Omar and Ollie
Compare and contrast

COIN Symposium, Part II

Another question that the counterinsurgency (COIN) panel treated on several occasions was the issue of tactical momentum v. strategic direction.  Do we have a clear strategic direction in Afghanistan, a clear strategy that will bring us to a successful conclusion of the war?  Or are we just building on tactical successes and trying to replicate them, and missing the larger framework?

There were differing opinions on this subject from the panel's members.  This would be a good time to mention who the panelists were.

COL Gian P. Gentile, Director of Military History Program at U.S. Military Academy at West Point
COL Joe Felter, Director of COIN Advise and Assist Team (CAAT), Afghanistan
Col Joseph Lacroix, CD Deputy Commander Joint Task Force Afghanistan
LTCol C. Cabaniss, 2nd Marine Div G3 Operations, USMC
Lt Col Rupert Jones, Commander 4th Battalion of the RIFLES Regiment
LCol Bertrand Cadour, Allied Transformation Command, NATO
Dr. Daniel Marston, Counterinsurgency at US Army Command & General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS
Dr. Lester Grau, Research Coordinator for Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS
Dr. R. Scott Moore, Deputy Director for Center for Complex Operations
Maj J. T. Adair, Officer Commanding C Company 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
MAJ Jason Crigger, 6th Special Operations , USAF
MAJ Jim Gant, AFPAK Hands, US Army Special Forces

An impressive crew, several of whom have names that will be familiar to you. In addition, there was COL Daniel Roper, whom I mentioned in yesterday's post, and whom we have spoken to before.  I would say that there were two basic views being argued on the panel.  I'll describe them, and then speak to an overlap.  

On the first view, our strategic thinking is focused on the IED fight.  We have a lot of resources being addressed at targeting the IED networks, which is important because -- as Dr. David Kilcullen pointed out --  the IED is a strategic communications weapon. It's less important that it destroys or damages one Coalition vehicle, and more important that it sends the message that the government can't control its roads, that it can't stop the guerrilla attacks, that it can't provide stability or security. The real point of the weapon is the message being sent. For us, stopping the IED is critical because it stops that message, and also because it keeps our people alive. So the focus on the IED is understandable, but it seems to be using up most or all of the strategic-level energy, meaning that the rest of the picture gets less attention. We just build on our aggregation of tactical successes, and hope that it will all come together.

On this view, we should be willing to reconsider whether our goals still match our resources and commitments.  Things have changed since 2001, and what we hoped to accomplish then may not still be what we hope we can accomplish now.  If our assumptions about what is possible in Afghanistan have changed, we need to be ready to rethink our objectives and methods as well.

On the second view, there is a clear strategic direction.  We want to build a stable Afghan state, with at least minimally effective service provision by the government even in the rural areas -- that gives the people a reason to support the government.  In addition, we want the government to be at least minimally democratic, and to be willing and able to prevent terrorist groups from sheltering inside its borders.  On this view, all of those things are important:  one of the panelists said that we'd spent the last forty years building up nondemocratic states, only to have to go back in and tear them down.  The plan here is to build a new kind of democratic, Afghan state that can serve as an ally.

This second view holds that COIN is inherently political, and -- as all politics are local, and all security is local -- the tactical level is where the center of gravity is.  If you win all the tactical fights, the strategic picture has a chance to work.  If you don't, it won't.  

There is an overlap between these two views.  Just as the IED is a tactical success that creates a strategic effect, so too do these tactical successes of ours create strategic effects.  We are also sending messages with every successful operation, and with every day we can keep an IED or suicide bomb from going off.  Every local, tactical success we have does also inform the strategic picture.

That said, there does need to be someone at the top who is trying to tie all of these tactical successes into a coherent whole.  The danger of the 'all politics is local' approach is that you can end up spending your limited resources in a way that does not maximize their effect.  Every tactical success is also a strategic success, but they aren't all equal.  For example, you might use your engineers to dig a well for a village, or fix a bridge that connects two villages.  Both represent a tactical success, but the second one may create a bigger strategic effect -- it allows for better communication, trade, and also for you to move more readily about the battlespace.

Alternatively, you might use your Civil Military Operations/Civil Affairs to hire Afghans to do these things with development money.  Now you're creating two strategic effects:  you're not only helping the community by creating a well or bridge, but you're also building a small pool of wealth in the community that can help begin to build the local economy.  

Of course, there's a tradeoff there too:  if you hire Afghan contractors to build your bridge, it may not be able to handle the weight of an MRAP!  So if the strategic effect you wanted was to include ease of movement, you might choose to use the engineers; if you were more concerned with economic development, Civil Affairs might be the way to go.

All of that is strategic thinking at the tactical level.  It's an interesting fact about COIN that you have to do both at the same time.