July 17th, 2012

The Problems of Iliberal Peace

David Ucko has a typically sound piece on Sri Lanka and the political implications of its counterinsurgency campaign a couple years on. However, I am dubious about the emerging idea of the “illiberal peace” as identified by David Lewis and others. Ucko correctly diagnoses the ways in which the Sri Lankan government has resisted the West, and I am not quibbling with his analysis. Rather, I am looking at the larger frame from which we think about liberal vs. illiberal modes of peacebuilding.

The problem is that while Sri Lanka certainly has illiberal politics and ethics, it is not clear how it—or any other state conducting an internal peacebuilding effort—benefits from these politics when trying to tamp down on violence. Second, it does not make sense to ascribe the methods—either in terms of military strategies or postwar policies—as necessarily liberal or illiberal.

First, to Sri Lanka. The government’s policy was that Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity be preserved and the privileging of the Sinhala over the Tamils continue. This political object is, undoubtedly, partially illiberal—but only the ethnic domination implied by restoring the status quo ante can be really classified as totally illiberal. Every state—liberal or otherwise—wants to preserve its territorial integrity and is willing to fight hard to do so. Preserving territorial integrity and preventing the secession of a armed minority can also have, after all, liberal political purposes.

The Sri Lankan strategy used military force to both disarm the enemy and shatter his will to continue fighting. Here is where the problem with the illiberal peace model really begins to intensify. Granted, the Sri Lankans operated against their opponents in the war’s closing offensive without considering even the most basic norms of noncombatant protection and also deliberately targeted noncombatants. But this has been true of their military conduct elsewhere in the war. Deliberate and indirect cruelty to civilians is peripheral to what ended the civil war: the material destruction of the enemy’s means of resisting and the concurrent political choices made by guerrilla leaders that they could not gain their political object because of the new reality force had created. This is basic Clausewitz.

One might also question the analytical problem that this poses for thinking about World War II. If a strategic approach with either deliberate or indirect cruelty as a prominent feature can make a war “illiberal” than what does Hiroshima and Nagasaki mean for the liberal ends pursued by the United States in prosecuting World War II? What does the destruction of the South’s civilian component of making war mean for the liberal end of preserving the Union, ending slavery, and creating a new democracy free of the South’s rural aristocracy? Roosevelt and Truman’s postwar vision of “Four Policemen” keeping the peace throughout the globe and the end of the old colonial order was liberal to the core. But they dropped two atomic bombs to realize it.

Finally, the insight that the Sri Lankan government has relied on coercion for state consolidation is rather banal. State formation in history is coercive. State consolidation involves many sophisticated means of managing and neutering violence and coopting or destroying competing centers of power within a state. Even what we consider to be “liberal” modes of peacebuilding rest on a hard core of coercion, applied by either a central government or its international backers. Finally, Bruce Bueno De Mesquita has also cataloged numerous means of how regimes can govern without achieving the kind of consensus-building, inclusion, and legitimacy often called for in liberal peacebuilding models. The term “legitimacy” also has strikingly different meanings across the world. We should not assume it always means what we want it to mean.

What is undoubtedly illiberal is that the Sri Lankan government has not addressed the grievances of the Tamils. But peace has often been created and maintained throughout history without addressing grievance. Perhaps a more relevant question for the Sri Lankan government is whether its power of coercion and ability to control the organizing capability of the Tamil diaspora is sufficient enough to justify the threat of renewed conflict from those grievances. Such a determination, however, would rest on an intelligence assessment over whether or not those grievances can be practically mobilized and converted into military power. Grievance itself does not equal conflict—it must be instrumentalized by elites who see some hope of achieving a realistic outcome. Anything less is a matter for gendarmerie to mop up.

If the idea of the illiberal peace merely focused on the illiberal politics involved in ventures like the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war—particularly its component of sectarian domination, it would be fine. There would still be a problematic idea that one can put ideological labels on things such as dominance of central governments and territorial integrity of the state—things that liberal and illiberal states both care about. But the conflation of a state’s illiberal political goals and character with its strategic methods is particularly troubling.

What is reflected through these discussions is a growing recognition that the post Cold War peacebuilding model itself has critical flaws. A certain set of peacebuilding norms appealed to Western states that had conveniently forgotten how their own states were formed and ultimately consolidated. Now that a variance in methods has been exposed, there is a temptation to categorize different modes of peacebuilding according to ideological boxes (“liberal and illiberal”) that are themselves incredibly recent in vintage when considered across the multi-millennial spectrum of military history.

Certainly liberalism has a lot to do with whether or not a state is ultimately successful and equitable. Eric X. Li and other apologists for China’s current regime overlook significant flaws that stem precisely from China’s form of government. But when it comes to waging war and consolidating government control easy distinctions between liberalism and illiberalism are difficult to maintain.

July 5th, 2012

Tactics, Strategy, and Afghanistan

Douglas Ollivant has a must-read over at Battleland on Little America:

It is an open question whether there is sufficient human capital in Afghanistan to accomplish the reforms that United States policy calls for—particularly given the demand for educated Afghans as a) military translators, b) diplomatic translators, c) drivers/translators for contractors, whether private military or construction, and d) “fixers” for journalists that leaves very few to actually do the work of administering the country.

As they say on the Interwebs, Read The Whole Thing. As Ollivant says, the book (or at least the plentiful excerpts I’ve seen) largely misses the point. Yes, the civilian surge was bungled. Yes, the military, diplomats, and aid elements of national power did not play too well together. These are all failures that should be corrected. But Ollivant writes “[i]t is an open question whether there is sufficient human capital in Afghanistan to accomplish the reforms that United States policy calls for.” The focus should be on policy.

In war, examples can be found of numerous tactical deficiencies, some which of very serious import. Abraham Lincoln, for political reasons, had to give militarily inexperienced political bosses military commissions to lead troops on the battlefield. Air-ground fratricide killed many American soldiers and even a general in the Normandy campaign. A civil-military fracas worse than anything in Afghanistan nearly derailed the Korean War. But in each case, we got the politics, policy, and strategy right—even if it took some time to calibrate those strategies or match them with appropriate tactics and operations.

There have been, for sure, gross failures with the “whole-of-government” approach to warfare in Afghanistan. But there also have been innovations with strategic effect, such as threat finance and collaborative warfare targeting. Had our goals in Afghanistan been more realistic, the failures described in Little America might have only been (like the failures of planning and execution in the Gulf War and Kosovo) only popularly recognizable in retrospect. It is better to “win ugly” than to not win at all.

We have not yet achieved our political object and there remains significant uncertainty over whether the goal will be achieved. We are beginning a process of re-evaluation, and the beginnings of such revisions sadly focus on tiny tactical pieces of the whole. Unlike Gian P. Gentile (who quotes Sun Tzu’s famous aphorism about the “slow road” to victory without tactics) I think strategy without at least “good enough” tactics is impossible. But a reading of Gentile’s op-ed also demonstrates another useful point: bad tactics also can flow from bad policy or strategy.

Peter Munson gets at the wider problem here:

Unless we are ready to take on a neo-colonial or mandatory level of responsibility for governing a foreign land, we will have to accept the Afghan legitimacy of flawed actors.  Actors like Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, Abdul Rahman Jan, and the Karzais are surely unsavory, but we have forgotten the Charles Tilly reading (see also Giustozzi) of the history of western state development in that states arise from warlords and organized crime.  Even in America, politics of our recent past were far more unsavory than we are willing to admit.  Thus, we shouldn’t be so surprised at the lack of success in rooting corruption, for example, with what a friend of mine in Kabul calls the “Anti-Gravity Task Force.”  When you look at the troubled transitions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, is one of the biggest problems with COIN perhaps our misunderstanding of the messy process of building state capacity and institutions to the point at which democracy can have more constructive outcomes?

Munson gets at the real problem. It’s not that Afghanistan is too exotic to fix, or that a “graveyard of empires” exists. Afghanistan’s problems are actually mundane but it has been a very long time since a Western state has dealt with prolonged civil war, entrenched corruption, feudal warlordism, and persistent lethal subversion from a neighboring state. The civilian surge was a set of tactics intended to implement a policy idea:  the key to making Afghanistan stable was to ensure it was at least governed in a “good-enough” fashion. But the United States—with the set of resources realistically available to it at the time—could not realize such a policy aim.

Comparisons are often made to Korea and postwar Germany. But nation-building is much easier when political consensus exists about what kind of order should the nation be built-upon. Alice Hills makes this point in regard to policing: police in post-conflict societies are constructed by order. Police, development aid, etc does not construct order. How does order form in countries like Afghanistan? When one side achieves a preponderance of force. Empirical research on warlordism, like Kimberly Zizk Marten’s work, has teased out the process of when warlordism ends. Outsiders executing civilian surges do not figure much into the process of order-building.

This doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t have used civilian power or devoted energy to carrying out activities different from warfighting. In my own writing I fear I have sometimes unnecessarily downplayed such elements. Strategic failures also doesn’t excuse failures in the whole of government or mean that the US shouldn’t devote energy towards making all parts of the government work together on the ground in war. But force is the dominant coin of the realm in war precisely because political actors want to dispute the existing political order with violence and subversion. Nations may be built, in short, when no one with a gun feels like he can disrupt the process because he disagrees with the order behind the nation-building.

Outside of regional analysts, I have not seen very much attention at all to the politics of Afghanistan and state formation/consolidation. This—and how it relates to American interests—should be central. Little America should be the beginning rather than the end of the conversation.

(Note: my Abu M post for today touches on similar ground).

June 22nd, 2012

On COIN and Colin Gray

I have a guest post at Tom Ricks’ Best Defense speaking up in defense of Colin S. Gray’s work on strategy and irregular war.

Unfortunately, I somehow subconsciously managed to mangle both the date of the battle of Cambrai AND the spelling of a certain Canadian military platform. That being said, this is an issue that is unlikely to go away and I think that Dr. Gray has produced some of the best writing to correctly understand how to wage it.

May 30th, 2012

COINage 2: Electric Boogaloo

I recognize my last missive, scribbled in a bit of haste, might have seemed a bit opaque. I was in a bout of intense frustration and simply wanted to get something out before I returned to analyzing the intricacies of the G.O.O.D. Music vs. YCMB beef, (big hint: I’m rooting for Pusha-T—any rapper in the game who compares himself to Ric Flair gets my vote).

But since Carl Prine has picked up on the essential content of my blog, I’m encouraged to continue (thanks Carl):

Like Adam Elkus…I’ve come to take the Callwellian position that COIN is merely any operation designed to address the problems caused by guerrillas.

Carl has hit on something important. The last ten years and the spur of interest in counterinsurgency it provoked have fundamentally de-naturalized American counterinsurgency theory and practice. What do I mean by de-naturalize?

In social theory, to de-naturalize is to take a given idea, set of social norms, or law and reveal it to be a conscious construction. Many ideas once taken for granted from the early 20th century have been revealed over time to be the outcomes of particular social practices and power relations. When I first started reading COIN theory in 2004, I assumed that there was one defining form of COIN and it was revealed by Galula. Eight years, Iraq and Afghanistan, and countless books and journal papers later, I realize that there is nothing essential to counterinsurgency in what Galula thought of. He was the product of a particular political, social, and political milieu and not even a particularly good exponent of that setting compared to Roger Triniquier’s franker writings.

The COIN battle over the last ten years has been many things, it is above all a struggle to naturalize a particular view of COIN. The process of naturalization includes the idea that a particular way of COIN is the font from which all operations against irregular forces springs. Once we accept that a particular way of COIN is the natural way of things, we also automatically accept its policy and strategy drivers. We ignore our own choice as implied by the policy. This is what Prine notes when he argues against associating post-2006 American population-centric counterinsurgency with all counterinsurgency. Doing so would imply that engaging in counterinsurgency means “government-in-a-box" and generational commitments.

Recognizing that COIN is what armies do against guerrillas may seem a bit analytically useless. But it’s actually liberating. It allows the United States to wage COIN any way it wants to, free of the intellectual shackles of long-dead French colonial enforcers. Most importantly, it allows our military to develop truly joint COIN doctrine based on a realistic conception of the national interest(s) and capabilities.

And the US will engage in COIN in some shape or form again. It is, in fact, is engaging in COIN in Yemen this instant, albeit not in a particularly strategically effective way. Yes, you heard me. A CT mission has become a counterinsurgency mission once the US allowed the Yemeni government to internationalize the civil war and equate US opposition to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with suppression of rebels against the government. See how artificial the distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency is?

It may seem a bit much to argue that the US war in Yemen is a COIN effort, but this is far from the first time a Western power has used special forces and airpower to fight a foreign insurgency in Arabia.  And should the North Korean regime collapse (and many think it is a matter of time), do you think the US will not be conducting some form of counterinsurgency operations alongside Republic of Korea forces against former regime elements? 

Let’s bypass the silly COIN debate and forge some doctrine that helps our armed forces fight the wars of the future.

May 29th, 2012


Don’t even bother reading Elizabeth Bumiller’s article on the counterinsurgency debate. It’s stuck in the same bizarre post-Surge time loop all mainstream articles on COIN are.

Instead, let’s go through some basic pointers. My own views on this have evolved significantly over the years due to reading and simple observation of the debate and its operational and strategic outcrops.

COIN is not a strategy. Nor is it necessarily a set of tactics. COIN is just an activity. COIN is what armies do when faced by insurgents. That’s it. By engaging in COIN, you are not inherently committing to one kind of strategy or set of tactics. It’s just a descriptor that makes note of the fact that an army is facing an organized set of substate opponents with a political goal. There is also no normative content to COIN. Normatively, COIN is really only what counterinsurgents make of it. The US has a particular brand of COIN it over-generalizes as somehow the natural state of affairs, and other countries have different approaches.

And let’s face it: COIN is also a modern term that refers to a particular kind of irregular threat. Armies and paramilitary forces in the past have faced terrorists, partisans, guerrillas, and light infantry reserves that may or may not have the same kind of relationship to the population that modern insurgents do. We have a variety of different terms for how armies deal with them because there is no one kind of irregular threat that exists as a pure metaphysical object. And this is normal. Sea warfare is cohesive but we have need for distinctive terms like Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) which nonetheless do not compromise or conflict with the parent term of naval warfare. COIN and other descriptive subsets will overlap, and armies that put all of their doctrinal eggs in one basket will be left in the cold. Is COIN the best umbrella term? Maybe. But that doesn’t eliminate the problem.

Finally, COIN in and of itself has no policy or strategy implications. One can wage a low-footprint COIN or an intensive COIN effort supporting a policy of colonization, as the French did during the late 19th century.

May 25th, 2012

European (Old) New Security

Some reflections on John Mackinlay’s latest piece at Abu M.

February 28th, 2012

The End of Trust Or The End of Illusions?

The hue and cry over the latest Afghan killing of US troops makes one wonder why media commentators do not recognize that supposedly allied Afghans have been shooting American soldiers for years. Nathan Ross Chapman, the first American soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, died in a 2002 ambush near Khost. His killer? A teenager operating on behalf of a non-Taliban warlord unhappy about Americans altering the local balance of power. While portrayed as a new crisis that erodes American trust in Afghan counterparts, it is in fact an old problem.

Since then, the problem has significantly worsened. Afghan soldiers shot 13 of their American comrades in 2011 and are on track to surpass this dubious record in 2012 with 10 Blue-on-Blue killings this year. The author of a red team report on Afghan-American military fratricide blames this on a cultural disconnect between Americans and Afghans, an “quantity over quality” rapid expansion of the Afghan National Security Forces that brings plenty of ne’er do-wells into military service, and the lack of mechanisms for NATO personnel to hold negligent, criminal, or otherwise incompetent ANSF troops accountable. So why the new narrative about a supposed loss of trust?

Fred Kaplan’s response to these unwelcome developments is an interesting case of how many seem to be sleepwalking into a recognition that American-Afghan relations are fundamentally dysfunctional. The browser heading of Kaplan’s latest article argues that the latest killings are “destroying the trust necessary to rebuild the country” and represent a deliberate tactic of insurgency. By showing that not even Americans and powerful Afghans are safe, Kaplan argues, the Taliban demonstrate that no one is safe:

Insurgency wars are usually battles for the allegiance or control of the people. The objective of a counterinsurgency campaign, as Galula and Petraeus and many others have said, is to persuade the local people that we can protect them, and provide them with basic services, more than the insurgents can. If the people don’t believe this, if the insurgents persuade them otherwise, the war is all but lost.

The idea that the killings have “destroyed the trust necessary” to rebuild Afghanistan is presumes that there was some kind of sacred bond between American and Afghan that was tragically shattered by gunshots inside the Interior Ministry. But there was never a kind of intimate relationship with the US and Afghanistan that Kaplan implies with his writing about Galula. Instead, there was a very rickety relationship with Afghan elites that broke down as the US discovered that those same elites, empowered as American proxies, were actually self-interested actors in a society torn by civil war. And those men looked out for their interests rather than Uncle Sam’s. 

In Afghanistan, the US always had a transactional relationship with the Afghan government and a preference for emergency men. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Eazy-E of Kabul, got his power precisely because of the US reliance on local fixers. Hamid Karzai was given unprecedented (by Afghan standards) centralized control over the government. Neither of these figures, though perhaps pliant enough to US interests, really worked in favor of them. As Joshua Foust argues, the American commetariat’s shock and horror over Karzai’s rigged election was emblematic of a refusal to grapple with the structural contradiction posed by empowering a single man and his family and simultaneously trying to build up a broad-based government and security force capable of providing security, justice, and welfare to the Afghan people. The 2009-2010 “It’s the Tribes” fad only doubled down on the mistake by lavishing US patronage on yet another set of predatory local elites.

What little incentive Karzai has, as Foust has also eloquently argued, to govern in a liberal manner is eroded by the fact that his government, though centralized, is actually wholly dependent on a personalized system of patronage to exercise power and authority. Karzai has immense symbolic power, but in order to make it real he must balance a semifeudal underlay of elites with the demands of international patrons. It is not about the character of the man but the corrupt nature of the system itself. Thus, it is unsurprising that a combination of bureaucratic centralization overlaid over a personalized patronage system would unsurprisingly produce—(wait for it)—inefficiency and corruption!

US trust in Karzai eroded when the shock of Karzai’s dubious election drove home the fact that Washington was dealing with an already self-interested man trying to navigate a thoroughly corrupt system. And Karzai, if he ever trusted Washington, certainly doesn’t now. This is a man, after all, who nonchalantly threatened to throw his lot in with the Taliban. If Karzai has read his history (or turned on CNN or BBC in the last year) he also probably tends to understand that the respective fates of the Diem family, the Shah of Iran, and Egypt’s Mubarak do not bode well for his continued survival. Washington is a bit schizophrenic about even longtime clients. So sure, Afghan killing Americans is certainly eroding trust, but there isn’t really much of that to spare of late.

Galula’s bromide about the true objective of counterinsurgency campaigns is also next-to-useless when thinking about what really has challenged the United States in Afghanistan. First, Galula’s description of COIN is a whitewash of what actually occured in the French colonial wars. His compatriots Roger Triniquer and Paul Aussaresses unrepentantly declared (in memoirs and treatises) that they freely and enthusiastically violated the laws of war in their efforts to destroy the enemy. And that was the objective, make no mistake about it. Informers, divide-and-rule tactics with native auxiliaries, a heavily barricaded border, and mobile intervention forces were freely employed, and failed because of the obvious: a militarily significant amount of Algerians did not want to be Frenchmen and a number of Frenchmen (including one Charles DeGualle) were content to let them go in order to save France itself from political collapse and armed terrorism by groups such as the far-right Secret Army Organization (OAS) against the French government.

Second, the objective of counterinsurgency campaigns, like any other military campaign, is to advance the political object with force. It is bizarre that when watching The Battle of Algiers, the primary lesson that seems to be taken is that a better strategy would have worked. The director of the movie, Gilles Pontecorvo, was a leftist who explicitly intended the movie to damn France’s colonial policy to preserve a political order that privileged a few French colonists over the indigenous masses. If a policy is not achievable through force, then the policy itself must be questioned before a state goes to war. Instead, Kaplan and others quoting Galula believe that the same policy should be maintained—with civilian engagement substituted for the engagement of the enemy, the task that an army is ostensibly raised to perform.

Let’s assume, for a second, that Galula is right, and actual empirical examination of insurgencies is wrong. COIN is about protecting the people, gaining their trust, and out-governing an enemy trying to compete for the population’s allegiance through carrot and stick. Actually implementing such an idea would, of course, run the US up against a solid wall: the fact that American liberalism does not mesh with the interests of Karzai’s government or the warlords and fixers that the US has backed. Even if the Taliban did not frustrate the “government in a box,” creating sound governance on the ground would challenge the authority of Kabul and the warlords. And of course, the predictable response by those same Kabul grandees and warlords is to use American money and projects as another illicit revenue stream. The irony is that the success of American counterinsurgency-if designed along Galula-esque lines—would most certainly disrupt the very political system the United States helped to design and implement.

American soldiers being shot will certainly undermine trust. But given the nature of the relationship between US and Afghan elites, was trust really possible? The current media panic is disingenous because it ignores how the politics of Af-Pak created a situation that eroded trust on both sides. And the fact that 10 years’ worth of Blue-on-Blue military fratricides have been ignored up until now is a sad commentary in and of itself.

February 14th, 2012

Hearts and Minds Redux

The concept of “hearts and minds” is fairly controversial within the discussion of counterinsurgency. Let’s lay down a few ground rules.

Read More

Loading tweets...


A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

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