COIN for the Coinless: Portugal in Africa

By the end of next year, America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan will officially come to a close, notwithstanding a smaller residual force that might remain to conduct training and counter-terrorism operations to keep the fledgling Afghan government afloat. Including the war in Iraq, the U.S, has lost about 6,775 personnel killed in action, tens of thousands more seriously wounded, and has incurred financial obligations that will eventually total between $4 and $6 trillion. The strategic payoff of these sacrifices is rapidly evaporating as Iraq slides back toward sectarian warfare and Afghanistan continues to be…well, Afghanistan: a failed state with a central government unable to project power beyond a few urban areas, completely dependent on foreign financial support. With this kind of return on investment, it is not hard to fathom why isolationism is finding flavor among the American people.

Sustained counterinsurgency operations do not have to be this expensive. Between 1961 and 1974 – a length of time similar to America’s presence in Afghanistan – Portugal simultaneously waged colonial wars in three widely separated theaters of operation – Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique – and achieved relative military success in all. At the outset of hostilities, Portugal was clinging to the fringes of Western civilization, having fallen so far from its imperial heyday that it was barely considered a First World state. It’s GDP was $2.5 billion and the military numbered only about 80,000 with a budget of $93 million (for comparison, U.S. GDP was $509 billion). How did such a European backwater sustain three different colonial wars so effectively?

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Processes of Irregular Warfare

A few months ago I posted a link to an article I published on smallwarsjournal.com, in which I argued that the principle of destruction – as defined by Clausewitz – constitutes an important continuity between regular and irregular warfare. To achieve victory, a guerrilla movement must be able to defeat its enemy in battle; in essence the object of guerrilla warfare is to build enough strength to shed its guerrilla nature and transform into regular warfare, a process Mao called “protracted war.” The major exception occurs in situations where the enemy belligerent has only a secondary or tertiary interest in the conflict, and it is therefore possible to defeat him by exhausting his political will to continue fighting with constant guerrilla warfare.

Thus, irregular warfare can achieve the political object by one of two paths: protracted war, or political exhaustion. I created a chart to visually represent these two simple processes of irregular warfare, but I did not include it with the article:

Of course, political exhaustion is not a strategy exclusive to irregular warfare; Hans Delbucke noted that strategies can be divided according to the categories of annihilation and exhaustion, and that holds true for all warfare.

The Blogger Who Came in from the Cold

2011 was not the year to quit blogging. The world is on fire. But I have been unable to study the flames.

Because I’m now in them.

In other news, I’ve hit the big time: an article based on my work in graduate school was recently published by Small Wars Journal. The abstract is as follows:

According to the principle of destruction the best way to achieve victory in war is to disarm the enemy by destroying his forces in battle. However, irregular warfare is commonly assumed to operate through processes that make the principle of destruction irrelevant. An analysis of the writings and military experiences of T.E. Lawrence, Mao Tse-tung and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, three of the 20th century’s most influential theorists of irregular war, supports the argument that the principle of destruction remains valid in irregular warfare. This conclusion admits of one major exception in conflicts where a sharp asymmetry of interests exists between the belligerent parties, when it is possible for irregulars to achieve victory by exhausting the enemy’s political will, rather than by destroying his military forces.

I encourage all my readers to head on over to SWJ and take a look, though unfortunately, my present circumstances preclude me from active participation in the discussion.

Until next time: Happy New Year.

Was the Soviet Union “defeated” in Afghanistan?

Gen. Mohammad Yousaf, who as an ISI officer coordinated the Afghan resistance campaign from 1983 to 1987, concludes his lively [and utterly parochial] memoir with the following comment:

Although I am reluctant to admit it, I feel the only winners in the war in Afghanistan are the Americans. They have their revenge for Vietnam, they have seen the Soviets beaten on the battlefield by a guerrilla force that they helped to finance, and they have prevented an Islamic government replacing a Communist one in Kabul. For the Soviet Union even their military retreat has been turned into a huge political success, with Gorbachev becoming a hero in the West, and still his hand-picked puppet, Najibullah, remains unseated, dependent on Soviet aid for his survival.

The losers are most certainly the people of Afghanistan. It is their homes that are heaps of rubble, their land and fields that have been burnt and sown with millions of mines, it is their husbands, fathers and sons who have died in a war that was almost, and should have been, won.

Yousaf defined “victory” in terms of establishing an Islamist regime in Kabul, which was the best case scenario for both Pakistan’s national interests and Yousaf’s own fundamentalist ideology, which was shared by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan. By this measure, the hazy conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan war was an obvious disappointment, though only a few years later they did get their victory when the Taliban seized power.

Yousaf’s comment reflected the dominant narrative of events in the U.S. at the time of the Soviet withdrawal. For obvious reasons, the intervening decades have cast serious doubt on the notion of an American “victory” in Afghanistan. Instead of rehashing that ongoing debate, a more interesting question is to what extent the Soviets were truly “defeated.”

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Advice to the President

Maybe you shouldn’t have fired this guy:

I can’t help but think that McKiernan is currently pondering the metaphysical nature of poetic justice. He was terminated because – as a supposed representative of the “Big Army” – his career track made him poorly suited for  counterinsurgency warfare. The Administration needed a different sort of general: one that wasn’t afraid to think outside the box; who could grasp the intellectual complexities of COIN, implement the President’s “new strategy” in Afghanistan, and lead an Army – still populated by too many dumb Cold War relics like McKiernan – into the new generation of warfare. In short, the White House needed their own man in Afghanistan.

Well…they got him.

Fun With Stereotypes in Iraq

Rory Stewart: Lord of the Bogs

The conventional wisdom is that the British Army’s long experience with imperial policing imbued it with a very sophisticated understanding of counterinsurgency, the political nature of war, and the imperative of civic-military cooperation. Rory Stewart, who as a “governorate coordinator” for the Coalition Provisional Authority in southern Iraq served in a capacity that echoed the colonial administrators of the British Empire, would probably disagree. His 2006 memoir, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, suggests a British Army that zealously guarded its prerogatives from what it regarded as outside political interference and thus often operated at cross-purposes with CPA policy. The governorate coordinators theoretically wielded absolute power in their provinces, but in reality their inability to command coalition forces left them mostly impotent, with the ability to disburse CPA funds their only real means of influence among their Iraqi subjects. This militarization was to be expected in the Sunni areas, which were gripped by insurgency from an early date in the occupation, but it is surprising that it also occurred in the British sectors to the south, which were mostly peaceful until the Sadrist uprisings began in 2004.

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Clausewitz on Vietnam: The Summers Thesis

With all the current debate about U.S. military strategy, the nature of warfare, counterinsurgency, U.S. policy in Afghanistan, etcetera, I am surprised by the near-total lack of attention given to the work of Col. Harry G. Summers. Reading the current discussions, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, it seems as if the man and his writings have been completely forgotten. This is worse than unfortunate because Summers is just as relevant today as he was two decades ago when he was at the height of his influence.

Col. Summers was a Vietnam veteran who spent several years after the war researching the causes of the American failure. The result of this study was published in 1982 as On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, a hugely influential book that helped guide the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam reconstruction. It has become cliche to to ascribe the American defeat to deficient counterinsurgency techniques, but this explanation is just as shallow as blaming the media or the American people for losing the will to continue the war. As Summers writes in his foreword:

One of the anomalies of the Vietnam War is that until recently most of the literature and almost all the thinking about the war ended with the Tet Offensive of 1968. As a result, the common knowledge was that America had lost a guerrilla war in Asia, a loss caused by failure to appreciate the nuances of counterinsurgency war.

But the truth was that the war continued for seven years after the Tet Offensive, and that latter phase had almost nothing to do with counterinsurgency or guerrilla war. The threat came from the North Vietnamese regular forces in the hinterlands.

The final North Vietnamese blitzkrieg in April 1975 had more to do with the fall of France in 1940 than it did with guerrilla war.

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