British COIN: The Debate Continues

Dr. Andrew Mumford has released a monograph attacking what he view as the “myths” of British counterinsurgency as interpreted by American analysts–and in his view, some Brits themselves. However, history is a far from settled matter. The historians, soldiers, and analysts critiqued in Mumford’s monograph also are on the receiving end of a debate very much influenced by modern COIN campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (much as Vietnam hung over discussion of nonrelated or tangential political-military subjects in that period).

The outcome of these inquiries may be more useful for the US than, say, the back-and-forth about Galula and French COIN. While Britain and the United States have vastly different strategic cultures, they are still closer together and thus a better reference point for Americans than continental powers. As Alexander Hamilton noted, Britain and America’s geography as maritime powers free from continental threats provided a space for liberal political culture and similar norms. Additionally, both have waged expeditionary COIN as offshore powers.

Perhaps a debate hosted by Kings of War would be very fruitful for the analytical community.

If only I had a heartland…

It is no secret that Russia’s military forces, particularly the land forces, are reorienting themselves towards the “southern” front of the Caucasus and Central Asia. While so much discussion of these factors is couched in the language of neo-Soviet imperium and concern with Russian expansion, it bears remembering that the security dynamics of Central Asia are far less about a Manichean struggle of Russia versus the West than the US and commentators often choose to view it.

As Joshua Kucera points out at EurasiaNet’s Bug Pit:

Is Russia Training Kazakhstan’s Military To Protect American Oil From Iranian Attack?

That’s the provocative conclusion reached by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which seems to have gotten a hold of a document discussing the scenario of the Tsentr-2011 military exercises between Russia and several Central Asian countries that wrapped up today. The newspaper printed a map, purportedly related to the exercise, which envisages a joint Russian-Kazakhstan force in the Caspian Sea repelling an attack from the south — from the southeast, “up to 70 F-4s and F-5s” and from the southwest, “up to 30 F-4s, F-5s and Su-25s.” Well, a quick look around the militaries of the southern part of the Caspian Sea that have those sorts of aircraft brings one to only one conclusion: it’s Iran. (You can see scans of the documents, in Russian, here.)

Now, this does not mean that the entire world is interested in joining the US in a crusade against Iran – far from it – but it does demonstrate that the calculations of Russia and CSTO countries in determining their security agendas is complex and contingent on the array of forces and threats within the region.

Unfortunately, it is easy for our preconceived assumptions to function as blinders in foreign policy. Continue reading

Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part II

What follows is the second part of my series of posts exploring the strategic effects of NATO’s entry into the war in Libya, the first can be found here. These will focus primarily on the effects of airpower, special operations forces (SOF) and the role of the NTC. Possible implications for NATO’s future may also be explored/questioned. This second installment looks to asses the way in which air power and SOF achieve strategic effects, the goal of which is to calibrate our understanding of, and expectations for potential future ‘small footprint’ conflicts.

I want to start this piece with a slight preface. In my last, and first, post I discussed the relative value of contributions made by the NATO assets involved in Operation Unified Protector. I discussed the relative values of their contributions in relation to the formation of the NTC. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t upfront about the manner in which I assessed relative contributions. When I rated the contributions of NATO’s combined airpower and the small but effective band of elite special operators on the ground I used the word significant. When seeking to emphasize the importance of the NTC’s establishment I used the word decisive. Both of those word choices were deliberate, in the words of my terrific former academic advisor, when writing academically only one factor can be decisive, everything and anything else can be significant but not equally superlative. Significant is a terrific and also terrible word for this purpose, as it can be both emphatically supportive and somewhat belittling.

While the distinction could be viewed as little more than semantics, it is, in actual fact quite a bit more than simple nuance. The point I was trying to make, is in many ways at the very core of why silver bullet strategic theories often falter when put to the test in actual wars. In particular it’s why wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq failed and its why if Libya succeeds it will have very little to do with the highly important contributions made by the special operations and air forces of NATO’s allied states.

As cliché as it’s become, the Clausewitzian dictum really is at the centre of this, the initial phases of the Iraq and Afghan wars failed for the simple reason that despite the brilliant tactical and operational performances of American (and allied) forces the political situation was not such that an expedited strategic result could be achieved. While nothing is set in stone yet with regards to the Libyan Revolution, it’s within the realm of possibility that an expedient strategic result can be achieved. At little cost of blood and treasure, at least to those who are not holding a Lybian passport. This is why it is important that the vital lesson from this conflict should not be that SOF and air power can win the day. It is however important to explore the way we can better understand the value of these contributors as they are vital. Additionally, both of these aspects are staples of modern conflict and both have often been criticized for a failure to live up to the hype and fanfare both their budgets and their advocates create.

Neither Special Forces, nor airpower alone can singularly win a war, yet both are incredibly valuable tools, both tactically and strategically. While the technical aspects of their contributions vary greatly, from the strategic perspective they can be viewed in a similar vein, certainly with regard to expectations.

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Castex and the illusion of mastery

Being the backward-looking IR recalcitrant that I am, it should surprise nobody that I have been intermittently making my way through the English translation (abridged, and the only one available to my knowledge) of Raoul Castex’s Théories stratégiques. In the midst of the past few months’ discussion of sovereignty, maritime power, and the global commons, this passage stood out:

In peacetime, the sea is free for everyone. In war, it belongs to the strongest, who will chase both his enemy and any unfriendly neutrals from it as far as he is militarily and politically able… We can conclude with Richelieu’s observation that “of all the sovereigns’ domains, it is the sea on which they make the greatest claims, but the place which the rights of each are least clear. The true title to naval domination is force, not reason.”

[and in Castex’s note to that remark:] And we can be sure that, in the next war, the Americans, ready to fight to defend the freedom of their own commerce when they are neutral, will brutally uphold the other point of view when they are belligerents. Humanitarian imperialism is always problematic.

This was written during the 1930s by a Frenchman, yet many aspects of the critique echo in modern times. First of all, it is a reminder of ostensibly neutral concepts, such as freedom of the seas, are frequently viewed as polemical attempts at domination by foreign powers – particularly when they are Western, or as the continental Europeans would have it, Anglo-Saxon. After all, the doctrine of freedom of the seas seeks the neutralization of all the world’s oceans, in peace and in war. The idea of the sea as a blank, separate space for austere naval engagement is far from dead in the American political consciousness. What goes unremembered, of course, is how many times the maritime empires have launched a war or been dragged into one on the basis of a maritime incident. Continue reading

The Sea is Dead, Long Live the Sea

It seemed a mirage up until I dove into it, Aydarkul, a lake in the middle of the desert. We had driven for hours through the Kyzyl Kum, an area so arid even camels struggle to find sustenance. Then between two sand dunes, it winked at us, a blue body of water under a cloudless blue sky. A lake teeming with fish, migratory birds and even a few people, come to enjoy nature’s bounty. Meanwhile, 400 miles to the northeast, its predecessor the Aral sea lies in its death throes, with only a sad stone memorial standing witness to its former prosperity.

As new life emerges in this wasteland, perhaps we should stop trying to save the Aral Sea by pouring more concrete and digging more canals. Rather, lets take advantage of nature’s resilience and try not to make the same mistakes again.

The locals claim, and research confirms, that like the Salton sea lake Aydarkul resulted from an accident. In the 60s, soviets build a dam on the Syr Darya, and when floods cam they diverted the water into the desert. Fed by mountain streams and the occasional flood, the lake has grown ever since, a flourishing self-sustaining eco-system. The Syr Darya once fed the Aral Sea, and it’s no coincidence that as one lake shrunk, the other grew. Furthermore, it seems the Aral Sea itself is an artificial construct whose shores have fluctuated widely in response to human intervention. A dam build in the 7th century diverted the Syr Darya away from the Caspian Sea onto a new course, creating the Aral sea.

There are drowned trees underwater, b/c the Soviets tried to plant a forest before they made a lake.
Where all the water went: Lake Aydarkul

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Geopolitics, Networks, and Complex Friction

The long-running sovereignty debate has now come full circle, to the realm of the theoretical debate over the importance of societies and states. Read the piece in full. She explains that the nature of the Arab Spring may mean that new governments no longer uphold US interests, but makes the case for supporting the Arab Spring anyway, because naturally it is proof societies have the power to overturn states.

Given this reality, why aren’t scholars and commentators like my friendly foil Dan Drezner not actively recommending that we simply tell the Syrian government that it can do whatever it likes to its people, as Joshua Foust, Dan Trombley and their fellow defenders of absolute sovereignty insist is the right of all sovereign governments? Why didn’t we encourage the Egyptian military to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square, keep Mubarak in power, and enforce a transition to his son? North Korea’s Kim Il-sung managed such a transition to Kim Jong-il, who looks set to do the same to Kim Jong-un. If states are what matter in the world, then why not do everything we can to encourage the continuation of governments that are friendly to our interests, regardless of what happens within their borders?

Firstly, I would like to reiterate that my claim has never been that states are what matter in the world. Power is what matters in the world. The reason realists choose to resolve the complexity and tension between the various social and political organizations outside the state and the state itself in favor of the state is generally because the state remains the optimal mechanism for maintaining territorial sovereignty and defense against external intervention. As I have detailed in previous posts, there is a long history of realist authors dealing with forces outside the state since realist political theory antedates the state itself. The fundamental difference between realists and the rest is their understanding of power as essentially coercive, and view the creation of alternative nodes and networks of other forms of power as relying upon the careful concert of coercive forces at play.

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With Outstretched Arm

Mark Safranski posts on Responsibility to Protect (R2P):

The weirdly astrategic NATO campaign in Libya intervening on the side of ill-defined rebels against the tyrannical rule of Libyan strongman Colonel Moammar Gaddafi brought to general public attention the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” as a putative doctrine for US foreign policy and an alleged aspect of international law…

Hopefully, there will be greater and wider debate in the future because, in it’s current policy trajectory, R2P is going to become “the new COIN”.

This is not to say that R2P is a military doctrine, but like the rise of pop-centric COIN, it will be an electrifying idea that has the potential fire the imagination of foreign policy intellectuals, make careers for it’s bureaucratic enthusiasts and act as a substitute for the absence of a coherent American grand strategy. The proponents of R2P (R2Peons?) appear to be in the early stages of following a policy advocacy template set down by the COINdinistas, but their ambitions appear to be far, far greater in scope.

When an idea evolves to an acronym, it’s serious. Indeed, R2P is something deadlier than military doctrine: it’s policy doctrine. Worse yet, it’s policy dogma. Once policy dogma is tightly wound around your brain stem, it’s harder to unwind than mere military dogma. Even though it’s the lesser threat, the military dogma behind R2P will prove as pernicious within the military sphere as R2P will prove within the policy sphere.

Noted Clausewitzian Antulio J. Echiavarria writes (props Adam Elkus):

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