state’s internal affairs begins to accrue under two conditions ( this is my view, rooted more in natural law philosophy, not Barnett’s. For Tom, refer to his A-Z Rule Set in Blueprint for Action):
    1) When a state begins to export disorder and aggression and has become a general disturber of the peace either through intent or inaction. One cannot expect to cause harm to other sovereign powers and then hide from retaliation behind the legal shield of one’s own sovereignty. Intrinsically, other sovereigns have the right to respond in kind without first seeking permission – that’s why we term them "sovereign".
    2)When the state itself is engaging in significant crimes against humanity ( ethnic cleansing, democide, genocide) against it’s own people, it’s legitimacy is forfeit and is fair game, legally speaking, for whatever state or non-state actor that seeks their overthrow and prosecution. See the terms of the Genocide Convention and the precedent of the Nuremburg and Tokyo Tribunals.
    Do we have the ability? That comes down to strategic choices and a case by case decision. The U.S. or even all the great powers combined cannot be everywhere, all the time all at once doing everything for all problems. Hard military intervention should be rare. Soft diplomacy and technical assistance should be common.

  15. Seerov Says:

    Zen, thank you for reply.  I think your explanation for when we should intervene seems reasonable enough.  We could probably debate all day about what an empire is, so I’ll leave that alone and get to the bottom line.  

    Thinking about this from my personal point of view as a man living in this country, I just hope this idea of "forfeiting legitimacy" doesn’t come back to bite us.  If I agree that the world has the right to intervene when people are bad actors, whats to stop the UN in 30 years from occupying wherever I live in the future because my State/Nation/Resilient Community refuses affirmative action to people, or doesn’t want to pay a global tax, or considers free speech to be different than they do?  My fear is that we’re opening up ourselves for future interventions in a time when this country might not be the most powerful country on earth. 

    Second, why is it in my interests to intervene in situations that don’t affect me in any way?  IOW, why is "shrinking the gap" in my interests as an American citizen?  This may sound cruel, but I’m a lot more upset about my cat going missing than I am about 10 million people dying in the Sudan.  Perhaps an argument can be made that "shrinking the gap" will allow for new markets in order to sell our goods?  But can you give me a good argument on how we will benefit by getting involved with a country that has a history of hopelessness and a future that looks even worse?  If there are no "negative spillovers" coming from a country, why should we spend money and people for something that may not benefit us?


  16. historyguy99 Says:

    Hello all,

    The above comments are an excellent example of blog discussion at it’s best. Current projects don’t allow me the time to join this thoughtful forum.

    Great comments by all!

    I have nothing of value to add beyond noting that if I found out that my cat,(citizens) had been taken and killed by a family of malcontents,(failed state) across town.  I would expect the police,(governments) to intervene to insure that they don’t come back and take my dog.  Shrinking the gap is more than new markets, it’s long term security to prevent a potential nest of malcontents from flourishing.

  17. CurtisGale Weeks Says:

    All this reminds me of an old post, "On the Barnettian 5GW." The issues of empowerment, superempowerment, state and non-state resolve to an issue of delegation: delegation of responsibilities, powers, etc.  The problem is one of finding the right system of delegations which the majority of people will find not only adequate but fortunate.

  18. Fabius Maximus Says:

    A full copy of the review has been posted at the Small Wars Journal, courtesy of The Rusi Journal:

  19. A reply to COIN and Nation Building skeptics: Part I, defending Nagl with ethical Nation Building « Stephen Pampinella Says:

    […] 26, 2008 Zenpundit provides excerpts of a book review by Nagl, which explicitly states the objectives, goals, and […]

  20. stuart goldhawk Says:

    There will never be a n answer to this problem, we have been at war since the beginning of time and still are . Nice peice

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