Thursday, May 20, 2010

Massu could have done it--Or not

On the World Affairs journal website today, a short piece by Ann Marlowe entitled "What If COIN Just Doesn't Work?". Based on her several trips to Afghanistan, the author makes the argument that:

"the Sri Lankan government seems to have succeeded against the Tamil Tigers, but if we could use their measures we would win in Afghanistan too. When the US government fought insurgents in the South after the Civil War, it declared martial law and shot enemy suspects on sight.

More and more, I suspect that it’s the brutality that works, not the COIN. It’s moving hundreds of thousands of people across a country, or shooting all the men in a village as a reprisal for terrorism, or taking hostages, or doing extra-judicial kidnappings. Of course, the brutality would work without the COIN, too. Brutality works. But that’s not who we are."

I am just not sure how the author comes to the conclusion that "brutality works", since she also makes the point that:

"In Algeria, the French were able to forcibly resettle villagers, build miles-long walls to close Algeria’s borders, and, of course, torture terrorists, or simply toss them out of planes if they wouldn’t talk. And that war didn’t end well."

In other words, if brutality worked, Algeria would still be French. So brutality works--sometimes--and fails--sometimes. With or without COIN.

Now can someone explain me exactly how closer this gets us to an understanding of the conditions under which COIN is more or less likely to work (a useful Ph.D. topic, if someone is in need of one)? I don't mind a healthy dose of provocation in commentaries on Afghanistan and other topics, but this one strikes me, to say the least, as particularly vacuous.


  1. In other words, if brutality worked, Algeria would still be French. So brutality works--sometimes--and fails--sometimes. With or without COIN.

    I'm not sure I understand what it means to say "with or without COIN," though I'd certainly agree that brutal campaigns have both succeeded and failed in differing circumstances.

    On the first part of the quoted bit, though, I'm not sure I agree. After all, wasn't it understood that France hoped to transition Algeria to a sort of home rule even before the so-called COIN campaign?

    Marlowe's point is silly, and I think most serious observers would agree. Sri Lanka is a poor example for the effectiveness of brutality, just as Malaya is a poor example of the effectiveness of what we now vaguely conceive of a sort of respectful, humanistic, "pop-centric" campaign. (And this is true no matter where you come down on Templer's centrality; Malaya's failure as test case is due more to the circumstantial/environmental factors that made the counterinsurgent more likely to succeed, just as Sri Lanka was particularly susceptible to success through relatively unconstrained violence.)

  2. Having now actually READ Marlowe's piece (h/t SNLII for the tip on reading), I wonder if she and those who make similar arguments haven't considered the possibility that doctrine and a collection of operational methods can NEVER guarantee success under any and all circumstances? It's the same feeling I get when I read Gentile saying "COIN advocates make people believe that there's an IF-THEN, causal certainty to their operational methods, when we know that their prescriptions don't universally translate into success!" And I always think, "well duh, who actually thought that's how it worked?"

    Consideration of circumstances, conditions, environment... all of this is vital. Do people really believe that there's a doctrinal/tactical solution that can be applied as template and that meets with certain and universal success? Because those people might have war confused with chess.

  3. It depends.

    Counter-revolutionary warfare always is local. "COIN," which we today typically refer to the classical application of measured force and suasion to influence/coerce a population to renounce a revolutionary movement within it, always has used brutality to achieve some goals.

    This brutality was constrained by all sorts of things, but mostly by efficacy (whether it worked against the target population, which it did in, say, Kitson's Kenya and Malaya) or domestic and international politics (which tamped down the sorts of some of Kitson's options in Northern Ireland).

    I also might suggest that the Horne theory about torture's pragmatism as a black/white issue in Algeria is NOT universally accepted. Pouget is much more nuanced about this.

    The problem with Templer's "hearts and minds" notion is that two decades of testimonials by the leaders of the communist insurgency and those who followed it have put to some lie his timeline. It was Briggs who won Malaya (and the promise to leave by the Foreign Office), not the pop-centric blandishments that sealed the peace, according to Chin Peng and others (something you will NOT see in Nagl's work, despite Peng's memoris having been published, in English, for several years before Nagl put his thoughts to pen, or knife, or whatever he used).

    I doubt Ann has read much about Kenya or Malaya. She doesn't seem to realize that just as the Maoist model in now eight decades old, so are the counter-actions designed to address Mao's phased revolution.

    She also hasn't seriously considered the reasons why LTTE fizzled (the role exogenous and endogenous inputs from the Tamil diaspora is quite important, and the loss of those inputs proved fatal to the Tigers).

    But she most certainly knows Afghanistan. Perhaps what she's really saying is this:

    1. It will take resources, will and time to eventually convince the "people" in the target Pathan population that the Karzai "government" is a more palatable choice than the various insurgency militias. None of these is available to us, and the rejiggering of a Karzai kleptocracy into something workable and legitimate might take a generation or more.

    2. She realizes that without a serious chance of making a Karzai government work, as a host "nation" the war inevitably will revert, as it has, into a retributive civil war that increasingly posits Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and whatnot in the military and "government" against a mostly Pathan jumble of militias, some following Maoist precepts for revolutionary organization and others merely feral criminal bands, transnational terrorists and tribal formations, most with the ability to retreat into Pakistan's safe harbor.

    If the COG is no longer Pastho-speaking "fence sitters," then the pop-centric efforts won't win the war or even give us a chance for parliamentary concession.

    Instead, the civil war devolves into punishment, and the only means we have to drive the enemy to negotiate, with the time available, is to make life for them and those who provide endogenous aid miserable.

    In its own way, this follows the natural conclusions of the Soviets, who also saw the "people" as the target to cleave from the guerrillas, and took that to the natural conclusion -- depopulation.

    We can't be that brutal. And just as it didn't work for the Soviets (although their metrics showed that it most certainly helped) it likely won't work for us, too.

    But it might be more effecting than the idiocy we're currently pursuing.


  4. 'And I always think, "well duh, who actually thought that's how it worked?"'

    You mean that you have NOT noticed a certain coterie of COIN gurus who believe that operations themselves are a stand-in for strategic aims?

    Hint, hint, they tend to congregate at a certain think tank, have become jock sniffers for McChrystal and Kilcullen and Petraeus and put their addled insights into doctrine-like pieces such as "Triage," which parrot Galula-esque bromides in lieu of any serious understanding of motivations by complex actors engaging in Post-Maoist revolutions.

    They're good at the verisimilitude of describing complexity, but because they're locked in a paradigm can't get beyond the intensive, pop-centric doctrine until reality is forced upon them.

    They were saved in Iraq because JAM, the Ministry of the INterior and Badr did their dirtiest work for them, allowing the "Surge" to settle into peacekeeping operations (after a great deal of Ann Marlow-approved "clearing" operations that would look familiar to anyone at Hue or the Rapido).

    The scary thing is that when one converses with these COIN sages, they actually believe this.

    And, no, I'm not kidding.


  5. more effecting = more EFFECTIVE


  6. What a muddled piece by Marlowe.

    SNLII could probably help out here since he knows more about it, but arguably the most effective French activity in Algeria was the Challe plan. And Challe abhorred torture and resettlement camps and saw them as counterproductive to what he was doing. He was, however, completely dependent upon a tightly sealed border. But then again, he had more firepower and what, 600K soldiers?

  7. There are many arguments about which phases and areas of pacification were most important, Gunslinger.

    Obviously, what worked in the Casbah wasn't what always worked in Borj de l'Agha.

    So, what tied all of them together? To be provocative, I might suggest it was Sun Tzu's aphorism, "The art of war is based on duplicity," which, he added, is a means to wage wars by defeating the enemy without direct combat.

    Or, as Pouget would have put it (in a translation I admire, although I've been mulling bringing out Pouget's works in English), "in war, the measured use of violence is neither pure nor simple. It is a mixture of the horrible and the sublime, of ambiguity and contradiction in the image of men."

    Pouget, you see, was tortured by the Vietnamese. In Algeria, he tortured captured FLN, but not as they did in Algiers. He made tortured prisoners torture other prisoners. WHen they broke, when they gave the names of their insurgent cells leaders, he released them.

    Which was a release to their deaths, because they told.

    Galula probably was right about Algeria: The French were on the wrong side of history. It was a nationalistic, anti-colonial war, and there was no means to stem these tides of culture, religion, history, even if some later distilled his words to suggest that there was a magical means to do so.


  8. Which gets us to the point, doesn't it? The question isn't whether brutality can or can't work (sometimes it does, or it helps, or it hurts), just as Massu's work in Algiers (no constraints on searches, detentions, torture, executions, disappearances, et al) might have led to pacification, but failed to work elsewhere.

    What most critics would say is that the French were pursuing a paradox against an enemy they viewed as Maoist: In order to gain these privileges, the paratroopers seized from the civil authority the right to savage the population; but this very seizure of civil authority doomed the chance for anyone in the population to remain loyal to the civil government.

    It no longer existed. It was owned by the paratroopers, so it left only allegiance to a foreign military, which never would've materialized.

    What had made French colonial administration so successful was the stick (razzia) followed by the carrot (administration, economic development), with the former making the latter much easier once the enemy's territory had been rid of some population, a great many guerrillas and much of the economic livelihood of the people.

    For the French system to work, you needed both hands punching together. While unity of command placed this within the colonial military structure, at its best the French system operated almost as two distinct houses.

    Against the FLN, however, there was only the house of war, an no servant wants to work there for very long, much less travel to it willingly.


  9. To say nothing of what effect this had on France itself.

    If you were to translate Pouget, I would buy a copy.

  10. I'm sure that France was traumatized by the loss of empire, especially Algeria.

    I'm not convinced that France was long traumatized by the brutality Paris visited upon subject peoples.

    I know that I would've been, just as Pouget knew that he and his men's souls were compromised by what they had done. An abiding theme in his work is that many of those who had fought as irregular partisans against the Nazi occupation returned the same mailed fist onto the peoples of Vietnam and Algeria (and West Africa and elsewhere).

    I detest torture not for what it does to the enemy or self-righteous, masturbatory civilians watching their "24" back home. No. I hate torture for what it does to those who practice it; the tear it rends in the cloak of discipline worn by the military; and the grave dishonor it brings to NCOs and officers asked to pay homage to the falsehood of the expediency.

    Since Afghanistan isn't really worth the life of one soldier, neither is the "nation" worth his soul.


  11. I guess the lesson is that when a given method is appropriate, if it is applies as part of a sound strategy, then it tends to work. If the method is not appropriate and the strategy doesn't make sense, then it tends to not work. What an epiphany.

  12. Now, Schmedlap, put that on a PowerPoint and visit CENTCOM. There's a four-star who needs to hear it from you.


  13. Hint, hint, they tend to congregate at a certain think tank, have become jock sniffers for McChrystal and Kilcullen and Petraeus and put their addled insights into doctrine-like pieces such as "Triage," which parrot Galula-esque bromides in lieu of any serious understanding of motivations by complex actors engaging in Post-Maoist revolutions.

    I would argue that actually the military has been paying lip service to the Kilcullen articles and runs in the opposite direction when one speaks of "conflict ecosystems" and "open source warfare-OSW".

    By the way OSW was again validated by research just released in the 10 May edition of Nature magazine. Nature also released a very interesting article on the ecology of warfare in their 19 Dec 2009 edition which the military and related defense contractors are resisting like the plague.