Small Wars Journal

Battlefield Negotiators-Tactical Level Conflict Resolution

Mon, 09/14/2015 - 3:00am

Battlefield Negotiators-Tactical Level Conflict Resolution

John J. Houser

Military Operations that involve the authorized use of force are often described as a necessary evil, and the definition of success will dictate what methods are used to achieve it.  Viewing success as merely lethal action against the enemy presents an inaccurate measure for victory in military operations.  Military maneuver elements invest substantial training, equipment and operational focus to fight the enemy and secure territory, which reflects what leaders consider success.  However, the necessity to interact with local populations indicates that kinetic operations are only a portion of the full spectrum military continuum.  The heart of any conflict, particularly those against an insurgency or guerilla force, centers on the indigenous population. Thus, a more equitable focus to successfully interact with the local populations should be allocated. 

The measures for success significantly focuses on the battle damage assessment, which consists of enemy killed and captured equipment. While these benchmarks are an important aspect of conflict, they are not the only factor.  In 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara summoned Major General Edward Lansdale, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, to review the criteria he planned to use to determine U.S. Force success in Vietnam.  The factors consisted of numbers of operations, enemy killed and weapons captured.  Upon review, Lansdale asserted the measures were meaningless unless the population’s emotions were taken into account.  Lansdale referred to the population feelings as the “X” factor, which McNamara almost immediately dismissed.1 The lack of focus on the population led to a prolonged conflict at the expense of tax payer dollars and American lives.  Nonetheless, the criteria that military leadership use has remained little changed.  If the number of enemy killed forms the basis for success, someone has to kill them. 

Military Historian S.L.A Marshall claimed that 75 percent of U.S. troops in actual combat during World War II never fired at the enemy for the purpose of killing, even though they were fired upon and would have been justified to return fire.2 Although Marshall’s claims and research methods were later criticized, they were implemented into modern military training.  The changes to military training consisted of: using man-shaped targets instead of bulls-eye targets in marksmanship practice and implementing training more realistic methodologies to resemble how Soldiers actually fight. In a sense, military training needed to reprogram the human instinct against killing their fellow man. 

By the time the United States become involved in the Vietnam War, 90 percent of U.S. soldiers would fire their weapons at other people.3 The increased probability that Soldiers would engage the enemy with greater lethality would therefore lead to greater success using traditional measures.  This was accomplished by enabling the Soldier to disassociate from killing even though in large part they felt it was an unnatural act. To further exacerbate the disassociation, the enemy often becomes dehumanized during training and through colloquial expressions. Ultimately, enemy fighters come from the society in which the U.S. Forces operate.  Thus, the probability increases that the U.S. Soldier could translate the same dehumanization of the enemy to the general foreign population as well.

U.S. Military technological advancements in communications, transportation and weaponry have enabled forces to seize initiative and dominate quicker than ever before. The previously mentioned traditional measures of success (numbers of operations, enemy killed and weapons captured) are gauges to determine whether operations have matured to Phase IV Stability or not. The military concentration on the ability to efficiently operate in phases II and III has resulted in a highly lethal force.  However, it creates an unbalanced emphasis given the duration and decentralized nature of Phase IV Stability Operations.   

Phase IV Stability Operations provide the opportunity for an insurgency to either gain or lose influence. Success within this phase can constitute a progression towards civil enabling, whereas a failure can result in a regression to the need to dominate.  Insurgents recognize that support of the population, whether by choice or force, is foundational.  Joint Publication 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations (COIN ) also recognizes the importance of the population and states, “the Joint Force needs to adapt approaches based on the following considerations: 1) political control; 2) the population centric nature of COIN; 3) assessing relevant actors; and 4) understanding the Operating Environment.”  It also emphasizes that “understanding grievances is key to addressing root causes of insurgency and creating durable stability.”4 (JP 3-24) Essentially, the focus centers on understanding why actors conduct the actions they do.  This understanding equates to one of Sun Tzu’s tenants for military operations, “know your enemy as yourself.”5  

Understanding the enemy as “you” requires military forces to reexamine the dehumanizing qualities that have been psychologically instilled during training to kill in order to facilitate stability operations.  Understanding the population has the potential to create a climate in which an enemy cannot operate or an insurgency be initiated.  Political messaging will occur from both friendly and enemy sides throughout the duration of conflict, and the population serves as the target audience.    To combat enemy messaging, military forces merely recognizing the population underemphasizes their importance. The local people are the center of gravity and require special tactics.

Field Manual 3-07.31, Chapter VII focuses on Conflict Resolution.  It states there are three basic methods to reach an agreement: negotiation, mediation and arbitration and provides associated definitions.6  Specifically, “It [negotiation] is a central technique in conflict resolution. Service members will rarely negotiate a major agreement between belligerents, but they should have a basic understanding of the art of negotiation.”  Contact with the indigenous population becomes inevitable in any conflict.  Therefore, service members should not only understand cultural nuances, but also have an ability to conduct conflict negotiation at a tactical level. 

In Iraq and Afghanistan, once the U.S. military secured an area, they inherited the preexisting social issues of the area not just the real estate.  Per JP 5-0, “The joint force may be required to perform limited local governance.”7 However, it took authoritative regimes to maintain order between opposing sides of Islam in Iraq, and between opposing tribes in Afghanistan.  Absent these authoritarian structures, the indigenous populations fought shadow wars between themselves and against U.S. forces.  A lack of in depth understanding on the local population and a focus on kinetic targeting caused operations to stall in Phase IV arguably longer than required.  Furthermore, the focus on the more traditional measures for success meant information that could have assisted stability efforts was largely marginalized.

Information is a powerful tool, if effectively used. Conflict resolution relies on readily available information more easily obtained compared to kinetic targeting data.  However, “the tendency to overemphasize detailed information about the enemy at the expense of the political, economic, and cultural environment that supports it becomes even more pronounced at the brigade and Regional Command levels.”8 Military units operating at the Forward Operating Base are often aware of the enemy situation that they are surrounded by.  However, in a conflict where the enemy conceals itself within the population, detailed information about the populace becomes as equally vital.  Moreover, to effectively engage the local population’s leadership at key leader engagements, lower echelon military leaders require a more profound knowledge of the human terrain. 

David Smock characterizes the keys for success as: 1) all sides agreeing on a clear purpose; 2) religious faith comes with a dependence on a higher deity; 3) a desire to build a relationship with their neighbor; 4) all sides agree on the participants, and their ability to make decisions.9  The keys for success should be identified prior to the meeting to ensure the highest likelihood for a more positive outcome.  With any initial contact, the main goal is to secure a second meeting. Therefore, the initial meeting should have a minimal agenda in order to manage expectations.  Pre-identifying clear objectives and who can make decisions requires in depth knowledge of the local population. As previously mentioned, there tends to be overemphasis on identifying who to kill, rather than who can bring peace. Absent information related to who can bring peace and the inter-group dynamics of the area, the meeting could occur with a military host unaware that important people have been unintentionally omitted.

The second key to success, Abrahamic faiths come with a dependence on God, could be substituted based on the environment and local population’s religious foundations.10 However, a deity should at least some level be acknowledged as appropriate.  Nonetheless, the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan provide perfect examples of how finding a religious common ground between Abrahamic faiths could be implemented. The commonality of religion can be the backdrop to initiate the conversation, but the desire to build a relationship amongst neighbors presents an even more immediate invitation point.  The military unit and the local population in proximity to one another sets the stage for a conversation.  Although there may be a shared reluctance for the closeness, this becomes another point of commonality. This will assist to defeat the notion that Marc Gopin described as “othering”. “Othering” consists of, “not only excluding people, but also a way of rejecting certain types of behavior.”11

The rejection of cultural differences provides the foundation for dehumanization, which has a direct correlation to a reduction in basic human rights.  Security, one basic tenet of human rights, serves as a communal desire to create a safe space and becomes a shared commonality.  It functions as both a reason to meet and further progresses in the peace building process. 

The military leader, can provide indigenous civilians a reasonable expectation of security, but must also set forth the parameters to establish a venue where thoughts can be freely shared. The military leader, or facilitator, should be prepared for a lukewarm reception where all parties will have a level of skepticism towards the process.  People, according to Smock, will share their suffering through story.  The service member needs to introspectively ask, “How would I feel, if I were in their position?” Simply: “what if I were born here?” These questions and an airing of grievances present one way to determine differences and similarities between the personnel present.  During this step, service members will likely, if they have not already done so, begin to re-humanize the population.  Similarly, the local population should be encouraged to consider the service members point of view. Any dehumanization the service member had towards the population will become eroded; likewise, the population will begin to view the service members as personal reflection as well. The deconstructed othering by the service members and the local people will serve as the baseline for trust.  Establishing an initial trust creates the climate to have a conversation related to Smock’s second step: the identification of basic human needs.

The identification of basic human needs should be self-evident once the service member and the local population consider each other’s point of view.  However, wisdom comes from understanding different perspectives; therefore, the list of needs should not be assumed or taken for granted.  Each individual or group will have common needs, but there may also be unique needs that have not been considered. Posing the question indicates concern and will go a long way for rapport with the population, which could yield a more secure environment.  Never taking security for granted the service members should express their need for a cognitive awareness of what occurs outside the base parameter from a local point of view.  Military personnel and the local people share a common desire for security, which the locals can assist with. In turn, the military may be able to provide tangible resources such as food or water, whereas the populace can provide a deeper understanding of the local environment. Maintaining two-way communication related to security issues, will yield a greater sense of community and communal obligation.   

At this point, the parties involved will have established a mutually beneficial relationship and a level of acceptance.  The genesis of trust may be tenuous, but it exists.  The third step in Smock’s dialogue for peace-building acknowledges wrongdoing.  Smock promotes caution in this step because, “when the sins committed against one’s own people far outweigh the committed by one’s own people, it is difficult to admit to anything.”12  Regardless of the conversational complexity, the dialogue needs to take place in order to progress towards a more lasting peace.  The service members will possibly have to acknowledge a perceived wrongdoing they have committed. In this instance, reiterating the need for open communication and a continued education on the local environment remains invaluable.  However, the most meaningful acknowledgment of wrongdoing is to initiate the process for forgiveness. 

Confronting forgiveness sets one step closer to reconciliation.  However, forgiveness does not equate to absolution, and does not free people from the consequences.13 A potential challenge for this step will also be the pressure exerted on the leader at the negotiation table to resist forgiving. Although a representative may recognize the need for forgiveness, he may not want to seem weak amongst a group opposed to forgiveness.  John F. Kennedy, in Profile of Courage stated, “Compromise does not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents.”14 All representatives should be advised that a functional process requires forgiveness. If they are truly leaders that are appropriate to attend the meeting, they should have the requisite influence within their group. The forgiveness process takes time and representatives should be urged to continue discussing the situation.  A break in the dialogue will likely be met with a renewal to violence because there has been no resolution.  Ensuing violence will destabilize the area and create further violence, thereby strengthening the enemy and weakening U.S. Forces.    

The final step in Smock’s dialogue for peace-building consists of addressing issues of justice.15  Justice in this sense does centers on the restoration of relationships between people related to fairness, and a pronounced equitable distribution of basic human needs.  This step codifies the resolution and restores balance to the area.  For the service member participating in this process, it may not be accomplished during their tenure. The complex and time consuming process requires detailed record keeping facilitating continuity between unit rotations.  Ample effort to attain detailed information on the enemy situation commonly occurs; however, there should be an equally exhaustive amount of data on the local population. 

Military doctrine related to stability operations exists, and serves as a guide to military personnel.  However, the intended audience is limited to higher echelons, even though more frequent interaction occurs at lower levels. Field Manual 3-07 Stability Operations dated June 2014 captures this disparity stating that, “The principal audience for FM 3-07 is leaders and planners at the battalion level and above.”16 Conflicts for the foreseeable future will be fought and won at the street level from Forward Operating Bases with decentralized command and control structures. The decentralization means troops require an even greater level of cross training than ever before. 

Killing is not an innate act, and reason dictates military training should focus on this complex skill to create troops who will effectively engage the enemy. Yet, conflicts where the enemy hides amongst the population means troops will have a tendency to view everyone as the enemy. Dehumanization based on kill centric training bolsters enemy mobility and their sphere of influence. The mindset that “everyone is the enemy” has the potential to cause human rights abuses, war crimes, and population alienation absent war fighters cross-trained as a true Solider-Statesman. However, viewing everyone as “friendly” represents the other extreme, which can lead to complacency. Mitigating security degradation becomes another justification for instruction that strikes a balance between executing targeted lethality and tactical diplomacy. In reality, population re-humanization through conflict resolution practices increases the service member’s ability to delineate between hostile threats (enemy) and force multipliers (population).

After years of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, those engaged at the street level of war have learned lessons related to interaction with local populations as impromptu battlefield negotiators through trial and error.  However, Soldiers are not provided a rifle and told, “You’ll learn how to use it when you need it.”  Therefore, military training needs to incorporate more conflict resolution practices at the lowest echelons vice an unbalanced reliance on kinetic solutions. 

End Notes

1. Currey, Cecil B. Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. 8 Print

2. Marshall, S. L. A. Men Against Fire; the Problem of Battle Command in Future War. Washington: Infantry Journal, 1947. 2 Print

3. Grossman, Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. Print. 40

4. Joint Publication 3-24 Counterinsurgency. Washington DC: Joint Staff, 2013. Print

5. Tzu, Sun, and R. L. Wing.The Art of Strategy: A New Translation of Sun Tzu's Classic: The Art of War. Wellingborough: Aquarian, 1989. Print.

6. Field Manual 3-07.31 Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Conducting Peace Operations. Washington, DC: Hq., Dept. of the Army, 2003. Print

7. Joint Publication 5-0 Joint Planning Operations. Washington DC: Joint Staff, 2011. Print

8. Flynn, Michael T., Matt Pottinger, and Paul Batchelor. Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan. Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2010. 8 Print

9. Smock, David R. Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2002. 129 Print

10. Smock, 129.

11. Gopin, Marc, Holy War, Holy Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 61 Print

12. Smock, 129.

13. Smock, 129.Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print.

14. Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print.

15. Smock, 129.

16. Field Manual 3-07, Stability Operations. Washington, DC: HQ, Dept. of the Army, 2008. Print

About the Author(s)

John J. Houser "Joe" has been a full-time DOD civilian since 2009, and a student at Georgetown University since 2014.  He spent 11 years on active duty in the Marine Corps deploying to the Middle East and Africa several times throughout his career. Most recently he deployed as a reservist to Afghanistan in 2012. He is married with three children and lives in the Washington D.C. area.