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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.