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Reading Lawrence in Afghanistan: The Seven Pillars of Counter-COIN Wisdom
A man, a myth, and a Hollywood epic, Thomas Edward Lawrence has served as a theoretical touchstone for generations of professional soldiers as well as intellectuals with a bent towards unconventional wars. This was perhaps never so true as over the past decade, when he became required reading for junior and senior military officers and a phrase from his autobiography became the title for one of the most famous and widely read military analyses published in the last decade - an analysis which, not coincidentally, underpins current US Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine. Lawrence’s 27 Articles in particular became popular with the military and was accepted as holy writ by the military advisor community.
Unfortunately, in the process of anointing T.E. Lawrence as a lost prophet of COIN doctrine, his writings were totally denuded of the strategic thought that underpinned his analysis. By burying the intellectual roots of a contemporary operational doctrine beneath a historical legend that seems to stand beyond reproach, proponents of counterinsurgency theory sought to give their ideas historical legitimacy and in doing so stripped The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and 27 Articles of their military and cultural context and geopolitical framework. A closer reading suggests that T. E. Lawrence would have advised against a sustained foreign military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place; he most certainly would have advocated a different approach to dealing with insurgents than the one we took. By re-contextualizing his two most famous works and examining COIN doctrine through their lens, it is possible to offer a different approach to dealing with foreign insurgencies.
The Seven Pillars of Counter-COIN Wisdom
1. The strategic juice from a COIN victory probably isn’t worth the tactical squeeze:
As you would know if you ever tried eating soup with a knife, just because something can be done does not mean it is worth your while. Counterinsurgencies can be successful - but the fact that a victory might be possible does not necessarily make it worth while, nor does it mean that COIN is the only path to success. Indeed, that’s the whole point behind the all too popular phrase, which in its full glory reads,
...the Turks were stupid; the Germans behind them dogmatical. They would believe that rebellion was absolute like war, and deal with it on the analogy of war. Analogy in human things was fudge, anyhow; and war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.
Thus, not only does Lawrence suggest that counter-insurgency campaigns are inherently difficult and slow, but that conventional militaries - even those of the finest calibre - are unable to prosecute them. Unless there is some pressing strategic or national need to engage in a counter-insurgency campaign - as there was in Northern Ireland, geographically if not always politically part of the British homeland - then counterinsurgency is a method best avoided.
The unfortunate and often ignored truth is that counterinsurgency campaigns are so time consuming that even successful ones ultimately become irrelevant. Strategic history moves too fast for a decades long war in a global backwater to make sense. Any military campaign that fails to provide short- and medium-term strategic gains risks becoming meaningless - the British waged a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Malaysia, but their painfully slow and expensive victory came too late to prevent the dissolution of the British empire.
2. Let the locals do the fighting:
COIN, at least as it has most recently been practiced, assumes that more is more, even when it is claimed that less is more - that advisors are effective, that troop surges are effective, that spending billions to build up a host nation’s political and economic infrastructure is effective. One of the most remarkable aspects of Lawrence’s accomplishment was how little support he had from the British military and how few foreigners worked with the Arabs. Certainly, the British military conducted raids to relieve pressure on the nascent guerrilla movement, conducted joint planning with the guerillas, and provided them with machine guns and a limited heavy weapons capability, but most of the time Lawrence was by himself or with only a handful of English-speaking companions. If the locals are not willing take the fighting upon themselves, the campaign will fail.
The United States has continuously ignored this basic principle and shifted the burden of effort onto itself. Would an Afghanistan that was secured by primarily local forces look like a stable, modern, westernized society? No, but it would have been controlled by anti-Taliban forces, as opposed to being unstable, un-modernized, preyed on by the Taliban, and controlled by a leader who has aligned himself with our enemies and who is more interested in criticizing counter-insurgency efforts than improving them. There should have been little sustained western presence; rather we should simply have enabled the Afghan people to liberate themselves, then faded away.
3. Let your allies fight the way they want:
Critical to his success, Lawrence understood that there was both no need and no point in trying to make the Arabs fight like a western-trained army. As he stated in the twenty-second of his 27 Articles:
Do not try to trade on what you know of fighting. The Hejaz confounds ordinary tactics. Learn the Bedu principles of war as thoroughly and as quickly as you can, for till you know them your advice will be no good to the Sharif. Unnumbered generations of tribal raids have taught them more about some parts of the business than we will ever know...
The Afghans spent the last two and a half millennia showing the West that they are among the world’s preeminent practitioners of guerilla warfare, defeating first a general of such skill that he was called “the Great”, and later repelling sustained attempts by both the British and Soviet Empires to assert their dominance over the region. The inability of policy makers to conceive of an Afghan military or nation that was not modeled in our own image suggests a startling lack of imagination. This is especially bizarre as it was a loose alliance of Afghan tribesmen fighting in their traditional manner led by America’s own counter-culture guerrillas, the Army Special Forces, that defeated the Taliban swiftly and to great acclaim between 2001 and 2002. Yet, unlike Lawrence, we could not imagine allowing our allies to fight and govern in a manner different from our own and so imposed on the Afghans certain political and military systems that are entirely alien to their own way of doing business and which are thus doomed to fail.
4. Don’t burden your allies with things they can’t use or don’t need:
“The Hejaz war would be one of dervishes against regular troops... against an enemy so enriched in equipment by the Germans as almost to have lost virtue for rough-and-tumble war.”
As Americans, we are not only supremely comfortable with technology, we also have a tendency to see in technology the answer to all war’s problems, and thus we assume that other militaries will benefit from the technologies we use. All technologies, however, are embedded in the societies from which they arise and thus one can not successfully transfer a technological solution without also transferring a certain aspect of culture that enables that technology’s sustained and appropriate use - which is much more difficult. Although many Afghan soldiers now have relatively expensive optics attached to their M-16s, they often do not know how to employ the optic, zero it, or even practice basic marksmanship techniques. For all the billions of dollars spent, we have ultimately given them equipment they don’t know how to use and will not be able to afford once Congressional funding dries up; vehicles they can neither maintain, employ effectively, or get spare parts and fuel for; and a logistics system that is inefficient and unwieldy and does far more to tie them down than it does to free them to maneuver.
5. Keep goals - and the foreign presence - small:
Our original goal in Afghanistan - to defeat the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden - was accomplished with a very small footprint. It was only once we started heaping on additional goals and decided that Afghanistan needed to be modernized politically, economically, and culturally that it became necessary for a large American presence. As Lawrence said,
Our successor and solution must be local; and fortunately the standard of efficiency required was local also.
There is no need to try to turn other nations into mini-Americas; it should be enough that they accomplish our interests. We should not expect our allies to act or fight like Americans, we should not expect them to share our goals, nor should we judge our own success by how closely they imitate us.
6. Understanding the centrality of host-nation will:
As an admirer of Clausewitz and an advisor to a national movement of men “willing to fight for nothing but Arab independence,” Lawrence was keenly aware of the importance of national will in determining military victory. Indeed, his long term strategy was based on the need to grow and cultivate the moral power of the Arab lay people. The United States, however, assumed that the contest was between itself and the insurgents, rather than realizing that victory in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Vietnam) was really a contest between the will of those nations and the will of their home-grown insurgents. Unfortunately, neither host nation had anything resembling a coherent national will.
7. COIN is irrelevant unless it yields tangible strategic ends:
Lawrence was quite clear that his work was intended to accomplish something concrete. A successful Arab revolt could knock Turkey out of the war and thus weaken the Central Powers; it could also lead to a unified, self-governed state for the Arabs.
I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream palace of their national thoughts.
Indeed, Lawrence noted that the greatest strengths of the Arab fighters lay in their strategic and moral position, which far outweighed the Turk’s tactical and material advantages.
Our own counterinsurgency wars have had much murkier goals - although defeating the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were tangible end points, it was never clear how a sustained presence in either Iraq or Afghanistan would make the United States safer from international terrorism, particularly once war casualties eclipsed the numbers of those lost during the attacks on September 11, 2001. Nor was it clear how either country could be incorporated into an American alliance or how a sustained foreign presence in those nations would aid the global spread of democracy or capitalism.
The Path to Failure is Paved with Good Intentions
So what would a successful campaign in Afghanistan have looked like? It would have looked like an anti-Taliban campaign, a military and intelligence enterprise probably administered by the same teams of special operators and intelligence agents who defeated the Taliban in the initial push and much closer to the traditional SF model of “by, with, and through”. It would have been minimalist, it would have been cheap, it would have accomplished our initial goal of denying Afghanistan as a terrorist safe haven, and there would have been few, if any, ancillary goals tacked onto that primary goal.
It is, of course, wonderful for us to wish that the Afghans and all other peoples have such things as modern judicial systems, schools and universities open to women as well as men, flat screen TVs and Starbucks and all the other amenities of the West. But that is a very long fight, and one which ultimately can not be waged by militaries, and which perhaps can only be fought by the people themselves. Certainly, we have shown ourselves to be no miracle workers on that front, and if the most recent National Intelligence Estimate proves true and Afghanistan disintegrates in a few years, we will ultimately have done very little at very great cost.