We’re Not Here to be Liked…

In Warfare on July 5, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

As General Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan, it is perhaps worth considering the lessons offered by historical example in trying to envision the end-state of the conflict in that benighted country. The outlook is not encouraging.

The strategy put into place by the outgoing General McChrystal, which will evidently continue under Petraeus, revolves around the idea of conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, which in short entails employing a set of highly restrictive rules of engagement and a minimum of force in order to maximize opportunities for building support for a new local civilian government among the populace; the rather more destructive approach employed during much of the Vietnam War, best summed up in the convoluted logic of the famous statement by a soldier that “(w)e had to burn the village in order to save it,” has not proven to win much backing. This sort of approach is usually applied in a limited area first, and when it has been pacified, efforts are shifted to adjacent areas; this is known as an “inkspot” strategy, as single drops slowly spread across the map, eventually joining to create a singular secure state. Needless to say, building trust among the people, sufficiently weakening the enemy and strengthening the local government, all with limited resort to force, is an expensive and time-consuming process that depends at least as much on perception and belief as it does on material resources.

There is an inherent tension in this sort of conflict for the Great Power involved. How does one address a military escalation by one’s opponent if a commensurate increase in violence will only serve to further isolate the population upon which success ultimately depends? Is the only approach to “kill them with kindness (and development aid)?” If so, how can such a program be carried out if the civil administration is incapable of supporting such an effort? For soldiers trained to fight, as all soldiers must be, this sort of conflict presents one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges of service. For commanders and policy-makers, the problems present a similar (if not greater) conundrum.

Vietnam is naturally the most common example used in comparison to the current Afghan conflict. American strategy in Vietnam was famously confused, when it was in fact present at all. General Westmoreland’s approach in Vietnam represented what is termed the “ tacticization of strategy,” wherein the tactical objective is erroneously applied to the strategic level; in other words, Westmoreland viewed battlefield defeat of the enemy as an end in itself, but this tactical success led not to victory, but down a strategic cul-de-sac. Westmoreland is only partly to blame, as his civilian superiors gave him precious little strategic guidance, having no idea how to frame the conditions of victory except to identify ending the war as the primary objective.

American leadership largely attempted to ignore the asymmetry of the conflict, assuming or pretending that the Vietnamese people wanted to be free and democratic, that there was no tension between Western ideas and religion (American backed the Catholic Diem regime, to which the majority Buddhist population was generally opposed, if not openly hostile, until Diem’s assassination in 1963) and those native to the region,  and that the Communist opposition could be swayed from its primary purpose by carrots or sticks. Fighting the war on with a strategy based on these premises was a recipe for disaster, as no evidence supported the assumptions that underpinned this approach, while the Vietnamese communists had both a sound strategy and the means to effect it, as well as a far greater commitment to an object that was fundamental to their survival as a state.

Yet the greatest error of America’s war in Vietnam may be that it attempted to build the South Vietnamese state into a self-governing entity even as much of its territory was still contested, if not strongly held by the enemy. Further, the insistence that the South Vietnamese assume the Western form of government, with democratic elections and Enlightenment concepts and ethics lending it legitimacy, only weakened the real power of the South Vietnamese to build a viable nation from a people wholly unfamiliar with these concepts. The desire for rapid success (defined by the American people and government as getting out, presumably without the Communists winning control over all of Vietnam) created tremendous pressure to quickly stabilize the South Vietnamese state; the blind faith in the universal desire for democracy and freedom, combined with the rush to promote self-rule, severely undermined the ability of successive South Vietnamese governments to assume the burden of the war and to build a government that was ultimately sustainable.

In his landmark book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lt. Col. John Nagl (USA, Ret.) compares the U.S. experience in Vietnam with that of the British in Malaya during the Emergency, 1948-57. Both situations saw Communist insurgencies pitted against Western forces that had to deal not only with the immediate problem but with the broader circumstances of the Cold War as well. After confronting the insurgency for several years without success, the British turned to General Sir Gerald Templar, who was, to paraphrase Field Marshall Montgomery, “the man with the plan.” Templar was instructed that a self-governing unified non-Communist Malaya as the object of British efforts. With this in mind, the British government gave him “exceptional civil and military powers to defeat the insurgency,” appointing him not only High Commissioner (the highest civilian representative of the British government) but also commander of all armed forces in Malaya. Thus Templar was given full control over all assets, civil and military, that could be applied to defeating the insurgency in a singular unified effort prior to establishing a Malayan government, rather than trying to accomplish two difficult tasks at once. He used them to good effect; only when the Communists had been badly weakened did he begin to relinquish control to the nascent Malayan government.

Templar admittedly did not have to face the same bewildering array of political problems that the Americans did in Vietnam – Malaya having been a British colony for some time – but the fundamentals were similar. Securing the civilian population, isolating the insurgents, minimizing casualties and costs, and resolving the conflict expeditiously were all part of Templar’s brief. Without the problem of managing both the war effort and relations with a new and inexperienced local administration with no experience of the government model into which they have been thrust, Templar was free to apply techniques that would have prompted strong local resistance, such as strictly controlling the food supply and limiting movement.

This unified command approach was not pioneered by the British in Malaya, however; indeed, Americans had come to similar conclusions years before, as evidenced in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of 1940. This book, the culmination of decades of experience in fighting small wars, was forgotten in the wake of the Second World War, reentered the military’s consciousness as a result of the failure in Vietnam, and has been claimed to be influential in developing post-Cold War policy, yet its lessons have been applied haphazardly and piecemeal. The Small Wars Manual makes quite clear that there must be an effective administration in place while the military objectives are in question: “Military government…is sanctioned because the powers of sovereignty have passed into the hands of the commander of the occupying forces and the local authority is unable to maintain order and protect life and property in the immediate theater of military operations” (emphasis added). The latter state is quite clearly present in Afghanistan today.

The American effort in Afghanistan is badly weakened by the presence of the Afghan government. Corruption, infiltration by supporters of the Taliban insurgents, and general ineffectiveness all undermine popular support, which is critically important to create legitimacy, not least because of the insistence that the government be elected. If the counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed beyond simply allowing the United States to extricate itself from the conflict, the American commander should be invested with overarching civil powers as well as military command. This would clearly be a temporary condition, and may prove unpopular among the Afghan people, but it is necessary if the first precondition of a successful counterinsurgency effort – security of the populace – is to be established. As noted by the Marine authors of the Small Wars Manual seventy years ago, “(i)t should be remembered that the inhabitants do not owe the military government allegiance; but they do owe it obedience.” The American-led coalition of forces in Afghanistan are the only power sufficient to have even a hope of compelling the latter condition, which by our own doctrine is a necessary prerequisite for the former.


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