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Cutting the Knot

January 6, 2012

I had the good fortune to attend a conference at Quantico in the fall of last year where, among many other fascinating topics, the subject of wicked problems came up. In the discussion that followed, the audience – a plurality, if not majority of which was Marines or former Marines – naturally became engaged in a debate about the nature of counter-insurgency as a wicked problem. The most memorable part of the exchange was when someone claimed counterinsurgency was far too complex to have any kind of straightforward solution. The reply from a Marine was: “We have a straightforward solution, but it’s not one you’d like.”

Adam Elkus, noting the brouhaha which erupted over William F. Owen’s “Killing Your Way to Control,” summarized the key points of Owen’s argument as:

  • Victory is produced by combat, and the goal of operating forces should be to break the enemy’s will.
  • The rule of law, governance, and other things seen as the goal of COIN are products of control, which requires destroying, deterring, and intimidating the enemy.
  • The prize is not the population, but the control the government can gain when the enemy is destroyed.
  • An inability to do these things is indicative of a policy or strategy failure.

It was not, as commonly thought, a call to exercise Soviet or Chinese-like tactics of “creating a desert and calling it peace” but a basic call for strategic sanity. Contrary to what is sometimes said, war is about “killing your way to victory.” The whole point of maintaining armies, air forces, and navies is to use force to either compel or deter. If you cannot do so, then your policy or the strategy you have employed may be suspect.

The challenge for this strategy, in both tactical and policy terms, is answering the question of who the enemy is. Tactics are a question for another author, let alone another post, but it suffices to say that if you do not have an intelligence apparatus capable of functioning in a non-permissive environment in those moments where popular support has yet to be won – because the enemy’s coercion is a more credible threat to the people than your troops are to the enemy – then you are in for a long and ugly conflict.

In policy terms, though, much of the problem has been with defining the enemy in relation to the ends we seek. When our goal in Afghanistan was creating a democratic, relatively free, pro-US Afghanistan with a monopoly on force, our objectives inevitably gave us a very broad set of enemies – not just al Qaeda, but the reconstituted Taliban, a panoply of other warlords and militias who did not particularly like Kabul or the people running it, criminals feeling left out of the implicitly US-sanctioned going concern the Karzai family was involved in, an ISI seeking to avoid either a pro-Delhi or Pashtun-revanchist government on the other side of the Durand Line, the Haqqani Network and any number of other AQ or ISI fellow-travelers, and ordinary Afghans – some of whom are in the armed forces we’re training – who took issue with the US goals or methods of achieving them. Changing our objectives would certainly alter the emphasis we needed to place on the various recalcitrants in this laundry list.

If the goal was pure CT, we could just focus on killing al Qaeda and their close affiliates. If our goal was to simply have some kind of government and we did not particularly care how they treated their people, as long as they kept AQ out and the lid on Afghanistan on, we could take many other groups off this list. And so on. I won’t pretend to solve the Afghan war here, but to demonstrate that the friend/enemy distinction, and the violent relationship it describes, as a bridge between war and the political.

Joseph Fouche, my Fear Honor and Interest co-blogger, brilliantly described how this dynamic played out in his discussion of Ollivant’s debunking of the “New Orthodoxy” surrounding the Iraq surge (something Adam also comments on in the aforementioned post). The surge did not succeed simply because it protected the population – this is far too reductive. Instead, the surge ultimately capitalized on the Sunni failure to win the Iraqi civil war, at which point cooperation with the United States and the government in Baghdad seemed like a more attractive option. Although there is certainly truth in the argument that AQI overplayed its hand, Ollivant demonstrates the more comprehensive answer is that AQI were dead-enders perpetuating a conflict that was now posing an existential threat to the political viability of the Sunni in Iraq. Similarly, victory in the civil war allowed Maliki to begin a process of internal – and yes, quasi-authoritarian – consolidation that we still see in motion today.

As for the role of the US military, Ollivant points out that the so-called industrial scale killing machine of JSOC, with support from Brigade Combat Teams, also played an important role in targeting the dismantling the absolute enemies – AQI and the most direct pawns and partners of the Iranian Qods Force, while many of the effective forms of civilian protection employed, such as the concrete barriers Coalition forces began erecting everywhere, were not exactly heart-and-mind winners.* I do not think Ollivant does not use “political” in exactly the sense I do in this post, but this quote is nevertheless vital:

However, determining which portion of the insurgency can be acceptably integrated— again, keeping in mind the interests of both the host and intervening nation—is an inherently political decision.

I would go further and argue that, because this question is fundamentally tied up with the purpose of the host government and the intervening state’s objectives, the distinction between friend and enemy is the essence (dare we say, The Conceptof the Political. If your stated enemies cannot be killed without subverting your objectives, then you have likely defined your objectives wrongly or too broadly. In focusing your objectives more narrowly, you also gain clarity about who the main enemy is (and conversely, recognizing your enemy throws light onto your objectives). As Adam said earlier, the inability to identify the enemy towards which we must direct our force is a policy failure. Trying to go around this problem by papering over the gaping void in policy and strategy through aimless and unsustainable attempts to court the populace, engorge the local economy on aid, or creating a fractious coterie of political actors willing to accept becoming rentiers of the US commander as a temporary diversion from killing one another are not policy solutions, but, bereft of the political decision about objectives and the enemy, salves which make the costs of policy failure more bearable (though, as the Decent Interval showed us, perhaps salves which make the most psychologically painful political decision bearable – the one that says we have no enemies worth dying to defeat, and ends US involvement in the war entirely).

That, in a roundabout way, brings me to the discussion of the new Defense Strategic Guidance, something I discussed even more tangentially in the last post (yes, this is me being  focused. Well, for a blog). Jason Fritz has some interesting thoughts up at Ink Spots about limited objectives in the age of austerity. I agree, of course, with his overall point – the attrition of war revealed the political truth that the United States cannot sustain the military efforts required to make the regime-change-and-rebuild model of war-making standard operating procedure. The United States will no longer able to go around refashioning governments in its own image. This is not a bad thing, and it is not really necessary for fighting insurgency.

However, I am not sure I agree with Fritz and Dr. Slaughter, who he approvingly cites, when they speak of the end of victory. While I agree that for too long the American frame of reference for what victory means has been not just the total destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but the overthrow of their government and the remaking of their political order. The definition of victory is a function of the policy aims set by civilians. If our definition of victory is too expansive, it is entirely the fault of policymakers, either for vaguely or wrongly identifying political aims suited to the interests and capacities of the United States. Fritz identifies the first Gulf War as a case of limited war – I agree. But it does not jibe with the 21st century vision of warfare Slaughter offers, in which the United States will seek to influence rather than conquer. The first Gulf War was very much a “twentieth century war.” It was fought with twentieth century equipment for the control of territory. The US victory conditions were to liberate Kuwait and to destroy Baghdad’s offensive military capacity. The United States succeeded, not through influencing Iraq but by killing its soldiers, seizing territory, and breaking the will of its leadership. That was victory – the problem came when the United States began cumulatively and in some cases retroactively piling on additional victory conditions that were irrelevant to the original aims of the war – the protection of Iraqi civilians, the cease of Iraq’s WMD programs, and finally, by 1998, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government was enshrined as a matter of US policy.

If the United States were truly embracing limited war, we would be moving back to the objectives of 18th and 19th century great powers as much as leaping into those of the 21st. After the decline of Hapsburgs seeking universal monarchy and before the rise of revolutionaries and Napoleon, who would seek to overthrow the illiberal regimes of Europe, what we would call limited warfare was the most prominent form of war. Wars over succession relied expressly on maintaining and legitimizing the sovereign credentials of monarchy itself. Because the capacity for completely destroying or reconstructing the enemy’s society did not exist, and very often the capacity for completely destroying the enemy’s army did not either, war’s objectives faced both serious material and normative constraints. But managing limited war requires a lot more from policymakers. As Fritz astutely notes:

At the civilian level above the military, I hope that it means that political guidance to the military will also be clearer, because without unlimited (or at least voluminous) assets that we’ve had the guidance needs to be clear. Hopefully it also means that we’re going to narrow our definition of interests to ensure our (increasingly) scarce resource are only used for what they’re really needed.

I agree, but again, I think there are large gaps between this and what Slaughter is elucidating and even larger ones between Fritz’s concept and what policymakers are actually likely to do. One of the major problems with Mr. Y’s concept of “credible influence” is that it seeks essentially the same outcomes but without recognizing the capacity for political and military decision necessary to achieve them. In the list of objectives Slaughter outlines, there are not just truly limited aims such as killing terrorists and pirates, but ones such as civilian protection and the prosecution of criminal regimes. These last two are not limited objectives. They are both outcomes of Owen’s control of government (or denial of governance), as achieved through military victory, not through influence. The war in Libya already proved that when it comes to civilian protection against criminal regimes, the notion that NATO was simply disabling Gaddafi’s security forces without destroying them was fantasy. It soon became very obvious that the only way to get Gaddafi to stop trying to suppress the revolt against him was to remove him from power, and NATO acquiesced with the Gulf-supplied rebel ground forces to this end. NATO’s Libyan objectives were not really limited, nor did the war succeed because of credible influence. It succeeded because of military decision on the ground, as fought by armed forces, and its victory conditions could only be achieved, all along, with the destruction of Gaddafi’s military and paramilitary forces, followed by the complete overthrow of his regime. Similarly, Clinton’s wars in the Balkans were only limited in terms of the means allotted to conduct them (primarily airpower, although a ground invasion was threatened for Kosovo). The actual military decision occurred on the ground through the action of Croatian, Bosnian, and Kosovar forces. When the Croats launched Operation Storm, or the KLA decided to throw off Serbian government, they were absolutely seeking victory – and insofar as we aided abetted them, we did too.

Rather than a world where normal victory and political decision through force of arms give way to a world of credible influence, I see this concept ushering in a world where America’s objectives remain expansive – seeking to create social and political change – but where “twentieth century” warfare continues as usual, obscured by multilateral efforts and prosecuted as much as possible by local forces. Because the objectives are essentially unchanged – overthrow of criminal regimes, integration of societies into a dynamic liberal international order, protection of civilians – one of my real fears about the Defense Strategic Guidance is that, confronted with conflicts and challenges to our interests, and with a paradigm of military aims just as expansive as before, we will slouch inevitably towards unsustainable ways of war. Already, the new objectives of civilian protection are blurring into the old objectives of democracy promotion and liberalization – just look at the title of the new State Department Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

On another note, I reject that the defense cuts must lead inevitably to a United States that can do nothing but AirSea Battle in Asia. Many very intelligent people have worried that the United States is putting itself at risk by investing in a conflict it seems less likely to fight than additional insurgencies and irregular threats by cutting land forces. Firstly, as I’ve said earlier, there are many historical models for a maritime-centric military with limited ground capabilities leveraging combinations of limited objectives, emphasis on light or irregular force deployments, and leveraging of power projection capabilities along with use of partners and clients to confront the problem of unconventional warfare (expect more on this later, but two words for now: Banana Wars). Secondly, however, the American ability to engage in irregular warfare operations abroad is a function of our power projection capability and our conventional military capability, in both its ability to compel and to deter.

Conducting large counterinsurgencies in Eurasia or Africa is a luxury for the United States. Had the United States not possessed enormous military assets, Richard Armitage threatening to send Pakistan back to the stone age at the Afghan War’s outset would have been an empty threat (and the ability to airlift in supplies after it quickly became apparent we weren’t willing to do so when they cut off NATO routes would also have been quite difficult). The ability to supply and fight a counterinsurgency in Iraq, or fight even a limited war against its second-rate conventional military in 1991, were also dependent on the United States having overwhelming conventional military superiority and large amounts of “twentieth century” assets. Even in a world where the United States is overwhelmingly relying on Special Forces and Special Operations Forces for limited interventions, those will still need serious power projection capabilities that only air and naval forces can provide. For an offshore maritime power, putting a large land counterinsurgency force in another country is a luxury. It means that you are already operating in a permissive environment with sufficient access to the global commons. It means the enemy’s foreign backers are not willing or able to increase the intensity of the conflict. It means that you can muster the logistical gumption to maintain overwhelming conventional military superiority in the field to make simply attempting to overrun and destroy your COIN contingents militarily impractical. In other words, unless the United States is essentially invited in for a FID mission and no rival states want to disrupt it, it cannot continue conducting COIN missions around the world. As Andrew Exum noted, provided you retain institutional knowledge and doctrine, you can reconstitute land forces for COIN much more easily than you can reconstitute the military hardware and overall capacity for power projection.

In other words, the ability of us to engage in the kinds of wars we have recently – and indeed, to get away with in futility prolonging or even losing them – is a function of our overwhelming conventional military superiority. Retrenching our defense capabilities to ensure we retain the capacity to sustain such a military force is a good idea, and so too is cutting our land footprint, the use of which has always been a political luxury enabled by our conventional superiority. The British Empire of the 19th century and the US experience (sometimes by negative example) of the 20th demonstrated that even in small wars, it’s a better idea for proxies, clients, and partners less able to provide the conventional capabilities we do to be doing the quantitative majority of the mud-and-blood fighting – and “Wilfian” killing – that ultimately provides victory even in irregular conflicts. The economic logic of this appears to hold as well.

There will, of course, be sacrifices we will need to make – including getting rid of our expansive or nebulous conceptions of our military objectives, and the correspondingly vague or extreme definitions of who our enemies are. But this requires becoming much more modest about what outcomes our military forces we can achieve – and trying to “merely” influence societies without breaking the wills of political authorities that do not want their societies to be influenced. That still requires combat leading to victory. If you are fighting a war where victory is not possible, that is utter policy failure. If you have defined victory, but in such a way that the use of force cannot achieve it, that is policy failure. In both these cases, you should not be in a war. Recognizing these truths is essential to making a pared-down military effective. In many ways, the Defense Strategic Guidance is putting the US military back to basics – ensuring that the United States does not atrophy or lose the capabilities that ensure it maritime and aerial dominance, preventing the degradation of the deterrence, compellence, and power projection capabilities which give the US the freedom and scope of action to throw its resources into COIN, and ensuring the US economy can sustain the military it fields. But ultimately, the largest changes still need to come from policymakers, who need to understand that limited war is not just fighting for the sort of sociopolitical outcomes we have become accustomed to fighting for, but without means or ends that recognize the need for political and military decision. If an austere military is to succeed in protecting and advancing America’s national interest, policymakers must slice through the Gordian knot of mismatched and misconceived ends, ways, and means they have launched the wars of the past decade with.

* As a side note, Ollivant’s point about police is also a significant counterpoint to traditional counterinsurgency narratives and a lesson for Americans seeking to implement counterinsurgency. Ollivant notes that in a relatively non-permissive environment, i.e., a war zone, tasking military forces with training policemen and not militaries is not a very good use of resources. He notes that allied countries with gendarmerie forces should take a stronger role. Contrary to much of the fretting about militarized policing or a “police state” in the United States, American police forces are neither tasked with nor capable of restoring order in internal conflict zones (the National Guard generally fulfills this function, on the rare occasions it arises), whereas many countries with a gendarmerie or actual Military Police component involved in public order have far more experience in creating the sort of police forces unstable governments need.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2012 2:04 pm

    Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, history may record these wars as prim examples of a county unable to turn tactical victories into strategic victories….

    a former Marine from the conference

  2. Tom R. permalink
    January 16, 2012 7:42 pm

    “Wicked problems” do not have “solutions” — at least not in the way we normally use this term. THAT’S the problem.

    You might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at Springer here:


    Tom R.
    Swedish Morphological Society

  3. January 19, 2012 6:58 pm

    The first Gulf War was very much a “twentieth century war.” It was fought with twentieth century equipment for the control of territory.

    Possibly one of the last ‘traditional’ interstate wars. There are none going on now.


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