Monday, March 12, 2012

Delicate strategic balancing: perception's role in formulating strategy

I, like nearly everyone, am saddened by yesterday's tragic murders in Afghanistan. The details are gruesome and as a father of young children, I react to the needless death of children viscerally. I'll hold off on any sort of analysis of this specific situation until investigation results are released. I'll also defer to others on what it portends for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and suggest must-read analysts Daveed Gartenstien-Ross and Carl Prine.

I suspect it would be helpful to use this incident and similarly bad events that recently occurred to take a look at the role of perspective and how it affects strategy from a broader perspective beyond Afghanistan. I endorse Carl and his fourth point that the deaths of 16 Afghans will not likely drive changes in domestic perspectives and subsequently will not drive changes to our strategy. Our current force generation system - an all volunteer force - allows the government to use force as a tool of policy without burdening the overwhelming majority of the nation's citizens which in turn negates the need to have the people's consent to wage and continue war. Barring a catastrophe such as Mogadishu in 1993, the bombings in Beirut in 1983, or Tet in 1968, domestic perspectives simply do not play a role in determining how the U.S. government uses force in the current era. Both the government and the citizens seem pretty content with this arrangement as it allows them to pursue whatever they wish to pursue with minimal burden.

That all said, incidents in Afghanistan these past few months have caused me to question the validity of strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign audiences*. This is not to negate the fact that foreign perspectives affect nearly every intervention in some way - there has been plenty of writing on this and believe it to be true. I firmly believe that reminding soldiers of this fact was possibly the only redeeming value of the counterinsurgency manual. To say nothing of this excellent work. But strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign populations are another matter altogether.

This is not to say that abusing detainees, offending the religious sensibilities of local populations, killing civilians through negligence or indifference, mutilating corpses, and willful murder are unimportant or that they should not or may not affect the execution of a strategic plan. Iraq came unglued after the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and Iraqis had every right to be angry, causing them to rebuke U.S. efforts. And of course there were more screw-ups after this incident - the strategic knucklehead is pervasive and unpreventable after all. But in spite of all of that, the U.S. strategy there eventually met most of its goals (reasons for which include a whole bunch of luck, but good strategy leverages luck). While Afghanistan is obviously not monolithic and reactions will vary, every new incident is accompanied by analysis of how much it sets back our mission there, suggesting to me that we're nearing a cusp where winning the approval of the Afghan people will become the determining factor of our outcomes.

We have a whole suite of problems with our strategy in Afghanistan, foremost of which are a failure to state specific and achievable ends as well as a misalignment of ways and means to achieve the pitifully-described desired ends we have written down. But if our strategic success now depends upon selling to the Afghans that we mean well and that they are now more skeptical than not of us, well we have a very, very serious problem. Balancing the Say-Do equation is an imperative. However, if public perception is that mistakes and crimes committed by individual U.S. service members is indicative of U.S. policy or strategy, then public communications begins to drive strategy instead of the other way around.

Public communications and information operations to influence perceptions are ways, but the U.S. keeps falling into the trap of making perceptions ends in themselves. If our ends, ways, and means were better formed and aligned, I suspect that the "Do" side of the equation would be solid enough to negate the affects of mistakes. But this is not the situation in Afghanistan where continued programs of questionable efficacy, strategic drift with regard to ends (compare this and this for instance), and continued support for an illegitimate and ineffectual government abound. If ways and means are not succeeding (to what ends?!?) or are the wrong ways and means entirely then your strategy rests in total upon Afghan perception that you're making a difference instead of in part, which amplifies individual disasters such as we've seen of late. While it is unlikely that the United States will change course at this juncture, we need to start paying attention to this phenomenon now and avoid it in the future so we can avoid codifying perceptions as ends and put influencing them back where they belong: as ways. A successful strategy would go a long way to restoring this balance. Once again, maybe in the next war.

*I apologize for the awkward term and I just can't find the right one that doesn't sound trite. Here it means the people living in the country in which your forces are operating.


  1. With all due respect Jason (and there's a lot due), this issue has been lingering since at least the decision to surge in 2009, and probably a lot longer than that. The whole point of COIN--if there is one--is to win the people, and a large part of winning the people is convincing the people that you're winning. The other, arguably more important, audience is the United States. The strategic communications people have done a better job convincing us that we're winning than they have convincing the Afghans of the same.

    The evidence we aren't winning is ample. Hell, you identified a lot of it above. My point is this: All we've had since 2009 (and probably longer) is assertions that we are winning. Those assertions have always rang hollow to Afghans--I doubt they were ever convinced, or even open to convincing. What's happening now is the American public is catching up to what the Afghan public knew several years ago.

  2. Keith - your points are valid. I've written often on how our strategy in Afghanistan has been wrong and ill-formed. Part of that is a misunderstanding and misapplication of lessons of counterinsurgency from past conflicts. Simplistic pop-centric COIN that depends mainly on the support of the people is not something we should consider doing for the points I raised here. But I think there is more to COIN than how we've waged it in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not to say that I think we should be doing more COIN - on the contrary. However, the military may be called upon to do it again in the future and I hope we can understand how we got it wrong so if we do do it again, we don't have another Afghanistan. I agree with you, but want to examine "why".

    I will disagree with you on one point though: that strat comms have done a better job of convincing the U.S. populace that we're winning. I'd argue they just don't care as long as not too many U.S. soldiers are getting killed and they don't have to pay for it. That's what my second paragraph is getting at.

  3. Terrible, terrible event.

    Despite what the American public thinks, I suppose most are preoccupied with the economy and gas prices. With an all volunteer army, it affects most more directly.

    We need a civic reawakening toward basic duties of a citizenry but I don't see it happening. Anyway, I pay close attention to this issue but due to time contraints I admit I don't pay close attention to other foreign policy areas except for quick reads. We are so involved in so many parts of the world that it becomes difficult to do due diligence.

    Not an excuse, I know....
    - Madhu

  4. Oh, who am I to counsel anything like a civic reawakening? I spent the 90s pretty much ignoring anything to do outside the US, like a fair number of Americans I guess.

    - Madhu

  5. I'm surprised that you found something worthwhile in Elkus' facile post on this subject. Perceptions - among populations directly affected by the conflict as well as those observing from the sidelines - affect the magnitude of coercion or inducements required to get them to do what you want, or at least remain neutral. In some cases, perceptions raise the costs beyond the resources an actor is willing or able to apply to the problem. In others, they put the goal entirely out of reach.

    This is not to say that potential costs and benefits don't affect perceptions as well. The interaction is continuous, complex, and influenced by a whole host of social and individual psychological factors. These dynamics exist regardless of the kind of war you're waging, or whether it fits with Realist prescriptions for foreign policy.

    I'm currently about halfway through Nick Blanford's book on Hezbollah. If ever there was a case that rebuts Elkus' dismissal that perception only matters in wars that are peripheral to the interests of the participants, the Israel/Hezbollah confrontation does so conclusively.

    As for your point - although I agree with your critique of our strategy in Afghanistan, I don't agree that perceptions are secondary to delivering 'actual' results. By many measures, we have materially improved the quality of life in Afghanistan. That improvement is entirely irrelevant, because we have not addressed either the perception or the reality of growing insecurity and uncertainty. I would argue that rather than being guided too much by Afghan (as opposed to GIRoA) perceptions, we haven't been guided by them enough.

  6. "I endorse Carl and his fourth point that the deaths of 16 Afghans will not likely drive changes in domestic perspectives and subsequently will not drive changes to our strategy"

    And you're probably right, because why would the USG ever change its strategy even when it was losing operationally and not meeting its own strategic objectives? It would make too much sense.