Lessons from the Post 9/11 Campaigns: Small Wars Journal Discussion with General John R. Allen
General John R. Allen, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) is a distinguished fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, working within the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence. Prior to joining Brookings, Allen commanded the NATO International Security Assistance Force and United States Forces in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013.
“The outcome in Afghanistan was not going to be decided by military operations alone. It was to create the security platform operating in the hard end of the hard-power spectrum that then permitted us to leverage those outcomes in governance, economic development and civil society, which was going to deliver the knockout blow to the Taliban.”
SWJ: In the past, the US military trained for high-end maneuver warfare and intensive firepower - historical key ingredients of the American way of war. Since 9/11 we’ve seen a totally different approach. What has changed, in your experience, in the nature and the character of war, in how you wage war?
General John R. Allen: War is fundamentally a human endeavor; the character of war may change, but not its nature. Conflict may be characterized by high intensity firepower and maneuver dominated operations and campaigns or we may find that the character of war is dominated by counterinsurgency operations, or even cyber operations. But the nature of war still continues to remain the same, a human endeavor. What was unique about Iraq and Afghanistan was what we undertook after the decisive phase of the campaign, because both of them were seen as part of a paradigm that emphasized the traditional application of the American way of war. In the aftermath of those campaigns we ultimately undertook the kind of capacity building and nation-building that would be necessary for that state to endure. We wanted to make sure that what emerged after the destruction of both central governments is something that we could live with. That required and caused us fundamentally to change the manner in which we conduct operations in both theaters.
SWJ: What are the core questions a military commander needs to answer and guide his decisions in a counterinsurgency battlefield?
General John R. Allen: I think there are three very large questions.
The first question when you are involved in any counterinsurgency is how do we marshal the right combination of our forces necessary to limit and shape the insurgency? Being involved in a counterinsurgency campaign would seem to indicate that the host nation at its core has limited or no capacity ultimately to address fundamental issues. So the foreign intervention has to be one that shapes the insurgency while you are doing the next thing which is extraordinarily important, building the capabilities and capacities of the indigenous force to take over from the foreign expeditionary force. Frankly, recognizing when this moment has come and orchestrating the rebalancing of the foreign forces, with moving the indigenous forces into the lead to take over operations is critically important. The commander needs to recognize that moment and be prepared to reshape and rebalance the foreign force from an essentially conventional unit into a force with strong advisory and support capabilities. This is a very significant undertaking.
So first is shape the insurgency, second is to move the host nation forces into the lead and the third is to build the kind of enduring capacities necessary within the institutions of the host state that permit, ultimately, for that nation to continue to deal with the insurgency and also to endure over the long term as a viable political entity. All three of those things have to occur in a counterinsurgency campaign. How do I keep insurgency from winning, how do I get the indigenous security forces into the fight so they become a credible solution to the problem and how do we shape and build endurance in the national institutions so they can bring an end to the insurgency at the political and economic level supported by its own credible and capable security forces and has a hope of enduring beyond the departure of the foreign forces.
One of the challenges with foreign interventions and insurgencies, especially in the kind of interventions where we are investing a lot in capacity-building, is ensuring we are building or developing capacities that are culturally, socially, economically feasible to endure over the long term. One of the things that I told to my staff, very early on when I have arrived in Afghanistan was that I didn’t want any more big ideas. As I conveyed to my leadership, I wanted to stop trying remake Afghan institutions into Western institutions. Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador, Colombia each of those countries has a unique social environment, history, and faith - the combination of which over time shaped its institutions for governance and government. When we seek to create them in our own image we may well be creating a social dynamic that is unnatural. What I said to my staff was there would be no moratorium on good ideas. What I wanted was to have a good understanding of what works from the context of Afghan solutions. Stop trying to impose unique Western solutions to their unique Afghan problems and needs. Within their own capabilities, we needed to understand Afghan needs and requirements and invest in giving them the capacity to solve their problems or invest in their own capability to build capacities. But if we impose a Western solution and then provide insufficient or no sustainment we can’t expect anything other than collapse of those capabilities once we leave.
SWJ: Is it reasonable to expect military commanders to acquire enough grass-root understanding and insight to influence the local social fabric?
General John R. Allen: This is an important question. I felt very comfortable when I went into Iraq, that I understood the history of the tribes of the Euphrates River and the western desert. I understood, in essence, that if I was to accomplish anything it was going to require very close personal relationships with the sheiks, with the tribal leadership, and understanding how Iraq would govern itself at the civil level. I spent months studying to prepare myself to exist in this environment of an Arab, Muslim, tribal society. At the same time I understood Saddam Hussein, the emergence of modern Iraq. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything like the same amount of time for my preparations to command in Afghanistan. The enormously complex cultural environment of Afghanistan was far more multifaceted than what I experienced in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq - the ethnicity, the religious and the tribal issues, the fact that the country had been at war non-stop for over 30 years and each phase or segment of that war was different. Each segment had its own unique effect on Afghanistan, the institutions of country, and the Afghan people themselves. These were the Communist uprising, the Soviet invasion, the post Soviet Afghan state against the mujahedin, the civil war, the rise of the Taliban and then the U.S. and Western invasion. Each of these stripes of conflict was different - each one shaped the Afghan society in a very different manner and each deserved to be understood.
At a personal level, because of the short fused requirement to replace General Petraeus, I didn’t have the time that I felt I needed to prepare my mind culturally for what I needed to understand. That was really important. In this context, I surrounded myself closely with cultural advisors who advised me, for example, on the uniqueness of the Hazara and how they practice their Shia faith, and the relationships between the Hazara and the Iranians, the relationships between the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Pashtuns. While I didn’t have as much time as I believed I needed to prepare, I understood inherently that this was a very complex environment so I surrounded myself with people that could provide me quality information.
If I did this again or if I were to advise the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs I would select a Commander for this kind of campaign at least a year out and ensure he was given adequate time to prepare in every sense of the word. I was rushed into the position and this is no way to prepare a commander for a theater command of war. I think we are really selling ourselves short when this happens. I had about a year to get ready for Iraq. When I got there, the only thing that changed for me was my office. I surrounded myself in my North Caroline’s office with aerial photographs of every municipal center along the Euphrates River in the Al Anbar province. For all intents and purposes, I was already living there. Selecting a commander for a theater of war deserves our utmost attention, and that commander deserves the time to prepare in every possible way.
SWJ: Where are we today in Afghanistan? Are the post surge Afghan structures sustainable and enduring?
General John R. Allen: From the work we’ve done, many of the governmental structures are sustainable; some will struggle because of the paucity of human resources. The MOD, MOI, and NDS will do pretty well because of the focused capacity building over time. Others will have trouble. Some will founder overall.
SWJ: We are in a moment of rebalancing/refocusing the attention and the defense resources beyond the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Moreover, the national security debate is dominated by the Air Sea battle concept and high-tech edge. As a Marine, how do you see the relevance of the post-9/11 messy, unsatisfying counterinsurgency campaigns for future expeditionary operations in a security environment where the three-block war is likely to remain part of the puzzle? What should we keep in mind, in terms of lessons learned, skills-sets, and core-competencies for strategic landpower as we move forward to a security environment where the irregular/unconventional warfare and the wars among people are likely to remain an important component? What does it mean to be prepared for unconventional warfare?
General John R. Allen: I’ve spent a lot of time with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, but also with our joint commanders and we all grappled with how we at the Service level recapture the core competencies that each service brings to the table for the US national security. It has been a very long time since we have been able to conduct expeditionary operations from the sea. So we have to balance the absolute necessity to remain skilled in unconventional or irregular warfare with reaffirming and recapturing our capabilities within the construct of our national security apparatus for what the Marine Corps brings to the table, something unique to our service. Our Commandant has been very attentive to how he preserves the capabilities that we have mastered in irregular warfare, and frankly we have been very good at that, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while re-master our skills related to combined arms Marine Air Ground Task Force operations. So the Commandant has been seeking to recapture those core levels of expertise that have been our hallmark for so long, but not giving up the really significant experience and accomplishments from thirteen years of war.
SWJ: You were an actor in and a close observer of the tribal engagement strategy -“the Awakening”- in Iraq. What mattered in winning the support of the local tribes, in engaging them? To what incentives did they respond? What did change their calculations?
General John R. Allen: We had to understand the operational environment - the role of Al Qaeda, the relationships between the tribes and Al Qaeda, the inter-tribal relations, and the fact that Anbar in many respects was a closed Sunni environment that was distant from the Shia government in Baghdad. If we could understand the value systems of the tribes and how they related to Al Qaeda, then we would have the capacity to target weaknesses in those relationships. By the time we got there at the very end of 2006, early 2007, Al Qaeda had in many ways turned on the tribes. If Al Qaeda had been more like Hezbollah, where Hezbollah celebrates tribal society and provides immediate on the spot cash payments to a “martyr’s” family, or reparations for damaged homes, we would likely still be fighting in the streets of Ramadi. But Al Qaeda completely overplayed its hand - its brutality, its blind willingness to dole out arbitrary violence and brutality to everyone around them, alienated the tribes. For the tribes, this became a matter of survival. In that context, the tribes decided they couldn’t fight Al Qaeda and us simultaneously. That was the moment that we drove hard into the tribal society to try to change the opinion of the tribes about our presence.
I spent day after day with the paramount sheiks of the tribes. I went to Doha, to Amman and to the Emirates to meet them. I told them that we had a common interest in the re-emergence of Iraq, a common interest of bringing the country back as a powerful state and we were ready to do what we could to support the tribes against Al Qaeda. I was able to tell them with great accuracy what Al Qaeda had done to their tribes. We did a lot of analysis in that regard. They did a risk/benefit analysis and ultimately determined that the individual tribes and the tribes as a group were better served in an alliance with us because of their confidence in us as individuals, men of our words - they believed that they might decide to fight us later, but now was not the time, because what Al Qaeda has done to them and would do to the tribal society, it was in their interest to side with us.
Eventually that alliance, that they initially thought would be an alliance of convenience, became an alliance they wanted to sustain because we became so close in our common cause, truly, in many respects like brothers. That relationship-building effort that we went through, first turning the tribes against Al Qaeda, and then turning the tribes in a strong alliance with us was a game-changer for the whole Iraqi equation. If we didn’t understand the nature of the Arab culture, the history of the Euphrates tribes, and appreciate the faith of Islam, none of these outcomes would have been possible. But because we’ve spent so much time understanding the operational environment in which we were moving, it gave us the capacity to see the moment and to seize the opportunity.
SWJ: How can we explain the relapse of violence in Iraq? How can we ensure that there is a political local strategy that takes advantage of the security bubble that a military effort in counterinsurgency can create?
General John R. Allen: Clearly there is a desire that the campaign ends with an end state, not with an end date. The problem is of course, both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns were time constrained, not constrained by events and outcomes. In Iraq, our presence ended before various competing political elements were ultimately able to build the kind of political and relational equilibrium necessary to sustain political and societal cohesion. We were not there really long enough to leave behind a context in which Maliki could be perceived as a prime minister of the Arabs and the Kurds … prime minister of all Iraqis. He was ultimately perceived, for a whole variety of issues, as the head of a Shia government, but not the head of an Iraqi government. The inability to solve all these political differences, in many respects, set the Sunnis and to a lesser extent the Kurds, in a defensive mode and the result is of course the sectarian violence that is reemerging. The Kurds were pretty self-contained which has worked to their advantage but they have a great deal that they could bring at the table for the benefit of all Iraqis as well.
SWJ: Today, it is fashionable to talk about El Salvador in the 1980s, Philippines and Colombia post 9/11 as examples of effective small scale foreign internal defense (FID) campaigns. But history shows that counterinsurgency is a highly state-centric process requiring developing and investing in a massive nation-building component. Do you see in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, any alternative to expeditionary state-centric counterinsurgency, short of a significant Weberian nation-building component?
General John R. Allen: You cannot start the planning for capacity building as you are moving out of decisive operations into sustained operations. I think this is a major problem. In Afghanistan we knew we were going to purposefully destroy the Taliban government. That was our task. But I am not sure we fully understood just how little capacity there was in the human dimension of the Afghan society to create governance in the wake of the fall of the Taliban regime. Now, Colombia always had in essence an intact government. You may not agree necessary with the politics or the politics may have changed, but the government remained essentially intact. The same happened in other insurgency challenges, for example with El Salvador or the Philippines. So while we would have programmed assistance to help the Philippines government to improve itself, we didn’t have to build the Philippines government from the ground up. There was no need for national capacity building, but there was significant need to assist the Philippines government in internal defense operations and in training and advising its forces. The fundamental difference was that there was no phase three (decisive operations) to our operations. You’ve got to start thinking about and preparing for state-building during phase zero. We didn’t get much chance to have a phase zero in Afghanistan. Iraq was different. We had more time and we have to look very hard in retrospect why we didn’t do more to think what our post decisive operations activities should have been. All in all, there is a fundamental difference. El Salvador, Colombia, and Philippines governments remained intact. But there was no government left intact at the end of decisive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that required a far different phase four.
SWJ: In a time when we won’t have the option to invest in large-scale state building exercises, how can we become better at mobilizing and influencing sub-Westphalian, tribal groups?
General John R. Allen: It will depend heavily on the operational environment and the dynamics of the tribal society. We need to understand that society as far in advance as possible. While there are immutable principles that would apply to operations in general with and within tribal societies, specifically understanding their unique human condition (history, narrative, geography, faith, hierarchy and rivalries, and traumas) is essential for understanding what can mobilize them.
SWJ: It seems the current COIN / stability doctrine is premised on a comprehensive civil-military blending. British General Frank Kitson emphasized that “so many of the people who will be most influential in determining success or failure are not in the armed forces at all. They are the politicians, civil servant, local government officials and police, in the area where the insurgency is taking place, and, as I said earlier, that may be in someone else’s country… Service officers must be taught how to fit together a campaign of civil and operational measures; they must know what is needed in terms of intelligence, and the law, and of molding public opinion”. Are today’s Western Weberian bureaucracies able to develop the same degree of civil-military kind of integration suggested by Kitson? Should they?
General John R. Allen: The outcome in a COIN campaign will not be determined by military operations, they’ll be determined by the political stability and economic development which will emerge over time from the security purchased by the foreign intervention and indigenous security forces. Understanding that success in these endeavors is a function of a comprehensive, whole of government approach is essential to success over the long term. The question of whether we should educate military officers to that end isn’t the question. The question should be is how do we prepare members of the interagency … the whole of government … for the reality of what comprehensive COIN demands.