Friday, December 23, 2011

"The more things change...": Statecraft and Malice Aforethought Edition

Let's flash back to America near the turn of the century, shall we?
And we can only say that it looks very much as though, in this case, the action of the United States government had been determined primarily on the basis of a very able and quiet intrigue by a few strategically placed persons in Washington, an intrigue which received absolution, forgiveness, and a sort of a public blessing by virtue of war hysteria—of the fact that … victory was so thrilling and pleasing to the American public—but which, had its results been otherwise, might well have found its ending in the rigors of a severe and extremely unpleasant congressional investigation.
Ok, you've found me out. The turn of which century?, you perceptively ask. It's obvious we're not talking about the close of the twentieth, of course; the very suggestion of a modern Congress investigating the executive for a foreign policy failure is risible.

The ellipses above mark where I omitted Admiral Dewey's name in George Kennan's analysis of the fleet action at Manila Bay and subsequent dispatch of an expeditionary army to the Philippines in 1898. Among the "strategically placed persons" were both Dewey and Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy and aspiring imperialist.

What should we conclude from this episode?
For its part, Congress seemed incapable of analyzing a presidential proposal and protecting its institutional powers. The decision to go to war cast a dark shadow over the health of U.S. political institutions and the celebrated system of democratic debate and checks and balances. 
The dismal performances of the executive and legislative branches raise disturbing questions about the capacity and desire of the United States to function as a republican form of government.
That's all? Oh, wait, sorry: that's Louis Fisher's verdict, in a 2003 Political Science Quarterly article (pdf), on the embarrassing show put on by the White House and Congress in the run-up to the Iraq war. Sorry for that distracting and totally irrelevant non-sequitur! Let's get back to Dewey at Manila.
Thus our government, to the accompaniment of great congressional and popular acclaim, inaugurated hostilities against another country in a situation of which it can only be said that the possibilities of a settlement by measures short of war had been by no means exhausted.
Why do you hate freedom, Kennan, you disgusting peacenik?

[Kennan's words are reproduced from American Diplomacy, a book adaptation of several lectures he gave in 1950. The quotes are from pages 14 and 12, respectively.]

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Principles of War have not changed, Pt II: the Surge edition

There are a number of now-accepted bromides about COIN generally and the Iraq Surge specifically that I've begun to question. There are a whole host of the pro-COIN types that have been, in my mind, disproven rather adequately. But there are some of the anti-COIN type that I'm beginning to question as well. I'll get to these in later posts, but I want to address a set that has been on mind and coined by Tom Ricks: the Surge succeeded militarily, but failed politically.

I used to think that statement was crap. Our objectives were by nature political, so what difference does it make if military gains were made. Iraq must have been a strategic failure. I can't possibly suggest that Iraq has been a success, but I think a more nuanced view is required from a U.S. perspective. I started down this thought-path after seeing this comment from COL Gian Gentile:
By saying that there can be no black and white, simple answers of yes and no with regard to the Surge you burry ourselves in a never ending discussion about its tactics and methods. But from the angle of strategy, it is clear that the Surge achieved no appreciable gains. If you have any doubt just read what Iraqis are saying about it and the last 8 plus years of war there.
Gian is an officer and thinker that I respect greatly, but I couldn't disagree more. Few things in this world are black and white - I am not the type of person who thinks that most anything falls into dichotomous categories. I also disagree with the idea that the Surge achieved no appreciable gains, even if the Iraqis disagree.

The fact of the matter is that from the perspective of U.S. interests, it doesn't much matter what the Iraqis think about this. Would we, from a policy perspective, have liked Iraq to become a Western-style democracy instead of what the past week is portending? Absolutely. But back in 2007 I suggest we would have settled for something much less. Specifically: the ability to disengage from this ill-advised war with some semblance of success without our tail between our legs, as it were. I don't remember it verbatim, but our military objective from the Surge (I was the planner for the fifth brigade deployed to support it) was to create the conditions to provide the Government of Iraq the breathing room necessary to find a political solution to the conflict.

There is no doubt that there is no viable political solution currently on the table to end the conflict. But can any of the Surge naysayers state emphatically that they were provided with breathing room to find and end to the fighting? Iraqis may not necessarily be better off now than they were in early 2003. But that is not the pertinent issue. The decision to execute the Surge is dissociated from the decision to invade Iraq in the first place. Of course they're in a worse place than they were. At the risk of understatement, it's been a bloody war. Especially for the Iraqi populace and that's a damned tragedy. The question pertaining to the Surge is: are Iraqis better off now than they were in late 2006 and early 2007? I would hazard that the answer is an emphatic yes.

What makes this all very complicated are the ubiquitous questions of causation and correlation. Many factors occurred between January 10, 2007 and the summer of 2008: realization of a nationwide Sunni uprising against AQI begun before the Surge, purging of Sunnis from Baghdad during that capital's barricaded segregation prior to the Surge, war-weariness amongst all factions, better border controls, to name a few. I do not believe that the addition of 25,000 troops to the war was the key to turning the tide, but I don't believe it was inconsequential either. But not necessarily for the reasons that Surge champions argue.

The reality is that addition of these 5 brigade combat teams was in itself a part of the relative pacification of Iraq (please note I said relative pacification - more on that to follow), not some vaporous notion of the application of COIN principles codified in FM 3-24. I will say that between my tour in 2005 and return to Iraq in May 2007 there were significant changes driven from GEN Petraeus: better intel coordination, better use and coordination of SOF units, more USG civilians and funds available. But these were peripheral changes in my mind. For whatever roll these additional troops played in providing the requisite "breathing room", it wasn't due to changes in doctrine or better use of the troops available. It comes back to the Principles of War that the U.S. Army has used for at least decades (for a full listing please see Appendix A to FM 3-0 (Operations)).

It comes down to the principle of mass in this case. From a COIN perspective and its (erroneous) counterinsurgent-to-population ratio the 25K extra troops couldn't make a difference. And it didn't from that perspective. But used in accordance with another principle of economy of force, the U.S. was able to achieve mass in the most militarily contested areas of Iraq: Baghdad proper and the areas surrounding the city from which car bombs were made and trafficked into the city. It wasn't the building of hospitals or canals or the establishment of impotent local councils that made this infusion of warfighting capability useful, it was the application of this force in time and space to dominate the situation. It was the use of these forces to set up these concrete cordons between factions that aided in stemming the violence within Baghdad, concurrent with the other more significant actions outside of the U.S. listed above. But equally important was what happened to stop the mass vehicle bombings of civilians in the much-maligned "belts" around Baghdad. Achieving mass to the south and west of the city - which fortified the disillusioned Sunnis' position - helped defeat AQI and prevent their ability to launch attacks against the capital and thus retard the cycle of violence so prevalent until then. We are all slaves to our own experiences, but we had a hell of a time (and so did Baghdad) until we were able to achieve mass in our battlespace in Arab Jabour and physically defeat AQI. Look at the statistics - already on a downward trend - between January and March 2008 and tell me that a difference wasn't made in the areas south of and within Baghdad.

So no, it wasn't COIN tactics that made the Surge useful to trends already occurring within Iraq in 2007. The Surge was useful because it allowed the coalition to mass on those areas the enemy used to catalyze the cycle of violence as well as their safe havens. But at this point, many of you will point out that Iraq is a less than a success. Car bombs are exploding all over Baghdad this week and the PM has issued a warrant for the arrest of the VP. Frankly, that just doesn't matter to the United States.

Again, you shouldn't examine the Surge through the lens of 2003. You need to look at it through the lens of 2006/7 when we were caught in a costly civil war and were attacked by virtually all sides. Of which there were many. The military objective of the time was to provide this so-called "breathing room" for the Iraqis to sort things out. It simply doesn't matter that they haven't sorted things out in a way we approve of. From a military perspective, breathing room was provided and in that way we did succeed during the Surge even if there were political failures. But the objective of Iraqi democracy exceeded our national ability to affect that change. We could only assist in providing the environment to gain a political solution through military means, not the political solution itself. These military successes throughout Iraq, with significantly lowered violence, gave us the political ability to say we've done our bit and that any other failures were Iraqi failures. What more could we have done?

It may be a correlative relationship strategically, but violence in Iraq decreased precipitously from the beginning of the Surge until its end and that cannot be argued. In my AO at least, it was quite causational (which I can discuss at length at request). But not because of some magical application of COIN principles. It was because, consciously or not, the U.S. military applied the tried and true principles of war to extricate itself from a foolishly-begun war with at least a semblance of having done its best at applying the untried principle of the Pottery Barn Rule. Not through mere coercion or indebting the Iraqis with gratitude to us did we play a part in fantastically lowering violence in Iraq, it was through applying mass and economy of force.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The COIN wars: a toe in the water

The gentlemen of On Violence are the latest to raise the whip over the carcass of that old glue-pot COIN, taking aim this week at what they've callled "the Chicago School of Counterinsurgency." The post is filled with generalizations, mischaracterizations, and the spurious received wisdom of second-rate popularizers and third-rate social scientists, but those errors are mostly peripheral to the main theme. This strange little essay is in fact a subtle confirmation of the rational choice theory the authors mean to criticize. The purportedly contentious assertion of what is in fact an entirely uncontroversial banality – that war is not a wholly rational, predictable phenomenon – gives the authors a platform to draw tendentious normative conclusions in purposeful contrast to the ostensible COIN orthodoxy. This serves to situate On Violence on the side "of the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win" the battle for influence and credibility in our new post-counterinsurgency era. It's almost 2012 – every blog needs to have something on record saying look, I told you they were doing it wrong!

Semantic carelessness is often the sign of poorly-formed ideas, and the post in question is rife with lexical errors. Beginning with the assertion that "the Chicago School [of economics] believes that humans always act rationally when it comes to money," the authors on several occasions use words in misleading or ambiguous ways. (Warfare in place of war is another frequent mistake.) The excerpted quotation is a simple mischaracterization of rational choice theory, which is based on the idea that people survey the choices available to them and select the one most likely to maximize gains. To assert that individuals "act rationally" is not to say that they always choose wisely, but rather that they base their choice on some expectation of benefit.

The On Violence guys clearly misunderstand this: their pronouncement that "rational investors frequently make irrational decisions, believing they are rational" is utterly nonsensical to an economist, for whom the actor's willful effort to maximize utility is precisely what defines "rationality." Of course, rationality does not imply perfect information or foreknowledge of consequences; rational actors can take decisions that turn out disastrously for them thanks to a failure to properly account for context or an imprecise evaluation of various costs and benefits. Richard Posner – who knows a fair bit about the dogmas and creeds of the Chicago school, and whose biography one might like to investigate before crowning David bloody Brooks as "our greatest living conservative commentator" – wrote an entire book about the calamitous conspiracy of rational acts that led to the recent financial crisis. (SPOILER ALERT! He does not conclude that "rational investors [made] irrational decisions, believing they [were] rational.")

On Violence further confuses the "rationality" issue by inexpertly applying the lessons of cognitive psychology (or at least Brooks's retelling of Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky) to behavioral economics. According to OnV, Kahnemann and Tversky "proved that actual human behavior often deviates from the old, rational models, revealing flaws in the machinery of cognition." But about this, too, they're mistaken. The "old, rational models" say nothing at all about the machinery of cognition; they merely model the way cognition manifests as action. It's certainly true that emotion, unconscious bias, and other so-called cognitive "flaws" may interfere with the exercise of pure reason, but – as we've discussed above – that's not the same thing as irrationality. To put it rather more simply: the rational actor model may not be perfectly descriptive, but it is adequately predictive.

So who are these folks that populate "the Chicago School of Counterinsurgency"? Who accepts "the idea that in warfare—with death and subjugation on the line—mankind's rationality trumps his unconscious thoughts and emotions"? Who fails to consider how social context and personal psychology may influence the decisions of the enemy or the population held at risk? The only person named among the "military theorists [who] continue to ignore humanity's underlying irrationality" – by which the authors seem to mean the influence of emotion and other cognitive and psychological elements – is Andrew Exum, whose unsourced quote concerning "cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest" is reproduced out of context. Who are the rest?

What of the military theorist who wrote this?
[W]ar is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter, as is the case with the mechanical arts, or at matter which is animate but passive and yielding, as is the case with the human mind and emotions in the fine arts. In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts. It must be obvious that the intellectual codification used in the arts and sciences is inappropriate to such an activity [as war]. At the same time it is clear that continual striving after laws analagous to those appropriate to the realm of inanimate matter was bound to lead to one mistake after another. (149)
Later in the same work, this theorist argued that
The effects of physical and psychological factors form an organic whole which, unlike a metal alloy, is inseparable by chemical processes. In formulating any rule concerning physical factors, the theorist must bear in mind the part that moral factors may play in it; otherwise he may be misled into making categorical statements that will be too timid and restricted, or else too sweeping and dogmatic. Even the most uninspired theories have involuntarily had to stray into the area of intangibles; for instance, one cannot explain the effects of a victory without taking psychological reactions into account. (184)
You'll surely have figured out by now that we're talking about Clausewitz. (The page numbers given above are from the Paret/Howard 1984 translation of On War.) The much-misunderstood "remarkable trinity" (pdf) introduced at the close of Book 1, Chapter 1 (89) is indeed composed of "(1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; (2) the play of chance and probability; and (3) war's element of subordination to rational policy." To repeat: the foremost theorist in the history of western military thought contends that emotion and chance make up two of the three vital considerations in any useful theory of war. Let's get straight to the point: any analyst who fails to consider the importance of moral factors in war – including the interplay of what On Violence misleadingly dichotomizes as "emotional reactions" and "rationality" – is a failure.

There is, of course, some irony to all of this, what with me here advocating Clausewitzian nuance and balance to a blog that has made a habit of gleefully slaying Clausewitzian straw men; claiming the Prussian's relevance to a form of war that the On Violence men have called "our style of warfare" as they scramble to distance themselves from it, ever in tune with the zeitgeist. I know, I know – try to keep it together. While we're on the subject of irony, how 'bout the OnV guys taking Pape at face value and citing his spurious conclusions as fact in an essay questioning the very legitimcy of the rational choice model?

Unsubstantiated assertion is unfortunately something of a theme in this post, and its conclusion is centered on the grand-daddy of them all: "people aren't rational when it comes to killing and death," an unequivocal pronouncement that is both demonstrably false (why then the persistence of instrumental violence?) and patently at odds with the authors' own previous acknowledgement that "war is about people, politics, and ideology."

The problem with On Violence's Gladwell-deep survey of behavioral economics is that bounded rationality cannot as yet meaningfully inform our models of human agency in conflict. We may recognize that rationality and utility maximization fail to perfectly explain all human behavior, but we have no better predictive model on which to base our efforts to influence the choices of others -- the most extreme of which is war. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, perfect realism may be impossible, but predictive accuracy is still the coin of the realm in social science. Until Kahnemann, Tversky, Thaler, Becker, et al can present a coherent, predictive theory of human choice that can be plausibly applied to economic and political behavior and which definitively falsifies the rational choice model – which is, let's remember, a model, not an attempt at descriptive realism – all this bleating about "humanity's underlying irrationality" is worse than useless: it distracts us from efforts to improve the valid models we have today and the policy prescriptions we may derive from them.

When boiled down to its essence, the message here is a simple if deeply controversial one. The authors of this essay mean to assert that the failure of rational choice theory to completely explain the whole of human behavior renders it useless as a guide to action. Because we cannot perfectly comprehend our interlocutor's decision calculus and cannot be sure his choices will be sensible to us, we must instead assume that calculus will be entirely insensate to our behaviors. If "people aren't rational when it comes to killing and death," then how can we possibly hope to exert our will in predictable ways through violence?

To accept this contention leads the thoughtful man down a dangerous path, at least so far as the anti-Clausewitzian OnV brothers are concerned: to the conclusion that predictable, willful influence is an impossibility, that the choices of an adversary or neutral cannot be shaped, and that our own alternatives are reduced to disengaged indifference to the other or his total annihilation. If we can't persuade, influence, or coerce in a predictable way that's consistent with human reason and our perceptions of causality, we are left to compel by destruction of the enemy's means to resist. This conclusion is perhaps closer to the truth than the chimera of calibrated influence offered by the many proponents of the indirect approach, but I'm quite sure it's not the one the On Violence men would like us to reach.

I'm quite conflicted about the whole thing, in spite of my stridency. The utility of force or its threat for any purpose short of compulsion is something about which I have less and less confidence every day, and I loathe the multivariate philosophies of international engagement that are founded on an unexamined faith in security through transformational change to our operating environment – whether the composition of polities or the hearts and minds of the people who inhabit them. But I see this On Violence post as reinforcing the very worst lessons of the recent COIN era: men can be changed, if only we understand what really drives them, and violence is at best a necessary complement to that transformative action. I fear COINdinistas and COINtras may both be missing the point, and if we throw out the hard-won lessons of counterinsurgency's history and present – that violence is essential to effecting needed change, however temporarily in the absence of legitimacy and consent of the governed – then this decade of "institutional adaptation" will have indeed been a waste.

UPDATE Thurs 22 Dec @ 1125: I see that Ex has responded to the original On Violence post here. I actually took out a fair bit of a draft that dealt with Kalyvas' work, so I'm glad to see that he touched on it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Clausewitz: first proponent of the weak-states-as-security-threat school?

Ok, I'm just kidding, but try this one on for size: writing in 1831, the by now somewhat less politically progressive Prussian sage argued that "indeed, the partitions [of Poland, which were visited on the unhappy commonwealth in 1772, 1793, and 1795] were made necessary by the disorderly, almost Tartar-like administration of the vast areas the Poles possessed."

I've added emphasis to the awesomely dickish comparison of 18th c. Polish governance to Tatar anarchy; this is especially rich when you consider how it must've been received by Poles, who were (and are) justly proud of the fact that a Polish king had basically saved Western civilization from the Ottoman hordes just a century and a half before, at the conclusion of a series of wars that were largely sparked (or at least fanned) by... the cross-border raids of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatars.

Clausewitz penned this line anonymously as pushback against Jan Zygmunt Skrzynecki's protests that the Prussian government had violated neutrality and favored Russia in its effort to crush the Polish rebellion. "Poles must know little of their own history," he wrote, "or be deeply ashamed of certain pages in it" to posture about neutrality while looking past the productive use of ostensibly neutral Polish territory by Russian armies during the Seven Years War.

The worst thing that Clausewitz's contemporaries had to say about him is that he had liberalizing, reformist tendencies. His modern critics often misleadingly point to Clausewitz's Russian service as an act of disloyalty to the crown and a betrayal of his own country. But Peter Paret argues that this letter substantiates what ought to have been evident all along: Clausewitz was less concerned with supporting freedom abroad than with protecting the existence and prominence of Prussia. An independent Poland would embolden and aid the main enemy -- France -- and pose a strategic dilemma to Prussia that Clausewitz and his contemporaries found unacceptable. Raison d'etat triumphed over political preference, just as it did two decades before, when Clausewitz joined with monarchist Russia to block French hegemony.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Baby, Bathwater, etc.

I’m taking this quick break from my blogging break because of the recent tenor of the somewhat tired “COIN debate.” It seemed to me that the discussion was going to move forward beyond its normal hostilities, but I’ve noticed a bit of a crescendo in the rhetoric this past month.

It seems to me that the discussion on what place COIN has in the United States’ toolkit should bifurcate into two very separate discussions, unlike where it is now. First and foremost as our forces reset in the wake of two lengthy land wars and in the face of declining resources, we need to examine how COIN fits into the Army and Marine Corps operational plans, what tactics we’ve learned should be kept, and what didn’t work. Second, we need to examine when COIN should be used as a strategy – loosely defined as the application of COIN tactics within an operational environment - and when it shouldn’t. These are two very, very different discussions.

I don’t want to talk much on the latter now as that seems to be where most of the contention is. It’s also so very unique to each intervention. I will go so far as to say that civilian agencies, facing as much if not more pressure to downsize, are unlikely to maintain significant capacity to respond to widespread COIN campaigns. And all this in spite of their utility in such campaigns as well as the fact that after 10 years of war they don’t much have the capacity now. The military on the other hand has executed COIN campaigns, at its most simplistic, as a collection of “COIN tactics,” considering strategy as the sum of the many individual campaigns occurring at the division level and below. If the tactics are maintained, it could be argued that the DoD could scale up to meet a national need to execute a COIN strategy and I’m not so worried about that. I’d also argue that a military COIN strategy is much more about styles of command and control than it as about tactics, but that's another subject. Also, as the veneer of COIN as “graduate-level war” or kinder, gentler war has eroded, future conversations should be considerably more honest than they have in the past 5 years. At least I hope so. Regardless, I feel that this discussion is about the application of assets which vary from conflict to conflict and should center around actual national interests.

Which leaves the first discussion, in my opinion the more important of the two in the short term. As Ex posted this week, the United States has learned a lot in the past 10 years on how to do COIN effectively and to adapt when it’s not. This knowledge has come at a great cost and we’ve learned from the past that the likelihood of our needing this set of tactics in the future is fairly significant. Even the most ardent high-intensity proponents should recognize that the types of operations conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan are very similar to Phase IV operations. We may not want to call it COIN at that point, but if we were to engage a near-peer competitor and were compelled to conduct regime change, we better have an idea of how to control and govern the population until we can get local forces and governance up and running. (This point ties into Gulliver’s post yesterday that SFA and COIN-type operations need to go hand-in-hand.) If we had any clue sitting in Baghdad in April 2003 of what we were about to face in the coming years, I’d like to think we have done things differently. And those things would have resembled what was done in post-2006 Iraq (and previously in smaller units going back to 2004).

Before 2005, Army training focused almost exclusively on Phase I-III operations (not universally, but predominately). I agree with critics like Gian Gentile that we need to get back to our warfighting roots: gunnery and maneuver warfare. But we need training exercises to train what soldiers will face after the end of major hostilities. In my mind, Phase IV tactics are at least the fraternal twins of COIN tactics. And therefore cannot be ignored since the achievement of national objectives rarely ends with the fall of statues. Many of the things we’ve learned, and relearned in many cases, in the past 10 years will apply on future battlefields whether we execute COIN strategy or more “traditional” strategies.

So as we go forward with these important and impassioned debates, let us keep some perspective. There is COIN as strategy and there is COIN as tactics. I firmly believe we cannot lose the latter. It wouldn’t break my heart to jettison the former. But as the title of this post suggests, don’t confuse the two. We don’t want to jettison that baby we know we’ll need some day because of the dirty, tepid bathwater it’s been steeping in these past few years.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back to the future: time to renounce panaceas in Afghanistan

My friend Andrew Exum and two of his colleagues at the Center for a New American Security, retired LTG Dave Barno and Matthew Irvine, published a new paper this week calling for a shift in the primary emphasis of the Afghanistan war effort.
It is time for a change of mission in Afghanistan. U.S. and coalition forces must shift away from directly conducting counterinsurgency operations and toward a new mission of "security force assistance": advising and enabling Afghan forces to take the lead in the counterinsurgency fight.
This change, the authors suggest, is necessary to solidify security gains made by coalition forces in recent years and ensure the continued protection of Western interests after NATO forces leave the country. While the report marks an analytical step forward, environmental and institutional constraints are likely to blunt the effectiveness of its policy prescriptions if not block their enactment altogether. It's difficult to escape the conclusion that what passes for creativity in our contemporary efforts to "save the war" has in fact come as much too little, and far too late.

A simple rendering of the report's main argument goes as follows: of the several courses of action available to U.S. forces between now and their ultimate withdrawal date in 2014, the one most likely to produce lasting positive effects entails an immediate, aggressive, and committed effort to increase the capability of Afghan forces. The other alternatives are presented as unpalatable caricatures: 1) continued emphasis on coalition-led counterinsurgency operations through 2014, then sudden and complete cessation of combat activities by NATO forces and transition to predictably incompetent ANSF; 2) unilateral abandonment of the agreed-to drawdown timeline and indefinite continuation of the presently inconclusive western-led status quo; and 3) a rapid and immediate withdrawal of all coalition forces, leaving 2015 Afghanistan both bereft of capable security forces and denied the potential security gains from 36 more months of sustained NATO counterinsurgency operations. The authors assert that their preferred course "will protect long-term U.S. security interests without a never-ending commitment of immense U.S. resources":
[W]e believe that the most prudent option for U.S. policymakers is to adhere to the Lisbon framework for transition in Afghanistan and accelerate the change in mission. By doing so, the United States and its allies will have more time and resources to support the ANSF ahead of the coming transition in 2014, increasing their capabilities and providing vital support as they take ownership of the fight.
Considering they've characterized the other options as expensive, slow failure; very expensive, very slow failure; and inexpensive, rapid failure, I don't suppose we're left with much choice.

A great deal of hay has been made over the past 48 hours of the fact that Exum was a vociferous advocate for escalation back in 2009, when the president grudgingly accepted GEN McChrystal's proposal for a so-called "fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign." His many critics imply that Andrew should be embarrassed, should show some shame, should prostrate himself before the we-knew-better masses and ritually cleanse his analytical sins. As they would have it, he is advocating in 2011 for a transition that would've been similarly effective two years ago, and which would've saved lives (and billions) to boot.

Bollocks. The war is not the same. Afghanistan is not the same. America is not the same. I was a critic of escalation in 2009; my views are unchanged with hindsight. It simply does not follow, however, that the historical fact of escalation is irrelevant to the operational and political context of today.

That said: this should've happened two years ago.

Announcing his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, the president said that those forces would "increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans." The Army had started deploying specially augmented brigades to Afghanistan to focus on the train-advise-assist mission. When a brigade from the 82d Airborne was tapped as the first of these, CNAS honcho John Nagl told the Washington Post that compared to previous SFA efforts, "the change couldn't be more dramatic." So one might fairly wonder why Barno, Exum, Irvine, and even Nagl are now essentially telling us that what Afghanistan needs is a fully resourced security force assistance campaign.

They know the answer, of course: COIN advocates insisted the 2009 escalation would be accompanied by a renewed commitment to generating and training capable Afghan security forces, but it didn't happen; the "surge" in combat and stability operations instead starved those efforts of the personnel, resources, and command emphasis they needed to succeed in parallel. The authors have diagnosed the problem properly, though they don't clearly state this conclusion. Instead we get this:
Evidence suggests that some ANSF units are failing today because they commonly operate in the field without embedded, continuous coalition support. Despite the importance of the security force assistance mission, no senior U.S. headquarters, organization or senior commander is currently dedicated to advising Afghan forces. (One can only observe the way in which the initial training of Afghan forces improved after the appointment of a U.S. three-star general officer in 2009 to appreciate the effect organizational changes can have on priorities -- and results.)
Another excerpt is more to the point: "Because U.S. units can execute counterinsurgency operations better and faster than their Afghan counterparts," the authors write, "they are continuing to do so despite the looming transition." Don't let the obfuscatory syntax fool you: individual units are not making this decision for themselves. ISAF has made a determination to focus on combat operations, to try make as much progress as quickly as possible, and then to transition to ANSF "lead" when the Lisbon deadline hits.

The authors can point to an improvement in initial training thanks to reorganization and re-prioritization, but that, too, came at a cost: by focusing on the rapid expansion of the ANSF to meet benchmarks on the "transition" timeline, the coalition tacitly accepted that the Afghan combat formations they stood up would be of inferior quality. The training and advisory effort became a sideshow, a supporting line of operation to the main effort of Western-led counterinsurgency: ISAF leadership knew that "showing progress in the training mission" would be essential to sustaining political support for the campaign, and that 350,000 mediocre troops brief better than 100,000 capable ones. Combine that with the reality that even exceptionally capable host-nation forces would still require the combat support provided by American enablers -- aviation, precision fires, communications, medical support, and so on -- and it's easy to see why quality and competence were sacrificed to rapid expansion. But let there be no doubt: that's what happened.

The paper's authors' bemoan the fact that the American military lacks "the institutional roots to support specialized combat advisor capabilities," as if this is the reason ISAF chose to emphasize initial training over embedded mentoring and assistance. Even if directed at general purpose forces (and ignoring SOF), it's a misleading and inaccurate suggestion: the Army and especially the Marine Corps may be resistant to specialization, but recent U.S. experience in Iraq forced the institutions to adapt. It is patently false that "neither service has devoted a portion of its U.S.-based force structure to training, organizing, equipping, or championing the delivery of dedicated advise and assist capabilities to Afghanistan." The Army dedicated U.S.-based force structure to training combat advisors in 2007; that function has been institutionalized and continues to this day. The 162nd Infantry Training Brigade (and before that, 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division) has prepared individuals for deployment as part of Military Transition Teams and with dedicated advisory brigades (called Advise and Assist Brigades in Iraq and Modular Brigades Augmented for Security Force Assistance -- a tellingly short-lived designation -- in Afghanistan). Upon the transfer of SFA training mission (pdf) from Ft. Riley to Ft. Polk in 2009, the commander of its new home even remarked that the Army sought to avoid "let[ting] the good functions and training and art and science of this task atrophy and die out like we did after Vietnam -- the last time we made a concerted effort to train combat advisors." Much of this "art and science" was codified in doctrine with the Army's publication in May 2009 of FM 3-07.1 Security Force Assistance (pdf), an imperfect manual that nonetheless provided tactical guidance both to AABs and to individual combat advisors. This institutional commitment of more than two years ago looks very much like the one Barno, Exum, and Irvine would like the Army to make today.

The purported institutional shortcomings highlighted in the paper -- such as a failure to offer sufficient promotion and assignment incentives to encourage the most capable officers to volunteer for advisory roles -- were considered and addressed years ago, when the U.S. military first had this conversation with itself during the Iraq war. Most were discarded as unworkable or counterproductive, as was the transformational fantasy of a permanent advisor corps. (Consider the budget and force structure debate currently taking place in Washington, but imagine it's happening in a world where the Army's end-strength includes the equivalent of two-dozen infantry battalions dedicated solely to training and advising foreign military forces -- a task they're not even legally permitted to perform outside of war zones and other exceptional circumstances. Who do you think is first on the chopping block?) The Marine Corps has continued to provide capable personnel for MTTs, while the Army has supported the training and advisory mission through the creation and deployment of MB-SFAs.

This is not a service problem. This is a combatant command problem. It's not a matter of force generation, but force employment. When things went bad in the Arghandab River Valley as the president was finalizing plans for escalation, U.S. commanders threw 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment into the breach to replace Harry Tunnel's Stryker brigade and sustain counterinsurgency operations. Back to COIN for 2/508 -- one of the battalions of the 82d's SFA brigade, whose deployment for the train-advise-assist mission John Nagl had lauded mere months before.

Recognizing that a continuation of the status quo was unsustainable and unlikely to be effective, the U.S. faced very much the same set of questions in Afghanistan in 2009 as it had in Iraq in 2006. Was it still possible to accomplish American objectives? Could more troops or a new concept of operations improve the situation? Would precipitous transition to host-nation lead be too dangerous, risking the collapse of indigenous forces and jeopardizing U.S. interests? In 2006, a very serious and intelligent man wrote a memo for the president entitled "Transitioning to an Indirect Approach in Iraq" (pdf) in which he argued that success was still attainable if lead security responsibility were transferred to Iraqi forces. I want to share with you the meat of his argument, so I hope you'll forgive me quoting at length.
Given Iraq's unsettled politics, it is highly unlikely that American forces, even with growing Iraqi security force assistance, will be able to defeat the insurgency within the next 2-3 years. The current level of insurgency, moreover, is likely to be insensitive across a wide range of force levels. The assertion by many critics that more troops in 2003 could have nipped this insurgency in the bud or fundamentally altered its course are not credible. Likewise, increading the number of U.S. troops now is highly unlikely to be decisive. The insurgents will still control the initiative, and they can always temporarily decline to fight. Insufficient intelligence and continued strong support for the insurgency among the Sunni population will limit the strategic success of any near-term efforts. As long as the political grievances fueling the insurgency remain, the insurgency will remain.
Because of the direct approach's inability to produce decisive near-term results and its increasing cost, the longer we stay with it, the more we place our long-term goals in Iraq at risk. Continuing with this approach, moreover, does not play to American strengths. The insurgents and the states supporting them (i.e., Iran and Syria) retain the strategic initiative in Iraq, while we suffer from significantly reduced strategic freedom of action.
It is imperative that we accelerate our shift to an indirect approach, with Iraqis in the lead and Americans in support. Transitioning to an indirect approach will require that we begin and continue the drawdown of U.S. forces while the insurgency is still raging. It will require additional resources for Iraqi security forces. Most importantly, we must make our stated "main effort" our actual main effort.
Mike Vickers was not alone in his analysis, but the president disagreed. How much of the improvement in Iraq is attributable to his decision to escalate is and will continue to be a matter of debate. Perhaps the indirect approach, too, would have succeeded, but we can't know.

The same is now true in Afghanistan. The "change of mission" advocated by Barno, Exum, and Irvine might have been successful in 2009, with five years to take hold and show progress. (It seems unlikely to me, but I'm skeptical about our "strategy" and the no-safe-havens approach to antiterterrorism.) Or perhaps the course the president did choose for Iraq would have been similarly successful in Afghanistan had it been implemented with the "surge": a comprehensive foreign internal defense campaign that included elements of U.S.-led counterinsurgency and stability operations, SFA, and broad based nation assistance that cemented the authority of the legitimate civilian government and helped enable the exercise of that authority. (I doubt that, too, but it's a thought.) Instead what we got was a shadow of that, a mockery, an example of what happens when military leaders commit wholesale to a mission their government is too afraid to definitively refuse.

U.S. commanders are reaping what their predecessors have sown: giving short shrift to the essential enabling efforts that should have been a key part of their campaign plans, trying to "move the needle," show progress, and convince an indifferent public, an unimpressed president, and perhaps themselves that a war without a plausible strategic rationale is worth waging into infinity. SFA will not save us now. It is likely to be less effective than it would have been if comprehensively administered in 2009 by embedding advisors along with the troop surge, as this would've allowed the U.S.-ANA relationship to proceed along roughly the same path as the U.S.-IA relationship did before: first with U.S. units leading operations and owning battlespace, supported by host nation units with embedded American advisors; then partnered operations, where a more capable host nation unit with U.S. advisors owns its own battlespace and functions as part of a combined operation with U.S. forces; then eventually to host nation lead, where U.S. combat formations no longer operate independently and American advisors really live up to their name -- advising their foreign counterparts in independent operations as opposed to teaching and coaching them. This model may be followed to good effect in a few key districts, but reduced operational tempo with the beginning of the troop withdrawal makes it an unlikely template for the entire country.

Just the same: no matter how capable Afghan security forces may be today or in 2014 or in 2024, there will come a day where the western world forgets that it once seemed normal to spend billions of dollars sustaining an army in a place where a dead terrorist used to live. This day can perhaps be delayed, but it can't be avoided.

All of this may sound like I disagree with the paper's bottom line, but I don't. "By continuing to place its forces in the lead in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, the United States is ultimately working against its long-term security interests." This is almost certainly true. Look back at what Vickers wrote to the president five years ago: "Because of the direct approach's inability to produce decisive near-term results and its increasing cost, the longer we stay with it, the more we place our long-term goals in Iraq at risk." Combat operations in Afghanistan are costing a fortune, depleting our force, wearing out equipment, and reducing our strategic flexibility to little evident effect. Anything that constitutes a step away from that -- even if it's still expensive and unlikely to succeed -- is something I can get behind.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The tragedy of G. F. Kennan

I've just started reading John Lewis Gaddis's new biography of George Kennan, who I suppose I've spent the last 15 years or so thinking of as a personal hero (I would have done, anyway, if I were the sort of fellow who had personal heroes). It will likely be a great while before I finish it, though, so don't hold your breath for a review; the book is 800 pages, I'm an extremely slow reader, and I'm always working my way through five or six books at a time. You're more likely to get another Pentagonese lesson in the meantime.

For now, you really ought to read Todd Purdum's piece in the forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair. It's called "One Nation, Under Arms." Purdum artfully splices brief reflections from his exploration of Kennan's collected papers with a pessimistic assessment of our collective capacity to halt the campaign of national disfigurement foisted on us by the unfortunate Kennan and his fellow architects of the national security state. Here's my favorite bit:
A theme that runs through page after page of Kennan’s writings—from his astonishment at the leisure culture that thrived in Southern California during his first visits there, in the post–World War II period, to his mordant commentaries on the Reagan era—is a profound love of country tempered by deep disappointment at the ways in which the modern United States has so often been willing to settle for the wasteful, the trivial, the second-rate. In Box 286, one finds a speech to the National Defense University, in 1985, in which Kennan sounded just these themes as he reflected on the broader meaning of containment.
“There is much in our own life, here in this country,” Kennan said, “that needs early containment. It could in fact be said that the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves: our own environmental destructiveness; our tendency to live beyond our means and to borrow ourselves into disaster; our apparent inability to reduce a devastating budgetary deficit.”
The old diplomat lived long enough to see another two decades where such tendencies escaped containment; he'd find little to surprise him among the depths we've plumbed in recent months. It's tough to look back over Kennan's diaries and letters in the last decades of his life, to see his disappointment and powerlessness in the face of the un-killable multi-trillion dollar mutant his ideas helped to feed. If that guy spent 101 years feeling frustrated, what's left for the rest of us to do?

Almost makes you want to retire from this business, pack up your books, and move to a place that's never heard of Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Buck McKeon, "bomb power," or extraordinary rendition. Almost.