October 28th, 2011

Secret Agent Man: A Strategic Parable

So, both Pakistan and Iran have been carrying out a combination of Unconventional Warfare (in the SF doctrinal definition) and covert operations against the US and its allies and clients. By now, Pakistan’s hand has simply become impossible to ignore.

What this represents largely is the triumph of cumulative strategy and the West’s failure to adapt to it.  As Lukas Milevski notes, cumulative strategy is fundamentally rooted on strategic attrition and battle-avoidance. A pattern rooted in a combination of small events that eventually pose a overwhelming systemic cost to an adversary. I’ll let Milevski step up to the mic here and explain why this matters:

A strategic actor may assert control (as in, indicate that one can exercise control), which indicates certainty; exercise control, which fulfils certainty; or deny control, which disputes certainty. Battle is the most significant means of asserting control and, in the case of victory, of exercise of control; it is not connected to only denial of control. The West, viewing war through the lens of battle, when denied control, forms ideas such as hybrid war as its intellectual response to the challenge, although what is really envisaged is hybrid battle. Avoidance is alien to battle whereas it is not alien to war. This leaves the full import of cumulative strategy outside the scope of recent Western concepts created to understand it. The true effect of cumulative strategy upon post-heroic military policy and the battle-centric concept of war is debilitating.

This is not an endorsement of nation-building as a substitute for force, but to point out that force does not equal “battle.” I’d go even farther than Milevski to point out that “battle” implies discrete phases instead of a long process that adds up over time, and that “battle avoidance” does not mean that cumulative force can’t generate control absent the formal structure of “battle.”

The Battle of the Atlantic, for example, was less an battle than a time period of many small actions in which control over the mid-Atlantic was gained through generation of decisive attrition. Operations research shined here as quantitative techniques generated more efficient concepts of operation that reduced the impact of attrition on our forces and accelerated attrition of German units.

Nor does this mean that the answer is the indirect approach. Coercion can take both direct and indirect forms. Often times coercion is simply a lot of men with guns, prepared to use them. Control was gained not from battle in the LA Riots, but the appearance of overwhelming military force in every conceivable location. Escalation dominance, in essence.

Pakistan is certainly getting a lot for its money with its cumulative strategy in Afghanistan—at our expense. And Iran has used its covert operations and subversion entities to punch far above their military weight in Middle East geopolitics. This sort of situation is not exactly unique—there was a similar time in American history in which limited war and even more limited covert action was the only means in which we could use force against our adversaries.

We might even take some lessons from this time period, even though it’s fashionable for would-be successors of Kennan to deride it as somehow less “complex adaptive” than the era of Facebook. Or one lesson rather—that covert operations, proxy war, and UW capabilities are essential, and not just on the level of direct action that they currently occupy. Unfortunately, these capabilities (and much of the realities of international politics) are politically incorrect in an era in which cutting-edge thought about international security involves waxing poetic about overthrowing dictators using Twitter on your smart-mobbed iPhone.

It’s not just that our expansive ends don’t match up to the means and ways that exist. If that were the case, we could devise strategies and foreign policies that match the resources we have available. It’s that we are broadly uncomfortable with what we have to do to achieve those ends, and invent technocratic (and largely bloodless) fantasies of soft power, development, and post-heroic warfare to replace the golden trio of destruction, coercion, and subversion.

It still amazes me that this article generated such controversy, when all Wilf Owen did was point out that strategy is "killing your way to victory." If the opposite was true, then why invest so much time and resources in maintaining a military to begin with? Force is meant to be used against other force. Everything else—diplomacy, development, and security-is built on the shoulders of the "man on the scene with a gun.” This does not mean, again, that force equals battle. But force equals force.

A rocket launched from the “wrong” side of the border in AF-PAK, a car bomb leveling a Marine installation in Beirut, or a speeding DF-9 doesn’t care about complex adaption, social networks, or a development project. It’ll still kill you, as it was designed to do, regardless of the amount of followers on your Facebook fan page. To go even simpler, the Taliban have gained far more from the ability to operate a simple set of Cold War infantry weapons systems, a simple goal, and a Third World military backer than all of the squiggly maps PowerPoint can generate.

So what do we do against this cumulative strategy? The first step, as Clausewitz teaches us, is to figure out what kind of war you are fighting. This step may be the hardest, given the intellectual trends previously described. Dan Trombly has cataloged a long litany of attempts to deny certain realities of the “rules of the game” that do not easily match up with popular sensibilities. Then we develop the ways and means to effectively contest cumulative strategies and operations over interests that are important to us.

Drones and the operational construct they serve are the start, not the end, of what countering cumulative strategy requires us to do. Developing strategic UW and covert capabilities means the ability to contest control over a wide array of both overt and covert battlefields. These will be paired, as need be, with traditional forms of military power and diplomacy to generate sufficient coercion to defend vital interests.

We could begin to seriously generate the ways and means necessary to protect ourselves and our allies, and even maybe think about how we can lower our human and financial costs by rethinking the basis of how define our security

I’ll close with a quote from one of Dan’s best posts:

Americans also wanted to fight terrorism without escalating or promulgating massive land wars, leaving the President with the best available option of intensifying airstrikes and the drone war. Where possible, the American government would capture and arrest terrorists and terrorist suspects and try them in court. Where impossible, the US government would kill them with the lowest footprint practical. There was never going to be a law enforcement solution to AQAP – and indeed, Yemen is a case where cooperating with sovereign authority would have enabled a brutal, torturing dictatorial regime whose leader the US has urged to step down. Would delivering non-US citizen al Qaeda members into the hands of the Saleh regime serve morality, or the interests of the Yemeni people? It is easy to get hung up on the procedural (but legally substantive) critique of the Awlaki killing and miss the real challenge of AQAP, which is that it has a safe haven hardly accessible to the Yemeni government, whose cooperation would come at a steep diplomatic price at this point.

How is this any different, really, from wanting to fight a Cold War (mainly by proxy) but endlessly criticizing the use of coups and covert action to win the proxy war? Especially when the final defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was won explicitly by proxy? As Jack Nicholson famously bellowed, we can’t handle the truth.

  1. rethinkingsecurity posted this
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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng