Getting it….

Not getting it…

One of my ongoing beefs with ‘modern’ COIN is the misperception is that successful COIN is all about being nice, of waging war without casualties (although casualties amongst one’s own soldiers appear to ‘OK’), and having this great expectation that one day ‘the people’ will just rise up, out of gratitude for the niceness shown them by the security forces and cast out the insurgents…

The simple fact is that this ‘doctrine’ is all lala-land, cloud cuckoo vunderland fantasy. That’s pretty much the theme of Wilf Owen’s article in the Spring 2011 edition of the British Army Review (I’d post a link to BAR but it seems that it is a highly classified publication and not one suited to easy intuitive location via the Power of Google), titled Killing Your Way To Control. He takes particular issues with statements like

Effective counterinsurgency provides human security to the population, where they live, 24 hours a day. This, not destroying the enemy, is the central task. (from Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla)

Unlike in general war, the objective is not the defeat or destruction of the enemy, but neutralisation of a threat to stable society. (from JDP 3-40)

And guess what? He is absolutely 100% correct! Was it Douglas MacArthur, addressing the cadets at West Point, who said something like “Your duty is clear and inviolate: to win our nation’s wars”? Something about “Victory, always victory”? Even if victory might mean achieving your objectives on your terms as opposed to victory always equating to absolute, grinding under the steel-shod boot, unconditional victory…

Use of the military is, should be, the final option in execution of national policy to achieve national objectives…because it is brutal and unpleasant – and effective when employed properly. The military should be used when other instruments in the DIME construct are not effective. That is not to say that once the military deploys, the rest of DIME takes for some time out; it just means that the lead agency has changed.

And what is it about the military that both makes it an option of last resort and one so effective? Simply…the use of force…brutal force, whether blunt or surgical, but brutal none the less because force can only be brutal. Who talks about let alone attempts to develop and  apply ‘nice’ force? And this is Wilf’s point, and, for an irregular environment,  encapsulated nicely in the extract he selects from the UK’s 2005 Land Operations

Neutralising the insurgent and in particular the leadership forms part of a successful COIN strategy. Methods include killing, capturing, demoralising and deterring insurgents and promoting desertions. This is an area in which military forces can specialise and should be a focus for COIN training. The aim should be to defeat the insurgent on his own ground using as much force as is necessary, but no more.

Now we know that there are times, especially immediately following an intervention and lodgement when the only people who can realistically maintain and provide essential services like power, water, electricity, sewage and security are the military. Forget about some imaginary gendarmerie with shovels that will miraculously appear and relieve the military of such onerous and unpleasant tasks…never happen…

Nor is anyone saying that forces optimised for high-end force on force  major combat operations can successfully instantly reconfigure, collectively and individually, into an irregular warfare scenario. If there was one myth that was majorly debunked in the last decade it was the “If you train up (for MCO), you can easily step down (for COIN)”. Thus, a choice must be made between a dual force optimised one side for MCO and irregular warfare on the other: just to be real clear, two forces – NOT one size fits all; or a deliberate acceptance that one’s forces will only be capable of engaging in one form of conflict OR the other. Most nations forced towards the latter choice will probably tend towards a specialisation in irregular warfare up to a limit of national capability on the spectrum of operations.

And while the logical threads in population-centricity unravel, this does not mean that the military should isolate itself from ‘the people’. GEN Petraeus was right in Baghdad in 2006 when he brought the troops back in amongst ‘the people’ and ended the daily tactical commuting/sallying from the FOBs. The military is not some horde to be hidden away – if ‘the people’ is where the adversary(s) are, then that’s where the military should be – configured and trained for the application of force in that specific environment just as they would/should be for any other unique environment.

And on the spectrum of operations…let’s not forget that it is NOT the linear progression from peacetime to all-out warfare that is it portrayed as…a more accurate model would have peace in the middle, surrounded by a ring that includes peacetime engagement (a smidgen up from peace), peacekeeping, peacemaking, irregular warfare, HADR, limited war (e.g. the Falklands War), major war (DESERT STORM, OIF Part 1) and full-on all-out war (Red Storm Rising).

Imagine that ring being like a trembler switch (who didn’t used to watch Danger: UXB or The ProfessionalsSteady, it’s a trembler!?) from which a nation can flick from peace to any state around that ring, and from that state then flick to another and another or back to the stable centre. Accepting that there are two clear extremes, peace and all-out war, most nations would assess the planning for one, peace, carries too much risk as it would naïve to expect peace to remain constant in the most benign scenario. Similarly few nations can afford to truly step up to the full range of capabilities required for the other extreme. Thus most opt for a point in-between.

But regardless of where that point may lie, the primary role and output of that national military force is the application of force. That is why the lead group in the Air and Space Interoperability Council is the Force Application group, with six important but supporting groups. That is why, in the continental staff system, the staff branches are NOT all created equal – operations leads, supported by whatever combination of numbers floats your boat – whoever heard of logistics or intelligence supported by operations? That is because the ops branch is all about creating and delivering effects – and the effect that the military delivers best…is…force.

So you might imagine just how it felt as I scrolled through my ‘most recent’ view on Facebook to see the link to Wilf’s paper first from DoctrineMan! (still not sure about people who include punctuation in their name) and a ways further down, the original post at Small Wars Journal.  Even more so when I realised that Wilf, who I have spent more time at Small Wars disagreeing with than ever agreeing, had authored it.

What was disappointing was the number of people on both DoctrineMan! And Small Wars fixated on pulling every literal point of contention from the article. I was sadly reminded of the 45k+ morons who ‘liked’ the Boycott Macsyna King Book page; or the moral minority who all ‘just know’ that Casey Anthony killed her daughter and that there was no need for all that legal dues process stuff: let’s just string her up!! Wonder sometimes if western society is descending to a point where the capacity for independent thought is lost…and we all just become drones circling the brightest, loudest light…

The irony in his article that he does not point out is that while British Army doctrine in 2005 included the quote above from Land Operations (now that I think about it, I was working at Uphaven on CLAW 1 when it was released and got to bring the first copies back home), this was the same period that the UK was trumpeting the success of Malaya and the triumph myth of ‘hearts and minds’ that set irregular warfare back decades. If only the UK had read and applied its own doctrine… (What’s that? You read doctrine? And apply it?)

So where does this leave us? Wilf has articulated what we have probably known along, what the dead Germans told us is right, that the military is about the application of force, not the application of ‘nice’, as an extension of policy. That force may be applied to create the conditions where others can see to the building of a stable society, hopefully where such existed at some stage before; equally as much it may be applied to simply attrite an adversary to the point where further resistance is either untenable or impossible.

But, harking back to the dead Germans again, the ultimate target for force is one specific part of what is popularly accepted as the Clausewitzian Trinity: of ‘the people’, the action arm and the leadership of any collective entity, military force ultimately targets the leadership to either eliminate it as the driving force behind the organisation, or convince it to consider and change its ways. That’s what the military is for….

2 thoughts on “Getting it….

  1. Actually the British were very successful to start with by been firm but fair & winning the hearts & minds in Southern Iraq.

    In the words of their own Chief of general staff they just stayed too long.

    In Um Qasar the population did rise up & throw out the insurgents. The reason was the British approach compared to the US approach.

    First the military approach. The British did the hearts & minds as well as urban patrolling based on Northern Ireland. Including flooding the streets after an incident.

    The Americans well I can count on the fingers on one hand the amount of foot patrols I saw them do in Baghdad & badly. Where as in the middle of Baghdad the Aussies were foot patrolling & dominating their designated area.

    Post an incident the Americans would withdraw & lock down.

    The other big difference was how they approached it. The British 3 months post invasion gave all the contracts to local companies with British & foreign companies working alongside them to help bring them up to standard.

    Where as the Americans had already pre invasion given all contracts to US companies & everyone had to work under US company control. Iraqis are proud people it didn’t go down well as we witnessed at several meetings. Turned more people against them.

    Another issue was the US forces were either cotton wool or iron glove not the firm but fair the British practice. Iraqis did notice the difference.

    Of particular significance was the changed US plans were based on the British in Malaysia & a paper written about that called “to eat soup with a knife”.

    Also were the comments by an Irish woman working for the British Governmetn in IRaq. She had been PA to Ian Paisley as well as Martin Maguiness(?), but she noted as someone who hated to see British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland you just didn’t realize how good they were until you were in a similar environment & see the US military in action.


  2. But is your problem that current COIN strategy is misrepresented or that its practitioners aren’t engaging the enemy?

    If the former I agree totally but if the latter I think I have to disagree. Both Petraus and McChrystal before him were very clear that taking the fight to the enemy and being dogged in our pursuit of them was both essential and central to their intent.

    The idea that there’s a binary choice (you either have to pick flowers and be population centric or stick more bayonets in more people) seems false to me and here I think you CAN have your cake and eat it too.

    The difference between COIN and MCO is that it’s more important the the application of force be smart and accurate in the former. If you drop a bomb on a town that you thought the 8GA HQ was set up in and it ends up there were just some civilians there keeping their heads down until the shooting stopped you probably don’t have to worry about West Germans rising up with their revolutionary comrades across the IGB (how’s that for dating myself?). Do that in Afghanistan and you can lose a district.

    And what is it about the military that both makes it an option of last resort and one so effective?

    It’s also the unity of command. While certainly militaries have institutional interests and will compete with each other as well as other bureaucratic players they are (at least the good militaries) more obedient than other potential levers of power available to a government.

    I’d agree that it’d be better if there was someone else to do the ‘nice’ work and the military could focus on the application of force but (at least in the U.S.) we’ve never had anyone else. At the COIN conference I went to (2009?) there was an interesting speaker who addressed this point and went back through American history to review various stabilization, nation building, counterinsurgency operations and they fell onto the shoulders of the military. Usually because no one else had the resources to do it quickly and sometimes because no one wanted that hot potato.

    Now that I read your piece again and I’m not sure if we agree or not…But I’ve already written this much and it seems a shame to hit the delete button so I’ll just pretend these comments are relevant. After all, it is early…


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