Adapting to the Utterly Unpredictable, the Entirely Unknown

Adapting to the Utterly Unpredictable, the Entirely Unknown

Book Review by Frank G. Hoffman

Download the Full Review: Adapting to the Utterly Unpredictable, the Entirely Unknown

James A. Russell, Innovation, Transformation, and War, Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007, Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2011, 288 pgs, $24.95.

The most respected military historian of our day, Michael Howard, commented years ago that the one aspect of military affairs he believed needed to be studied above all others was "the capacity to adapt oneself to the utterly unpredictable, the entirely unknown." For a generation we ignored his advice, and instead pursued techno-centric illusions and conceptual dark holes with little payoff.

Reinforcing that advice, now retired Army General Dave Fastabend once encouraged the U.S. Army to seek one operational advantage in the future--to strive to "be superior in the art of learning and adaptation." The last decade of the Long War has borne out both these arguments and also demonstratively shown how far we still need to go despite the development of counterinsurgency (COIN) and stability operations doctrine in the Army and Marine Corps.

Download the Full Review: Adapting to the Utterly Unpredictable, the Entirely Unknown

Mr. Hoffman is a retired Marine Reservist and frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal.

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Grant, you are absolutely right. Although I don't believe I used the term "fact", if I insinuated it then I didn't intend such an extreme position. I do believe you are correct in how we understand the evolution of a system. I also believe there are certainly other independent variables and that all independent variables matter as both individual variables as well as the relationships those variables have with each other. I'm certain that those two particular variables I mentioned were not wholly responsible, yet they were certainly major contributors to the problem.

I just want to be clear again -- this book does not downplay the importance of the surge or anything that came with it. It was clear from day 1 of the war that troop shortages crippled US efforts across the board. It is astounding in retrospect that it took us four years to increase troop levels -- even by the relatively modest amounts in the surge. This complete disconnect between the tactical -- operational -- and strategic -- is one of the remarkable aspects of this experience. Tactical commanders were essentially cast adrift with no plan on what they were supposed to do. All my book does is note that the wrenching process of field-level adaptation and innovation happened in spite of, not because of competent strategic and operational direction of the war. That is what in some senses is remarkable about the experience of our land force in this war; you could not have imagined a more broken national and operational level system of command -- incompetence at every level.

James Russell

One cannot "assign causality" of response with any degree of accuracy until one first "understands causality" of insurgency.

So long as we take the typical governmental approach as seeing government's role as a victim forced to "counter" some evil forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control we will continue to see insurgency as an unknowable complexity.

This is one of many problems with recent thinking on this topic as it tends to focus on trying to discover and implement new and better ways to "counter" a problem, without putting equal effort into attaining a clearer understanding of the problem itself.

COIN is indeed typically "complex" as it is colored by all of the nuances of that particular government-populace relationship, culture, history, economy, perceptions, etc. Insurgency, however, is simple. By starting from that core of simplicity and working outward, while working diligently to avoid the typical "hold harmless" thinking that host and intervening governments apply to themselves, one can get to a better linkage of specific actions tailored to those things that will have the best affect on restoring stability.

(hint: most of those changes are ones the governmental parties make in their own actions, not that they force upon an insurgent populace.)

James Russell, I agree that we started fighting the war in 2007 at the operational level, and prior to that it was random acts of tactical successes (and failures) with no clear strategic aim other than holding on. While I also agree that you cannot assign causality to any one factor (one of the key flaws with the effects based operations methodology), I think there is concerted effort to downplay the impact of the surge. Maybe we are looking at the surge the wrong way, and I suggest looking at the surge from the perspective of the enemy's morale to provide a different interpretation (rather than our ability to protect the population). The insurgents were gaining momentum (surging) before we were, and their tactical successes created a sense of possible victory within in their ranks. Our surge, and probably by chance (using Clausewitz's term), was perfectly timed to counter their momentum, and more importantly destroy the perception that victory was within their grasp. While there were no decisive battles, a series of battles greatly reduced their strength and effectiveness over a year or so. The physical defeats led to their moral defeat (at least temporarily). Granted their were numerous other factors that were all interacting, but I disagree with Gian's argument that we adapted prior to the surge. Only at the tactical level, and that didn't result in any meaningful progress.

I don't see any indication that our surge will be effective in Afghanistan, because it won't defeat the enemy's will to resist there. The good news is that I don't think the surge will hurt our efforts, it will just further delay finding and implementing the right strategy.

Adaption happens at all levels, and out of necessity it generally happens at the lower levels first, but I don't think history will support the argument that is always the case. Much adaption is forced from the top down, and many times with good results. Adapting Armor in WWII, while many tactical level leaders preferred to stay with horse calvary is one simple example.

I look forward to reading your book, this particular topic is of great interest to me. By chance did you address the co-evolution of adaption between the various foes, and how that changes the character of the fight over time?

All the perceptive comments in this stream are in a sense right -- but also wrong. The book does not argue that tactical level innovation and adaptation in and of themselves led to a successful outcome; just a I would argue that that the "surge" did not produce "victory" in Iraq -- contrary to the popularized narrative of the war. It is impossible to assign causality to any single factor alone that led to a reduction in violence: national level politics, local politics in the various ethnic and sectarian communities; a sense of Iraqi national "fatigue" with the war; and, last, but not least, increased numbers of US and Iraqi troops and improved US and Iraqi tactical and operational competency. All the book does is argue that the building of these military competencies had a complex history in which the field led the rear echelon in the adaptation and innovation effort through early 2007, when we finally started fighting the war at the operational level. Make no mistake, I am not arguing that tactical proficiency overcomes bad strategy and bad strategic circumstances -- also a regrettable stream in much of the COIN literature.

James A. Russell
Author of Innovation, Transformation, and War
Department of National Security Affairs
Naval Postgraduate School
Monterey, CA

Craig and Grant,

Good posts. I believe you are both right. Craig, agree that without a strategic plan and policy to 'map out' the goal we want our operational units to follow and our tactical units to execute there will be failure because operational and tactical units will not have a clear task and purpose. Everything stems from what our national level policies and plans. Grant, agree that the greatest thing about our Armed Forces; especially our lower level leaders, is our ability to adapt. We all know that in COIN environments we have to push decisions making down to the lowest level to empower our junior leaders. In turn, it is possible that tactical level decisions can have strategic effects (Abu Graihb), and vice versa (disbanding of Iraq military). However, in the end the parameters in which our tactical and operational leaders operate to achieve a mission must come from our national and strategic leaders. They must dictate the greater overall end state that they want those tactical units to achieve. I believe it is when we give lower level leaders the best guidance that we get the best production and decisions from those very same leaders. This guidance and direction must come from the very top.

CPT Matthew Shown
Student, Command and General Staff School
U.S. Army Combined Arms Center
Fort Belvoir, Virginia

"The views in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government."

Craig- although I agree with you that tactical efforts devoid of an "operational art" to link them together is a recipe for failure- I'm not sure after reading this article and remembering some of my Leavenworth and Paparone readings if we should state that as a "fact".

So, for instance, have we tested enough to conclude that adaptation always (or even most times) needs some sort of operation or campaign? Depending upon one's religious/world/scientific views it is arguably NOT true that positive change can happen in other complex environments devoid of a "Designer" or overall controlling entity. Surely there's enough evidence to suggest that evolutionary biological change is happening/has happened through evolutionary change mechanisms as opposed to a centralized "controller". As any central banker could probably attest to- even if we try to centrally control markets- in the end we have to appreciate their uncontrollable and "bottom-up" mechanism for change.

So, although I agree with you, I'm not sure we're 100% right. I'm not sure we can conclusively state that lack of progress prior to 2008 was due wholly or in a large part due to "lack of synchronization at the operational level and a decisive shortage of combat forces." I'm not saying you are wrong- I just don't feel comfortable stating that as something that cannot be debated. Sufficient causes are so hard to identify- if it is even possible- and many times a simplistic illusion.

So, I guess I'd conclude by saying I'd like to believe you're right that "no amount of successful COIN conducted at the tactical level will lead to operational success unless efforts are actually made to create conditions to achieve that success" (else why have field grade officers?)- with the caveat that I could be wrong: that there were other things possibly that could explain why we weren't showing progress prior to 2008.

Just as you state that trying to analyze the pieces and explain the whole is a common Western fallacy, so is attempting to draw simple cause and effect relationships to explain change in complex environments. There could be complex environments out there that we could change through many highly adaptable micro-efforts. Before we throw out that possibility- I'd vote to thoroughly test both hypotheses.

This article reviews concepts which suggest that "COIN" was occurring in Iraq before the "Surge". That, in fact, may be entirely true however, there is a key fault in the analysis of this research. Further supposition suggests that, regardless of the surge, adaptation to COIN from the bottom would have led to a successful outcome. While I entirely agree that adaption almost always originates from the bottom, it then requires an effort often referred to as "operational art" to link these adaptive efforts across time and space in some form of operation or campaign.

As a soldier who spent the entirety of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007 in Baghdad, it was clear that, although we had adapted our clear, hold, build efforts, we were NOT making progress. This was due to a lack of synchronization at the operational level and a decisive shortage of the ground combat forces necessary to accomplish the mission.

The BLUF (which is actually at the end) is that no amount of successful COIN conducted at the tactical level will lead to operational success unless efforts are actually made to create conditions to achieve that success. Coalition and ISF forces never had the initiative at the operational level and thus constantly operated from a position of disadvantage.

Finally, overall one must be careful in drawing macro-level conclusions from micro-level analysis. It is a constant fallacy of Western perception to try and analyze the pieces and explain the whole. This methodology will never properly identify the inter-relations of a system in its entirety and will thus miss key components which help define that system and how it can be acted upon.