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Defense & National Security

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Promise of COIN, the Pitfalls of Iraq

Without getting into speculating about whether the U.S.-Iraqi SOFA deal will get done or not, the fact that the main sticking point is Iraq's demand for jurisdiction over American soldiers off their bases is telling. Here's Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi in McClatchy:

"The impression of the Iraqi people is that American troops from time to time exaggerate their reactions, use excessive force and irresponsible behavior," Hashimi said. "We would like to put an end to that. When this happens in the future there must be prosecution of those who are exceeding the limit of the authorities given to them."

This is, in effect, one of the lingering costs of the initial failures in post-invasion Iraq, and an illustration of the ways in which some damage just can't be undone. The Surge (by which I mean the "narrative" of the Surge) has had a major impact on the Stateside image of America's presence in Iraq. What's more, either Gen. David Petraeus has managed to seriously rein in the Blackwater cowboys, or else to seriously rein in the press' coverage of them, because I haven't seen any OK Corral-type stories for a long time.

The Iraq-side image of America's presence in Iraq, on the other hand, does not seem to be as benign. I haven't seen any polling about Iraqi perceptions, but the Iraqi government's negotiating position, to say nothing of the Iraqi parliament's reported hostility to it, suggests that notwithstanding the COIN approach that puts an emphasis on winning the population's allegiance, there is still quite a bit of distrust and resentment of American forces. Which means not so much that the COIN-based Surge was too little, too late, so much as nothing would have been enough.

As Jack Kem's WPR feature article on the Army's new Stability Operations manual makes clear, the Army has learned from its mistakes, which were doctrinally determined. If there's one silver lining perhaps to the Iraq War, it's that it has forced American military doctrine to recognize and codify the fact that contemporary warfare must only be as destructive as is absolutely necessary to defeat the enemy, and not one bit more. It's an incredible evolution in the American conception of warfighting that, if we can avoid the temptation to believe that even that amount of destruction is tolerable in any but the most urgent of cases, represents a victory for rational humanism. The fact that this realization comes from within the military is all the more noteworthy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Defense & National Security   Iraq   

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Small Wars Temptation

Sam Roggeveen and Mark O'Neil have a little back and forth and back again exchange over at The Lowy Interpreter, about whether or not the Army's recently released Stability Operations field manual represents the ascendancy of what Sam calls "small wars."

It just so happens WPR's current feature articles include a piece by Jack Kem, of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, on the Stability Ops manual. Kem puts it into the context of doctrine's purpose in the U.S. Army, and talks of a "doctrinal renaissance" that is being driven by the new focus on "full spectrum operations." If you read through it, you'll find that Sam's assessment is closer to the mark than Mark's, although Mark is not wrong. Full spectrum operations, ie. COIN and Stability Ops, have caught up, because they were previously categorized as operations "other than war".

But they are also by definition ascendant, because by they are rising compared to conventional offensive and defensive operations, but also for two other significant reasons. First, as Sam points out, they are the kinds of operations that recent DoD strategy papers have increasingly forecast as the conflicts of the future. But second, and perhaps more importantly, as Kem explains, they represent a fundamental change in the Army's conception of warfighting:

[The Stability Operations manual] marks a milestone for the United States Army. With it, the Army acknowledges and codifies a dramatic change in thinking: No longer does the mission of the military stop at winning wars; now it must also help "win the peace."

. . .For the Army, offensive and defensive operations rely on the destructive capabilities of military forces; stability operations rely on the constructive capabilities of the military. The reality of today's operational environment is that these actions take place simultaneously; what you break and destroy today, you may have to rebuild tomorrow. By putting stability operations on an equal doctrinal footing with offensive and defensive operations, the new stability operations manual introduces the consideration of the consequences of all actions in a conflict into the planning and operational phases. Colin Powell's famous "pottery barn" rule -- "you break it, you own it" -- now applies at the operational level.

Kem goes on to discuss the significance of the doctrine's conceptual framework of "comprehensive approach," which is essentially the Army recognizing that it is only one among many actors in a conflict zone, and that a stable resolution depends on cooperatively creating "unity of effort" among them all.

Our other feature article by Paul McLeary gives a close up view of how the Army's Human Terrain Teams of social scientists might potentially further change the nature of warfighting by adding sorely needed resources of cultural familiarity to ground level stability operations. Paul embedded with American forces in Iraq and saw the HTTs at work in the field, and contrary to criticisms from the academic social science community (which has rightly raised concerns about cooptation and the militarization of the social sciences), the teams seem to be an illustration of how understanding (as opposed to knowing) might actually render satbility operations less lethal.

I'll have more to say on both subjects later, because I share Sam's concern about the temptation that comes of having such a satisfying "war-lite" conception of conflict:

Given the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan, you can understand why the U.S. Army is preoccupied with such questions, just as our military probably is. But as I've said before, arguing about how to do stability operations better precludes one option that needs serious thought: not doing stability operations at all, or at least, doing far fewer of them.

But the articles by Kem and McLeary give a good basis for understanding what the debate is all about.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Defense & National Security   

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