Small Wars Journal

Whole-of-Government Support for Irregular Warfare

Mon, 01/07/2013 - 3:30am

BLUF: Counterinsurgency relies upon Irregular Warfare to establish its gains and upon civilian field work to leverage them.  The time horizon for the shape-clear-hold-build framework is the generation or two invested to transform a failed state into a modern one.

Much has been written about the mixed results of the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Kilcullen notwithstanding, counterinsurgency theory (COIN) has been one of those rare disciplines largely informed and defined by its losers.  Part of the problem is that COIN is more of a tactical tool-kit than a strategic doctrine since it focusses on the earlier part of the four phase cycle. For its part, Irregular Warfare (I.W.) pursues those activities needed to achieve an intermediate end-state of local stability to enable longer-term COIN success through sustainable economic growth.  Though unfairly discredited, the phased framework of shape-clear-hold-build remains applicable over time when adapted to local circumstances. For the overall process to succeed, COIN needs to harmonize independent stakeholders toward a well-defined mission.

BASIC Observations on Irregular Warfare and COIN from an Outsider

As a civilian who never had the privilege to serve in the military, my observations on COIN – derived from personal lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq – are basic:

1.     Consolidate the various civilian agencies and functions into the Department of State (DOS) with a chain-of-command directly accountable to the Secretary of State, the Congress and the President.

2.     Grant to every host-country national the presumption of his intelligence, autonomy and dignity (including toothless, illiterate peasants).

3.     Remember that Irregular Warfare (I.W.) applies to the contingently kinetic half of COIN (i.e., clearing operations and the first part of the hold phase, or community stabilization).

4.     Restrict civilian activities to ‘Reconstruction’ (the second part of the hold phase via community development and the long-term build phase).

5.     During the COIN process, keep progress rather than perfection in mind and avoid confusing funds spent with intermediate results achieved.

6.     Focus more on what the immediate beneficiaries will find effective for them right now, in keeping with their culture, as a stepping-stone toward eventual modernization.

CHAINING the Civilian Links of Command

Most of I.W.’s innovativeness arises from two collisions within COIN: between diminishing time and limited resources as well as between contesting visions of an end-state.  As you all are well acquainted with the first, I will focus on the second.  Any whole-of-government effort, I believe, will boil down to a negotiated reconciliation of two fundamental visions: one civilian and the other military.  During the COIN cycle, these visions and their practitioners sometimes work together and, at other times, apart.

  • The ‘shape phase’ ideally debates and integrates both the civilian and military visions into preliminary milestones required to redress constraints and establish firmly the process of modernization within the host country.
  • The military side focuses on the immediate needs for security in the ‘clear’ phase.
  • In the ‘hold phase’, the military and civilian visions work side-by-side, but separately, on various community projects to consolidate security gains and to engender local buy-in for longer-term modernization.
  • The civilian agencies implement the ‘build’ phase, after the military presence has diminished, in longer-term reconstruction projects, including those for capacity building.

Ideally, with two understandably and undeniably different visions at work, the priorities of military intervention and civilian reconstruction collide, forcing the two sides to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise.  That solution, if effective, assures the sustainability necessary for long-term modernization. If, as in most cases, it is not effective, the two sides open themselves to separate internal debates to revise their respective visions to be re-integrated into an adapted or “new-and-improved” strategy. 

These iterations continue until innovation consistent with ground-conditions emerges.  Then the larger-scale reconstruction resources can reinforce this evolving solution, based on immediate lessons learned.  These reviews and renewals should occur quickly and often since failures should not take long to manifest.  In effect, these iterations unfold like a series of small-scale pilot projects.

This division of labor between two competing visions is what the ‘whole-of-government’ approach is all about.  In the high-pressure, highly unstable environments within which COIN and I.W. typically operate, I submit that more than two strong and competing visions create chaos, often precluding collaboration or allowing one vision to assume an unchallenged primacy.  We have seen the latter repeatedly when a military vision overwhelms a fragmented civilian outlook. 

This primacy of the military perspective over weaker and fractious civilian views creates the atmosphere of ‘group-think’ in which a sub-optimal vision gains a seemingly unassailable position due to internal political pressures to build a consensus. This complacent consensus has the apparent strength of comfort and conformity but often prescribes disastrous solutions since it lacks the refinement reached after substantive, even contentious, debate and compromise.

We have all seen this dysfunction at work in Afghanistan. Outcomes do not work out as neatly as planned or fail to meet often unrealistic expectations.  Many civilian observers attribute this mediocre performance to the disparity of human and material resources in favor of the Defense Department (DOD). The reasoning goes that this evident disparity gives the military planners and leadership a definitive upper-hand in decision-making to enable group-think to permeate its chain of command at the expense of ‘soft’ or non-kinetic factors.

Simply said, I disagree with this blame-based explanation; to refute every implicit assumption in that excuse-making would require a book.  If these inadequate results reflect any factors under the sway of a whole-of-government approach, they reflect the fragmentation of civilian thinking and responses.  The military chain of command is not one of blind deference in debate prior to a decision but of concerted and univocal implementation of the decision once made.

The absence of a clear, disciplined and enforceable structure among civilian agencies (i.e., DOS, other attachés from various independent agencies, etc.) invites in-fighting.  Thus the proposals under discussion are not two grand and competing visions but one overwhelming consensus versus several voiceless and contradictory opinions.  This self-inflicted marginalization of civilian thinking is often compounded by attitudes like “I am USDA and he is DOS so the heck with him….” 

Meaningful debate is lost and group-think takes over.  With a chain of command similar to that of the military, the civilian leadership could consider all of the viewpoints within its scope, weld together an incomplete consensus (like that from the military) and provide that second independent opinion crucial to formulating a more robust and flexible response. Such a strategy or tactic would, therefore, truly be designed and implemented in a whole-of-government context. 

The first of two starting points for this repair is to merge every attaché and development function into the Department of State to make outlying field workers directly accountable to their next higher DOS superior.  The institutional changes required, while straight-forward, lie beyond the scope of this essay.  The second starting point is to focus on the quality of civilian personnel.  At the ground-level of provincial reconstruction teams, for example, civilians still need the courage to argue on behalf of the civilian consensus along with the humility to adhere to it.

After the results seen in Iraq and, more poignantly, in Afghanistan, the presence of unqualified civilians without a sense of common mission arguably demoralizes everybody else.  Better to have fewer people who are not only skilled and professional but also willing to take risks along-side the soldiers and in planning meetings with them. The bottom line is that the military-civilian disparity undermining the integration of two competing visions is primarily one of quality, not quantity. 

Want Atmospherics? Listen…

After a short period, say two years, each host country national has pretty much made up his mind whether a large U.S.-led intervention, spearheaded by the Special Forces, represents an occupation, an opportunity or something best to be avoided altogether. Neither governments nor their (un)invited allies win counter-insurgencies; people do.  Villagers and urban dwellers alike become the base for community policing, the best anti-dote to a crime wave, even one that is politically motivated (like a murderous insurgency).

Insurgencies flounder when the ‘silent majority’ of moderate and modest folk, especially those who are business or community leaders, repudiate the insurgents as criminals rather than condone them as comrades.  While many locals view the presence of a large foreign military and civilian presence as an occupation, they often reserve a special place in their hearts for ‘their’ Americans (usually familiar-looking foot soldiers on patrol in their neighborhoods or villages). 

Time takes Time; or, It’s the Culture, Stupid

What animates so much of the militancy in, across and between (Islamic) countries is less the intellectually fashionable “clash of civilizations” and more a struggle between modernity and an increasingly outdated status-quo (i.e., long-standing traditions or an ageing power structure). Just that scenario has played out since at least the Renaissance in different times in diverse places up to the present day in China, Viet Nam or Mexico.  The long-term success of I.W. begins with the American field soldier.

Whether (s)he serves in an activated National Guard unit, deployed Infantry or carefully assigned Special Forces, the mission’s ultimate success lies more in the example the soldier sets for his host country counterparts.  Far more than what you succeed in doing today, this example will endure over time, especially in the memory of the rising generation.  But what happens when highly trained Special Forces and other ground troops run into the equally stubborn and stifling cultural mindset, like the one that has millions of Muslims in its thrall of its rage and fear? 

The history of modernity – of middle class ascendancy— has never been an easy one, nor one entirely free of bloodshed.  That such radical changes occur in widely different settings but converge into largely similar societies is hardly surprising since the consequences of modernity are greater personal autonomy, health, comfort and education, or what we might think of as the “pursuit of happiness”.  Indeed, that elevated state of liberty with personal responsibility permits the ongoing practice of traditions by those who cherish them. 

While these changes are beneficial to the people and the larger peace, they are not automatic. A middle class ascendancy has many factors and obstacles that make each case a unique study.  And it is hard work open to being catalyzed by a courageous few locals and, if opportune, accelerated through the assistance of brave Americans.  One thing common to each national pageant successfully played out to date is the often violent resistance of people defined by the same traditions or political arrangements from which they benefit.  

Most of those traditions impede the upward mobility – the pursuit of happiness – of an emerging majority across the larger society.  Those already in, or aspiring to join, the ascending middle class – pragmatically self-interested and politically moderate because both are good for business – represent that growing but disenfranchised segment that has to take that hard first step of overcoming fierce, often fatal, resistance.   Special Forces officers or sympathetic civilians, no matter how high-minded, can take that frightening first step for these moderates. 

Unfortunately, such cultural change takes too long –something like two generations – to justify prolonged military interventions, which are too costly in terms of treasure and people to be sustained over such a time horizon.  That is why we civilians insist on “hanging around” afterward: to consolidate the short-term gains earned by our military counterparts into building infrastructure, implanting the rule-of-law and carrying out other long-term initiatives.

TAKE-AWAYs from this Discussion

In winding down these reflections, there are implications to this view of mine that may provide the basis for some helpful thinking points for you.

1.     See I.W. for what it is: a rolling experiment of short-term interventions to stop the bleeding of failed and hemorrhaging societies, whatever the root cause.

2.     Timing is everything. The effectiveness of I.W. lasts for a year, maybe two. 

3.     Align resources by shifting all community-based stabilization funding in conflict zones into the Commander’s Emergency Response Program for the short-term segment of the ‘hold’ phase (i.e., consequence management). 

4.     Shake, rattle and roll! Merge USAID, the Peace Corps, Departmental attachés et al. into the DOS with direct lines of accountability up through the various levels of the Foreign Service, to the Secretary of State and onto the President and Congress.

5.     Limit longer-term spending to those parts of a conflict zone with reasonably sustainable security. (If that is only 5% of the country, so be it; call it the ‘ink-blot of peace’).

6.     Formulate contingency plans, in the event of failure, to safeguard of those locals (especially women activists) who have sided with us.

7.     Implement the Venture Capital-Green Beret concept as a point of departure because it bridges the near-term military mission with longer-term development to foment cultural change in real time for real people.

About the Author(s)

Edward J. McDonnell III, CFA has integrated a previous career in international banking into several tours of developmental diplomacy in provincial reconstruction teams, host-country institutions, a U.S. Embassy and a U.S. Army command through work with the Departments of State and Defense as well as USAID and the Peace Corps.


Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 04/14/2013 - 9:45pm

In reply to by joerichard

Dear joerichard,

Thanks for the references. My primary project has come back to life with a vengeance: data integrity. So I will need some good reading materials to broaden my perspective (and to give my bleary eyes a rest from computer systems).


Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 04/14/2013 - 9:55pm

In reply to by keylitepsi

Dear keylitepsi,

I apologize for not seeing your post until today. Any thoughtful person among those of us in Mexico has to confront this terrible reality of some 85,000 dead to date in Mexico for a problem, the genesis of which lies North of the border. What is at stake is the rule of law of the very 'Republica' herself. I look forward to watching that documentary.…
I put together my thoughts on the subject in a letter home a while ago. My belief is that an intervention similar to a 'Plan Colombia' would not work out well in Mexico.



Thu, 02/28/2013 - 3:56pm

I just watched a documentary called "American Federale" and I have to say the filmmaker did a great job of framing the problem with violence on border Mexico. There will be no changes until the problem gets wider awareness. I hope you will all watch the film and get behind it to let the rest of the American people know what is really going on just south of our border. Michael Douglas Carlin did a great job telling this story.


Sat, 04/06/2013 - 9:02pm

In reply to by emburlingame

"Nation-building" is inherently a flawed concept, because nations aren't built, nations grow. We can no more build a nation than we can build an oak tree. The use of metaphors from engineering and construction points us from the start in the wrong direction, and we'd be better off with metaphors from agriculture. We may be able to help cultivate a nation, if we act with subtlety, restraint, and awareness of our own limitations. Those, alas, have never been our strong points.


Fri, 04/05/2013 - 8:29pm

In reply to by nrogeiro

@Ned and @ NRogeiro:

We put so much effort into concepts such as Nation Building. But what is nation building? Is it the establishment of a sufficient physical and structural infrastructure coupled with a requisite volume of government and government regulation and the accompanying rule of law? I would argue these things arise as a result of a people who are prosperous and successful and wishing to provide for the continuation of this prosperity. However this is not our focus when we send government people in to do the work of nation building. Their focus is on replicating what they manage or are a part of back home, which itself was not established before their own nation rose to its current status but evolved over time as the people of that nation developed the wealth and found the time to build such things.

It is a strong and vibrant private sector which is a nation and this is realized through empowerment of the individual innovator, through the harnessing of Emergence. All of which is further enhanced and accelerated by Venture Capitalists and other risk and uncertainty masters. And to this and the larger conversation we are having, I found this article a couple days ago written by now retired Brigadier General David L. Grange in 2010, re: integration of SOF with private sector and application of Venture Capital as means to enhance SF mission.


Sun, 02/03/2013 - 3:55am

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

Dear NM

Praise was just and justified. I forgot to mention that in a defense seminar in Halifax, some three years ago, one of the closed doors topics was precisely about the blurring of "phases" in unconventional warfare operations: in that sense, stabilization maybe a prelude to subversion, and
COIN tactics can sometimes be mingled with nation building, etc.

Other topic: how many missions in the broad range of irregular and uunconventional warfare could be transmitted to non-official players, that is "privatized"? Also a big discussion on this at Halifax.

Third and last: the so called "dejá vu COIN". Returning to a counterinsurgency scenario, after it was declared extinct, may cause stress but also provide advantages. May involve importants lessons learned, but in that case insurgents also acquired skills. We tend to understate (and neglect to research) the "other side" lessons-learned handbooks.

Renewed best regards


Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 10:55pm

Mr Rogeiro,

Thank you for your gracious remarks. I can only say that I am blushing with gratitude. I also appreciate a very important question you raised in your comment: do the parties who are fighting each other have a sincere interest in relaxing some of their ambitions for total control to share power and resources? Bill M. seemed to refer to the same general question when he talked about how underlying causes or grievances often do not remain the main issue once a rebellion starts.

For examples of the winner-take-all mentality or an equally perplexing modus vivendi of opting for a bloody stalemate over reconciliation, I recall the instances in Ireland when the I.R.A. would not lay down its arms after a political settlement had been negotiated or when the Israeli Defense Force basically quarantined Yasser Arafat in Ramallah after a rash of terror bombings against Israeli citizens. The duplicity shown by the I.R.A. and that previously displayed by Mr Arafat puzzled me, as did the half-measure of the Irsaeli military response after the start of a fresh intifada.

Perhaps, the I.R.A. militant wing and the P.L.O. decided that, if they could not win total control, they preferred continuous conflict because that state of affairs assured their positions of power and privilege over their supposed beneficiaries. Likewise, the Israeli government may have desisted from arresting or killing Mr Arafat because the government decided it could manage a divided and enervated Palestine more easily than it could coerce or control an independent or annexed Palestine fired up by a freshly martyred Arafat.

So, in the case of the Israeli government we saw an instance of divide-and-conquer (Hamas versus the P.L.O.) whereas with Mr Arafat and his gangster regime, we witnessed a symmetrical policy of divide-and-prosper (the Palestineans versus the Israelis); each directed at the same beleaguered people. After all, Mr Arafat made multiples of the money (illegally) from his power than did all of the ten U.S. Presidents of my lifetime, combined!

Grant, Bill M. and Dayuhan,

FINALLY, I have answered your comments. I needed a week to mull over and pare down my answers, which are still too long; besides I had the delicious task of auditing four dozen files of scientific research agreements. In thinking through my responses, I have come to believe that I chose the wording of the title of the article unwisely by not clarifying that the essay itself reflected one civilian worker’s limited experience with the large challenge of making a whole-of-government approach work better.

Additionally, it is necessary to emphasize that, while I am an ardent supporter of E.M. Burlingame’s renaissance vision as applied to stability operations, the opinions I have expressed are mine alone. Above all, I had hoped that the article I composed would elicit the respect of a spirited debate; that it has.

In that vein, I would refer you to a scholarly article written for the National Defense University by an acquaintance, Jason Alexander of the State Department Conflict Stabilization Team, together with his colleague, Dr James Derleth. The well documented thinking of Messrs Derleth and Alexander provide the context of the District Stability Framework. My more narrow view on how to structure the civilian component of local stabilization may better serve as a supplemental opinion to that article.…
As usual, I received from this experience with you all far more than I put in; so, thank you. I have responded to each of you separately, under your respective remarks. I am also attaching Peter Munson’s beautiful op-ed piece in the “Washington Post”, posted elsewhere in this journal. His elegant prose reminds me once again that the great majority of humanitarians in these ugly places wear the uniform of the United States of America.…
Although, as a civilian, I am not allowed to salute you physically, I still readily salute your service to my country. Thank you.


Sun, 02/03/2013 - 3:31am

In reply to by nrogeiro

As evidenced by the many well presented arguments and counterarguments herein and elsewhere in Small Wars Journal, there are many good minds focused on identifying the weaknesses in our current COIN and IW efforts and to providing solutions designed to address these weaknesses. Having worked closely with Ned in the Investment Banking and start-up worlds over the years I have come to appreciate and respect his intelligence and willingness to work collaboratively to find solutions to complex problems, even when this means questioning some of his most closely held beliefs. Not possessing of his experience on the DOS side of COIN and IW, I cannot speak with any real authority beyond what I experienced on deployment to Afghanistan. That being said, I have absolutely no doubt we must do a far better job at coordinating our efforts amongst and across all the many DOS and NGO efforts and resources. All you have to do is a single tour in Afghanistan where you see far too many projects funded by the US in the course of this going on twelve year war which are already abandoned and rotting away and from which is derived no value and which waste goes against us in the opinions of those they were intended to positively influence. The question which comes to mind however is if this type of resource and project management is something the State Department is capable of, or any government agency or NGO for that matter, as there is no grasp of what real return on investment is, of the type Ned and I were once focused on in the investment world. This goes directly to the comment of Mr. Rogeiro, with respect to the need for a new breed of COIN/UW practitioner, whether that be a Special Forces Operator or a Department of State diplomat or employee. I cannot help but think that If we are to be effective in the era of human domain conflict, as population size and density and urbanization increase inexorably towards far greater complexity, we must start fielding individuals who are themselves capable of full-spectrum operations who understand the vast pool of resources and capabilities available and how to apply such in a controlled and coordinated manner as to realize real return on investment.


Fri, 02/01/2013 - 5:55am

All non-declared, small wars, are political (ideological or post-ideological)in nature. My country fought three "subversive wars" (as they were called then) in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, from 1961-74, largely won militarily (although the situation in Guinea was delicate, due to the nature of the territory and new weapons introduced by PAIGC Warsaw Pact allies), but at the end it was politics that dictated the whole outcome. After independence, the three wars continued either as civil wars (MPLA against UNITA in Angola, FRELIMO against RENAMO in Mozambique), with external interference (Cuba, USSR, South Africa, Rhodesia and after Zimbabwe, etc.), or as a single party state (Guinea, until the late eighties, with democracy and coups d'état, and a small bloody civil war and botched intervention from Senegal).
Portugal - with SF and SOF - did everything in the COIN textbook, from psyops to civilian affairs, to road and city building, to winning hearts and minds, to propaganda and ideological and information warfare, but the bottom line was that independence armed groups wanted no substitute for total and exclusive political power.
In the new small wars, or MOOTW or LIW of today, again the main question is how to you deal with the political question. All the rest is workable. But the political question can not be dealt with by SF/SOF, unless they transform themselves into much more political charged entities, almost autonomous post-military bodies with a life of their own.
The rest, as the author wisely suggests, is a question of time and timing, badges and budget, who coordinates and who is coordinated.
But still it is the other side of the COIN - the political realm - that is not solvable by irregular war textbooking.

Regards and congratulations to Mr. McDonnell

N. Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal

Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 10:36pm

In reply to by Bill M.


Thank for a gracious response. My hope remains that you and others got something out of the essay and the subsequent discussion. In responding to you, I must stress that the proper scope of the article I wrote is the perspective of a person ‘down-range’ hoping to make the best of a difficult situation; that is, after questions of strategy have been addressed and resolved or ignored. By far and away most important to me is your comment on setting examples by individual soldiers.

Oftentimes during my service in Iraq or Afghanistan, my critical thinking has screamed – “What the hell are we doing here?” – because strategy appears to be absent or so far out of harmony with the situation on the ground. Nevertheless, imperfect as these circumstances are, I have a choice on how to act.

My younger brothers and sisters in uniform out in the field face this choice, too. It is probably more poignant for them than it is for me since I am not the one on patrol. The strong emphasis in ethics and personal honor (of the ‘warrior’) that these young people exhibit really does assure that most will at least try to meet this high standard.

That internalized code, together with a military justice system capable of catching up with errant soldiers, indicates that ‘bad actors’ remain in the minority. The vast majority has made us proud, often under needlessly trying circumstances. On most everything else, I am simply unable to argue an opposing view. You are correct in aiming a healthy skepticism toward my assertion that stability operations basically deal with a question of the growing pains encountered during modernization.

This premise of modernization as the keystone my argument is, after all, an assumption; one based on a decent amount of historical study, if not rigorously systematized knowledge. It may apply to development but I am not sure. As we have agreed before, the only development in a contested or 'hot' zone is the provision of security. The larger question I am inferring from your skepticism is whether we should be suppressing an insurgency at all. That question is one worth contemplating each day, every day that I pursue this line of work.

Other points that you raise, however, remain worth noting. Principally, I agree with the ‘first-things-first’ primacy you place on strategy. I am hard pressed to discern what strategy is often involved in some interventions; for example, the recent Libya intervention. The humanitarian need was evident but U.S. interests were not at stake; perhaps those of Italy were but not ours.

Often, I wonder if the killing of Colonel Gadhafi (sp?) may have hardened President Assad’s decision not to negotiate an exile from Syria, possibly leading to more deaths in Syria than lives saved in Libya. It is important to remember that Colonel Gadhafi had foresworn weapons of mass-destruction, decreased activities in exporting terrorism and had generally tried to ‘make-nice’ with the West during the years preceding his demise. Nevertheless, NATO arguably killed him, anyways.

Bill, I wonder if President Assad thinks he has nothing to lose since, no matter how much he makes ‘nice’, he will suffer the same fate as Gadhafi. This question of how to respond to bloodshed is troubling, and way beyond the narrow applicability of my writings. One can argue that intervention NOW in Libya was important to avoid pushing the insurgency to an extreme where protagonists take a winner-take-all attitude (as articulated my Mr Rogeiro of Lisbon), lose interest in power-sharing, forget the original reasons for revolt (as you argue), etc.

That argument for immediate intervention might make sense in addition to with the obvious and heartfelt humanitarian crisis quickly enveloping much of the country. Yet I have seen no evidence of this logic, or any other rationale, for that intervention. So, I have my doubts as to how much “good understanding” (as you rightly say is necessary) went into that decision.

If the President were forced by Congress to clarify his intentions and Congress adhered to the Constitution in declaring war (or, at least, declaring some identified strategic military objective for a proposed intervention), I believe we would see far fewer incursions with a lot more informed decision-making, where people would test out opposing arguments and try to ponder longer-term consequences before dispatching the military. As to your ‘keep-ways’ for my take-aways. Nothing to say but thank you.

1. In a few words you place my writings in their proper context of ONE component among several forming ONE application among many within the spectrum of irregular warfare.

2. The recent article of the $7 million border police facility that has lain unused in Afghanistan, numerous stories of local U.S.-built clinics in Iraq converted to goat barns, etc. all attest very well to your point. My non-academic sense is that, concurrent with security, the application of money and the act of building things is less important than the ‘sweat equity’ of mentoring people in capacities to govern, etc.

3. This alignment of resources reflects my direct experience. The foot patrol tends to be better connected with the local contractors and the local community than the civilian development officer, from what I have seen.

4. The restructuring of the State Department to integrate foreign-aid functions into a unified mission of developmental diplomacy would entail pretty obvious, drastic and difficult changes. The locus of diplomacy would shift from traditional reporting functions to Public Diplomacy where USAID Foreign Service Officers would congregate under the leadership of the current Assistant Secretary for Reconstruction and Conflict Stabilization and where the State Department would connect with the Defense Department through Civil Affairs and Special Forces units for planning and coordination. Easy to do with boxes and arrows; very difficult to realize in the realm of entrenched bureaucracies.

5. I think we agree on the oil-spot idea. What I wonder is when the planning for the failed civilian surge took place in Afghanistan in 2010, did anyone bother to think out how much money the Afghan economy could absorb and what adverse consequences might arise from to many greenbacks chasing too few paint-jobs, culverts, etc.

6. The irony is that I hear about concepts like righteousness, integrity and honor discussed, almost exclusively, by my military counterparts; not all military counterparts, but a meaningful number. One thing I notice time and again is how many soldiers come from families where generations have served. There is a sense of professionalism and honor that others of us would be wise to emulate.

7. I know your opinion on this one.


In all seriousness I liked your article even though I disagree with much of it. You state the mission's success ultimately lies in the example that the soldier sets. While this is critically important, especially in irregular warfare success is ultimately tied to getting the strategy right (the right ends, the right ways, and the right means). So many times through history militaries have performed superbly at the tactical level and their governments still failed due to poor strategy. Good strategy depends first off on gaining understanding (not based on assumptions) and determining what realistically can be accomplished with our ways and means (both military and civilian).

You constantly defaulted to modernizing and cultural transformation and how much time that takes. We certainly don't have to modernize or transform their societies in most, if not all, cases to defeat/suppress an insurgency. In fact taking this approach will more often than not result in considerable backlash.

You made sound points about the desparate views and objectives among the various civilian agencies and groups and the military. In the military we have a saying, if you get the command and control right all else will follow (or fall into place). Unfortunately we still don't do joint operations well, much less achieve unified effort with the interagency. Now add in a multinational coalition and it really gets fun.

Our COIN doctrine implies that the clear, hold, build phases is the only approach. If we're lazy doctrine will limit our creativity. The Phases we should apply depends on what our objectives are and the current operational environment. Many in the Army hold up our military decision making process (MDMP) as the holy grail to problem solving, yet they fail use it. If they did, they would analyze the mission, and analyze the operational environment, and then they would develop courses of action and compare them. Instead we all too often have turned this simplistic process on its head by showing up with the courses of action first (clear, hold and build), and then adjust the mission to fit our pre-arranged course of action. Whether we use MDMP, operational design, or effects based operation approach, none of these approaches will save us from being stupid.

As to your take aways:

1.IW consists of Stability Operations, COIN, FID, CT, and UW. The only mission where we may try to save a failed society is with is stability operations.

2. The duration of our achievements will depend on a lot of factors, but in fact any progress made has a high probability of being rolled back to the local norm within a couple years if we imposed what I'll call an artifical solution (to that society) that isn't sustainable or desireable to the people. That should shape our decision making on how much treasure (blood and money) we should invest in these adventures, and most importantly shape the development of our ends to being realistic goals that will hopefully be natural and enduring.

3. Not disagreeing, but why?

4. I have seen little evidence that there is sufficient talent in the State Department to provide the needed unity of effort and control to implement this approach. It would be the ideal solution in my opinion if State had a talent pool that could do this. Don't get me wrong they have some remarkable diplomats, but it takes more than a remarkable man, he or she will need a remarkable staff.

5. Big believer in the oil spot approach. We should reward those who live peacefully with the government and then gradually expand it. If we did this in Afghanistan we may have at the very least created a large pocket of stable Afghanistan that could hold against a resurgent Taliban. Too late for this approach in Afghanistan now. It is the U.S. military's way to mass its effort against the adversary's physical center of gravity (tilt against windmills), which isn't always the best approach in IW.

6. Agree we need to do something, or we will have another Henry Kissinger incident where he lamented about how long it is taking South Vietnam to die after we pulled out. He expressed his desire that our friends in S. Vietnam die sooner so he could pursue his great diplomatic victory with China. A real piece of work, and a perfect example where an elitist was guiding U.S. policy in a direction opposed to the values most Americans embrace.

7. You know my opinion on this one.

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 01/25/2013 - 2:39am


Thank you for your commentary, following immediately below this comment. Before I answer you, it is important to caution other readers that you are directing scholastic criticisms toward a previous comment of mine rather than to the article itself. My intention in that comment had been to lay out the ‘world-view’ from which grew unarticulated assumptions noted by others in the original article.


Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 10:06pm

In reply to by G Martin


At first, I did take your remarks as disrespect and I know now that they were not meant that way; not that way at all. Funny the change in perspective a good night’s sleep can bring. As I stated, your comments were directed at a reply I had inserted to give some context to my perspective in the article itself. Then three things occurred to me. First, I realized that you indeed showed respect because you had taken ample time to read my writings and respond thoughtfully; for that, I thank you.

Second, while the remarks to which you responded were just those – remarks – the article which I had written was not a work of scholarship, either. Third, and most sobering, I decided to identify and count the number of assumptions in the passage you cited. That came out to seventeen assumptions in roughly 125 words: that is, I made an assumption every eight words on average, about the time it takes to draw a breath.

Grant, you raised a very good question about what you correctly identified as a key underlying assumption of my thinking: “This lamentable state perversely reflects my deepest prejudice: that most people simply want their lives and, more importantly, the lives of their children to be more comfortable and fulfilling (i.e., assuming their properly ordained statures in the eyes of God, however conceived).”

Truthfully, I placed the full statement in here to emphasize that I see it as an assumption hardened into a prejudice; I left in the religious reference as well because this prejudice is based on what I value as being the end toward which a just society strives. In terms of traditional Anglo-American political theory, our interventions, hopefully, are seeking to elevate people above the state of nature, not to return them to it. Nevertheless, this is the type of assumption that I do not realize I am making.

And that is why I would call this assumption a prejudice. The assumption seems so natural to me – because it is a thought hardwired into me over years of unquestioning acceptance of it – that I make it as unthinkingly as I draw a breath. Like Saint Matthew’s story on the two greatest commandments, on this assumption, hang all the others in my writings.

You detect an evident but, by me, overlooked hazard of such ingrained acceptance. “If not, then what?” That question begs the necessity of robust debate. The time for cognitive dissonance is now so we can better avoid cognitive corruption later. In essence, you busted me on the frequently made mistake by the smug, complacent or arrogant: that everybody thinks just the way I do.

The other point I would like to answer is your critique of the statement that ends, “the failure of elected leadership to do its job: to lead.” This is not an empirically based statement; it is a subjective judgement of what I view as the quality of U.S. foreign policy over the past two or three generations. Grant, it is not my desire to impute current travails to the failure of current leaders.

For one thing, many of those difficulties are consequences of decisions made years before. Secondly, in our daily lives, we all encounter problems about which we can do little to change; so we accept them or adapt ourselves to them. One can only imagine how often military commanders and elected leaders run into this wall.

My complaint with civilian leadership is what I have come to view as an increasingly reflexive inclination toward taking military action, not as a distant last resort, but as a readily available ‘Plan-B’ often to salvage a failed policy, to aggrandize domestic political standing and / or defer an inevitable but adverse outcome. With the massive size of our armed forces relative to the rest of the world, the resistance toward ‘sending in the marines’ appears to be abating abates over time.

With the flexible military capacity we have, a military response – from invasions to drone-strikes – becomes not only conceivable but convenient for many more situations. It is as if a President says, “Hey! I got this and I’m going use it.” Perhaps that is the kind of posture we want. I certainly do not. My fear is that our Constitutional Republic suffers from the pervasiveness of this thinking.

Recent discussions to justify unilateral interventions seem to view Constitutional restraints as obstacles to avoid rather than as cautions to reconcile. Worst of all, again from my view, failure to find other ways of resolving problems inserts our younger brothers and sisters in uniform into difficult, often deadly, situations. As a citizen of the country acting in this manner, I believe our troops deserve more thinking at the top. That is what I meant by a failure to lead.

Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 10:08pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


The idea that people rebel because of what the government – or established order – is doing to them makes sense; it points to Grant’s reservation articulated above. The truth is that the essay published by me simply has not encompassed that topic and others sufficiently, let alone formally (as an exercise in scholasticism). Your statement that educated people often lead insurgencies and participate in acts of terror is more than an assertion.

It is a commonplace historically among insurgencies over the past three centuries in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Lastly, I have acknowledged elsewhere that the only ‘development’ that can occur during a ‘hot’ insurgency or civil war is security; it is reasonable to assume that, without security, little else is possible. The particular question then becomes one of determining how secure is ‘secure enough’ to start development activities.

That question may rest on a more strategic one: when should the U.S. government risk treasure and people – both of which are in short supply – to seek to influence an outcome, even if the goal of such influence is a basic humanitarian desire to ‘stop the bleeding’? These questions go right to the heart of how U.S. foreign policy is developed and why.

That is to say: from the context of my limited perspective and experience, the best I can do is acknowledge your points and ask that you consider taking what you want and leaving the rest. The view I articulate can help in the practical side of how we “get there” with whole-of-government efforts without making ourselves ‘wogs’ in the process.

One lesson you have given me is that those of us (e.g., me) who enjoy but do not practice history (i.e., by testing out theories against contrary points views) need to be careful about the analogies we pick out for policy debate lest we become court jesters to another brilliant dysfunction. So, thank you for that.

Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 10:16pm

In reply to by Bill M.


As always, you present some challenging new thoughts to make me think and, perhaps, to grow. The dilemma posed by an essay like mine is that it intends primarily to open the door to possibilities to contribute to a larger aspect of the debate. Lacking continual recognition of the obvious limits in scope, the essay can end up framing a discussion, skewing the dialogue and distorting the final the product away from a workable consensus.

There are two items that you discuss here that strike me as fundamental and ought at least to be acknowledged, if not well addressed. First is the notion – discussed by Dayuhan and Grant as well – that poverty itself may not inspire an insurgency, or that economic development can undermine stability already in place.

That is a powerful objection. While I cannot cite any of the scholars off-hand, there are thinkers who have argued that the race riots of the 1960s in the United States, at least before the assassination of Dr. King, arose from a ‘revolution’ of expectations, bound to be disappointed, that the Great Society had unleashed.

Even with that example of relatively recent history, familiar to many of us, competing explanations abound by applying divergent assumptions to the same events backed by different data picked out the same pool of information. In the case of identifying and responding to insurgencies or civil disorders in far off lands, with cultures alien to many of us, theories – often half-baked – are likely to abound even more and mean even less.

Why? Because many participants in the debate basically prefer to paint their ideas (i.e., assumptions and prejudices) on blank canvasses; as you point out, hiding behind doctrine is a form of laziness. All this is to say: assertions that make sense to me may not make sense to others or in the face of the available information. Avoiding debate to move ahead with a policy or doctrine largely uncontested is risky to say the least.

Otherwise, we ought to undertake that arduous process of elaborating proposals, arguing them out and fashioning an approach new to all but integrating the elements of many. This effort toward agreement, if not consensus, is hard work and painful. My essay does promote this idea of two ‘visions’ meeting head-to-head, each amalgamating several previously debated points of view among civilians and, alternatively, among military personnel.

In the end, in our Republic, it is the civilian leadership that orders our citizen-soldiers into combat and it, I would contend, does so far too often and at the expense of our troops. As our protectors and entrusted ‘warriors’, you deserve nothing less than a coherent civilian view. Bill, I want to close on a ringing endorsement of your idea of checking our pre-conceived notions at the door.

Doing so is important, knowing that one will never be entirely objective but obligated, under the public trust, to try. The challenge for practitioners (i.e., me) lies in identifying those cherished notions in a timely manner that accommodates the need quickly to decide upon a course of action with the consequences that such a course may reasonably expect to incur. That debate is difficult but possible; that debate is essential.

Bill M.

Fri, 01/25/2013 - 3:20am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Attempting to label economic status as the root of all evil is a faith based approach. Those who believe in this faith won't let facts get in the way of their beliefs. This faith permeates a good part of our foreign policy, so whether or not it has merit (and in some cases I strongly suspect it does) our overall strategic approach will continue focus on economic development for the forseeable future. I cheer our national desire to make the world a better place, even if for some it done for less than altruistic purposes. However, I seriously question the blind assumption that tackling poverty will eliminate the root cause of insurgency and/or terrorism.

I have seen conflicting studies on poverty and insurgency. One study states that when people perceive their economic status to be decreasing they will rebel against the state (obviously other factors must be present). Another study stated populations become less stable when they start to experience economic development. I'm sure I could do some quick research and find cases that both support and refute each hypothesis, which means both hypothesies are of little value and more importantly that each individual insurgency must be assessed on its own merits.

There is little doubt examples can be found where poverty or economic status clearly is a key issue in an insurgency. The causes of the Arab Spring in each nation differed, but in some cases there was a frustration with the lack of economic opportunity based on ineffective governance and deep corruption. However, once the insurgency or rebellion starts the original causes often are no longer the main issue. In most cases economic problems can't be fixed quickly, but even if all the sudden the government magically produced jobs the following week it is unlikely the rebellion would stop at that point. Economic reforms prior to the rebellion may have been preventative, but after it starts I suspect the key to victory will require a more coercive approach.

In my opinion all this means we must strive harder to gain understanding, which in turn means making an effort to park our preconceived biases about cause and effect and what doctrine (bag of tricks) we should apply. My point is that we can't readily dismiss or accept poverty as a root cause for insurgency or terrorism.

I'm glad that there are so many charities and NGOs focused on improving people's lives, and I'm proud to be a nation that to the extent possible attempts to help people (often not effectively) lift themselves out poverty and reduce human rights violations, but that shouldn't be confused automatically with effective counterinsurgency or counterterrorism strategy.


Thu, 01/24/2013 - 6:27pm

In reply to by G Martin

This comment:

<i>Communications has made poverty a structural violence apt to breed lethal violence against more affluent innocents.</i>

raises a point that might deserve a second look. I'm not sure there's much empirical evidence suggesting that terrorism ("violence against more affluent innocents") derives from poverty. Terrorist groups seem consistently to recruit from among the middle classes, and there is no evident dominance by the very poor in terrorist ranks. I'm not even convinced that poverty is a dominant factor driving insurgency. My own observation has consistently been that people don't insurge because they have very little and someone else has more, or because of what government fails to provide. They insurge because they are angry, scared, or both, because they see government or forces connected to government as a threat. People in the areas we're speaking of typically have very low expectations of government. They don't fight back because of what government isn't doing for them, they fight because of what government is doing to them.

Of course insurgency correlates closely with poverty, but poverty also correlates very closely with abusive government.

I'm not saying economic development is not a worthy goal, though I question whether it is an appropriate goal for an armed force. I suspect, though, that if we're talking about insurgency a higher priority would rest with protecting people from their own government and its agents. If we can't do that, we'd do well to question whether the insurgency in question is really something we need to be countering.

G Martin

Wed, 01/23/2013 - 5:34pm

<em>These wretched of the earth now know they are the bottom billion and what they are missing. To them, capitalism may seem more like an excuse to keep them down than a way for them to pull themselves, and others, out of misery. Communications has made poverty a structural violence apt to breed lethal violence against more affluent innocents.</em>

<em>This lamentable state perversely reflects my deepest prejudice: that most people simply want their lives and, more importantly, the lives of their children to be more comfortable and fulfilling. This requires liberty to act, to choose, to risk. </em>

<em>Added to this problem of self-aware poverty... </em>

<em>Nevertheless, this structural problem in our society manifests the failure of elected leadership to do its job: to lead. </em>

I'd recommend critically thinking about what I've pasted above. Two possible issues with it: 1) it contains A LOT of assertions about others, some possibly condescending, all arguably uninformed; 2) your major assumption: that "most people simply want their lives and, more importantly, the lives of their children to be more comfortable and fulfilling" and it's addendum: "This requires liberty to act, to choose, to risk."- I think that your thesis (and EM Burlingame's as well) hinges too strongly on that one assertion. If it is wrong- then what? If this is to be a scholarly work and push people to change, then at some point you have to address the alternatives to this theory and the logic behind it. What happens to your thesis if it is wrong? Are there examples out there that don't seem to support it? Have there been any academic studies that have looked at this issue that are supportive? Not supportive? What kinds of things would one need to look for if it is wrong?

To simply assume that it is right is not going to win your concept many points within academia, and then you'd have to hope for an influential person (I guess) reading this and being convinced without any serious research backing it up.

On the uninformed comment- I meant no disrespect to you, I am sure you are well-traveled and world-savvy. I am simply asserting that it is quite possible that no amount of connection to others can build the necessary empathy required to actually assert the correct cause and effect mechanisms that would drive such things as opinion, violence, jealousy, action- etc. Your assertions about others wouldn't even take on much validity- I assert- if you had grown up in a so-called "Third World" existence. One way of viewing them that some have espoused is that poor people the world over can now see what they don't have, they feel bad about it, and are thus likely to rise up in violence or at least action. That is a theory- and prior to just assuming you are right I would encourage some research into a) are there issues with it and, b) what are some alternatives to how others view the world?

I can tell you that from my research and my own experience- I have come to some conclusions that are exactly opposite the assertions you have stated above. Does that mean I'm right and you're wrong? No- but to make your argument stronger and convince others- I am just floating some alternative concepts and possible flaws in your logic/assertions.

Lastly- the point about "leading" made me think of some arguments put forth by some lately that what we perceive as leading and action is really a misperception- that a lot of what we see are effects that have no clear cause. So, to blame the current economy on the President for example, is very problematic- as is assuming in good times it is because elected officials "lead" as opposed to in bad times they "fail to lead"...

Ned McDonnell III

Mon, 02/18/2013 - 4:38pm

In reply to by G Martin


I did not see this remark previously or I simply forgot to respond to it. Either way, my apologies.

Exploring your idea that the “monster” will continue doing what it is intended or programmed to do (even when the original impetus or animating intention no longer applies), we are confronted with the classic dilemma about why organizations stifle innovation: to perpetuate a status-quo (inner-group modus vivendi) because, no matter how aberrant the monster has become, people are benefitting from it and do not want to risk losing what they have from it (or they may be too apathetic to care).

Either way, this systemic slavery places today´s lentils above tomorrow’s hard-earned liberty. The solutions you suggest are ones I would whole-heartedly -- and heatedly -- endorse and often have at my own expense in the terms of immediate or short-lived standing within a peer-group.

What you are suggesting, Grant, is, from the vantage-point of those benefitting from a status-quo (or engulfed in their own hubris), very radical. You are calling for a bottom-to-top reform of a hardened system that permits little trust for, or cohesion with, other groups or people outside it.

Thus, pushing back becomes hazardous to your career health. So, what to do? The dilemma here basically resembles one underlying the manner with which recent COIN interventions seem to be framed. Short-to-medium term interventions are simply not going to last long enough to realize the cultural change likely to take many years, if ever.

So, what I would suggest is that soldiers, particularly practitioners like you and those who go out in the field (i.e., the nine out of every hundred) start calling for these changes, probably in some form of group appeal. And to raise hell while you all are at it.

Doing so in a cohesive group may provide some protection against the inevitable, often bitter, push-back. Yes, that means you all become just another interest group. The big difference is that you are not asking for a subsidy; in fact, the outcomes for which you stand will likely prove to be less costly in lives or treasure.

You all will be facing stiff push-back, just like E.M. Burlingame has with his gutsy proposal, but if the changes you seek are truly efficacious -- and I think they are -- the monster will wither away over time, or at least be tamed to the point of harnessing it in various directions.

Getting there will be none of the fun, Grant; this much I do know. But if people do not articulate the ideal now and persistently, painful as it is to do so (and, trust me, I know how painful it is), a better reality on the ground, with its liberties to innovate and adapt as you suggest, will not come tomorrow.

Even if I could persuade everyone in the USG today that my ideas are the best thing since sliced bread, it would still take years to adapt the information systems (both technical and procedural), establish the critical paths of information, etc.

Nevertheless, the longer we wait to start this hard process, the more we are apt to waste. Thank you, as always, for a thought-provoking comment, Grant. Keeps the old ticker going.

G Martin

Thu, 01/24/2013 - 11:01am

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

I think it would be rather more beneficial to us in the government - at the execution level at least - to talk as if our reality in Afghanistan emerged (as opposed to being consciously chosen by a leader or group of leaders) and that it will likely emerge again. What do we do then?

So, for instance, SWJ articles will likely not sway policy or usher in an impressively effective National Security Council process. But, what they can do is assume that things are the way they are for some resilient systemic reason that won't go away (indeed, may become worse), and then discuss what to do at the ground level.

For instance, let's assume that we will go into an area in the near-term future that is not justified by an immediate and material threat or certainty of imminent large-scale human losses (can one be certain of anything in examples like this?). Let's assume that Congress doesn't approve it- or approves it under political duress. Let's assume they don't declare war. Let's assume that firm and easily understood decision-rules to trigger a prudent withdrawal are not defined. In other words- frivolous and over-extended interventions will happen, but only be seen that way in hindsight. What now PL??

I submit this is a perfect example of where a complex approach is required as opposed to rational decision making processes. Our "How the Army Runs" system of systems assumes that the President's National Security Policy can provide clear guidance for every contingency- and thus the rational system it describes is nested underneath it. When we face the above scenario, however, that assumption is invalid. We have set up an entire institution and all its processes to reach something that we are no longer reaching for. In that scenario we can't just take the systemic monster we have and set it on a path that deviates from what it was intended to do. We have to be flexible at the lowest levels. We can't, for instance, wait for CENTCOM to take President Clinton's guidance on Somalia and turn it into orders to the unit on the ground- the unit on the ground has to be able to anticipate and take initiative to deviate once the environment deviates.

The implication in my mind is that we have to be reliant on individuals to - on their own (the institution won't formally encourage this) be prepared- and prep their units- to be able to make their own judgments and shift gears as they see fit prior to receiving formal guidance/orders. This would permeate everything we do- training, education, planning, preparation, operations, etc. Of course it would be nice if the institution pushed execution and money decisions to the lowest level- but I submit that requires a level of trust that just isn't there right now (and will likely never be) due to systemic forces that have emerged over time. Instead of advising our institution to change (assuming it can't), then what do we do with that reality?

Ned McDonnell III

Thu, 01/24/2013 - 1:44am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C. and Dayuhan,

Truthfully, I was structuring my essay on the current mission in Afghanistan. That said, I tend to agree with each of you in that any whole-of-government effort or counter-insurgency really has to be part of an extraordinary intervention justified by immediate and material threats to U.S. security interests or the certainty of imminent human losses on a large scale. Congress should approve such an action -- in a roll call vote on national television in the prime-time hours -- through a formal or in-substance declaration of war.

Confronting a humanitarian crisis faces constraints of feasibility as well as the disposition of other nations or international organizations to participate and contribute meaningfully. Hubris not only leads to ill-informed decisions and ill-advised interventions, it tends to make policy-makers reluctant to curtail a failing initiative. Such resistance after failure is evident may waste more lives and resources over time than those already expended until the emergence of the failure.

Before setting upon such an intervention, the I.W. leaders ought to define firm and easily understood decision-rules to trigger a prudent withdrawal, with any waiver subject to Congressional approval. Transparent accountability in line with the Constitution, I believe, is an effective deterrent to frivolous and / or over-extended interventions.

As always, thank you for your thoughts.


Bill C.

Wed, 01/23/2013 - 8:41am

In reply to by Dayuhan

And, likewise I believe, we must consider that our such interventions and efforts could very easily backfire and screw up the flow of history -- as we have discussed below.

So, I would suggest, we must be realistic -- not only with regard to the limits of our ability to change other societies -- but also with the idea of that such efforts could result in very serious, unforeseen and/or tragic and counterproductive results.


Tue, 01/22/2013 - 8:37pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

I understand that there's an assumption that a decision to indulge in large-scale intervention has already been made. My concern is that the more we assume that decision, the easier that decision gets to make. When we toss around references to "middle class ascendancy" and "sustainable economic growth" we create, intentionally or not, the impression that it is possible for an outside intervention to produce these goals or that we have some idea how these outcomes can be achieved. The reality is that we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that these long-term economic goals can be advanced by economic aid or external intervention. I think there's a great deal of implicit hubris that resonates throughout these discussions, and that frank discussion of the limits to our ability to change societies has to be ever-present.

As far as Saudi Arabia goes, I'd agree that we shouldn't be trying to oppose the flow of history, but we also shouldn't be trying to direct it or determine when historically inevitable change is going to occur. I don't think we should be providing "muscular support" to the Saudis in any internal conflict, but I don't think we're doing that. Assisting defense against actual or potential external aggression is another question altogether.

Ned McDonnell III

Mon, 01/21/2013 - 2:23pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

You bring out three interesting questions:
1. Who sets the agenda?
2. Who are the stakeholders?
3. When is COIN appropriate?
Answering these questions will clarify a concern rightly raised by you and others.

Starting with the clarification: this is a discussion of the engagement of the U.S. government and resources. Such costly and inevitably complex should preclude any but the most extraordinary situations hinging on two factors:
1. the likely loss of human life; and,
2. protection of material U.S. interests in the short term.

Some preliminary answers to these perennial questions:
1. Very difficult and key question. In the extraordinary circumstances contemplated by this idea (though not crystallized prior to the critique of you and others), there should be a ground-swell of agenda setters including humanitarian agencies, local nationals, international governance structures, regional alliances to lend an international impetus to any direct intervention. Where the U.S. would influence this agenda is to limit its own commitments to those consistent with its national interest, which can include the expansion of human rights.
2. Apparently, I was unclear in the article. The perspective taken in the essay is one following the decision to intervene. The essay is focusing on ´how´, not ‘whether’. Nevertheless, the question of ‘whether’ is actually the more important of the two because a poorly made decision on whether to intervene will undermine the best techniques of implementation faithfully applied.
3. I agree with you, Dayuhan, that we best avoid meddling in most counter-insurgencies. I would prefer to see the U.S. adapt to them and, if appropriate, try to broker a peace or, at least, provide humanitarian support.

Let's look at an example where we might agree about hazards of hasty (and, in this case, indirect) interventions: Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring. Bruce Riedel's recent memorandum to President Obama (made public by the Brookings Institution; argues essentially that the U.S. does not have the option of siding with history (about the eventual end of absolutism under the Saudi monarchy). This baffles me. I raise this article with the idea that muscular support for an insecure régime represents a 'pre-emptive' counter-insurgency. Such visible support will tie the U.S. in with the government seeking to suppress the onset of an insurgency.

A few specific items and a general question come to mind...

<i>COIN needs to harmonize independent stakeholders toward a well-defined mission.</i>

The obvious question, then, is who defines the mission. All too often it's assumed that the US will define the mission, and that despite lip service paid to local interests, all other stakeholders are expected to "harmonize" with our definition of the mission. That's likely to get us a lot of stakeholders who either reject the definition or put on a show of harmonizing as a way of leveraging our resources toward their own ends.

<i>Any whole-of-government effort, I believe, will boil down to a negotiated reconciliation of two fundamental visions: one civilian and the other military. </i>

Again, the visions of the host country government and the various components of the host country populace seem quite conspicuously missing.

On a very basic level, the idea that we are going to define the mission and the vision in an operation aimed at transforming another country seems to me a very dodgy place to start. Of courser the whole idea of trying to transform other countries seems to me a very dodgy place to be, so perhaps I am biased.

<i>transform a failed state into a modern one</i>

This points to a more general concern... do we really want to be placing ourselves in situations where we are devoting the "whole of government" to trying to "transform a failed state into a modern ones? Is intervention on that scale necessary or desirable under anything but the most extraordinary circumstances? What are the goals? Are those goals practical, concrete, and - with the resources and within the time we're prepared to devote - achievable? It sounds a very dubious prospect to me.

I think we should be careful about the assumption, implicit in all our talk of COIN, that insurgency is by nature something we must counter. If we do determine that this is needed, in most cases a "whole of government" approach will be neither necessary nor desirable: I can't think of an insurgency on the planet that requires more than a limited FID and supporting (and similarly limited) civilian assistance role from the US.

Of course if we insist on creating insurgencies aimed at us by invading and occupying countries, we may yet find ourselves backed into such corners. We've done that in the past by choice, not necessity, and it's not a choice we need to repeat.

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 01/18/2013 - 10:18pm

Deleted; copied and placed below the comment of Mike in Hilo to Bill C.'s comment on January 11, 2013.

Ned McDonnell III

Tue, 01/15/2013 - 1:29am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,

A very well reasoned argument why these interventions have to be selected with great care. There may be as many as one hundred countries, perhaps even more, that have yet, if ever, to modernize. The situations we are discussing in this case -- and I may well not have been clear about this aspect -- are those few that call for extraordinary interventions when a state or society is collapsing with at least these two consequences emerging: great loss of life and direct injury to U.S. interests in the short term.

Viet Nam provides a timely example of the inter-generational change toward modernizing; she also stands as a bitter case study of when an ill-advised intervention did not work. Interventions into civil wars are dangerous since they are not ours to win or lose. As a civilian, I believe that the difficulty lies in the scarcity of civilian talent with the heart and soul to risk everything to enter troubled places to mentor others toward prospering on their own in their own manner with their own rhythm.

That is: the Army is filling the void left by unwilling civilians to undertake community development or larger scale construction of infrastructure in any but very safe areas. That void may better be viewed as a signal of national priorities than as a constraint of national character.

Bill C.

Sun, 01/13/2013 - 3:48pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

"My mention of Vietnam reflects my perceptions that, by the late 1990s, the society that was developing resembled the type of nation we had hoped and tried so hard to implant in the 1950s-1970s."

Thus, should we learn from Vietnam that efforts made to "implant" our political, economic and social systems in other countries -- as heroic and well-intentioned as these initiatives may be -- these such efforts are more likely to significantly delay -- rather than to rapidly accelerate -- the transition to our way of life, and to our way of governance, that we hope to achieve in these countries?

This, because states and societies often cannot accept that foreign peoples -- via WOG, IW and/or other force of arms -- will make these decisions for them -- and will impose these decisions upon them.

This suggesting that our valiant and well-intentioned efforts today, to transform Afghanistan and other states and societies along modern western lines (S&SW), these such efforts -- instead of accelerating the S&SW process -- will again result in very costly and extremely counterproductive conflicts and delays?

Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 01/13/2013 - 2:18am

As you know by now, Bill C., I tend to be long on words and turning phrases and a bit short on addressing a topic from the benefit of several perspectives. (Yes, I am a lousy mutli-tasker, too). My mention of Viet Nam reflects my perception that, by the late 1990s, the society that was developing resembled the type of nation we had hoped and tried so hard to implant in the 1950s-70s.

Your history, I think, neatly shows how a nation does modernize and why a relatively homogeneous and proud people, with a culture literally to die for, can and will do it on their own terms. In that sense, the Viet Namese took what they wanted from the French and Americans and left the rest. To be sure, I wish we had avoided, or (more likely) curtailed early on, that intervention for many reasons.

That does NOT mean that Viet Nam creates a timeline for Afghanistan, where there is limited homogeneity, far less literacy than was the case in Viet Nam and other cultural factors that, I think, will slow the process there relative to the rapid emergence of Viet Nam.

Nevertheless, I believe that people like our field soldiers, led by Civil Affairs and Special Forces, are planting the seeds for such change to occur. It may be more troubled or longer that that of Viet Nam, but the 'end' state (whatever that proves to be in detail) is an arrangement ultimately in line with human self-interest and the growth of humanity.

Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 01/19/2013 - 6:27pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,
Thank you for clarifying your direct experience. I salute your service, especially at a time when serving in Viet Nam was so unpopular and opened you up to danger abroad but ugly feelings at home. I always enjoy what you have to say, even when we disagree. You always think your responses through carefully; I always learn something new. Thank you.

Bill C.

Sat, 01/19/2013 - 9:44am

In reply to by Mike in Hilo

For Ned's benefit below, let me note that I served in Vietnam -- from 08/70 to 08/71. And, as chance would have it, the girlfriend that I had there was from Long An Province. She told me her former husband had been a driver for the Americans and had been killed by the VC. Other than this, she/we never discussed the war.

And I, of course, as a little 19/20 year old PFC/SP4, had absolutely no access to -- and therefore absolutely no idea of -- the details of what was going on.

Mike in Hilo

Sat, 01/19/2013 - 12:33am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill--Thanks for wading through my rambling...By 1954 it was plain the Communists had won on the ground...and in the villages, who was going to argue with the Party's cadre? But on top of this, here's my take on the impact of US misapprehensions re nationalism and ethnicity at the time:

From the outset, the US was obsessively concerned with projecting a stridently anti-colonialist image that it assumed would, by drawing distinctions between Americans and the French and pointing to a shared anti-colonial heritage, resonate with the South Vietnamese masses. On the other hand, the US remained consistently ignorant of the depth of Southern ethnic consciousness in the ethos of the Southern (i.e., Deltaic) people. The US early-on decided to oppose leadership by the Southern elite because they were so patently Francophile, and threw its support behind Diem, an ethnic Central Vietnamese with strong nationalist credentials but a Northern (Catholic refugee) power base and constituency.

As Race pointed out in his classic, War Comes to Long An, it was definitely not nationalism that motivated the Southern peasantry, so remarkably void of chauvinism in the modern nationalist sense, and to whom colonialism was a distant irrelevancy, to first take up arms at the behest of the Party.
Most had never even laid eyes on a Frenchman, anyway. After drawing the peasantry into its ambit on other grievances, the Party had to engage in vigorous indoctrination before the new conscripts would recognize the French as their logical target.

The deep-seated Southern regionalism contributed significantly to the anti-Diem sentiment. Peasant alienation was certainly not assuaged by the fact that the officials with whom the people had to interact were usually Northerners, at a time when many of the Party's village/hamlet level cadre were locals...


Bill C.

Fri, 01/18/2013 - 8:25pm

In reply to by Mike in Hilo

Mike in Hilo:

"I mean, the image of a meaningful portion of the Southern people rejecting a US-government supported government precisely for this reason, and for the same reason, rewarding the North Vietnamese Communists with legitimacy and rallying behind them, reflects neither my experience nor my research."

President Eisenhower cir. 1955 re: the French and discussing the time just before Diem:

"It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier."

One might suggest that this, likewise, would have been the case if elections had been allowed to take place in 1957 (minus Lansdale's shenanigans); with, in this case, a sufficient number of the Southern people rejecting a US-government supported government?

Thus, these elections were not allowed to take place.

In these scenerios, of course, "winning" -- and the mandate of heaven associated therewith -- was not supposed to be achieved, per se, on the armed conflict battlefield?

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 01/18/2013 - 3:21pm

In reply to by Mike in Hilo

Thank you for speaking from a vantage-point of deep knowledge on Viet Nam, tying in some of the cultural aspects of the ambivalence of the South. An interesting review based on the best source of knowledge of all: being there and seeing for yourself.

Mike in Hilo

Thu, 01/17/2013 - 10:12pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill--I'm not going to take issue with your point, but rather with your choice of Vietnam as an example to adduce in making your argument. I mean, the image of a meaningful portion of the Southern people rejecting a US-supported government as illegitimate precisely for this reason, and for the same reason, rewarding the North Vietnamese Communists with legitimacy and therefore rallying behind them, reflects neither my experience nor my research. Throughout their history, the Vietnamese, who have viewed legitimacy far more cynically than we, have seen it not as popular acclaim accorded a ruler (or pretender)for his nobility of purpose, but rather as the deserved spoils of the party that wrests control of the country by succeeding on the battlefield. In other words, the winner is, ipso facto, legitimate. (Recall the proverb, "The people bend with the wind.")And because, in the Confucian ethos, the Mandate of Heaven is supposed to pass only to the virtuous, historically, the sobriquet "virtuous" was bequeathed post hoc upon the winner. There is even a proverb in the Sino-Vietnamese cultural world that sums this up, "He who fails is a brigand; he who pulls it off is a prince." Further,in the series of internecine struggles,it was almost inevitable that each of the contesting parties would seek backing abroad--historically, from competing factions with in China.

Now one might caveat the foregoing by adding that the perception that a particular regime has achieved legitimacy must be underwritten by the conviction that its immediate battlefield victories are not merely transient--that the regime will, in fact, persevere in the long run. This requires that the regime demonstrate a high degree of resoluteness, if not ruthlessness. So here are grounds for the claim of illegitmacy--but the reasons are internal weaknesses rather than the fact of US support...I mean, the post-Diem GVN regimes were manifestly, diffidently reluctant to enforce their own laws pertaining to imposition of law and order. This was a critical failure.

Nevertheless, more than enough Vietnamese died fighting PAVN to put paid to the idea that most of the populace accepted the legitimacy of the Communist side. In his tome on the war in the Mekong Delta, David Elliott quoted from the mouths of Communists, who admitted that by the end (1975), only the people in the remotest hamlets still supported the Revolution (Precisely my observation)...Elliott also acknowledges the widespread anti-regime sentiment in the Delta after the Communist takeover--often expressed by people who had once been ardent supporters of the Party.

Then there's the ethnic dimension, so meticulously overlooked by the US over a time frame spanning decades. The deep-seated Southern regionalism, decidedly not an invention of the French colonialism that took advantage of this passion, having generated anti-Diem feeling because his power base and constituency were Northern Catholic, would, likewise, engender the post-Tet anti-PAVN backlash and later, preclude a Southern welcome of the Northern "liberators." So, reason for Southern perceptions of illegitimacy of the GVN, but even more so, of the Communist regime....

As for the Americans, concur we did not win Vietnamese hearts. But most anti-Americans were patently not supporters of the other side. With completion of the US military withdrawal early 1973, the abandonment syndrome itself seemed to grant the GVN a certain legitimacy. In fact, 1973-75, finding someone who would voice pro-US sentiment was akin to finding a needle in a haystack...This was true even of strong supporters of the GVN, who, in the waning years of the Republic, were no longer disposed to mask this sentiment.


Bill C.

Sat, 01/12/2013 - 12:50am

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

Vietnam, I believe, may provide a good example.

The key problem with foreign intervention (ex: Chinese, French, and/or American, etc.) would seem to be that the governments established via this process were often seen, by much of the population, as illegitimate. Thus, the reforms and initiatives undertaken by these foreigners -- and their foreign-installed governments -- may likewise have been seen as illegitimate.

By defeating and throwing out the foreigners, what might be viewed as a more-legitimate government was established. (Maybe for the first time after decades of foreign direct and/or indirect rule.)

When THIS government, cir. 1986, made a decision to implement reforms and undertake modernization initiatives, these reforms and initiatives -- much like the government itself -- were viewed as legitimate.

As I understand it, a 71-year old Nguyen Van Linh, who fought against the Americans, made the case and led the charge for modern reforms in Vietnam.

This suggesting that it may be entirely wrong to believe that it was "we" who "won the hearts and minds of the rising generation" in Vietnam.

Vietnamese success, instead, would appear to come from:

a. The defeat and throwing out of numerous foreigners and their foreign-installed governments.

b. The establishment, thereby, of what might be viewed as a more-legitimate government; one which, due to its more-legitimate status, could

c. Via the efforts of a former warrior, undertake and achieve major reforms and initiatives; the results of which we see in Vietnam today.

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 01/11/2013 - 9:09pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

These comments clarify, with brutal honesty, the unspoken and later exposed assumptions underlying my admittedly idealistic ‘thought’ experiment. The problem with my essays lies in the necessity to make them intelligible and brief. That means streamlining reference conditions into an ideal state devoid of those damned details.

The essay I wrote was requested indirectly by an SOF officer through my good friend, and very good soldier, E.M. Burlingame. E.M.’s thinking, as reflected by his refreshingly creative idea of a Venture Capital Green Beret, resonated with me since so much of what we do in other countries depends on the everyday tasks executed by people at the bottom of the chain; in this case, in Afghan villages.

We live in a time of uncertainty. The nation-state political model and market-based capitalism are imposing their limits every day. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, et al. may not be countries, after all. At least in the first two cases, I can conjure up some history to support that. (For example, Afghanistan is defined not by a singularly ethnic people but by the arbitrary borders of three defunct empires).

My thinking may be colonialist. One of the great challenges under which we labor is the fact that, as observed by CPT Gilmore (via "Lieutenant Zuckerberg") in his excellent case for open-innovation in the military through social media, we live in a world of instant knowledge, if not wisdom. That is, we can no longer forget about the bottom billion.

These wretched of the earth now know they are the bottom billion and what they are missing. To them, capitalism may seem more like an excuse to keep them down than a way for them to pull themselves, and others, out of misery. Communications has made poverty a structural violence apt to breed lethal violence against more affluent innocents.

This lamentable state perversely reflects my deepest prejudice: that most people simply want their lives and, more importantly, the lives of their children to be more comfortable and fulfilling (i.e., assuming their properly ordained stature in the eyes of God, however conceived). This requires liberty to act, to choose, to risk.

Added to this problem of self-aware poverty and models that may no longer apply so neatly, America confronts an imbalance of power and resources skewed toward procurements of newer weapons systems that may be creating tools in search of a solution in search of a problem. The military shares some culpability here, to be sure.

Nevertheless, this structural problem in our society manifests the failure of elected leadership to do its job: to lead. Thus the traditionally last resort option of military intervention has become a plan-B that puts our finest citizens – you – in harm’s way because some political leader lacks creativity, resourcefulness or sturdy ego to look ‘soft’ in the eyes of an electorate (s)he fails to understand or influence.

The reliance on militarily initiated interventions has also grown out of a chronic shortage of qualified civilians truly committed to stepping up and assuming the same risks as their uniformed colleagues; thus, embedding in village patrols is seen a s reckless. Training to make these citizens’ competences concurrent with their characters is lacking due to the time required (which defies Plan-B impulses).

If we are brushing up against the limits of nation-statism and Western economics, not to mention fiscal insolvency – and that limit is turning out to be the edge of a cliff – such uncertainty begs the question of how or if we should respond. That perplexity shrouds an opportunity to restore American exceptionalism in a fluid world after the American Century.

It is your personal example, and not American money or firepower, that will prevail over time. Think of Viet Nam now versus 1975; we won the hearts and minds of the rising generation. Without hesitation, I believe we can respond, but from the ground, up.

We may not build a state but we can enable people to start making something out of nothing, which really is the framework behind seed investing and venture capitalism, as suggested by E.M. Burlingame. Many of these efforts will fail, as do some investments in a portfolio. Over time, the net effect should be worthwhile (and a lot cheaper).

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 01/11/2013 - 5:54pm

To everyone, what a great array of criticisms. They represent opportunities for improvement through reconfiguring ideas or creating new ones, the totality of which will – in that damnably ideal world – lead to a better approach to some basic problems.

Thanks to Ken White for kicking off the discussion with a specific ideas and alternatives tied to specific points in the essay. That stimulated the thinking of many others.

Unfortunately, answering each thought will take too much space. Perhaps, it would be better for me to lay bare those implicit assumptions that I have made; they really derive from my world-view, as limited as it is. Before I do that, however, there are some assertions made that deserve acknowledgement.

These points follow in no particular order and my responses are vague since I am bunching most ideas into summary thoughts animating these answers.

1st, the primary idea I have tried to raise, and perhaps had not thought through clearly enough, is one of enforceability within the civilian chain of command. The affiliation of civilian agencies to the Chief-of-Party in the Embassy, especially involving people stationed away from that Embassy, has appeared to be nominal to me.

2nd, everyone has, to some extent, mentioned the necessity of choosing interventions carefully. That is right on target. Militarily led interventions are costly and, too often, end up being a string of one-off efforts the only coherence of which is the failure of civilian leadership to own up to failed initiatives.

3rd, the time horizon for the kinetic activity may well be six months or less; I would defer to your sentiments. The point made is a good one for all to remember: the mission must be self-contained, attainable and very, very compelling.

4th, the idea of this framework being “state and societal westernization” (i.e., colonialism) shocked me. Not because it was so wrong but because it may be on-the-money. The idea of leaving spaces ungoverned is troubling but not new. Governance in these vexing cases (e.g., Pakistan and Afghanistan) may need to be started from the bottom, not led from the top.

5th, expectations need to be kept low, making it clear that the locals have to reclaim their lives torn by conflict. Ultimately it is they who define the community policing mission and lead it. I made a typographical error, and a key one, in the article. The sentence should read: “Special Forces officers or sympathetic civilians, no matter how high-minded, can NOT take that frightening first step for these moderates.” My apologies for that.

6th, many of the insurgencies and other quandaries we face are truly “Born” or “Made” in the U.S.A. For instance, I still wonder why the great majority of Americans, whom I encounter and who understand the paradigmatic relevance of our own country’s revolution, seem to be in the military.

Well, those are the immediate reactions. Please be assured that each thought you made lurks within and behind one or more of these responses. As far as clarifying the unsaid assumptions (i.e., defining my world view), I will tuck those in a second comment for those of you really interested in them.

Thank you again for making the writing of this essay a rewarding experience for me.

Edward J. McDonnell III
U.S. Peace Corps
Querétaro, México.

Ned McDonnell III

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 8:15pm

Hola todos,

Thank you for many thoughtfully critical remarks. I have just read them all and need a little time to come up with a decent answer (i.e., one that is concise and does your thinking justice). Until then, I wanted to post this e-mail since the thanks within it belong rightfully to you, too. Will come back in a day or two.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Ned McDonnell <>
Date: 2013/1/9
Subject: Re: Ned McD. says hello; 2nd draft of SWJ article on whole-of-gov't I.W. / COIN


I have been in transit and catching up on daily tasks left unattended during the holidays (like analyzing the Mexican government budget, in Spanish, and tracing its implications for science and technology...ick!). In any case, I want to thank you for posting my thoughts on a whole-of-government approach and irregular warfare.

I am gratified to see many comments, especially since most take issue with my ideas and (often implicit) assumptions. I see the U.S. as growing through a difficult time of declining resources and some adverse lessons-learned. We can find our way through, but only if people make the effort to define, debate and disagree.

That is the greatest aspect of the "Small Wars Journal": the lively intellectual exchange that never fails to stimulate my thinking. In gratitude and humility, I thank you.

The title of this thread/item is:

"Whole of Government Support for Irregular Warfare"

Per my arguments below, this appears to be the reverse of what is actually going on.

The proper perspective would seem to be, that we are engaged in providing:

"Irregular Warfare Support for Whole of Government Activities"

In this regard, consider the following from the author's "Conclusion" above:

"For its part, irregular warfare (I.W.) pursues activities needed to achieve an intermedate end-state of local stability to enable longer-term COIN success through sustainable economic growth."

(Herein, of course, I would substitute the term "S&SW success" for the term "COIN success" to again be more accurate.)


Tue, 01/08/2013 - 12:04pm

I must take serious issue with what Mr. McDonnell is proposing. Not necessarily with the logic of his argument. In fact, it's quite logical. My issues are with the basic assumptions that govern that logic.

The first thing that popped into my head as a I read the article was the UK's now-defunct Colonial Office. A civilian administration emerging from a confluence of military and political affairs. The DOS, I must stress, is a diplomacy office. That is what it is good at. When diplomats have engaged in program administration they come out with a checkered record, much like one of the earlier comments implies. Their structure, culture, and institutional capital is tied to diplomacy. There is no natural or necessary connection between colonial governance (what "civilizing reconstruction" is versus what European reconstruction was) and diplomacy.

It is already the case that under normal circumstances civilian agencies in a foreign country operate under the auspices of the local diplomatic mission. They generally answer to the Embassy. What screws this up is the Congressional authorization for programs that by design do not do so, as is often the case with OIF/OEF type deals. We also have a martial Viceroy system of COCOMs that acts in parallel.

Finally, there is the major assumption that foreign counterinsurgency and irregular war is a U.S. problem that is not of its own making. We created the insurgencies we fought by being there. AQ may have been our target all along, and an industrial head-hunting campaign to exterminate them did not require occupation forces. We did that without anyone forcing our hand. Having walked into an occupation, we had to consolidate coercive and civil power, which we categorically suck at. We suck because we believe we are the benefactors of the occupied. No amount of task organization will solve the simple issue that what COIN and reconstruction propose is an untenable half-hearted occupation.


Tue, 01/08/2013 - 3:14pm

In reply to by Bill C.

First, you continue to conflate "modern" with "western". I see no reason to require any such connection. You can establish a stable government without requiring it to be "westernized."

Second, "we", as in US Soldiers, don't have to do it. There is usually some other force from a like minded society that can be brought to bear on the problem. I had Ethiopians guarding my mess halls and perimeter in Iraq. If we can contract for that I am fairly certain we can contract for other services. It does not need to be a US Service member's boots on the ground. In fact, every time we talk about these situations most people agree that we need to get out into the society ... but we are not going to be invited into the mosque or over for dinner (or marry their daughter). It would be best if a security force that could exist in the "host" society were used rather than one that is alien at best.

The question is, "Is it in our interest to stabilize country 'X'?" If it is, then we should think a little more creatively about how to do it rather than be forced to choose between sending in a BCT or two or throwing up our hands and walking away. We don't need to force every situation into the box we define as "War" simply because that is how we chose to define it.

Bill C.

Tue, 01/08/2013 - 2:33pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

Q. Why should we shy away from assisting states that have the potential to stand on their own?

A. No need to "shy away" from assisting states that have the potential to stand on their own. But likewise no need to suggest that to "stand on their own" a state and society must be organized, ordered, oriented and configured only along modern western lines.

Q. Why should we depart because one element of the society does not want us there?

A. Probably the more correct way to view this issue is to ask: Why should we stay when virtually no element of the society -- or maybe only one element of the society -- wants us there (and then maybe for only a short period of time)?

Finally, our deciding to deal with various state and societal problems and difficulties via means other than insurgency-creating and insurgency-sustaining westernization programs; this would not seem to equal appeasement -- only intelligence.

Likewise, if we determine that state and societal westernization is what we absolutely must have, then deciding to deal with the insurgents created by this process by other means -- for example, by way of Sherman's "heavy hand" -- this also is unlikely to be viewed as appeasement.


Tue, 01/08/2013 - 9:15am

In reply to by Bill C.

While I agree with your basic idea that Stabilization Operations are not necessarily the same as COIN, I don't understand your willingness to embrace appeasement.

You state: "This seeming to suggest that our interventions to transform states and societies along modern western lines should be avoided altogether -- and/or that the insurgencies caused by these such interventions should be dealt with by other means." I disagree.

Why should we shy away from assisting states that have the potential to stand on their own. Why should we depart because one element in the society does not want us there. We did not pull out of Germany because the Red Army Faction felt we should leave. I agree that these states need not be liberal democracies (nor even necessarily democracies) but I don't think that our best course of action is to walk away and maybe send in a drone every now and then to kill someone we don't like. I don't believe our only option is to let the space remain ungoverned.

Again, I agree that there should be some national interest. Arguably, a stable world system may be enough. It justifies us having ten carrier battle groups. I just think that we are not even trying to solve the problem. We are trying to make conflict fit doctrine.

From the BLUF: " transform a failed state into a modern one."

What we are attempting should not be called counterinsurgency or COIN.

Rather, what we are attempting should be called what it really is, to wit: state and societal transformation (S&ST) or, more-specifically, state and societal westernization (S&SW).


Because our goal is not to counter the insurgency. We accept (or should accept) that a potent insurgency is -- or often will be -- part of and parcel to our such state and societal transformation efforts.

The fact that insurgencies are likely to be birthed by our intervention to transform states and societies along modern western lines -- and the fact that these insurgencies are likely to, indeed, be suckled, sustained and strengthened by our such activities -- this would seem to negate the idea that a more-efficient and/or more-lengthy application of our S&SW efforts would result in a weakening or defeat of these insurgencies.

Thus, our S&SW efforts must often be seen -- not as a means of quelling these insurgency fires -- but, rather, as the reason why such insurgency fires exist, why they spread and why they get stronger.

This seeming to suggest that our interventions to transform states and societies along modern western lines should be avoided altogether -- and/or that the insurgencies caused by these such interventions should be dealt with by other means.


Mon, 01/07/2013 - 4:45pm

This is another topic that has particular relevance to policing, often known, occasionally openly discussed, and frequently missing. With the popularity and knowledge of policing strategies such as Broken Windows, Pulling Levers, and Third Party which put primacy on integrated government responses, you would expect to see success stories in abundance. However, for an assortment of reasons - time constraints, coordination, public financing, government agency engagement - the whole-of-government approach often falls exceptionally short. Issues within the community that fall outside the traditional mission of law enforcement find themselves attached to an ever-growing mission statement for police, tucked within the umbrella philosophy of "community policing." This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are:

1) Promises to community members to rectify issues go unfulfilled, detracting from LE legitimacy and further eroding trust that LE can deliver demonstrable results in safety.

2) Time spent pursuing non-enforcement activities is time subtracted from enforcement activities.

3) LE personnel find themselves responsible for accomplishing tasks they are not specifically trained to do, leading to sub-optimal results - if any results.

4) Increased inter-agency friction. As friction increases, hostility and mistrust gain foothold and situations that absolutely require inter-agency coordination have no chance of success.

I have no doubt these are issues and concerns within the military community as well.

Ken White

Mon, 01/07/2013 - 11:28am

Carry outs from the Take Aways...

1. A basically correct statement that is regrettably negated by the fact that, almost always, "short-term interventions" will not be possible. Try that and you replay both Viet Nam and Afghanistan, a rolling series of short term efforts that end up taking a long, long, time. Too long. As the Author himself says in his BLUF, <blockquote>"The time horizon for the shape-clear-hold-build framework is the generation or two invested to transform a failed state into a modern one."</blockquote> Recurring "clearing" requirements and inadequate "holding" power will ALWAYS be causative factors.

2. A basically true statement, though I'd say two years is stretching the boundary quite a bit and six months to a year would be a more accurate window. The problem is constraining the effort to that limited time period...

3. A great idea. Pity the U.S. governmental milieu is structurally unable to do that. In other words, never happen.

4. Might work but I suspect not. USAid is effectively a part of State now and doesn't work nearly as well as it did when it was an independent agency. In the eyes of many, DoS is borderline dysfunctional. This issue deserves careful scrutiny.

5. Totally agree -- but unlikely to be implemented. One also needs to be very careful in blotting ink, it tends to splatter into smaller droplets that coalesce and create new spots.

6. Agree. Though a better contingency plan is to not put locals in a position of danger with ill thought out strategic efforts that create such a problem.

7. Great thought for an ideal world. Unfortunately, the world has not been, is not now and is never likely to be ideal.

Mister McDonnell has provided a really sensible road map that would work well if it could be implemented. Therein lies the problem. The Armed Forces of the US, to include Special Forces are not trained, prepared or large enough to do the military portion of his prescription and therefor cannot perform in a timely manner the tasks he suggests. I, for one, do not think changes to that inability are either possible or desirable.

On the other hand better strategic thought and the avoidance of unnecessary interventions are both possible and desirable...