Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The LDCOA and Strategic Planning

I am currently reading through CSBA's Regaining Strategic Competence (boy that Dr. K is a smart guy). I hope to do a longer analysis of it when I'm done, but thought it prudent to discuss some of the earlier points in it - especially as some of it has been bothering me for a while.

The premise of the monograph is to demonstrate America's waning ability to competently think about and plan strategy - and not because of Iraq alone (which might be proof enough). Additionally, while the authors believe that some organizational changes are required, the organization of the national security apparatus is not the core problem with our strategic deficiencies. It is more about process.

From a military standpoint, planning is a fairly set process in how it is done. I was not a strategic planner in the Army, but from the ones that I know, it isn't terribly different than planning at the operational or high-tactical level - from a process point of view. It is a balancing of your own resources and capabilities versus those of your adversary towards some desired endstate. Pretty straightforward, right?

It seems not. Krepinevich and Watts lay out a list of strategic performance pitfalls. While they all seem valid to me, two jump out immediately. Check out numbers 9 and 10. First, there are few people who have the natural acumen for strategy (which I hope to address later) and second is the failure to understand the adversary (which we'll talk about here).

In standard military planning, on top of templating the enemy (equipment and disposition), the intel planner should lay out two very specific things that are somewhere between extremely educated guesses and wild assed guesses: the enemy's Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA) and Most Likely Course of Action (MLCOA). The former is if everything went right for the enemy and is a worst-case scenario for your side. The latter is what the enemy is probably going to do. The command needs to be aware of the MDCOA and hopefully have branches of the plan to address it. But the plan should generally be built around the MLCOA. Simple, right?

Except lately, at the strategic level, we've completely ignored the MDCOA. I'm not sure why this is: optimism or ignorance I imagine. Had that analysis been done correctly, we probably wouldn't have gotten as mired in Iraq and Afghanistan as we are now because we would have had viable plans years ago. But it gets worse. That same optimism/ignorance has degraded the MLCOA so it doesn't even come close to reality. Iraq and Afghanistan (and arguably Kosovo before it) were plans based on the Least Dangerous Course of Action (LDCOA - my invention and not in FM 1-02 or whatever it's called these days) - that is if the enemy did everything you wanted it to so as to make quick work of your operation. Why wouldn't the enemy do everything in it's power to destroy itself in our interests?

Assuming (or really hoping) that things will get better or just betting that whatever you and your allies do, in a vacuum separated from the enemy's resources and capabilities, will bring about victory is just stupid. A platoon leader would be fired for doing that - why shouldn't a G/J staff? Or some of the NSC? Intellectual laziness, ideology, and just downright stupidity have no place in the framing and planning of the nation's strategy.

I would argue that most of the evidence I've seen thus far in the monograph is not new. Putting it all together to frame our ability (or lack of ability) to effectively plan at the strategic level is new. Please go read this paper - it is worth your time.

11 comments:

  1. few people who have the natural acumen for stragety

    Also apparently few who have the natural acumen for splelign. :)

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  2. Fair enough. I've already made it clear in another thread that I'm low on sleep. And a terrible typist and speller to boot.

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  3. GS -- I printed this paper a couple of weeks ago but never got around to reading it. Thanks for the reminder.

    I've also got Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in U.S. Foreign Policy sitting on my bookshelf. Seems like a useful complement.

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  4. Interesting. Wishful thinking seems to be quite widespread. I was at a conference today at SAIS on the US policy in Africa and AFRICOM. The speaker, Daniel Volman, was talking about a 2008 wargame set in Nigeria circa 2013, where (according to the game) internal violence had increased to the point where oil supplies had ceased to flow--requesting quick US intervention. Apparently the participants were so reluctant to send an (imaginary) intervention force down in the Niger Delta that they came up with the following fairy tale scenario: one of the political/militant factions overthrows the government and somehow manages to establish a legitimate, broad-based power that re-establishes some degree of order and allows oil supplies to flow happily again. Hum, sure. What does that say about strategic planning if planners are unwilling to imagine the most likely or worst case scenarios during a GAME?

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  5. What does that say about strategic planning if planners are unwilling to imagine the most likely or worst case scenarios during a GAME?

    I'm sure you've heard of it before, but check out Millennium Challenge 2002 for more of this. (I referenced it in the first post on the blog, too, as Krepinevich brings it up in his recent Foreign Affairs article.)

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  6. Well, with Iraq, the issue was simple. If we considered worst cases openly public support would disappear, and if we considered them privately it would leak... and public support would dry up.

    With the current debate in Afghanistan, part of the problem is that I think some of the pop-centric COIN folks seem to feel that it is a dominant strategy -- one that effectively has no counter. So why bother to red team an adversary when theory suggests he has no effective response?

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  7. I think some of the pop-centric COIN folks seem to feel that it is a dominant strategy -- one that effectively has no counter. So why bother to red team an adversary when theory suggests he has no effective response?

    You've made a similar point in the past, but I'm not sure who these folks are or why you believe that they feel this way. I think it's fair to accuse certain people of a pro-COIN bias, or even to suggest that a COIN-oriented approach is the angle of first resort. But I don't know who the people are who think that it ensures certain victory, or that there's even a cohesive "it" to speak of in such a way.

    Do you really believe that there are people out there who think that we can simply slap a COIN template on any conflict and, with the application of enough time and resources, it will always succeed against any enemy? If there are, those people are fools, and I don't think it's fair to imagine them as your main adversary in this debate.

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  8. I don't think there are fools, and as I've mentioned I don't think you need to go far to find this argument if you phrase it in a slightly more respectable form, namely, "We can prevail as long as the Karzai government does its part and popular support at home does not falter."

    Indeed, I think that is the dominant perspective. Do you see anyone saying that the Taliban has a say in the matter?

    Now, I agree, I overstated. I don't think anyone believes that pop-centric COIN can be applied anywhere and everywhere. But I do believe many think it can be applied in Afghanistan because, they argue, (a) the Taliban are unpopular, and (b) security conditions are so problematic and have been for so long that substantial legitimacy will flow from providing security improvements.

    My concern is that in Afghanistan, I don't think we've ever quite come to grips with what makes the Taliban formidable. I think this is, in some ways, a historically unprecedented movement as I've argued briefly here: http://www.bernardfinel.com/?p=618

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  9. First, Alma that us crazy. And criminally ignorant of the warhsme participants. Good lord.

    Bernard - I think you're right on here and enjoyed your post on this subject. In the case of Afghanistan, we haven't red teamed the enemy(ies) as far as I can tell. I would argue that there are some out there who do think that if we execute COIN correctly then the population will reject the enemy and we win. And that is a LDCOA that leads to defeat.

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  10. Ok, those typos were my inability to effectively manipulate an iPhone. Apologies.

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  11. I don't think you need to go far to find this argument if you phrase it in a slightly more respectable form, namely, "We can prevail as long as the Karzai government does its part and popular support at home does not falter."

    In all seriousness, can you give me an example of this? Do these people specify what "prevail[ing]" means in this case?

    Indeed, I think that is the dominant perspective. Do you see anyone saying that the Taliban has a say in the matter?

    I read that post shortly after you put it up, but I haven't really taken the time to respond. The problem with talking about the Taliban's "say in the matter" is that you first have to get a firm grip on exactly what "the Taliban" is. The insurgency isn't a unified political movement. It is not at all clear what a "victory" for the insurgency would look like, or what current combatants would be involved in any resulting government or ruling coalition. It's also not clear that the disparate elements of the insurgency fight with any unified strategy, that they share TTPs on a nation-wide or regional basis, or that what you're seeing in media reports like the one you've cited are anything more than the sort of necessary tactical adjustments that every combatant must make simply to continue surviving.

    So when it comes down to "what makes the Taliban formidable," I think that in many cases we're talking about situational factors more than the specific appeal of their political agenda or ethnic, religious, or ideological character. What makes them formidable, in short, is that they don't have to win, they simply need to keep the government from exerting control. And this is made simpler by the facts of Afghanistan's geography, demographics, education levels, recent history, ethnic rivalry, political culture, and (in very, very limited instances) the appeal of an extreme, retrograde, transnational anti-globalist and anti-modernist politico-religious movement.

    Maybe this makes me an example of what you're talking about: someone who's willing to dismiss "what makes the Taliban formidable" while acknowledging the many factors that make pacifying and governing Afghanistan a so very formidable challenge. In short, I'm not sure we can "win" in Afghanistan, and I'm not sure that any "victory" would result in security gains or interest protection to a degree even remotely comparable to the sacrifices required. But I don't think this is a factor of our (admittedly adaptable) enemy nearly so much as it is a factor of the shit sandwich that is Afghanistan.

    In this case, it might be best just to avoid taking a bite.

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