Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wrap up

To tie up some loose ends on this series before moving on, I return to Air Force Col. Larry D. New,  and his 1996 summary of Clausewitz's Trinity --

"Trinitarian war consists of  “the inherent linkage between the nature of war, the purpose of war, and the conduct of war. Clausewitz called this linkage a paradoxical trinity with three aspects: the people, the commander and his army, and the government. The people have to do with the nature of war, the military with the conduct of war, and the government with the purpose of war.” (New 1996)
In reference to the Trinity, Cpl. New states, "this paper uses the purpose as the ends, the nature as the means, and the conduct as the techniques applied in war"  As he points out, the nature of war is the most problematic.

New does nice work summarizing the core dilemma: 
"The purpose of war is a principle we have had problems with since the end of World War II. At that time, our entire nation understood and supported the national reaction and goals after a direct and deliberate attack on America. We seem to have an aversion to articulating the desired end state when making the decision to use the military as an instrument of national policy. Initial air-war planners for the Gulf War assumed political objectives from pieced-together speeches and statements made by President George Bush. These gained legitimacy and were adopted in toto as they were briefed up the chain of command ultimately to the president."
He posits that the ambiguity common to decision-making in electoral democracies is responsible, and it's a valid point. Certainly no president wants military failure or folly on his/her watch for any reason, including political ramifications. But this explanation does not take into consideration the notion that a particular military operation is not well articulated by the political decision-makers because they lack the vocabulary to do so, as do their advisors and the academics trying to sort it all out. Or perhaps I should say there is too much vocabulary, too many choices and a great need for understanding how all parties define the conflict, not just the United States.  To pick up from Kolenda, there are numerous ways of perceiving the many conflicts within the many Afghanistans with which we are confronted. 

There is wide agreement that in Trinitarian terms the nature of war is linked to the people, as the conduct of war is to the military and the purpose of war to the government.  However, what Clausewitz means, precisely, by nature is unclear, especially, as New points out, because Clausewitz also uses the words kind and character, not to mention issues of translation. Clausewitz is often quoted on his insistence that decision-makers know what kind of war they're getting into in order to secure public support and to communicate accurately with the generals.  The purpose of war cannot be justified if one refers to a mistaken view of the war's nature. Defining the nature of war more precisely, however, goes to the heart of my conclusions on the Westphalian Question, so to speak.  For years the distinction between total (absolute) war and limited war was most common, then the advent of weapons of mass destruction raised the issue of "conventional" versus "unconventional {enter WMD of your choice here}; the offense-defense debates of deterrence theory, and the return of asymmetric war, the rise of cyber-war, and the application of transformational revolutions in military affairs are all further examples of attempts to define the nature of wars.

Further fogging the picture is the linkage of war's nature to the people on whose behalf government is defining and the military is fighting war.  Just how do the American people see the nature of our conflict in Afghanistan, or elsewhere? How invested in the sacrifices of the troops are they?  They have certainly been told that the expected outcome is in line with a state-centric emphasis, that Afghanistan will be left to itself when it is a state capable of resisting insurgency and terrorism to an acceptable degree, or the status quo will continue and/or Afghanistan declines into the "failed state" category altogether.  And, indeed, this is the model on which the COIN strategy is being implemented, and as New argues, Clausewitz remains applicable.  What about the people of Afghanistan? In the interview of "C" by Gen. Warner, the implication seems to be that the war is the primary obstacle, not means, of getting what they want, i.e., to be left alone.  Perhaps an effective forcefulness by the Afghan National Army in combination with negotiations about post-conflict governance and power-sharing can compel the Haqqani and other networks to halt armed conflict, at least in the short term, but beyond that, C's call for abandoning counter-insurgency and essentially leaving Afghanistan to its own vices to work out.

Col. New is of course right in saying that the policymakers need to do a better job defining the nature of wars, certainly more so than in, as he points out, Korea and Vietnam.  But is it enough to define a war as asymmetric, for example?  Certainly, if the situation meets the definition, the accurate rendering will more likely lead to successful outcomes. In Afghanistan, however, if we accept that "C" had valuable insights to offer even if he may be underestimating the potential for at least moderately successful state-building, then we are well served by thinking of armed conflict in post-Westphalian terms, a line of thought not easily established because there are many variables and gray zones, however, we may find along the way a more accurate way of knowing the nature of wars.  Consider earlier examples where I pointed out the ease and comfort with which insurgency is the accepted depiction of the situation in Afghanistan, involving varied terrorist-related tactics but ultimately the insurgent model fits U.S. and NATO's view of the conflict.

What changes if we instead apply C's definition of the conflict as one of civil war?  One wishes the interviewer had solicited more detail on this topic.  An insurgency can be part of a civil war, of course, but one gets the feeling that C was not (or not only) broadening the scope of conflict as much as reconceptualizing it as a conflict involving different motives among the combatants than as conceived by the insurgency model.  The ongoing competition among disaggregated networks -- tribal, business, criminal -- and the infiltration of foreign fighters and illicitly imported weapons raises the question of who are the insurgents and against whom are they surging. If we focus tightly on the Taliban and al Qaeda, it's easy to surmise that they are the insurgents trying to get back into power.  But any return to circa 1996 is unthinkable. Still, the point is that even if the west "defeats" the Taliban militarily, most of the same problems plaguing state-building today would still plague Afghanistan, perhaps even more.  A central power-sharing government and multiple semi-autonomous regions dividing governance functions among them is an easily grasped endgame, unless you're talking about Afghanistan.  Well, as I have said, I'm not saying the west will pull out of Afghanistan, leaving behind neither a high functioning state nor a stateless, borderless tribal zone in its place.

Col. New is spot on with his comments about the purpose of war becoming "detached from the
conduct of war when the purpose changes without a corresponding reevaluation and adjustment in the conduct."  His use of Somalia circa 1993 is on target as well.  But what of the nature of post-Westphalian war?  Are we of a mind to understand localized conflicts apart from their "national" contexts, indeed, increasingly divorced from state-based war as time goes on?  Areas like Afghanistan and the Sinai and Saudi deserts are becoming home to fighters for whom sovereign state governance is not on the radar except to the degree that current sovereigns are the enemy.  As basic resources such as water become increasingly scarce and peoples are increasingly displaced across national boundaries, the opportunity for exploiting their anarchy and need is not lost on criminal and transnational terrorist organizations.  However, when it comes to defining the nature of a particular situation, western leaders are more inclined to do so with familiar terms -- it's a failed state, or a state sponsor of terrorism, or a state in need of development, diplomacy, justice and reconciliation.  But outside of fantastical propaganda touting the goal of a worldwide caliphate, where is the evidence that statehood is the primary concern of the victims of war in Afghanistan? Or even that of the "insurgents"?

In other words, when applying Clausewitz's Trinitarian framework of war's nature, purpose and conduct, we are now confronted with a much more difficult task than when we could apply it to a state's clearly defined population, government and military.  In the "new wars," determining the nature of the war cannot be clouded by the shadow of the past when the nature of war was defined primarily by the capabilities of the well organized combatants -- conventional or unconventional weapons, parity or asymmetry of capabilities, land or sea or air power, etc.  The array of ethnic, tribal, criminal and governmental actors in cross-cutting conflicts in Afghanistan present a much more complex picture, for example, in which tribal leaders and followers do sometimes diverge (as Kolenda points out) as priorities and opportunities diverge.  From the western perspective, the nature of the war is an insurgency against a government and people who desire stable statehood.  The purpose of the insurgents is to recapture Taliban control of the central government and the purpose of the counter-insurgency is to to defeat the Taliban and its allies, largely by turning the population of Afghanistan against the insurgency.  The insurgents are conducting the war by employing a wide range of tactics and government (in theory) conducts warfare supported internationally by a growing security force that will eventually be in charge of sustaining security and stability in Afghanistan. Ultimately it's a Clausewitzian model of warfare applied to a Westphalian solution, using decidedly different strategies and tactics than the Soviets in the 1980s, but from the same model of statecraft as war.

The Neo-Medievalist position offers us a chance to view the nature, purpose and conduct of the war from alternative perspectives.  However, the results remain uncertain.  In 2008 Foreign Affairs published an article that's worth returning to in light of the years that have passed, "A Tribal Strategy for Afghanistan," by Greg Bruno.  He links a very helpful map that illustrates the tribal breakdown in Afghanistan. One point that is emphasized strongly in this article is the problem highlighted by Kolenda and others -- that the notion of a well managed tribal structure in Afghanistan is too optimistic.  As mentioned earlier, decades of war have taken their toll on traditional structures, created warlords, criminals, and shifting allegiances as people's security environment changes. Neo-Medievalism offers interesting insights into the nature of changes occurring in Afghanistan, but it only explains the situation to the degree that the disaggregated governance it foresees comes to be, and actually works. To boil it down to its core, what I'm saying is that the people of Afghanistan will not be left alone.

We're ultimately left with two alternative futures.  Either the situation in Afghanistan will continue on the current path without reaching a significant end of U.S. military presence, in part because U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is part of a strategy far larger than Afghanistan and in part because the domestic situation in Afghanistan justifies it.  This is not to say there won't be amendments to agreements and adjustments such as increased reliance on Special Operations Forces.  The alternative is that the United States does withdraw its presence comprehensively (perhaps deploying them elsewhere, however) based on confidence in the Afghan government's ability to maintain security and stability.  The nature of governance in this stabilized Afghanistan is unknown as of now, at least beyond vague expectations that power-sharing negotiations can produce the necessary conditions for stability.  The more relevant point is that this condition would mean the end of U.S.-led counter-insurgency operations.  Civilian aid agencies and NGOs would pick up where military joint task forces left off, etc.  A workable agreement with the Taliban would go a long way toward this goal, but would prove to be only one necessary piece of the puzzle, not the whole.

But besides (hopefully) relief for many armed forces and their families, what might a comprehensive withdrawal from Afghanistan mean for U.S. national security strategy more broadly?  What are our interests in Central Asia, South Asia, and Eurasia most broadly? I'll consider these issues in future posts.  For now, the Westphalian/Clausewitzian model of warfare will continue to guide western solutions to foreign crises, many of which have strong Post-Westphalian/Neo-Medievalist qualities. The Pentagon will continue to publish Field Manuals that illustrate an understanding of the changing nature of war, of the significance of identity politics and the fluidity thereof, and of the challenges of state-building.  However, gaps in intelligence gathering, analysis and exploitation in addition to a propensity to stick with what one knows best will continue to plague our ability to accurately define the nature of localized conflicts.  This is particularly important as we approach great and rapid political change in the Arab world.

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