Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Geometry of Objects

In the comments on my last post, fellow Ink Spotter MK made the following comment: "I can't imagine that you're looking for a linear relationship between political objectives and military strategy in an unconventional conflict in the modern security environment." I'm certain that he is not the only person out there who thinks that this could be the case as I've heard it before from others.

But I just don't see how it could be any other way. I cannot think of any case in which the military strategy could be tangential at best and peripheral at worst and still work towards attaining the political objective. What has occurred in the modern era (presumably since the end of the Cold War) or is different about unconventional warfare that could cause this shift in relationship between the two objects that had previously existed since the formation of political entities?

In the case of Afghanistan, it appears to me that the military strategy is focused on the wrong population on the wrong land. To suggest that strategy might attain the stated political objective is to suggest that somehow defeat will come to the enemy through some sort of osmosis through the semipermeable Durand Line. Or an ink spot writ much larger. I don't think we have any historical evidence that suggests that might be possible or likely.

So I'll pose this to our readers and I hope that you respond (in keeping with Gulliver's guidance please). Is MK's assertion correct that the modern security environment has fundamentally changed so that there is no longer a linear relationship between political objectives and military strategy?


  1. "What has occurred in the modern era (presumably since the end of the Cold War) or is different about unconventional warfare that could cause this shift in relationship between the two objects that had previously existed since the formation of political entities."

    The internets?

  2. Is MK's assertion correct that the modern security environment has fundamentally changed so that there is no longer a linear relationship between political objectives and military strategy?

    No. The question wouldn't even be entertained if Afghanistan was left out of the equation. A campaign in which there is no coherent or well defined political strategy, no real commitment to meet the unrealistic goals posed and a state of commitment which would, if all other objectives were met, still boil down to "leave while Osama isn't dead?"

    Where are the examples in the affirmative ?

    ps. WTF is up with the comments where I can't see a cursor or copy/paste ?

  3. Ricks at The Best Defense asks:
    While I am away, I'd welcome suggestions for how to improve this blog. What works for you, and what doesn't?

  4. Typically when one hears this debate conducted, it's not in the format that MK presents it.

    Usually, it's something along the lines of those who favor Clausewitz's "eternal" Trinitarian model of war and the rival Keegan/van Creveld rebuttal that in a new era of stateless competitors for 4G or 5G contests (that was for you, TX), we can't rely on the old model to explain the motivations of actors and the drama (or, more specifically with contemporary conflicts, tragedy or farce) unfolding on the stage.

    He's not making that argument, one I wish he would make because it's easier to debate. Rather, he's approaching the strange (but by no means rarely discussed) notion that we're erecting a Camelot in the goat poo-spackeled "nation" of Afghanistan that will prove like catnip to millions of Pathans currently backing a very different gaggle of knights.

    So, how does one address MK? By incorporating both van Creveld (he's a Sun Tzu sort of guy) and Clausewitz (a Bonaparte sort of guy) into our analysis.

    A very bright -- and, frankly, devilishly handsome -- avatar typed this at the KOW site:

  5. Well, I guess drawing from both perspectives, one might suggest that the center of gravity today is the Pasthun population across the Durand Line in Pakistan.

    From NW Pakistan come the cadres of the Taliban (pick whichever), and with them the potential to destabilize either Islamabad or the festering whale carcass flopped over Kabul we, for lack of better taxonomy, term the “Karzai government.”

    The population over which they rule, and which supports them, is within the colonial borders of Pakistan. The taxes which they receive from Afghan populations help to fund the shadow government and military activities there, but these are often directed — broadly — from NW Pakistan’s Taliban redoubt.

    If we accept that all this is true, then pray tell me how our public pronouncements about population-centric counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan shall affect the center of gravity population that inconveniently lives beyond a political border we won’t cross?

    We can’t destroy, detain or deter our way out of the problem because, thus far, the Taliban make more insurgents than we can remove, and the oasis from which they draw their water is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. We only have the opportunity to nab or destroy those who cross into Afghanistan, and even those we have great difficulties rounding up.

    Our various drone strike options in Pakistan aren’t exactly a Phoenix-like holistic program to fracture the leadership infrastructure of the twin Taliban forces and their allies. Nor, for political purposes, can we exact the “clear, hold and build” model in much of the Pastho Belt.

    We know from our own internal reports that our own redevelopment initiatives designed to “build” within Afghanistan likely are skimmed by Taliban tax-gatherers, perhaps accounting for up to a third of their revenues.

    We also know that opium eradication programs designed to target perhaps another third of Taliban earnings will alienate the population we are trying to woo, each poppy pyre therefore a crude semaphore telling us that we have lost another farm family to the enemy.

    We have few good metrics for addressing “success” or charting “failure.” We have a doctrine borrowed from Iraq we think might have some utility, but it isn’t hitched to the nag of any strategy. Instead, the cart of doctrine seems to be driving strategy, an inversion of Clausewitzian logic so profound that we must encapsulate it in daily SIGACTs arriving at CENTCOM or in PowerPoint format in BCT confabs throughout OEF.

    The default strategy apparently is that by doing whatever we’re doing in Afghanistan will 1) Convince Afghans to defect to the Karzai “government” that apparently is driving a great deal of the insurgency, along with the western occupation; or, 2) Mysteriously prove so attractive to the Pathans on the other side of the Durand Line that they will spontaneously revolt from their Taliban overlords and ask to be incorporated into the Shangri-La of Kabul or pledge eternal loyalty to the feudal Punjabi elites in Pakistan.

    Regardless of which folly is chosen, hope, alas, is not a plan, even if we winnow our previously breathless lusts for a democratic, free market Afghanistan down to wherever Biddle would put us today (hold a meaningless election, build up the Afghan Security Forces, tinker a bit with Karzai’s feckless and corrupt “governance” policies, then leave).

    What perhaps is most amoral about the status quo is that I can’t imagine anyone in good conscience who could deliver these “strategy” prescriptions to a mom in Brighton or Boise or Berlin at the wake of her son, KIA in Afghanistan.

    I know I can’t. We won’t have a real “strategy” of any value until a commander can do just that.


  6. Read that this morning. Good stuff.

  7. While I agree that the efficacy and utility of the wonderful trinity is an interesting conversation, I don't that it helps me here. Obviously I disagree that the relationship between political and military objectives has changed. But let's tkae Afghanistan out of the discussion as that's where we are try to apply the model.

  8. SNLII, stick to speaking for yourself rather than inaccurately representing my views. You're good at the former and execrable at the latter.

    And while you're at it, you may want to re-examine the gross oversimplifications on which your KOW post rests. Support for the Taliban (and associated groups) is neither exclusively based among Pakistani Pashtuns, nor by any stretch of the imagination universal amongst either Pakistani or Afghan Pashtuns. In Kandahar, for example, most of the locals we're fighting (as opposed to the cross-border or more mobile elements) are Noorzai and Eshaqzai, but not Barakzai or Achakzai. And in Pakistan, we've seen a number of lashkars raised from Pashtun tribes to fight the TTP. The only remotely reliable poll results show an even split in opinion among residents of the tribal agencies about the effectiveness, accuracy, and general legitimacy of the drone strikes. Not that the situation is clearly one way or the other, but certainly a lot more complex than you care to portray.

    As to the center of gravity, riddle me this: if the COG is entirely on the Pakistani side of the border, then how and why can the insurgents attract the support of enough Afghans to operate amongst the population? You seem to be arguing that perceptions of the Karzai government amongst Pakistani Pashtuns can influence perceptions and events in Afghanistan, but not vice versa. That seems both absurd and inaccurate.

  9. KIlo, you've misunderstood my comment. A coherent and well-defined political and military strategy rest first and foremost on a series of assumptions about causality - the causal links between subordinate objectives and an overall goal, and between actions and their effect on achieving those objectives. My point is that sometimes those chains of causality may not be linear, or perhaps more accurately, for a variety of political, cultural, geostrategic, and capacity issues, a campaign that consists entirely or mainly of linear action won't work or will be counter-productive.

    Examples of the affirmative would include most successful insurgencies, wouldn't they? On the other side, the strategy that was eventually adopted in Northern Ireland. And, at the interstate level, everything from support for the Afghan Mujahadeen to Helsinki Watch in eroding both domestic and international legitimacy for the Soviet Union. I'd even posit that the framework operations usually considered a key component of COIN operations are an example.

    Ivan Arreguin-Toft's How the Weak Win Wars discussed direct versus indirect methods at length, and Daniel Byman's discussion of Israeli prevent Israeli Arabs from identifying too strongly with Palestinians seems like another good example (see The Manipulation of Ethnic Identities to End Ethnic Wars)

  10. Isn't part of the point also that what we see as linear and linked by causal relationship may in fact not be in a different political, cultural (and a host of other things) context?

    This makes me think of teaching French and warning my students about "faux-amis" or words that are identical but whose meanings have evolved so differently that you have to work to make sure you don't use them in the same way in both languages. If you do make the mistake, the implications can range from mere embarrassment to full-fledged combustion.

    I also think that our assumptions of causality are heavily influenced by our own history, cultural references, language, and narratives (and friends will tell you that having a bi-cultural background makes me unusually neurotic). Again, think of the ways in which people from different places both interpret (on the spot) and later remember the same events and construct narratives around them. I think these causality links are subject to widely varying interpretation. Maybe there's even a degree to which the assumptions on which they're based can change over time.

    We need to be wary of projecting causality onto others, lest we fall into the trap of thinking what we're doing doesn't work not because we're doing something wrong or our logic is faulty, but because the locals aren't reacting in ways we expect, much less understand.

  11. As to what's changed in the contemporary environment - primarily the globalization of information flows, and the accompanying reshaping of the boundaries and contours of political and ethnic identities. Just as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates far beyond the region - sometimes in counter-intuitive ways - so to do all the rest of our conflicts. Echoing what others who actually work on this issue have said, I think the democratization of both access to, and dissemination of information (and especially images) has magnified the power of the propaganda of the deed in ways that compress the strategic and tactical. Abu Grhaib being a good example; As-Sahab another.

  12. Perhaps, MK, if you wrote clearly, you wouldn't find so many people charitably trying to fill in the spaces.

    Indeed, this very thread seems to be a recitation of "What is MK really saying?"

    If you like, I could fill a good 20 pages on the many cultural fracturings of the Pastho Belt on both sides of the fictional border, simply from rote. But as a blog comment shorthand, it wouldn't do much good, now would it?

    The real efficacy of the drone strikes should be told by some "metric" (hate to use that term in conjunction with the war) that would show it working or not. We have metrics (plural) we could borrow from Phoenix against VCI. Having done that, I concede that there is no proof that we are matching the same level of efficiency in Afghanistan.

    To put it mildly.

    All I know is that I have yet to find one serious regional analyst of the war in South Asia that would suggest the "center of gravity" is with a few million Afghans on the left side of the Durand Line. Perhaps this was true in 2001, but it most certainly isn't so today (and I doubt it was even then).

    Even if we pacify the insurgency in Afghanistan and create the Burkina Faso of South Asia in the wake of our operations, it does nothing to either quash the very large number of irregulars buying time in NW Pakistan or resolve the even more crucial regional security crisis that really is animating the conflict.

    We could parse all of this into the categories of strategy and grand strategy, or even borrow Jomini's distinctions from the 19th century, but we still have the paradox that we have operational doctrine driving strategic goals, and not the other way around.

    At the risk of raising your wrath again, it would seem that you're still suggesting that pop-centric doctrine is an end in itself, just as the pacification of Afghanistan is an end in itself, points that aren't shared by Biddle in his recent essay, nor Exum in his latest posting, nor the Secretary of Defense, nor, it seems, increasingly Congress.

    I also fail to see how Ivan Arreguin-Toft somehow is all that radical. Everything he says now Callwell paraphrased nearly a century ago.

    The crux of Toft's thesis is that strong states tend to fail to understand the nature of the foes that they face, and that they end up tethering the wrong strategy to the forces they send to do battle.

    Clausewitz actually speaks to many of these issues when he discusses "small wars." I'm not exactly convinced that what he posits there is so fundamentally different from Ivan's analysis.

    Perhaps a better argument would be to discuss TX Hammes 2007 essay about "5G" conflicts. But I won't get into all that, perhaps because I don't much imagine TX is all that hostile to Clausewitz.


  13. Lil - I agree with your point about paying attention to how particular cultural and political contexts shape causal relationships that we tend to assume are universal, but I tend to think that's more about how we frame our actions (IO) rather than the substance that changes. We need to do a better job of understanding and utilizing the symbolic logic of other cultures so that, to put it metaphorically, the food we offer isn't just nutritious, but looks, smells, and tastes 'right' to those we're trying to feed.

    I don't follow your last point though about 'projecting causality' - can you explain further?

  14. And perhaps, SNLII, I wouldn't disagree with you so vehemently if you didn't obscure your extensive knowledge behind lurid prose. And if I'm somehow impinging on your blog-o-spheric spotlight in this one thread, I'm sure you'll still dominate everywhere else.

    No, I'm not arguing for the pacification of Afghanistan as an end in itself. I have concerns that failing to do so will have seriously bad consequences at both the regional (impact on Pakistan, and chances of conflict with India) and strategic (credibility of the global order; the potency of AQ's global narrative; credibility of the US as a hegemon, etc.) levels. Not to mention what happens to Afghans.

    And yes, I agree that Clausewitz and Arreguin-Toft largely agree - it seems to be more a matter of how Clausewitz is interpreted than anything else.

    Even if we pacify the insurgency in Afghanistan and create the Burkina Faso of South Asia in the wake of our operations, it does nothing to either quash the very large number of irregulars buying time in NW Pakistan or resolve the even more crucial regional security crisis that really is animating the conflict.

    Here is where we seem to disagree. I'm not arguing that Pakistani Pashtuns are irrelevant to the conflict, but I am arguing that the opinions, actions, and fate of Afghan Pashtuns has an impact on their Pakistani kin. Explain to me why you think I'm wrong about this.

    Also, at some point someone's going to have to explain to me how the highly segmented nature of Afghan society and the supposed trans-border solidarity amongst Pashtuns are both key factors in explaining why we've been losing. They seem to be contradictory assertions.

  15. Lil- wonderful point, that i think encapsulated why I'm finding this conversation confusing. it seems we've all interpreted the comment to mean what we want to talk about...

    MK- is your point that current conversations about reconciling doctrine, strategic objectives and strategy are too inclined to look for the simplest causal narrative, whether or not it is particularly accurate give available data (which seems to be the direction Snlii headed that you objected too, but also seem to be how gunslinger read the comment based on the post)? or that often directly pursuing objectives is often counter productive (seems to be the sense of your first comment on this post)? or that local conflicts carry narrative weight in other societies that may be quiet different than how the waring parties see the situation (which your last comment seems to imply)? or am i reading you entirely incorrectly?

    I'm honestly not trying to put words into anyone's mouth, and I'm sorry if this seems dense, but I was confused by the original comment and have gotten more confused as this posts comments continue and people seem to be talking past one another/ explaining view other than the intended one.

    Can we get an authoritative reading of what you intended, so we can discuss that?

  16. "No, I'm not arguing for the pacification of Afghanistan as an end in itself. I have concerns that failing to do so will have seriously bad consequences at both the regional (impact on Pakistan, and chances of conflict with India)"

    Do the Indians and Pakistanis think this way? The Indians are happy to be involved in nation-building in Afghanistan, to an extent that it will help their own regional interests, and the Pakistanis are nervous about it, aren't they? Is this a kind of proxy 'war', too? I dunno, my reading and knowledge base is not as extensive as many of you who post here.

    Thoughts anyone?

  17. "KIlo, you've misunderstood my comment."

    Actually I never read it to start with. The rest of your reply didn't share a lot of linear anything with how the question was posed here so my response wouldn't address it.

    On the other hand what you seem to be describing is merely the challenges/ineffectiveness of campaigns to address the multi-layered conditions which allow non-state actors to persist/succeed, rather than addressing these as being an impossibility.

    I've got no disagreement with that. If it turns out that tackling corruption/trafficking in Afg is a requirement to a stable state with a viable govt (and I don't know that it is), well I'd expect to see the USS Death Star brought to bear on that problem sometime in 2150.

  18. I guess I'm still confused, and I'm not exactly finding this thread all that productive.

    One assumes that the crux of the matter was "MK's assertion ... that the modern security environment has fundamentally changed so that there is no longer a linear relationship between political objectives and military strategy (...)"

    He seems to be suggesting that this isn't so, and that there is a direct relationship, indeed a causal one, between our military "strategy" in Afghanistan (full marks for his necromancy in this regard, something McChrystal's peeps won't even concede exists at the moment) and the political outcomes we envision.

    Indeed, he seems convinced that some good will come out of our militarized pursuit of converting Afghanistan into a modern, liberal democracy with a non-narcotic market economy, perhaps enough to tilt the region's stability see-saw in a good way.

    I can't envision any of this to be so, and the only people who speak like this are Obama, GEN McChrystal and, on the other side of the Atlantic, my favorite PM at 10 Downing Street since Hacker.

    Since I'm equally convinced that of these four, three (one general and two politicians) are lying, I hereby give MK my sincerest apologies for trying to put other words into his mouth.


  19. Ok, so I'm not sure this will help much but coming back to this after doing some work and having a nice dinner, I'll give it a try anyway.

    I have to agree that I remain a bit confused and I think el-Belle has a point on talking about what we want to discuss and likely talking past each other.

    To go back to projecting causality, what I was trying to say was this: we assume that certain actions will lead to certain responses, usually because it seems logical to us. But there are undoubtedly cases where if we don't do a good analytical job or don't know enough about the people/place etc, to know better, we'll be completely wrong.

    I think we're getting better (or at least I hope we are) at not banging our head against the wall and telling ourselves "it's supposed to work like this" (this is what I meant by projecting) and I'm going to do it until it does because dammit A is supposed to lead to B.

    That probably didn't help at all...c'est la vie.

  20. Yeah, I get all that. Thanks for bringing helping clear the waters, Lil.

    Unless no one is interested in continuing this conversation, I'll pose another question set. It appears that the political objective in this case is a military-type of objective (defeat of enemy forces). Is that appropriate for a political objective and in this case, does this culturally-influenced causality matter when determining the relationship between the military and political objectives? Also, when states engage non-state actors (in war), is it likely that the political objective will usually be military in nature? For our purposes here, I would say that non-state actors would be those organizations that do not involve themselves in governance (for instance, it could be argued that the Taliban is a state(s) of sorts as they do govern significant areas even if the UN doesn't recognize them).

    Also, for the record I would like to state that I do believe that stabilizing Afghanistan would help stabilize Pakistan to an extent. My argument here is that it will not achieve the political objective as stated by the President.


  22. Thanks RA. That looks interesting. I think my online library access only permits access to documents more than a year old though.