Posts Tagged ‘Counterinsurgency’

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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On his blog, John Robb has linked to a presentation of John Boyd’s.  There was a lot that struck me in the course of watching the video, but one passage stood out above all the others.  In it, Boyd lays out the process that developed the F-15.  Rather than starting with how engineers could assemble components in such a way to produce a set of capabilities, he begins with challenging of even the most basic assumptions behind the whole system.  These are epistemological assumptions, not simply what we can do but what—and how—can we know.  In the case of the F-15, Boyd starts with Newton’s Second Law.  The discussion leads Boyd to the question of doctrine.  After all, what’s doctrine but a set of epistemological assumptions?  Boyd lays it all out:

You gotta challenge all assumption.  We have doctrine.  Air Force’s got a doctrine; Army’s got a doctrine; Navy’s got a doctrine; everybody’s got a doctrine!  You read my work, “doctrine” doesn’t appear in there even once.  You can’t find it.  You know why I don’t have it in there?  Because it’s doctrine on day one; every day after, it becomes dogma, that’s why.  So what I tell people is “I understand you gonna have to write doctrine and you have to do it; that’s alright.  Even after you write it, assume that it’s not right, and then not only that, look at a whole bunch of other doctrine—German doctrine, other kind of doctrines, and that—and learn those, too.  Then, you got a bunch of doctrines in there.  The reason you want to learn them all then you’re not captured by any one.  Not only that, you can lift stuff outta here, stuff outta there, stuff outta there; you can play the snowmobile game, and you can do better than anyone else, because if you have one doctrine, you’re a dinosaur.  Period.

I kept the colloquialisms, because I love Boyd’s manner of speaking.  Rarely can very complex issues be spoken so plainly.  He is a master rhetorician.  In fact, this fact got me thinking about a very specific phrasing:  his repeated use of the singular indefinite article in his reference to “a doctrine.”

Does the Army, for example, have “a doctrine” as Boyd says?  My initial—and incorrect—response was ‘no.’  There’s FM3-24; there’s FM5-0; there’s countless other documents.  This is obvious, so why would Boyd choose to refer to all those interconnected documents as “a doctrine?”  They are a monolith—a “dogma,” as he says.  What is “dogma?”  A cannon to produce orthodoxy.

Boyd understands that guidelines must be written; yet, he has nothing but disdain for this orthodoxy.  To him, there is no one general theory that can be assembled into “a doctrine.”  Instead, you must look at “doctrines” (plural).  This is not simply a collection of texts within the DoD doctrinal ecosystem but a diversity of perspectives from outside of it.  That is the “snowmobile game” Boyd references:  assembling a machine from a collection of disparate inspirations to an original application.

Certainly, good leader do this already.  No one should take one document—take FM3-24, for example—as the lone way to know counterinsurgency. However, Boyd’s point got me to wondering whether or not there was a way to build this plurality—this goal of “doctrines”—into the institutional process of writing doctrine.  Can one write a singular piece of doctrine as “doctrines”—a plurality of views that still serves the purposes of laying out the theory and practice of something like counterinsurgency?

Maybe, this is obvious; maybe, this is a bit of postmodern double-talk.  However, I thought I’d start by asking the “dumb question” as Boyd himself advocates.

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Not every Small Wars Journal reader is a COIN advocate, but every Small Wars Journal supporter does get a coin.  Challenge coins are a non-official sign of appreciation or acknowledgement within the U. S. military and law enforcement circles.  In this spirit, the Small Wars Foundation would like to acknowledge those who donate $50 or more with an official challenge coin.  For more details, see the Small Wars Journal blog.

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Since I last posted, I have been busy with a number of projects other than blogging–not the least of which are (1) finishing my dissertation and (2) finding a job.  Neither of these has been particularly easy lately, but I have been making slow but substantive progress on the dissertation.  I have changed directions somewhat, focusing on representations of T. E. Lawrence and contemporary conceptions of counterinsurgency from doctrine to pop-culture.  It’s more doable, for one.  My initial proposal was good for about four dissertations.  Secondly, my committee is more amenable to the topic–knock on wood.  Frankly, I am not sure what the time table for completion will be yet.

I would like to promise more regular posting, but there are no guarantees until I start cranking out chapters.  However, I am going to chime in more often if only to get myself in the writing groove now that I have a clear dissertation direction again.  In the mean time, Andrew Exum tweeted something all Englishy that I am going to engage here in three…two…one…

P. S. If you need someone who is wicked smart and knows a bit about small arms, counterinsurgency, cyberwar, and lots of other cool sh…stuff, I’m your guy.

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As you have likely read, YouTube has pulled selected videos featuring Anwar al-Awlaki under pressure from the American and British governments. Pauline Neville-Jones, the British Minister of Security, argued that the material is a major component of recruitment and radicalization, providing an impetus for acts of terror and should be pulled. In response, Adam Rawnsley of Danger Room argues that removing the videos “is a losing battle” and that “Britain and America would be better off addressing the content of jihadi media with similar urgency to its distribution.” Even if the material is made unavailable on YouTube, there will be other sources for distribution including sites dedicated to counterterrorism such as this one. Howard G. Clark of FREEradicals goes even further. In “10 Reasons Why Blocking Awlaki Youtube Speeches is Counter-Productive” (HT “Thoughts of a Technocrat“), he suggests that blocking the message adds credibility, prestige, and attention to individuals such as Awlaki. It is as if being blocked is itself a force multiplier. While I did not agree with all Clark’s points, two struck me:

6) Front page news will also make Awlaki seem like an ideological pinnacle to English speakers susceptible to radicalisation, when in fact his lectures—although slick, simple, and in easy-to-understand colloquial Americanized English—reek of academic slothfulness, lack of historical understanding, and a sophomoric education on Islam’s original texts.

7) Over the past four years over two dozen terrorist attack plotters were found to have viewed Awlaki’s videos before their planned attacks. But not in one case is there proof that his speeches actually inspired these conspirators. It may be more logical that those already considering violent extremism would naturally watch his and other videos. Listening to Awlaki may be a symptom instead of driver of radicalisation.

This made me wonder whether or not removing the videos was beneficial from the viewpoint of combating terrorism. In point 6, Clark implies that there an open space for constructing a counternarrative. By leaving the more radical Awlaki videos online, we can exploit the weaknesses in his argument and pose a viable alternative. In fact, simply removing the videos may sabotage our counternarrative from the beginning, giving radicals ammunition to say, “See, they talk about ‘freedom’ when all they really want to do is silence opposition [as they do in regime X, regime Y, etc.]” At the very least, we need to know what radicals are saying to combat their message. In point 7, he suggests that removing the videos constitutes a failure to address the underlying causes of Jihadi radicalization rather than a mere “symptom.” From a COIN perspective, American interests may be better served in acknowledging and addressing select grievances in Awlaki’s message rather than silencing the messenger. To me, removing the video seems to be the digital equivalent of counterterrorism without the COIN.

Many may object that the U. S. should not cede the Internet to terrorists. Certainly, I do not advocate ‘ceding’ the Internet. Rather, we should engage an ideological contest rather than ‘cat and mouse’ technological battle with terrorists doing what is essentially a denial-of-service attack against sites that host their message via lawfare, government pressure, or offensive ‘cyber’ action. However, I wonder if this approach isn’t one method to separate the population from insurgents in the 21st century. What, then, is the proper balance between denying terrorists a soap box and countering their message? What are your thoughts and concerns?

Feel free to post in the comments or at my thread at the Small Wars Council.

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On Thursday and Friday, the University of Florida hosted the 2009 EGO Conference.  The topic was “Home/sickness: Desire, Decay, and the Seduction of Nostalgia,” and Dominick LaCapra–a historian from Cornell–gave the keynote address.  I took part in a panel called “Evocations of Empire: Political Analyses of the Past and Present” in which I delivered a 15 minute conference paper that examined counterinsurgency theory and doctrine as literature.  In particular, I looked at how this theory and doctrine has a ‘haunted’ quality.  Among other things, I address the lasting appeal of Lawrence to writers such as Kilcullen.  Since this is a literary analysis, it will be a very different take than policy- and practice-focused COIN theory, but I hope you will find it interesting nonetheless:

The title of my paper is “Ghosts of Empire: T. E. Lawrence and the Haunted Narratives of U.S. Counterinsurgency Doctrine.”  Ordinarily, military doctrine is not placed in the domain of literature.  During this talk and afterwards, I hope you will consider not only why military doctrine and theory counts as “literature” but also how cultural critics can contribute to its study as well as the urgency of this project.  The fact is that with counterinsurgency doctrine and theory we are dealing with texts that are quite literally weaponized.  In an article entitled “The Evolution of a Revolt,” T. E. Lawrence himself called the printing press “the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.”  This line is one of Lawrence’s most cited throughout American military doctrine.  Most notably, it appears in the U. S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual–the official how-to guide for the ongoing interventions not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also The Philippines, Somalia, Yemen, and countless other past, present, and future sites of intervention. This manual also states that “some of the best weapons for the counterinsurgent do not shoot.”   In effect, counterinsurgency advocates that the military do its shooting with TEXTS.  Not only is this a complete reorientation of the masculine mythologies of war, but also it is what makes this cultural movement so RIPE for our intervention.

Now, let’s return to the key question addressed in this paper:  that is, “why are these weaponized texts ‘haunted?’”  To answer this question, I turn to Freud’s “The Uncanny.”   In this article, Freud writes, “The German word ‘unheimlich’ is obviously the opposite of ‘heimlich’ [‘homely’], ‘heimisch’ [‘native’] the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening.”  However, Freud is arguing something very different.  He continues, “Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.”  That, for Freud, is the uncertainty of place and time in league with a frightful doubling.  Of course, issues of the ‘home’ and the ‘native’ are particularly relevant to colonial discourses, but there are two common features inherent in counterinsurgency texts that make them uncanny.

The first is what I call “temporal disorientation.”  This term points to the text’s disorientating place within the tangle of memory and trauma.  As Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically…means to seize hold of memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”  Of course, the unfortunate reality for postcolonial history is that these violent flash points reoccur in the same locales with a tragic repetition.  For critical readers, the effect is a classic text of counterinsurgency theory has the sense that it could have been written 100 years ago, today, or perhaps 100 years in the future in some apocalyptic vision.  A good example of this is David Galula’s foundational counterinsurgency text, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. In an aside, Galula writes, “A revolutionary situation exists today in Iran.  Who can tell what will happen, whether there will be an explosion, and if so, how and when it will erupt?”  Without context, one might just as easily assume this was one of the countless Tweets coming out of Iran after the election this summer, but these words were not written in 2009 but rather 1964.  This haunted repetition conjures the ghosts of a violent past replayed again and again in the postcolonial.  This could apply to a range of texts including, say, Kipling poetry’s about intervention in Afghanistan.

The second of these haunted qualities is a conscious (and often self-critical) channeling of colonial discourses.  In this talk, I will be addressing the channeling of Lawrence in particular, but there are many others who have been similarly evoked.  An example of this phenomenon is a third-person novella called The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa.  Written in 2009 by two American military officers, Michael L. Burgoyne and Albert J. Marckwardt, it serves a howto guide for soldiers deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan presented in a series of dreams.  Above and beyond the form of the book, its most striking feature is the channeling of another text written in 1905 about the Boer War called The Defence of Duffer’s Drift.  This is not a repetition a la Pierre Menard’s rewriting of Quixote as much as a seance in which past colonial voices are made to speak through a distinct narrative as part of a new (often literal) mobilization.

These two shared qualities, temporal disorientation and channeling of colonial discourses, contribute to these texts’ sense of ‘haunted-ness’–that is, the uncanny in Freud’s sense.  This particular form of the “uncanny” is what I will be exploring today in the doubling of the T. E. Lawrence’s 1917 advice to military advisors, “The Twenty Seven Articles of T. E. Lawrence,” and David Kilcullen’s 2006 advice to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency.”  They will stand as two exemplars of the hauntedness of counterinsurgency doctrine and theory.

To begin, let’s turn to the image of Lawrence in the past as a subversive figure in larger context of British military culture as well as colonial discourses coming out of the metropole.  It is import to acknowledge how difficult it is parse myth from reality with Lawrence, but for the purposes of this discussion we are only interested in Lawrence as a mythic figure.  As such, Lawrence is an agent of British imperial ambition, but he remains a queer cog in their war machine.  When I speak of Lawrence as a “queer cog,” I am not simply acknowledging the questions and complications that rise from discussions of his sexuality but also his relative position within the larger context of British military culture.  Consider for a moment that Lawrence was not like Prince Harry attending Sandhurst.  Rather, Lawrence was–and more importantly for us, positioned within military and colonial discourses as–this delicate, if not effeminate, archeologist-poet turned guerilla fighter who would meet with his commanders in sandals and Arab dress.  Contrast him to a contemporary figure such as British General Douglas Haig whose absolute lack of imagination and failure to comprehend new inventions such as the machine gun led to the needless slaughter of tens of thousands in the First World War.  Lawrence was the complete opposite of Haig in terms of his place in military culture.  Indeed, Lawrence dared to diverge one-hundred percent from the established program:  that is, he was willing to travel to a dark place on the map as in Heart of Darkness, get off the boat as in Apocalypse Now, or simply and radically go “native.”  This is what makes Lawrence this queer, ill-fitting cog in British Empire, but it is also exactly this the uncanny positioning that is now celebrated.

His subversiveness can be observed in his short piece, “The 27 Articles of T.E. Lawrence.”  As an example of colonial rhetoric coming out of the Metropole, it is among the most subversive as it demonstrates a willingness to be led by rather than lead the colonial other.  Lawrence writes, “Your place is advisory, and your advice is due to the commander alone.”  Later, he suggests, “Win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others when you can.”  In both cases, the commander or leader is an Arab, not British, figure.  Certainly, Lawrence’s end is the service of Imperial goals, but the values of the metropole are all but erased or otherwise made invisible.  He writes, “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”  He goes further and dismisses Western modes of warfare altogether.  He writes, “Learn the Bedu principles of war as thoroughly and as quickly as you can.”  Most notably, he places paramount importance on learning and mastering Arab culture.  These were some very radical proposals in 1917.  Even from this small sample of writing, it is easy to see why Lawrence has such a vexed relationship to the British Empire at large.

Let’s now move to the present day.  We are living in an era in which Lawrence’s position within military and colonial discourse has moved from one of subversion to a place within the dominant narrative.  At this conference, we have seen nostalgia posited as many things.  Here, it serves as a mobilization.   Enter David Kilcullen, a former Australian military officer, who came to prominence in America as a member of General David Patraeus’s personal staff.  He contributed to the writing of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and his book The Accidental Guerrilla is a bestseller.  Currently, Kilcullen is serving as a counterterrorism advisor for the State Department.  Although he is undoubtedly a “rock star” within the national security community, Kilcullen began as a subversive figure.  He was reported to have said invading Iraq was “fucking stupid”–a comment he later disavowed–but he nonetheless maintains that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a “serious strategic error.”

Kilcullen’s “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency” captures this subversive quality.  Here, Kilcullen is very overtly conjuring Lawrence on the ouija board of military doctrine.  However, he is not simply evoking “The 27 Articles of T.E. Lawrence” but also the very SPIRIT of Lawrence’s counternarrative.  Recently, on Australian television, Kilcullen mused on the context in which he initially wrote his “Twenty-Eight Articles.”  He proudly states how his piece was being discretely passed around the Pentagon via email at a time when Rumsfeld and like-minded Pentagon wonks were suppressing the advice of counterinsurgency advocates who argued first for not invading Iraq and secondly for more troops in order to secure the country after the invasion.  Rumsfeld, of course, ignored this advice.

However, there is more to “The Twenty-Eight Articles” that make it such a subversive counternarrative.  Evoking that subversive voice of Lawrence, Kilcullen claims, “Rank is nothing: talent is everything.”  Again, we see a divergence from the valuation of Sandhurst or, to a lesser extent, American military academies.  He writes, “Remember the global audience.”  This is not simply casting out the media as in Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency but rather a genuine awareness of the global community.  If this sounds familiar, it should.  A similar sentiment permeates President Obama’s “reset” of diplomatic relations across the world.  Kilcullen also advises, “Engage the women, beware the children.”  This is not some simplistic “saving colored women for white men.”  Instead, he recommends real political engagement with women as a key component of networks that can either encourage or discourage insurgency as well as a cautious desire to protect children.  Lastly, and most interestingly, Kilcullen suggests the counterinsurgent “exploit a ‘single narrative.’”  For Kilcullen, this exploitation is establishing an alternative narrative to, for example, the Taliban or other opposition figures as well as tapping into existing narratives to score non-violent political victories rather than violent ones.  (Throughout his work, Kilcullen’s mantra is that “a defection is better than a capture and a capture is better than a kill.”)  This underscores notion that the best weapons don’t shoot, and, as I suggested earlier, that counterinsurgents now advocate these weaponized narratives.

Indeed, the seduction of Lawrence is that he is a misfit, a rebel.  When counterinsurgents evoke Lawrence, they are evoking this spirit.  This uncanny doubling of Lawrence’s image in Kilcullen’s writing is more than a repetition of colonial discourse but rather a summoning of Lawrence’s powerful marginality.  However, this sense of the uncanny is not limited to Kilcullen’s “The Twenty-Eight Articles” but also to a wide range of counterinsurgency theory and doctrine.  Most importantly, this narrative has shifted from the margins of military culture to a dominant position.  A once-insurgent literature in Lawrence has literally become counterinsurgent in figures such as Kilcullen.

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Recently, I had the chance to read Martin Evans’ Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics for the first time. One of the things that struck me most was  it struck me how education (specifically, the philosophies of education) was a marked fissure in the rise of the Taliban. According to Evan’s account, a divide opened up between those who received a secular education from institutions such as the Law Faculty of Kabul University and members of the Taliban who have their roots in Deobandi madrassas. As Evans writes, “[i]t is not merely the ethnic or tribal divide that separates the Taliban from such ‘Islamists’ as Rabbani, Hekmatyar and Massoud, but also the fact that the latter were educated in ‘modern’, rather than ‘traditional’, educational institutions” (204-205).

As I thought about it more, I began to see education as a significant thread throughout the Long War.  Indeed, the theory and doctrine of counterinsurgency is intertwined with the notion of education. COIN, so says FM3-24, “is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war.” More important, it is a difficult, ongoing, and perhaps impossible education. One of the most widely read books on the subject, John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam says so much in its title, borrowed from the writings of COIN icon T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence himself was a practicing archeologist before he found his way into the Arab Revolt to promote British interests. He was a warrior-intellectual in a time when, as documented by Fussell and others, British commanders’ lack of creativity lead to the needless slaughter of tens of thousands.

As embodied by the likes of General David Petraeus, the warrior-intellectual is the new vogue. Among them is Craig Mullaney, author The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education.  On his website, he remarks on the difficulties of educating counterinsurgents:

The ideal soldier would be a micro-financier with a doctorate in anthropology, speak Dari and Pashto, be an expert marksman, and have served as a mayor in a farming community. The military doesn’t have the resources or time to produce this bionic counterinsurgent, but it can do a better job educating soldiers so that they’re faster at learning and adapting in unfamiliar environments. We do a great job of making sure units have the weapons they need to fight, but in a counterinsurgency, often the best weapons don’t shoot. The challenge is to fertilize units with the right mix of additional specialties so that they’ve got the right “weapons” for this kind of fight.

Indeed, this fact that the best weapon does not shoot complicates the the education of the soldier who must yet rely on weapons that do shoot. As Dave Grossman wrote in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, overcoming the resistance to killing involves a number of factors including the creation of cultural distance between the warfighter and the enemy. At the same time, counterinsurgents promote collapsing that distance through ever-greater cultural awareness.

The way we think about education our fighting men and women has been challenged in a number of other ways.  Tom Ricks has opened the debate on the closing of the military academies. Others like Gian Gentile have argued against the increasingly dominant position of COIN, making the case manuals such as FM3-24 have divorced the actual fighting of war from doctrine. Others still debate our focus on training for counterinsurgencies and whether it has diminished our capacity to fight conventional “peer competitors” and hybrid threats.

This is by no means an exhaustive list how education plays a role in our current conflicts, but I intend to follow this thread again in the future.

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