“Competitive Control”: How to Evaluate the Threats Posed by “Ungoverned Spaces”

“Competitive Control”: How to Evaluate the Threats Posed by “Ungoverned Spaces”

Daniel Fisher and Christopher Mercado

So-called “ungoverned spaces” present the United States with significant security challenges in an era characterized by “softened sovereignty.”[i] Advances in technology and finance, coupled with globalization and stoked by the often bright flame of political instability have created areas where governments face substantial difficulty consolidating control over both physical and virtual spaces. Inherently, such spaces threaten state sovereignty, insofar as they allow all permutations of non-state actors—whether nefarious or benign—to establish alternative regimes, by coopting governance functions unfilled or poorly filled by the state.

Ungoverned areas are an emerging global phenomenon. They exist in regions, territories, and countries at all levels of development. In Mexico, Latin America’s second largest economy and a relatively functional state, autodefensas—“self-defense militias”—have taken up arms against Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) in such areas as Michoacán and Guerrero. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, local tribes, often in collusion with the Taliban, scoff at national governments ill-equipped to fully secure large swathes of their sovereign territories. In Nigeria and Iraq, governments are fighting existential wars with extremist organizations capable of both waging highly effective insurgency and massing into devastatingly lethal conventional units. Arguably, many urban neighborhoods in the United States, such as areas in Chicago where violent street gangs exert de facto control,[ii] are also ungoverned.

Global urbanization trends exacerbate the problem. A 2014 Strategic Multilayer Assessment illustrates the potential for instability in densely packed urban areas called megacities, including those cities and states generally regarded as developed. This report demonstrates that current global population growth and the trend towards urbanization far outstrips the ability of cities and states to effectively absorb the surging populations and meet the demand for resources and security, thereby creating the conditions that inevitably lead to conflict.[iii] This report suggests that,

“[T]he most vulnerable segments of the population concentrate in the peri‐urban slums surrounding megacities. In these pockets of destitution, often devoid of the institutional frameworks necessary for effective governance and rule of law, they are ripe for recruitment and radicalization by internal dissidents and violent non‐state actors.”[iv]

Chaired by William J. Perry and John P. Abizaid, the National Defense Panel reviewed the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and made note of five major trends and challenges facing the United States. In a consensus agreement with the QDR, the National Defense Panel review offered that the competition for secure access to natural resources, urbanization, the diffusion of power, and the proliferation of advanced lethal and disruptive technologies are the key operational challenges to the United States.[v] The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review itself highlighted the acute risk posed by ungoverned and under-governed spaces, noting the potential for “rapidly developing threats, particularly in fragile states.”[vi]

The primary risk associated with ungoverned spaces—a risk that is quickly maturing—is that they present nefarious non-state actors (such as terrorist organizations, criminal and political insurgent groups, Drug Trafficking Organizations, and violent street gangs, among others) with an opportunity to perpetuate violence, fear, and crime by establishing parallel governance structures that destabilize the existing order. The proliferation of advanced and disruptive weapons and technologies exacerbates this risk by enabling these non-state actors to practice anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD), further limiting the authority, reach, and legitimacy of the government. The presence and influence of such groups necessitates government response. However, a taxonomy that adequately elucidates the nature of ungoverned spaces remains relatively elusive.

In fact, there is widespread disagreement among policymakers, researchers, and practitioners about exactly what an “ungoverned space” is. In many cases, the term is employed so broadly that it quickly loses any practical utility. A 2007 RAND report, for example, defines an “ungoverned territory” as:

“An area in which a state faces significant challenges in establishing control. Ungoverned territories can be failed or failing states, poorly controlled land or maritime borders, or areas within otherwise viable states where the central government’s authority does not extend. Ungoverned territories can also extend to airspace….”[vii]

A 2008 Department of Defense report defines an “ungoverned area” in similarly all-inclusive fashion as:

“A place where the state or the central government is unable or unwilling to extend control, effectively govern, or influence the local population, and where a provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous government does not fully or effectively govern, due to inadequate governance capacity, insufficient political will, gaps in legitimacy, the presence of conflict, or restrictive norms of behavior… the term ‘ungoverned areas’ encompasses under-governed, misgoverned, contested, and exploitable areas as well as ungoverned areas.”[viii]

In addition to being too encompassing, many of the current definitions are naturally state-centric.[ix] That is, they rely heavily on anachronistic international relations theories that consider sovereign states as the primary organized entities driving geopolitics. Implied by this reliance is the assumption that stability is maximized when the state, rather than any alternative non-state group, is the most legitimate (and well-equipped) entity positioned to carry out effective governance. For any practitioner who has (or is currently) engaged in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or counternarcotics operations, however, this notion seems inherently flawed—if not altogether naive. As author Phil Williams underscores, “The notion of ungoverned spaces…fails to capture the possibility of alternative forms of governance to that provided by the state.”[x]

Further, the term “ungoverned space” is used to refer to areas in which states may actually exercise some extent of governance. Legitimate economies, for instance, exist in areas of Mexico and Brazil controlled by drug cartels, and basic utilities such as electricity are provided by the Afghan government even to areas that are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Taliban.

That non-state groups are increasingly able to meet the demands of a governance starved populace should be alarming. In Afghanistan, the Taliban routinely engage in “shadow governance,” developing effective and sophisticated governance structures that truncate the reach of the central Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Demonstrating capacity and an exceedingly capable political program, the Taliban are providing a viable, if illegitimate, alternative to what is often perceived as a corrupt and out-of-touch government that is incapable of providing essential human services, civil justice, and security requirements at the local and village level.[xi]

Ungoverned spaces are not limited to the physical world. Complete virtual economies, and in fact entire virtual ecosystems, have developed online in the form of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. Terrorist organizations, Drug Trafficking Organizations, and criminal subversives are all increasingly availing themselves of the internet as a viable medium for recruitment, operational planning, money laundering and financial exchange, as well as the spread of ideologies and tactics.[xii]

Thus, it may be more accurate to describe “ungoverned” spaces as areas of “hybrid” or “contested” governance, or to simply refer to them as “under-governed.” Further, it may be the case that certain pockets of governance in areas that the current taxonomy would call “ungoverned” are contested, whereas others are not—implying a spectrum that should fully distinguish ungoverned spaces from those that are merely under-governed, mis-governed, or perhaps simply under-secured. Provision of essential services, such as energy and running water, need not necessarily occur alongside commensurate state provision of civil security or law enforcement.

Confusion about the taxonomy in either direction of the “ungoverned spectrum,” whether we consider no area actually ungoverned because there is always an alternative governance structure in place, or whether we use “ungoverned” to broadly encapsulate areas that are in fact only under-governed, poses significant barriers to systematic problem-solving. That is, it prevents policy makers, civic leaders, NGO workers, law enforcement officers, and military leaders from properly framing the problems posed by ungoverned spaces of all permutations—from densely packed, rapidly growing urban slums that stretch a state’s ability to provide basic services, to poorly controlled areas of cyberspace that allow criminals and terrorists to launder money and share effective tactics. Those tasked with addressing urbanization, sub-state violence, insecurity and instability require a more precise conceptual framework that allows them to properly and intelligently define the many problems posed by absent or ineffective governance. In short, they need (and deserve) more than the current taxonomy is able to adequately provide.

These circumstances suggest the necessity of creating more agile terminology to describe the dynamics in “ungoverned areas.” Drawing from David Kilcullen, we suggest the term “competitive control,” recommending it as a starting point to developing an interactive practitioner tool that dissects the problems associated with such areas. Building on the work of French counterinsurgent writer (and former La Résistance française insurgent) Bernard B. Fall,[xiii] Kilcullen describes the theory of competitive control in his recent book Out of the Mountains:

“In irregular conflicts (that is, in conflicts where at least one combatant is a nonstate armed group), the local armed actor that a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent, and wide-spectrum normative system of control is most likely to dominate that population and its residential areas. Simply put, the idea is that populations respond to a predictable, ordered, normative system that tells them exactly what they need to do, and not do, in order to be safe.”[xiv]

Both Fall and Kilcullen describe a normative “competitive control” system in which the actor (state or non-state) that establishes a “wider range of capabilities, covering more of the spectrum from persuasion to coercion, will be stronger and more resilient.”[xv] Competitive control theory, as conceived by Fall and Kilcullen, is a useful way of describing the competition that occurs between state and non-state actors in “ungoverned spaces.”

However, competitive control theory requires some tweaking in order to effectively translate it into a practitioner tool. Whereas, under the theory, “each actor tries to create a normative system of competitive control,”[xvi] the tool that we suggest recognizes the “full coercion-persuasion spectrum”[xvii] as governance itself. That is, the set of tangible activities associated with the normative competitive spectrum of incentives and disincentives—of proverbial “sticks and carrots”—corresponds to the full range of activities controlled or contested by either the state or a non-state actor in an “ungoverned space.” In this conception of “competitive control,” competing actors do not “create normative systems.” Rather, they contest, and attempt to exert full control of some set of activities already described by a fixed “full coercion-persuasion spectrum” that is itself defined by identified avenues, lines, or functions of governance.

When used as a practitioner tool, the concept of “competitive control” acknowledges that significant problems can arise even when the competition between the legitimate authority and a rival non-state actor or actors occurs along only a few avenues of governance. It transcends current definitions of “ungoverned spaces,” and builds on the current theory of competitive control described by Fall and Kilcullen, by parsing out those avenues of governance that are actually contested—or which the government aspires to contest—from those that are not.

Applying “competitive control” to the dynamics surrounding ungoverned spaces requires policymakers and practitioners to identify and precisely elucidate areas of governance that the state seeks to control. Although detailing the anatomy of governance would require a separate (and likely very long) essay, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides leaders with a useful starting point. The UNDP Governance Assessment Portal (GAP) identifies 16 areas—including land governance, civil society, and public administration—by which governments can be assessed. Using this model or others, perhaps in conjunction with the “lines of effort” detailed in FM 3-24, and incorporating their knowledge of government functions unique to a given state, region or municipality, civil and military leaders can frame the problems posed by “ungoverned spaces” as either “lines of conflict,” or, as the case may be, “lines of control.” This process parses the so-called “ungoverned space” into governance avenues that are either contested or controlled by the government, and allows leaders to more precisely classify the extent to which a state is (or is not) in conflict with a non-state actor.

For example, a state might effectively provide running water and electricity to an “ungoverned space” otherwise characterized by low levels of economic development and high homicide rates linked to the presence of a Drug Trafficking Organization. Under the “competitive control” framework, this area would not be classified as “ungoverned” wholesale, because the government effectively provides essential services to the population. Thus, “essential services” would be classified as a “line of control,” and “economic development” and “civil security” classified as “lines of conflict.” Whatever areas of governance are contested, the “competitive control” framework replaces the broader and more unwieldy concept of an “ungoverned space” with specific “lines of conflict” on which the state should focus in order to render the space fully governed.

For savvy practitioners accustomed to identifying sources of instability, the concept of “competitive control” codifies the unique position of the counterinsurgent relative to a population suffering from gaps in governance. For policymakers and civil leaders, the concept provides a potentially very useful framework for distinguishing between those areas that the government controls, from those controlled or contested by non-state actors. Regardless of who might employ the model, “competitive control” fills gaps in the current “ungoverned space” taxonomy, and suggests that researchers, policymakers, and military and law enforcement practitioners need not view the problems posed by “ungoverned areas” with so much anxiety, trepidation, and confusion. Dissecting those problems into their constituent components—into “lines of conflict” and “lines of control”—provides leaders the ability to view them with more nuance and precision, allowing them to effectively address problems of governance, rather than merely admire them.

End Notes

[i] In Ungoverned Spaces – Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty (Stanford University Press, 2010), editors and authors Anne Clunan and Harold Trinkunas argue that this term, along with the concept of “alternative governance,” better captures the fundamental problems posed by areas in which governments have limited authority. They argue that these terms are more useful than the concept of “ungoverned spaces” to describe and characterize such areas.

[ii] See Chicago Police Officer John Bertetto’s Foreign Intrigue article “Undergoverned Spaces: Strong States, Poor Control.” Bertetto argues that such areas are in fact “undergoverned,” rather than “ungoverned.” Like us, Bertetto argues that the current distinction between “ungoverned” and “governed” areas is far too broad. He fills this gap in the taxonomy by defining an “undergoverned space” (unhyphenated) as “an area where government services (such as utilities, streets and sanitation, social, health, and public safety) are underrepresented, and where the criminal element does not desire to exert direct control over the population.”

[iii] Charles Ehlschlaeger, et al (April, 2014). “Understanding Megacities with the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Intelligence Paradigm.” Topical Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) and U.S. Army Engineer Research Development Center (ERDC) Multi-Agency/Multi-Disciplinary White Papers in Support of National Security Challenges, viii.

[iv] Charles Ehlschlaeger, et al (April, 2014). “Understanding Megacities with the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Intelligence Paradigm.” Topical Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) and U.S. Army Engineer Research Development Center (ERDC) Multi-Agency/Multi-Disciplinary White Papers in Support of National Security Challenges, ix.

[v] Perry, William and Abizaid, John, et al (2014). Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future: The National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. United States Institute for Peace (17-18).

[vi] Hagel, Chuck. (2014). Quadrennial Defense Review, (5).

[vii] Rabassa, Angel et al. (2007) “Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks.” Project Air Force. RAND Corporation. Available here.

[viii] Lamb, Robert D. (2008) “Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens – Final Report of the Ungoverned Areas Project.” Prepared for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning. Available here.

[ix] Clunan, Anne and Trinkunas, Harold, eds. (2010). Ungoverned Spaces – Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

[x] Williams, Phil (2010). “Here be Dragons: Dangerous Spaces and International Security,” in: Clunan, Anne and Trinkunas, Harold, eds. (2010). Ungoverned Spaces – Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA (36).

[xi] Green, D. R. (2013). Defeating the Taliban’s Shadow Government: A Foreign Internal Governance Strategy. InterAgency Journal, 4(2), 4. Retrieved from http://thesimonscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/IAJ-4-2Summer-2013.pdf

[xii] Keene, S. (2012). Threat Finance: Disconnecting the Lifeline of Organised Crime and Terrorism. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

[xiii] See Fall, Bernard B. (1965). “The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency.” Naval War College Review, Winter 1998.

[xiv] Kilcullen, David (2013). Out of the Mountains – The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla. New York: Oxford University Press (126).

[xv] Ibid (138).

[xvi] Ibid (133).

[xvii] Ibid.

 

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Are we being somewhat short-sighted in seeming to paint all ungoverned spaces, all mega-cities and all disaffected/dissatisfied/rebellious populations in such a negative light?

Are not ungoverned spaces, mega-cities and disaffected etc. populations seen as the essential "life's blood" of special operations forces operating behind uncooperative government/enemy lines?

If an enemy/uncooperative government has full and complete control of every inch of its ground and all of its cities -- and if this government likewise has the complete, enthusiastic and total support of every member of its population -- then how might SOFs survive, operate and achieve their intended purpose in such an environment?

Thus:

a. Much as arming the natives with our best weapons often is seen as a bad idea (because these weapons might later be used against us or against our desired ends),

b. Likewise might it be seen as unwise (given that these entities, at some point, might be needed for our own purposes) to eliminate (1) all ungoverned spaces, (2) all "negative" mega-city conditions and (3) all the dissatisfied/disgrunted/disaffected populations contained therein?

Herein, the supreme weapon of "control" being seen:

a. As something that might later be used against us? And, from the perspective of SOFs operating in certain ways and in certain environments,

b. As something that is extremely detrimental and dangerous to their survival and their mission and, therefore, something that is not at all desirable?

Adding to your comments, very few threats from ungoverned spaces have yet to threaten America directly. Afghanistan was governed by the Taliban. Some of the terrorists spent a good bit of time in Hamburg, Germany, which is hardly an ungoverned space. We certainly didn't solve our problem with AQism by attempting to govern this space did we?

There is certainly interest in ensuring effective governance in all spaces that is not contrary to our interests, but the argument that most threats to our interests emanate from these so-called ungoverned spaces so far hasn't rung true in my opinion, in fact it still seems most threats to our interests hail from governed spaces.

In those we claim to be ungoverned, they are likely not governed in a way we like, or under governed. We have often have the option of recognizing them as governed, even if we don't like those governing, and hold those governing accountable for any threats that come from their areas of control. Afghanistan comes to mind once again.

In other cases, though rare, there are clearly areas where the governing faction tends to change frequently (Syria)during an ongoing conflict, which creates a high degree of instability. Responding to a threat in this environment may require a different approach. In this case those that threaten us normally have adversaries who are competing for control for that control that we can leverage.

We need to come to grips with the concept of ungoverned space and not over react or over emphasize it. Worse yet, we shouldn't use it as a buzz phrase to justify additional force posture. The reality in today's world is there is an increasing gap between nations and states, and we have hostile nations within the U.S.A, just as many Western nations have hostile nations within their state borders, but that doesn't mean those spaces are ungoverned.

There is certainly interest in ensuring effective governance in all spaces that is not contrary to our interests, but the argument that most threats to our interests emanate from these so-called ungoverned spaces so far hasn't rung true in my opinion, in fact it still seems most threats to our interests hail from governed spaces.

This gets back to the argument about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Obviously many of the 9/11 terrorists originated from KSA. We may not like many of their extremists and KSA may not be governed democratically and in a manner we may think harsh to women and criminals, but the alternative could be much, much worse.

The same applies in Syria I would argue. Assad was popularly elected not that long ago and Alawites and others he represents certainly have a right to exist free from the prospect of genocide. He calls his own nation's Sunnis "terrorists" because they in fact threaten non-Sunnis. Thus, this is another example of governed spaces with semi-unsavory leaders that I advocate we could work with if they agreed to partition their country and give up territories to Sunni and Kurd control. If they did not so agree, I would argue that after we finish with ISIL (which won't occur anytime soon) or concurrently if they attempt to interfere with our air attacks and use of their airspace...their air forces and air defenses as well as any ground forces that entered Sunni areas beyond a designated boundary would also be fair game for air strikes. This effectively would be creating Sunni- and Kurd-controlled territory whether Syria liked it or not.

In those we claim to be ungoverned, they are likely not governed in a way we like, or under governed. We have often have the option of recognizing them as governed, even if we don't like those governing, and hold those governing accountable for any threats that come from their areas of control. Afghanistan comes to mind once again.

This raises the specter of who is responsible should a WMD attack occur carried about by terrorists originating from "ungoverned" territory such as along the western border of Pakistan or via ISIL or Saudi extremists who buy a nuke. Who do we retaliate against? Even if it isn't a WMD attack, if it involves major loss of life, would President Obama still prohibit "boots on the ground?"

We need to come to grips with the concept of ungoverned space and not over react or over emphasize it. Worse yet, we shouldn't use it as a buzz phrase to justify additional force posture. The reality in today's world is there is an increasing gap between nations and states, and we have hostile nations within the U.S.A, just as many Western nations have hostile nations within their state borders, but that doesn't mean those spaces are ungoverned.

How do you not over react if there is a WMD or major conventional terror attack? Do you RSVP as LTG McMaster quips that we are irritated by your attack but we elect not to respond. Do we think LTG McMaster's myth about the proxy ground force applies or the zero dark thirty raiding option would suffice?

We see a current strategy destined to fail because the end of ISIL's destruction cannot be accomplished from the air or maritime domain's alone. In addition, the larger aim of a territory governed in a manner we can live with is not accomplished even if ISIL is degraded because a moderate Sunni government is unlikely to be in place in either Iraq or Syria due to Iraq Shiites or Syrian Alawites...both assisted by Iran.

LTG McMaster at a National Guard Association convention a year ago (thanks Sparapet) quipped that the Navy likes to talk about Sea Control. He noted that this concept is embraced yet the concept of Land Control that only can occur via boots on the ground is more debated. Newsflash: populations good and bad attempting "competitive control" live on land, not in the air or sea. We see the flaky results of Libya where we bombed and chaos now ensues. We see special ops raids in Somalia that fix very little and training of Mali troops who then defect. How do we know the Free Syrian Army vetted troops won't defect to ISIL when they return, attempt to engage ISIL, and find themselves hopelessly outmatched?

Finally, Bill M what did you mean when you said there are "hostile nations" in the U.S.? Native Americans? Sovereign Citizens? Red States? Huh? I was unaware that other than Native Americans that other nations exist in the U.S.

I did a bit of research because although it was not our finest hour, our hostility to Native Americans pails in comparison to our worst hour the Civil War. These are the census figures from the late 1800s:

Year.....U.S. Population...Native American Population
1850.....23,191,875.........?
1860.....31,443,321........339,431
1870.....38,555,983........313,712
1880.....50,189,209........306,543

Relative to the whole U.S. population, Native Americans were always a tiny fraction except at the very beginning. The decline in that population since our nation's founding was due primarily due to European disease exposure rather than wholesale white-man slaughter. For the period of 1850-1890 there were 21,586 casualties due to Indian conflicts with 14,990 being inflicted on Native Americans and 6,596 occurring to U.S. military and civilians. Around 1800 there were thought to have been about 600,000 Native Americans and that declined to around 250,000 by the 1890s. Today there are about 3 million "pure" Native Americans and another 2 million of mixed race.

Now contrast that with our Civil War. With an 1860 U.S. population of around 30 million, about the same as Afghanistan, we managed to kill 618,222 Americans with 360,222 from the North and 258,000 in the South. But wait, a 2012 NYT's article claims that new data claims the true figure may be closer to 750,000 dead or 2.5% overall or 5% (1 in 20) of males. That probably translates to 1 in 10 military-aged males dead. Was it worth it? Could the north have allowed the south to secede after the war or given them greater autonomy if they had agreed to abolish slavery? Contrast our Civil War death toll with that in Afghanistan where a population similar to ours in 1860 has experienced only 2304 U.S. dead, 25,000 Afghan deaths, and has cost us just $600 billion. I wonder what the Civil War cost in dollars given how much both WWII and Vietnam cost that far exceeded costs and casualties of current conflicts due to "boots on the ground."

Move Foreword,

Since your posts are normally longer than the article itself, and I'm short on time a short response will have to suffice for now. I'll attempt to get your other questions later.

Amazing how you escalated immediately to WMD, but that is O.K. because it is important scenario to look at. If it is delivered by a state, then that government will probably cease to exist. We have to respond in kind to ensure we retain a credible deterrent factor for other states that are still thinking rationally. If a non-state actor uses a chemical weapon and kills a few hundred in say Newark, NJ, but intelligence is unable to identify the culprits just how are we going to react? If we identify the culprits do we pursue only them assuming it is AQ in Yemen, or do we occupy Yemen and attempt to control it? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, it is a brand new world and the rules and paradigms have changed, and we haven't adapted yet. However, it is clear we can't afford to occupy (boots on the ground) everywhere there is a potential or even real threat to our interests. We have to pick and choose those fights carefully. Tying up thousands of troops in Yemen after a chemical attack may make us feel good, but it won't stop like minded groups from other places in the world doing the same. We proved that with our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases the problem metastasized. Time to reframe and relook options. Punitive raids with ground forces? I'm all for it, we need to get revenge, but we all know it won't solve the problem. In fact, the issue is we can't solve the problem.

I used hostile nations to provoke reaction and surface a topic for consideration. I was not referring to native Americans, though they are certainly a nation within a state. A nation can be any group of people linked by culture, identity, or even ideology, nations don't have to have borders. A state is a political unit that exercises control over territory with defined borders. A nation-state is when most of the people in that nation identify with the state. How man nations are in Iraq for example? Syria? Sudan? What is key is that people can change identities, and embrace another nation's identity, such as the Nation of Islam. Within this nation there are clearly extremist individuals who are hostile to the U.S. within our borders, but this problem is much worse in places like England, France, and Belgium. You may laugh at this, but the Aryan Nation is a nation because they believe they're a nation, and they're hostile to the U.S..

The ability of states to control their populace is decreasing globally due to a lot of factors, which is why the relative power of the non-state actor is on the upswing and people are increasingly identifying with nations over states. Sending out large armies to try to reverse this trend will probably have the opposite effect. The Army certainly has utility for a lot of reasons, but occupying and controlling populations in all the ungoverned areas of the world isn't one of them. Winning wars, providing wide area security (vice control), conducting large scale and sustained combat operations like we might need to do in Iraq, etc.

However, it is clear we can't afford to occupy (boots on the ground) everywhere there is a potential or even real threat to our interests. We have to pick and choose those fights carefully. Tying up thousands of troops in Yemen after a chemical attack may make us feel good, but it won't stop like-minded groups from other places in the world doing the same. We proved that with our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases the problem metastasized. Time to reframe and relook options. Punitive raids with ground forces? I'm all for it, we need to get revenge, but we all know it won't solve the problem. In fact, the issue is we can't solve the problem.

It could be argued that had we split Iraq and Afghanistan into “nations” prior to elections and establishment of constitutions and parliaments, the problem never would have metastasized as it did. Leaving the Shiites primarily in charge with no U.S. troops remaining was no more effective governance or optimal competitive control than when Sunnis ruled Iraq under Hussein.

Similarly, the Pashtuns deserved a primary role in governing Afghanistan but not at the expense of Northern Alliance (NA) ethnicities. If some Pashtuns wanted to embrace the Taliban, they most certainly could have been allowed that option in some Pashtun-dominated areas. They could have formed their own security forces as could the rest of NA and moderate Pashtun Afghanistan. This is the lesson we don’t seem to learn once we go to war and are in a position to influence competitive control.

Few advocate tying up thousands of troops in Yemen because it isn’t a vital national interest. Instead, rotorcraft and airborne raids could occur with relative ease from both the sea and adjacent safer Saudi Arabia. It is places like landlocked Afghanistan and Western Pakistan that are harder to reach and influence from the sea due to no nearby friendly air or ground bases. Syria and northern/western Iraq are similarly difficult. With Turkey not cooperating in the use of Incerlik or other areas (airspace?), that leaves long flights from the Arabian/Persian Gulf or Mediterranean with the latter over Syrian airspace. That’s why Kurdish safe areas are essential to safeguard our troops/airmen.

My question is why not a rotorcraft compromise of small coalition elements launching raids from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kurd areas, and maybe Turkey if ISIS ends up killing their hostage diplomats. Are helicopters and MV-22/CV-22 “boots on the ground” any more than air strikes from above?

I used hostile nations to provoke reaction and surface a topic for consideration. I was not referring to native Americans, though they are certainly a nation within a state. A nation can be any group of people linked by culture, identity, or even ideology, nations don't have to have borders. A state is a political unit that exercises control over territory with defined borders. A nation-state is when most of the people in that nation identify with the state. How many nations are in Iraq for example? Syria? Sudan? What is key is that people can change identities, and embrace another nation's identity, such as the Nation of Islam. Within this nation there are clearly extremist individuals who are hostile to the U.S. within our borders, but this problem is much worse in places like England, France, and Belgium. You may laugh at this, but the Aryan Nation is a nation because they believe they're a nation, and they're hostile to the U.S..

Fair enough. I had forgotten about both the Nation of Islam and Aryan nation. However, as you point out, those in the U.S. are primarily fringe groups in comparison to more mainstream and larger “nations” in other lands. We also have become more comfortable with the melting pot concept and acceptance of many religious beliefs while other nation-states have not yet reached that point.

The ability of states to control their populace is decreasing globally due to a lot of factors, which is why the relative power of the non-state actor is on the upswing and people are increasingly identifying with nations over states. Sending out large armies to try to reverse this trend will probably have the opposite effect. The Army certainly has utility for a lot of reasons, but occupying and controlling populations in all the ungoverned areas of the world isn't one of them. Winning wars, providing wide area security (vice control), conducting large scale and sustained combat operations like we might need to do in Iraq, etc.

If large armies appear to be occupations, the opposite extreme of no armies is just as likely to encourage state and non-state actor aggression. RPA/UAS strikes keep extremists off balance and make it difficult to travel, plan, communicate, train, and rest/sustain. It also kills key leaders/skills who often are difficult to replace with similar caliber leaders/specialists. Doing something is better than doing nothing in the flawed belief that aerospace and maritime domains alone are a solution.

Again, looking at the areas that ISIS controls in Iraq, it largely is a triangle formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with much of the activity directly along those rivers and near Baghdad. This offers natural safe rotorcraft flight routes over adjacent unoccupied or Baghdad areas and quick ingress/egress from adjacent coalition safe havens of Kurdish Iraq areas, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and hopefully Turkey. That means safer boots in the air and only temporarily on the ground rather than a more permanent large-scale occupation.

You of all folks understand the assets available to the President for such bigger SOF ground raids...larger than a SEAL or A Team, but smaller than an infantry battalion with support from both Special Operations Aviation and AH-64s. Once ISIS is degraded smaller conventional units could trade off in smaller unit rotations with SOF. The primary "raiding" ground force would be coalition units carried on our aircraft and their own.