Archive for the ‘Counterinsurgency’ Category

A few days ago, I wrote a post entitled “Will FM3-24 fight piracy (the RIAA kind, not the swashbuckling kind)?” in which I criticized the fact that policing music, movie, or software piracy was even on the COIN Center’s radar when it was unclear that the military was getting the basics of counterinsurgency right. Today, I came across a funny anecdote in Paula Broadwell’s All In.  During then-General Petraeus’s last weeks in Afghanistan, Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman were in Kabul for a Fourth of July dinner with Preident Karzai:

The senators and Petraeus had dinner that evening with Karzai. At one point, the Afghan leader mentioned that he loved a song that he thought was called “Down on the Bayou.” After dinner, Petraeus put his communications team on it. His aides quickly found the tune–“Born on the Bayou,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. For Petraeus, it brought back memories of Cadet Hops at West Point in 1972. His team burned a CD of Creedence’s greatest hits, and Petraeus gave it to Karzai two days later. The president  beamed.

Petraeus’s aids could have bought all the songs on iTunes (or whatever service–I’m an Amazon guy myself), but there’s a part of me that hopes that these greatest hits were put together from various ill-gotten MP3s in staff member’s laptops.  Either way, I love that anecdote. I hope the Taliban are Creedance fans!

As for Broadwell’s book, I am almost all the way through it. Frankly, I’m underwhelmed. The narrative is pretty drab (olive?), and Broadwell has a talent for making the most intense fire fights tedious. However, I may be simply sick of reading about warrior-intellectuals and the f’-ups of Afghanistan. If you are truly interested in Petraeus’s education, The Fourth Star is a much more readable version of the same basic narrative of genius generals and counterinsurgency. There are some interesting ‘corrections’ and political ‘readjustments’ of that COIN narrative, though.  At any rate, I’ll take a more thoughtful poke at the book once I start articulating my thoughts in the dissertation.


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As part of the effort to revise FM3-24 Counterinsurgency, the U. S. Army COIN Center released a series of questionnaires in advance of the May revision conference. One thing I noticed has stuck in my craw since I first read the questionnaire in, well, question. Even though proponents and detractors of that American practice of war we call “COIN” agree that it constitutes a “wicked”–if not impossible–problem to perform as a foreign occupier, the U.S. Army at least considered taking on one more problem: music piracy.

How or should the manual address what the United States government considers to be criminal activity that is ignored, sanctioned, or unable to be countered by the host nation government (eg, growing poppies, pirating CDs)? [emphasis added]

That is question #15 in the revision questionnaire, falling under the heading of “Operational Environment/Threat.” Although I have attended the COIN Center webcasts discussing the progress, I did not attend the revision conference itself so this idea may have been squashed a long time ago. However, I do think it is telling that the Good Idea Fairy made even a fleeting appearance with this suggestion.

Think for a moment on the issue of piracy whether it is software, music, or movies. In the United States, piracy persists even though we do not have a flourishing insurgency, the government exerts robust control over its territory, and potential penalties are not unsubstantial. Yet, someone thinks it is a good idea to have warfighters police music piracy in a country where not only the host nation (let alone the village and tribal units) could care less. Do you want to drive some impoverished vender to the insurgency over someone else’s intellectual property? More importantly, do you really want Americans braving IEDs and ambushes to protect some tiny sliver of an entertainment company’s bottom line?  Let the host nation sort that out once they have a marginally functional state–and, frankly, whoever inherits the Afghan state, such that it is, will have their hands full not meeting the same grisly end as Mohammad Najibullah.

It has been far from proven that the United States military establishment can perform even the basics of counterinsurgency. It is not simply that the U.S. has bigger fish to fry; the U.S. has not learned to catch fish–much less filet and fry them. The more I read in terms of reportage like like Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America the less confidence I have in leadership to engineer anything approximating a favorable outcome in Afghanistan.

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It does indeed seem like the COIN bubble has burst.  Here, it is important to make the distinction between “COIN” and “counterinsurgency.”  As Sebastian L. v. Gorka and David Kilcullen have argued, “COIN” is the selective, distinctly American reading of conflicts that produced one distorted model of population-centric counterinsurgency and “counterinsurgency” is something else altogether. If this “COIN” had authorized historian, it would be Thomas Ricks and his Fiasco and The Gamble the history; this is the story, the narrative. Except not everyone bought it. Carl Prine, for example, has been poking holes in this ‘story’ for a long time (see “Peaches for Dessert” and “Twinkle, Twinkle“). Well, it turns out Ricks is not so sure any more either:

I admit it: When I was writing The Gamble I thought for a while that such a residual force was the way to go. But with the passage of the years since then I increasingly have come to believe that the Iraqis were simply sitting around keeping their powder dry and waiting for Uncle Sam to get out of the way, so they could sort themselves out. Remember, the surge was half a war ago — it began five years ago, in January 2007. Iraq was given a lot of time. I do not see what keeping 15,000 troops there for another year or two would do that it did not do in 2009 or 2010. Plus, President Obama was not elected to keep us in Iraq; he was elected, in part, to get us out. So it would be pretty hard to keep troops there without a clear indication that it would do any good. Especially since Iraqis seemed to want us out.

The time to get this right was five years ago.  The story Ricks told promoted a narrative that perpetuated a policy that was very likely wrong, and now he glibly retracts his argument with the benefit of hindsight.  There is nothing smart or courageous in being right in retrospect. Recanting the narrative of The Gamble now strikes me more as scrambling to continue “being right” than “getting it right.”

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Back in August, I wrote a piece entitled “On Teaching the COIN Canon and Speaking Truth through Fiction” that makes a number of claims regarding how and, more importantly, why we teach counterinsurgency to non-practitioners.  Among them was the coming shift in how counterinsurgency is valued relative to the broader idea of irregular warfare:

What is the value of teaching counterinsurgency—especially to non-practitioners? According to Farley, knowledge of counterinsurgency will “help them get jobs and (more importantly) excel at the jobs they got.” With troop levels declining abroad and a rash of civilian hiring freezes in federal agencies and departments, these good intentions may be two or three years too late. Moreover, the value of counterinsurgency expertise may be flagging if history repeats itself. Few would dispute Rupert Smith’s contention that the wars of the future will be “amongst the people,” but the shadow of budget cuts will likely mean the Obama Administration will look to more limited and indirect options than the costly, time-intensive counterinsurgency proposed by some. Better advice to students might be to adapt that experience into a broader specialty less sullied in the strategic and political debates of the last decade such as “irregular warfare.”

I was hardly sticking my neck out with that prediction, but President Obama, Secretary Panetta, and General Dempsey’s comments today addressing the Defense Strategic Review would seem to bear that out.  In the Defense Strategic Guidance (PDF), “Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare” get top billing in the list of capabilities that DoD will make a priority including “selective additional investments.”  Counterinsurgency is still there, but it appears second-to-last and gone are the “large-scale, prolonged stability operations” that have embodied the American brand of “COIN.”  In short:  Down with stability operations!  Long live Security Force Assistance!  (However, in what may be described as a strategic Freudian slip, the word “counterinsurgency” appears one more time in the document than does “irregular warfare.”)

What does this mean in practical terms?  First, non-interventionalists on the Left and Right will be dismayed to know that America still intends to project power globally and a ground war in Iran–yikes–is not off the table.  Secondly, the buzz among the NatSec twitter nerds (you know who you are) was that the speech heralded a RMA 2.0 or constituted this odd echo of the Rumsfeld Pentagon.  That sentiment resonated less with me.

My primary concern was there were no hard choices were made except for the stability operations, but really who is calling for a generational commitment to a country American’s can’t find on a map these days?  Besides, the Defense Strategic Guidances does leave the door open for “short-term” operations (queue the Friedman Unit).  There is greater geographical specificity (Asia and the Middle East)–but not by much.  Another red flag is the way that technology is posited as a cure-all.

Is this the end of COIN’s narrative of warrior-intellectuals and foreign intervention?  At least for COIN’s heyday (2006-2010ish), the representation of contemporary “Lawrence[s]” has been a powerful driver of policy and public sentiment.  However, it remains to be seen whether or not that narrative will persist.

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Small Wars Journal published a short piece I wrote on selecting texts for a counterinsurgency course and the lessons we draw from them:

In “Teaching COIN to a (Mostly) Non-Practitioner Audience,” Dr. Robert Farley discussed his experiences teaching a class on counterinsurgency at the Masters level.  His intent is to give would-be instructors “a sense of the promise and possibilities of a Counter-Insurgency course.”  Nearly ten years into the United States’ multiple interventions following 9/11, the promise and possibilities of such a course should be self-evident to those who have devoted themselves to the serious study of counterinsurgency across the diverse practical and philosophical spectrum of its proponents and critics.  What remains are some serious questions that have been left unexplored in regards to the pragmatic and canonical choices in teaching counterinsurgency to practitioner and non-practitioner alike.

What is the value of teaching counterinsurgency—especially to non-practitioners?  According to Farley, knowledge of counterinsurgency will “help them get jobs and (more importantly) excel at the jobs they got.”  With troop levels declining abroad and a rash of civilian hiring freezes in federal agencies and departments, these good intentions may be two or three years too late.  Moreover, the value of counterinsurgency expertise may be flagging if history repeats itself.  Few would dispute Rupert Smith’s contention that the wars of the future will be “amongst the people,” but the shadow of budget cuts will likely mean the Obama Administration will look to more limited and indirect options than the costly, time-intensive counterinsurgency proposed by some.  Better advice to students might be to adapt that experience into a broader specialty less sullied in the strategic and political debates of the last decade such as “irregular warfare.”

Read more at the Small Wars Journal blog.

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Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the 2010 Marine Corps Association Foundation Dinner, which hosted counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen. The video is available via YouTube at the aforementioned link. I encourage you to watch the whole thing, because my summary does not do Kilcullen’s talk justice. Also, I want to thank everyone at the dinner for making me feel welcome including but not limited to my table-mates from Harris Communications and SAIC and Bill Nagle of Small Wars Journal.

Dr. Kilcullen focused on the security situation in Afghanistan and the looming 2012–now 2014–withdrawal from Afghanistan. There were some grim pronouncements that will not surprise those who have been following COIN and our efforts in Afghanistan. While he was optimistic about counterinsurgency efforts at the tactical level, he was much more dour about the “cycle” of criminality, corruption, and abuse empowering the Taliban.

Kilcullen cites two very powerful examples where Afghans have been forced to choose the Taliban, because they offer a better alternative in good governance. In the first, a governor hijacked a US AID road project for his personal gain, which caused the unemployment of 300 to 400 people. The Taliban can turn to a population who has witnessed the corruption and abuse in the face of American inaction and offer a semblance of justice. In the second, a regional NDS (the Afghan Intelligence Agency) chief blackmails a school teacher who had no prior affiliation with the Taliban into giving up his daughter in marriage. The NDS chief had threatened to report him to the Americans as a Taliban supporter. The daughter is refused contact with her family and there is abuse, so the father has no alternative but to turn to the Taliban. “They give him a bomb and he kills the NDS chief,” Kilcullen said. “That could be a Mel Gibson movie, right? It’s not insurgency; it’s basic human revenge on someone who has abused and repressed that person’s family. A lot of the violence that’s happening in Afghanistan is that kind of violence.” Kilcullen goes onto show a number of ways that Taliban have offered the Afghan people a viable alternative in terms of “rule of law, anti-corruption, [and] mediation of disputes.” According to Kilcullen, efforts are failing not in terms of security but governance.

If you have read Kilcullen’s books The Accidental Guerrilla or Counterintersurgency, this will not be particularly surprising. More surprising is his statement that, in advance of the (perhaps) inevitable 2014 withdrawal, international efforts should focus on placing the Afghan government and other stakeholders in the strongest possible for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban before that date, which depends on security but also includes restoring the Afghan civil service and encouraging rule of law.

Attendees asked a number of good questions including how to encourage the best governance from the Karzai government (which, notably, will end before 2014 due to term limits on the presidency) and how to increase Afghanistan’s economic viability. I asked about the use of unmanned systems in a counterinsurgency environment (see about 3:30 into the video):

If you remember, Kilcullen–along with Andrew Exum–published an op-ed criticizing the use of UAV strikes–a tactic–as a strategy. I was particularly fascinated with his comment: “At times, we have tended to send the drones in where we’re not willing to go or where we lack the ability to control what happens on the ground. One of the things about counterinsurgency is whoever controls the ground controls the spin. […] If you hold the area after a firefight, you control the narrative that comes out and you control what the Afghan population hears about it. If you’re not there afterwards, it doesn’t matter what you think. Whoever controls the environment controls what people believe. It is a big propaganda vulnerability to be in that environment using drones.” I have heard similar comments from people employing unmanned systems in the air and on the ground, and I am working on a project to give some further commentary on unmanned systems. Stay tuned…

[Incidentally, how fascinating was the bit about “embedded, probably software-defined radio” and the Taliban?]

Immediately following my question, Kilcullen also offered his “cynical viewpoint” on President Karzai’s ban on private security contractors. As some of you are likely aware, NGOs and development companies have had serious concerns about the security of their operations in the wake of this ban. Kilcullen said, “There is an important loophole in that decree–that companies that are Afghan owned or majority Afghan owned can continue to operate whether or not their employees are Afghans or foreigners. The two biggest security companies in Afghanistan are owned by members of the Karzai family. I see this as a straightforward push for market share. So I believe this is going to be resolved and the way it’s going to be resolved is that we put some Karzai family members on the boards of some of these companies and give majority ownership to some of them to Afghans and this will go away.” I am sure this comes as no surprise to many of you, but I found it fascinating. For the rest of you who like to bag on private security contractors, the fact that these are the people protecting NGOs and development companies is something you should keep in mind.

Kilcullen also heaped high praise upon USMC Female Engagement Teams or “FETs,” citing a few examples of their successes. He added, “You cannot do counterinsurgency in an Islamic country without substantial numbers of women forward. If you have issues with women in combat, I suggest you get over them, because it’s been happening ever since we went into Iraq and Afghanistan in ’01. These women are doing a great job in the field, and it is what it is, you know? It is something to think in terms of the culture of military organizations, but–as an operator, from an operational standpoint–if we could have ten times as many FETs in the field, I would be pushing for that.” The fact that the comment drew big-time applause strikes me that people’s attitudes on women in combat has progressed quite a bit since the late-90s discourse that gets played out in G. I. Jane. I doubt many feminists will greet this development with praise, but the reality is women’s nominal–but not practical–ban from “combat” does deny them recognition in the current system. Consider how women’s contributions to national liberation movements have been erased from postcolonial histories. No matter what you think of the present conflicts, this erasure is not dissimilar.

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