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Archive for May, 2009
Dr. John Nagl, president of CNAS, lead author of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, retired lieutenant colonel and top COIN expert, has penned an important review of Accidental Guerrilla by Col. David Kilcullen, in the prestigious British journal RUSI. Unfortunately, at present no link is is available, but my co-author Lexington Green is a subscriber and sent me a copy of the review, which I read last night. I now look forward to reading Kilcullen firsthand and have put Accidental Guerrilla near the top of my summer reading List.
I state that Nagl’s review is important because beyond the descriptive element that is inherent in a review, there is a substantive aspect that amounts to an effective act of policy advocacy. First, an example of Nagl’s descriptions of Kilcullen’s arguments:
We do not face a monolithic horde of jihadis moti vated by a rabid desire to destroy us and our way of life (there are some of these, although Kilcullen prefers to call them takfiris); instead, many of those who fight us do so for conventional reasons like nationalism and honour. Kilcullen illustrates the point with the tale of a special forces A-Team that had the fight of its life one May afternoon in 2006. One American was killed and seven more wounded in a fight that drew local fighters from villages five kilometres away who marched to the sound of the guns – not for any ideological reason, but simply because they wanted to be a part of the excitement. ‘It would have shamed them to stand by and wait it out’, Kilcullen reports
Tribal and even “civilized” rural people, often find ways of making social status distinctions that relate to behaviour and character rather than or in addition to the mere accumulation of material possessions (Col. Pat Lang has a great paper on this subject, “How to Work with Tribesmen“). We can shorthand them as “honor” cultures and they provide a different set of motivations and reactions than, say, those possessed by a CPA in San Francisco or an attorney in Washington, DC. People with “honor” are more obviously “territorial” and quick to defend against perceived slights or intrusions by unwelcome outsiders. This is a mentality that is alien to most modern, urbanized, 21st century westerners but it was not unfamiliar all that long ago, even in 19th and early 20th century, Americans had these traits. Shelby Foote, the Civil War historian, quotes a captured Southern rebel, who responded to a Union officer who asked him, why, if he had no slaves, was he was fighting? “Because you are down here” was the answer.
While relatively short and designed, naturally, to help promote a book by a friend and CNAS colleague, Dr. Nagl has also taken a significant step toward influencing policy by distilling and reframing Dr. Klicullen’s lengthy and detailed observations into a reified and crystallized COIN “doctrine”. A digestible set of memes sized exactly right for the journalistic and governmental elite whose eyes glaze over at the mention of military jargon and who approach national security from a distinctly civilian and political perspective:
There is much first-hand reporting in this book, based on Kilcullen’s [Robert] Kaplan-esque habit of visiti ng places where people want to kill him. After chapters detailing his personal experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, he returns to his doctoral fieldwork in Indonesia, discusses the insurgencies in Thailand and Pakistan and evaluates the complicated plight of radical Islam in Europe. While all of these confl icts are related to each other, they are not the same, and cannot be won based on a simplistic conception like the global War on Terror; instead, the enemy in each small war must be disaggregated from the whole, strategy in each based on local conditions, motivations, and desires. One size does not fit all, and there are many grey areas. A ‘with us or against us’ approach is likely to result in far more people than otherwise being ‘against us’ in these conflicts.
John Boyd would have agreed that isolating our enemies and winning over groups as allies is much preferred to needlessly multiplying our enemies. That paragraph is more or less boilerplate in the COIN community but this RUSI review is aimed not at them but at political decision makers, national security bureaucrats, diplomats and elite media and constituted a necessary set up by Nagl for “The Kilcullen Doctrine” [bullet points are my addition to Nagl’s text, for purposes of emphasis]:
….In direct oppositi on to the ideas that drove American interventi on policy two decades ago, Kilcullen suggests ‘the anti -Powell doctrine’ for counter-insurgency campaigns.
First, planners should select the lightest, most indirect and least intrusive form of intervention that will achieve the necessary effect.
Second, policy-makers should work by, with, and through partnerships with local government administrators, civil society leaders, and local security forces whenever possible.
Third, whenever possible, civilian agencies are preferable to military intervention forces, local nati onals to international forces, and long-term, low-profile engagement to short-term, high-profile intervention.
New doctrines emerge because ideas are articulated at the moment in time when they both fit the circumstances and the intended audience is ready to accept their implications. George Kennan, the father of Containment in 1946-1947 had attempted to give the State Department and the Roosevelt administration essentially the same advice about Soviet Russia in the 1930’s and the reaction of the White House was to order the State Department’s Soviet document collection destroyed and exile critics of Stalin like Kennan from handling Eastern European affairs ( Kennan saved the collection by storing it in his attic). Neither Stalin’s nature nor Kennan’s opinion of the USSR changed much in the next decade, but the willingness of American liberal elites to consider them did, making Containment doctrine a reality.
The post-Cold War, Globalization era elite is in the ready state of mind for a “Kilcullen Doctrine”. They are ready to hear it because systemic uncertainties have made them justifiably skeptical of old prescriptions and they are seeking new perspectives the way the Truman White House invited Kennan’s Long Telegram. This situation is both good and bad in about equal measure.
The good comes from the fact that the Kilcullen Doctrine is operationally sound, at least for specifically handling issues of complex insurgencies. It is also politically astute, in that it encourages statesmen and military leaders to first tinker with minimal measures while listening acutely for feedback instead of charging in like a bull in a china shop, to empower locals rather than engaging in the military keynesianism equivalent of enabling welfare dependency, as the U.S. did in South Vietnam and initially in Iraq. Kilcullen is also a reluctant interventionist, a healthy sentiment, albeit one unlikely to survive in doctrinal form.
The bad is multifaceted. None of these are dealbreakers but all should be “handled” by the COIN advocates of a “Kilcullen Doctrine”:
First, Kilcullen’s three principles are an operational and not a genuinely strategic doctrine. In fairness, no major COIN advocate has ever said otherwise and have often emphasized the point. The problem is that a lot of their intended audience – key civilian decision makers and opinion shapers in their 30’s-50’s often do not understand the difference, except for a minority who have learned from bitter experience. Most of those who have, the Kissingers, Brzezinskis, Shultzes etc. are elder statesmen on the far periphery of policy.
Secondly, this operational doctrine requires a sound national strategy and grand strategy if it is to add real value and not merely be a national security fire extinguisher. Kilcullen may say intervention is unwise but that is really of no help. Absent a grand strategy with broad political acceptance, policy makers, even professed isolationists, will find situational (i.e. domestic political reasons) excuses for intervention on an ad hoc basis. That George W. Bush entered office as a sincere opponent of “nation-building” and proponent of national “humility” should be enough to give anyone pause about a president “winging it” by reacting to events without a grand strategy to frame options and provide coherence from one administration to the next.
Thomas P.M. Barnett, a friend of this blog, has been articulating a visionary grand strategy since 2004 in a series of books, the latest of which is Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, where he essentially models for the readers how a grand strategy is constructed from historical trajectories and economic currents to make the case. Barnett’s themes have a great consilience with most of what COIN advocates would like to see happen, but Dr. Barnett’s public example of intellectual proselytizing and briefing to normal people outside of the beltway is even more important. Operational doctrine is not enough. It is untethered. It will float like a balloon in a political wind. It is crisis management without a destination or sufficient justification for expenditure of blood and treasure. If these blanks are not filled in, they will be filled in by others.
COIN advocates will have to bite the bullet of working on national strategy and grand strategy, building political coalitions, speaking to the public and wading into geoeconomics and the deep political waters of the long view. For a some time, they have had the excuse that as uniformed officers, such questions were above their pay grade – and this was the scrupulously, constitutionally, correct position, so long as that was the case.
That era is swiftly passing and most of these brilliant military intellectuals now have (ret.) in their titles and wear business suits rather than fatigues. COIN is not an end in itself. The horizon is much wider now and we should all be ready to pitch in and help.
ALSO POSTING ON THIS TOPIC:
SWJ Blog – Weekend Reading and Listening Assignment
Thomas P.M. Barnett – Safranski on Nagl on Kilcullen
The Strategist – Sunday reflection: on “The Accidental Guerrilla”
MountainRunner –Recommended Reading: Kilcullen Doctrine
Abu Muqawama – Dogs and cats, living together. Mass hysteria!
Information Dissemination – New Doctrines Without Strategic Foundations
Galrahn is right, I have not quite fleshed things out in my post and could use the help. He’s also clarified that the discussion needs to shift to the “why”, the objectives, with which I was not particularly clear by the use of “strategy” which means different things to different people, even those versed in military affairs.
On an important strategy/COIN-related post and also on a book review. At least one will be up tonight
This caught my eye, from Foreign Affairs:
But Jones remains something of a question mark. The most successful national security advisers — McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Sandy Berger — were effective thanks to strong personal and policy relationships with their presidents, and it remains unclear whether Jones will establish a similarly close connection with Obama. The retired marine general has garnered widespread bipartisan respect for his integrity, but he had met Obama only twice before being appointed to the job.
History suggests that this is not an insuperable obstacle: Bundy built his relationship with Kennedy, and Kissinger his with Nixon, only after moving to the White House. But both Bundy and Kissinger immersed themselves in the substance of presidential policy, and their operational styles (Bundy’s was open and casual, while Kissinger’s was tight and controlled) were natural fits for their respective bosses.
Jones’s personal style does not seem to be so good a match for Obama’s. Jones is a career military man accustomed to operating within a hierarchical structure, where rank matters and information and recommendations move through predictable channels. Even at its most structured, policy-making in the White House is never like this, and it appears to be particularly far from it under this president. For Jones, Bundy’s experience may be the most relevant, since Obama resembles Kennedy more than any other U.S. president since World War II. He is cool, cerebral, and substance-oriented. Like Kennedy, he is a former senator and accustomed to informal processes, going to individuals rather than large organizations for advice. As a onetime community organizer, he has had additional experience with fluid situations that Kennedy never had. And as a former law professor, Obama is attracted to disputation as a means of garnering facts and making decisions instead of relying on the counsel, however well grounded, of a single aide, or having others’ views channeled through a particular aide
This would seem to be a misreading of the situation to me.
Gen. Jones, first of all, is not Al Haig or some general out of Hollywood central casting. He is forceful, a useful trait as President Obama intends to hold tight control over foreign policy, but Jones’ career was marked both by innovative thinking and the holding of high posts unusual for a Marine general officer, including leadership of humanitarian and multinational intervention and supreme allied commander in Europe. Excellent preparation for the sort of foreign policy problems the Obama administration is most likely to face – complex, disorderly, subnational and/failed state and with heavy diplomatic-political implications as well as shooting wars of insurgency, COIN and terrorism.
President Obama spent most of his time before becoming chief executive on a limited number of domestic policy issues, constitutional law and navigating the treacherous waters of Chicago politics. Neither foreign policy nor military affairs was an area of interest or expertise for Barack Obama and the presence of General Jones at the NSC is politically useful in itself, as is Jones’ determination to rein in the bureaucracies at meetings of NSC principals or their deputies. Making Jones both enforcer and consigliere – but also one who has enormous “street cred” in the national security-defense communities.
Matt Armstrong is discussing consolidation and revamping at the NSC.