If the political science courses you took in college did not teach you the difference between policy and execution, demand your money back. There is nothing more basic to the study of politics than that distinction. Its relevance to counterinsurgency has many faces, but two in particular make counterinsurgency difficult for either the regimes directly under attack or the foreign governments that support them:
- Rarely does any military organize itself for counterinsurgency.
- The level of coordination for a single "project" like coordination is usually absent among civilian and military bureaucracies.
This posting deals with the first challenge. I'll cover the coordination issue in a later post.
Militaries are like any organization, designed for a particular function. No organization can handle every exigency, so the people within it must choose the scenarios for which they will prepare.
Decision-makers define these scenarios for the rest of the organization. For example, the US military regularly publishes its vision of the wars it will fight, as codified in its field manuals. In the 1940s, US Army manuals outlined the doctrines of maneuver warfare at all levels of strategy. The infantryman, tanker, or artillerist knew what was expected of him at the tactical level. The colonel or one-star general knew what was expected of him at the operational level. Higher-ranking generals shared a common vision of war fought at the theater level. In the 1980s, the overall doctrine became AirLand Battle, an updated version of the maneuver warfare model from four decades earlier. In the current decade, the model is now called "net centric warfare."
It's important to note that, even at this early stage of discussion, different military branches, or even different portions of the same branch, may have radically different views of the overall strategy. For example, the US Air Force has resisted for decades a subordinate role to the "ground-pounders" it supports. Close air support, missions flown to support infantry and armor on attack or retreat, requires different tools and methods than air-to-air combat or the bombing of strategic targets like communications centers or factories. If you were in the Air Force, would you rather be flying the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, designed for close air support, or the Stealth Bomber? Not surprisingly, the doctrines for the Army and Air Force have looked very different over the last several decades. Even if their manuals used the same terminology, or they included the same "boilerplate" text about modern warfare in the introduction, they often held very different views of how war should be fought. In fact, the Air Force's disinterest in close air support has contributed to the longevity of the B-52: without a replacement, the Air Force had to keep the aging bomber for situations like the saturation bombing of the Iraqi army in Operation DESERT STORM.
Doctrines can vary across or within organizations, since they're the next step after deciding which scenarios represent what the institution will need to handle. Imagine a meeting where the managers in your organization jointly decide to recognize employees on their birthdays. After the meeting ends, each manager then goes back to his or her organization and has to implement the new policy. You'd be surprised if the outcome were the same for every department. In some cases, the manager sends an e-mail wishing the person a happy birthday. In another group, everyone takes the employee out to lunch. A different group might decorate the employee's cube with balloons and streamers. In other words, doctrine reflects the habits, personalities, and history of the organization as much as the issue the doctrine is supposed to address.
During the Cold War, the US military faced two scenarios that it had to address before any other concern: a strategic nuclear attack on the United States; and a conventional invasion of West Germany. Naturally, it looked to its own habits and history for guidance, and particular personalities helped shape the doctrine for handling these nightmare scenarios. For example, in the late 1940s, the US military tried to keep nuclear weapons within the framework of the conventional battlefield. That doctrine had as much to do with institutional inertia as any argument that nuclear weapons could be a "force multiplier" against the Soviet army. The doctrine served the interests of both the Army, which wanted access and control over nuclear munitions, and the Air Force, which wanted to play an important role in the defense of Western Europe while still being the service to deliver nuclear weapons to their targets. The odd cases, such as artillery-fired nuclear weapons, also show how force of habit shaped this doctrine. After all, weren't nuclear weapons simply a more powerful kind of munition? A few decades later, the military answered that question much differently, but there was still an effort to keep nuclear munitions within a conventional framework. Rather than seeing them as instruments of terror, brinksmanship, and compellence, the "warfighters" in the early 1980s, such as Colin Grey, tried to depict nuclear weapons as the instruments of fighting a conventional (albeit more destructive) series of air, land, and sea battles.
Once the doctrine is crafted, the organization needs the physical and human capital that the doctrine demands. In other words, organizational charts need to be filled with people, who need to be trained to play their parts. Equipment needs to be purchased, and in some cases, designed for the first time. Managers need to know how to judge the performance of their subordinates. Employees need the same understanding of what's expected of them, and they also demand a career path for future rewards and advancement. Since you can't keep reinventing the organization, you expect that you're going to live with the organization, as designed, for some time to come.
However, you will have to make adjustments. After first invoking the truism, "The only constant is change," legions of management consultants will tell you how to build corrective mechanisms needed to keep the organization "agile." What these experts will not normally tell you, however, is the way an organization's personality shapes its responses and limits its adaptability.
Psychology tells us how our personalities filter and color our perceptions. We therefore respond to the world as we perceive it, not necessarily to the way it is. In one classic social psychology experiment, five people on a panel were asked if two lines were the same length. In some cases, when the lines were clearly not identical, the first four panel members, who were confederates of the experimenter, insisted they were. One-third of the real test subjects—on each panel, the fifth person asked if the lines were the same length—went along with the majority opinion, despite the evidence of their own eyes. There are plenty of other examples from individual and social psychology, but you get the idea.
What is true of individuals is also true of organizations. Left to their own devices, institutions learn what suits them. For example, during the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps showed greater adaptability and success in counterinsurgency than the Army. Part of the explanation lies in the different institutional memories of the two services. The Army saw conventional, large-scale conflicts, such as the two World Wars, as iconic. When it had experience in other kinds of warfare, such as the Indian Wars, the Army did not look to them for guidance in fighting future conflicts. In contrast, the Marines had more experience with little wars, such as the repeated interventions in Latin America, and by extension greater willingness to see these operations as normal. The Marines Hymn begins with the invocation of the Mexican War ("the halls of Montezuma") and the campaign against the Barbary pirates ("the shores of Tripoli"), the type of conflicts that received only the most cursory attention from the Vietnam-era Army.
It's fairly obvious, therefore, why militaries in general do not plan, organize, equip, and train for counterinsurgency. Conventional warfare, the first mission of nearly every military, consumes nearly all the organizational wherewithal. During the Cold War, the nightmare scenarios, nuclear attack or a Warsaw Pact invasion, dominated the attention and resources of the US military. When it looked at the wars it was fighting, not just the ones it hoped it never would have to fight, it could pick and choose experiences that fit its institutional bias towards conventional warfare. The Korean War, a wholly conventional conflict, showed that the struggle on unexpected battlefields might take an otherwise expected form. Brief interventions in places like the Dominican Republic showed how inconsequential "little wars" could be, requiring no major changes in doctrine or organization to deal with these trivial incidents.
Counterinsurgency, as past postings have taken great pains to show, is not the same as conventional warfare. It demands a different strategy from the tactical to the theater levels of strategy. The center of gravity is different, as is the nature of the initiative, which is more political than military. In short, it's exactly the sort of warfare that the US military was not equipped to fight the NLF guerrillas in South Vietnam. In 1965, it arrived armed and equipped for defeating the NVA, and chose initially to treat the NLF as merely an unconventional arm of the otherwise conventional enemy. In taking this view, General William Westmoreland and other American commanders ignored the counsel of the people under their command who had already been working in South Vietnam as advisors. The US military came to Vietnam with a hammer, in search of nails. It found some, and therefore concluded that it was adequately equipped for the job at hand.
This bias against counterinsurgency exists even in countries where the government regularly has to fight guerrillas. The Philippine military in the late 1940s was organized along conventional lines, even though Islamic separatist movements were a regular feature of Filipino history. The threat of the Hukbalahap movement was evident to every Philippine leader by the end of World War II, and yet it wasn't until well into the insurgency that the military, with the advice and encouragement of US officials, re-organized and re-trained itself to fight the war at hand. While changing operational procedures to give battalion commanders more freedom of action might sound like an obvious way to fight a war of small, nasty firefights, the Philippine military—like many other armies in many other countries—did not immediately take this obvious step.
A lot has changed in the US military's view of counterinsurgency since the Vietnam War. The Army in particular re-examined its bias against "little wars," so that a new generation of officers now have a greater appreciation of what's required to win these conflicts, including cases where the enemy is a guerrilla force. The services have expanded programs, such as the courses taught at the war colleges, to give military personnel more knowledge of counterinsurgency. They have given more latitude for military personnel to pursue a career in places other than Europe, and in specialties other than conventional staff work and command experience. They have also, after a great deal of struggle, expanded the role of the special operations forces (SOFs), which now have their own combat command, SOCOM, in theory on par with the traditional, regionally-organized commands like CENTCOM, EURCOM, and PACOM.
However, these steps have been halting. It took more than one act of Congress to direct the US military's attention to the poor job it had done in "little wars" like the Grenada invasion. Counterinsurgency expertise still does not put you on the fast track for a military career. Most importantly, the US military was still organized for conventional wars, in which it would re-deploy regular forces and call up the Reserves and the National Guard as needed.
Even the part of the military that has been most directly, and often most successfully, involved in counterinsurgency, the SOFs, still don't necessarily get the respect they deserve. In fact, they may get the wrong kind of respect, setting them up for failures for which they cannot be held accountable.
After World War II, veterans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), such as William "Wild Bill" Donovan, had to fight hard to keep the SOFs of that era from being completely de-mobilized. The SOFs like the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) and the Army's Special Forces suffered in obscurity until President Kennedy gave them greater prominence. Kennedy argued that the "twilight struggle" of the Cold War was increasingly fought in the developing world, where the US military's conventional capabilities were ineffective. Instead, Kennedy argued, a new generation of warriors were needed for missions ranging from advising the South Vietnamese military to staging top secret commando raids on Soviet and Chinese facilities. To signify the importance of this new style of warfare, Kennedy let the Army's Special Forces adopt their signature green beret, and he ordered the expansion of the SOFs across all services.
Even a presidential edict did not transform the US military overnight. Pentagon leaders fought hard to either stop the "snake eaters" from getting resources needed elsewhere, or forcing them into a subordinate role. For example, the Army argued it could use the Special Forces as commandos in Europe, in case of a Warsaw Pact invasion, instead of deploying them to the developing world, with a great deal of freedom of action.
And that was just while Kennedy was alive. Afterwards, the services continued to keep a lid on the SOFs, until the notable failures of the Iranian hostage rescue and the Grenada invasion, both demonstrating how the SOFs were being undervalued and misused. Not until Congress intervened with the Goldwater Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, followed by the Nunn-Cohen Act of 1987, did the SOFs get the staffing, organization, and latitude they needed.
However, the victories for the SOFs were not automatically good news for people worried about counterinsurgency, which is only one of the SOFs many missions. SOFs do well at counterinsurgency for two reasons: (1) their willingness to embrace all forms of unconventional warfare; and (2) their experience working in many different societies with everyone from Uzbek tribesmen to regular Colombian soldiers. By their training, philosophy, and institutional experience, the most of the SOFs—which range from the Army's Special Forces to the USAF's Air Commandos—have the understanding needed to do counterinsurgency right. They're usually deployed long enough to meet the commitment and patience criteria as well. (See the previous "Why counterinsurgency is hard" post for more details.) With the major reforms in the 1980s, the SOFs also have more of the latitude they need for counterinsurgency.
As well suited as they appear, the SOFs can only focus on one facet of a counterinsurgency war, the military part. They can train and advise another country's troops; when needed, they also can fight guerrillas directly. They are not the instruments of administrative reform or political change, nor are they even the right people for the very long-term engagements. A twelve-man Special Forces "A" team might be deployed to Honduras, Georgia, or Pakistan for one or two years. They can't always stay in that country, or even that continent, for much longer than that. These elite troops have additional missions, including counterterrorism, to pursue. Other military and civilian professionals, often with deeper "country knowledge" than a Special Forces team member will ever acquire, are the right people for these longer assignments.
Whenever the SOFs gain prominence, as they have during the Afghanistan and Iraq missions, it seems as though they're capable of handling any mission thrown at them. Elite troops, like every type of organization, are very good at some things, and not others. The SOFs excel at the unconventional forms of warfare—but, at the end of the day, they focus on the military aspect. The conflict itself is much larger than just the military dimension, so a coordinated effort among the military branches and civilian agencies is always required. However, as we'll see in the next post, it's almost never easy to bring all these groups together in a unified campaign.