Describe the “American Way of War” in 25 Words or Less

Over at War on the Rocks, I have posted a challenge that I will repeat here:

In 25 words or less, give your thumbnail version of the “American Way of War.”

That is the challenge that Dr. Scott Stephenson of the Command and General Staff College gives his students and that is the challenge I present to you, dear KoW readers.

Submit your answers to editorwarontherocks (at) gmail (dot) com.  Deadline is Sunday at 8 PM EST. We will post the best answers on Monday!

Top three get a War on the Rocks flask!


Humor is allowed!


KoW Readers: Should America’s strategic calculus on intervention in Syria change?

In March 2012, I wrote a blog post for Security Center, the blog of my former home – the Center for National Policy.  In it, I criticize “loose talk on intervention in Syria” as represented by Anne Marie Slaughter, Stephen Hadley, and Max Boot – all of whom were calling for some sort of American intervention on behalf of the armed Syrian opposition.

What has changed in the last 13 months? The death toll went from less than 10,000 to over 70,000.  The number of Syrian refugees went from about 34,000 to about 1 million.  As predicted by many, the jihadist faction of the armed opposition has increased enormously in size and power.  The Assad regime has lost control over much of Syria, but remains entrenched and committed to survival.

What is America doing? The Obama Administration has called Assad’s fall inevitable and has sought to work with the Syrian political opposition.  Various American intelligence and military assets are said to be coordinating with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – all of whom are arming and financing the Syrian resistance – while not conducting (to the best of my knowledge) any military operations on Syrian soil or over Syrian airspace with or in support the Free Syrian Army.  In the words of a White House spokesman, there is no U.S. “lethal aid” going to the Syrian opposition, but there are rumors (denied by the Pentagon) of Syrian rebels being trained by U.S. military personnel in Jordan. The U.S. is supplying humanitarian aid – covertly and overtly – in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and perhaps elsewhere.

But what has changed strategically?  Should those who – like me – professed intervention skepticism on realist grounds change their assessment?  Has the rising human cost in and of itself over-powered realist arguments?  Should Europe and the U.S. join Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and openly arm the rebels?  Should we get on “the right side of history” (if there is such a thing)? Should Western states intervene militarily?  Should the United States lead such an intervention?  I have no easy answer for you, loyal KoW readers.  I know what I think, but I am more interested in what you think and why.  I especially encourage current War Studies M.A. students to chime in, immersed as they (surely) are in the literature.  Maybe some of them are even writing their dissertations on the Syrian civil war.

So, I ask you to read my 13-month old blog post, see how it holds up, consider the hard questions it asks (from a U.S. perspective if possible), and tell us in the comments section what you think.

Loose Talk on Intervention in Syria

13 March 2012

There is a lot of loose talk on intervention in Syria. Various commentators, government officials – former and current, and analysts are calling for some sort of US military involvement in the blooming civil war between the Alawite Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Recommendations range from arming the opposition to providing special operations and air support. Many of their arguments make a compelling moral case for intervention. Some even provide an operational framework for what military support for the FSA might look like. The trouble is, very few advocates of intervention have taken the time to:

(a) Provide a strategic rationale for intervention based on US interests,
(b) Identify what circumstances would merit a commitment that would place American military lives at risk,
(c) Explain the criteria for disengagement if the conflict endures beyond our expectations,
(d) Explain how the likely alternatives to Assad will be better for the United States.
(e) Explain what success looks like and what comes next .

Important questions like these were laid out in 1995 when Col. John Collins (ret.) penned a useful tool for policymakers and military planners for Parameters called “Military Intervention: A Checklist of Key Considerations.” It proposes a list of key considerations and questions for whether, where, when, and how the US should or should not intervene militarily. My proposition is it would be irresponsible to commit American blood and treasure without ticking every box on Col. Collins’ checklist.

The gauntlet has been thrown.

There have been three prominent advocates of military intervention: Anne Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning for President Obama’s US State Department; Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s National Security Advisor; and Max Boot, a well-regarded commentator and military analyst.

Dr. Slaughter, the champion of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, focuses on the “how” and not the “why.” She argues, “Foreign military intervention in Syria offers the best hope for curtailing a long, bloody and destabilizing civil war.” Due to Syria’s strategic significance due to its location, a long civil war would be dangerous to American interests. This is an important point and one that Dr. Slaughter should have spent a few more convincing sentences on. She goes on to advocate arming the opposition, but notes that doing this alone runs the risk of fueling “a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines.” In order to avoid this, she proposes the supplementary measures of establishing “no-kill zones” with the FSA near the Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders, as well as sending in special forces from Qatar, Turkey, and possibly Britain and France. Collectively, these efforts will somehow keep this war contained and force the Assad regime into a truce.

Aside from the minefields involved in building the coalition, implementing this campaign, and creating the safe zones (among other things, how would we protect these safe zones without soldiers on the ground?), the biggest weakness of Dr. Slaughter’s argument is its lack of a defined end-state, or some criteria that would merit either further U.S. involvement or a withdrawal. This truce is entirely aspirational. What if it does not happen and the war drags on? It is also far from clear how Dr. Slaughter’s proposals would forestall a larger sectarian war.

Mr. Hadley rests his argument firmly on moral grounds: The Syrian non-violent protestors and armed rebels are displaying remarkable courage in their quest for freedom. The US must provide support, in the form of arms, in order to create “a stable, democratic Syria in which all sectarian communities feel secure and strive together to build a common future.” America should take the lead in rallying the international community to provide political and support and a concrete plan for the reconstruction of a post-Assad Syria. If the US waits too long, al Qaeda will be more likely to subvert the rebellion and thrive on chaos and violence in Syria.

Of all people, a former US National Security Advisor should be able to present a cogent case for intervention based on strategy and American interests. Instead, Mr. Hadley does not stray far from a morality play and playing on familiar themes that failed to translate into an effective foreign policy during the Bush Administration. When dreaming of a democratic Syria with inter-sectarian harmony, he betrays amnesia of the last nine years of conflict in Iraq. During his most recent time in the White House, Hadley and his colleagues expressed the same dreams – dreams that evaporated in the face of poor planning and sectarian death squads. If Iraq and the Balkans have taught us anything, it is that while dictatorships are intolerably repressive, morally repugnant systems, they tend to keep a lid on simmering sectarian tensions. And when that lid is lifted, the stability of the dictator doesn’t look quite so terrible by comparison.

Mr. Boot accuses President Obama of making a “strategic blunder” for refusing to order air strikes in Syria and arm the FSA. He is clearly an advocate of military operations, but does not explain how this would serve American interests, what the targeting criteria should be for airstrikes, how and under what circumstances the US should end military operations if a brutal civil war continues without a decisive end, etc. According to recent intelligence assessments, the Syrian regime is more resilient than many observers have argued.

Boot does, however, provide one strategic explanation: toppling the Assad regime would cut off Iran’s primary avenue for projecting its malign influence into the Levant. Perhaps, but Iran does not only give arms to Hizballah through and over Syria. There are sea and air routes that avoid Syria. Moreover, Hizballah has a strong base of support in Southern Lebanon and is already flush with arms. And is it worth risking enduring civil war, instability, or an unpredictable future government to possibly weaken Hizballah? Would removing Iran’s only ally in the region strengthen or weaken their resolve to get a nuclear weapon?

For the sake of argument, let’s say that all of these advocates of military intervention are right: we should take active military steps to topple Assad and we should do it now. But what happens if we succeed? The U.S. military estimates that it would take 75,000 troops just to secure Syrian chemical weapons facilities. How many would it take to stabilize the country?

We need to think this through.

The people of Syria have my strongest sympathies, but the United States remains over-stretched and completely uncertain as to how the “Arab Spring” is transforming the Middle East and America’s place in it. When examining who is likely to take control of Syria if Assad is overthrown, I cannot help but worry that a democratic and stable Syria is just a dream. A nice one, but still a dream.

Until advocates of intervention are able to provide cogent answers to Col. Collins’ questions, I remain unconvinced.

Now sound off in the comments section.



Sequester and the Defense Budget: What does this mean for the U.S. Army?

Editor’s note: ‘TRADOCIAN’ is a cog inside the U.S. defense machine. His opinions are, obviously, his own and do not represent the positions of any other individual or institution.

Sequester is and has been the hot defense topic here in the United States.  A Google search for “looming sequester” comes back with tens of thousands of results.  Everyone is talking about it, but without much focus on its practical effects on the U.S. military.  In this post, I will address how the U.S. Army has been affected by the toxic brew of incompetence and parochialism that the U.S. Congress is forcing them to imbibe.

First off, what is all this?

In 2011, Congressional Republicans, upset over the rising deficit, refused to raise the debt ceiling without matching commitments to cut government spending.  President Obama declined to cut funding for key social programs.  Both sides eventually agreed to raise the debt ceiling if a bipartisan group of Senators and Members of Congress – the ‘super committee’ – could agree on $1.2 trillion in cuts.  Severe automatic sequestration cuts were to be enacted if the ‘super committee’ failed to agree. And fail they did.

These cuts (originally planned to come into place on Jan. 1st without a debt deal, but postponed until March 1st) would constitute 10% across the board reductions, with half of the cuts targeting the defense budget ($492 billion over ten years) and other cuts targeting social programs, education, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Basically, neither side of the political spectrum wins.  But it did not galvanize Congress into action.  In part, this is because of the dysfunction that defines this Congress.  Also, overseas contingency operations, social security, veteran benefits, and Medicaid are exempt.  The DoD personnel account is also exempt, but this only means that the impact on modernization, readiness, science and technology, and everything else will be even more significant. Hence, we see talk about the danger of a ‘hollow force.’

Most observers agree that these indiscriminate cuts would have severe consequences for the U.S. economy and military preparedness, as it would require the military make painful cuts to core defense priorities.

The Effects on the Army

According to Secretary Leon Panetta, the sequestration cuts would reduce our ability to meet national security objectives, contribute greatly to operational risks, limit our ability to forward deploy and severely reduce training standards and force readiness.

The U.S. Army has been operating on Continuing Resolution Authority since October 2012 because Congress declined to pass an appropriations bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013.  This means that DoD’s budget is the same as what it was in FY12. Without an appropriations bill, new programs that have been planned for years cannot be started.  Some of these programs include much needed systems like a new self-propelled howitzer and a new cargo helicopter for our aging rotary fleet.   The Army is locked into the FY12 rate and prohibited from executing any ‘new-start’ programs for FY13.  A ‘new start’ is any program or project that is not previously justified by DOD and funded by Congress through the budget process. That equates to the Army coming into this operating year with an approximately $11 billion shortfall for 2013 before sequestration even kicks in.

Sequester will compound the damage that has already been done.  If it happens, rotations to training exercises and centers (such as the National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center) may be cancelled for those units that are not preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan.  The purpose of these training centers is to provide units the most realistic environment possible to conduct culmination training exercises across the range of military operations. Cancelling these rotations represents a significant gap in unit readiness, which are the key components of our expeditionary force.  The Army could be forced to extend upcoming deployments for units going to Afghanistan because the next round of brigades that were supposed to come up behind them will not be certified to deploy, as noted by General Odierno in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Depot maintenance of major weapons systems such as tanks, personnel carriers, helicopters, howitzers, and others will be put on hold for the third and fourth quarters of the year.  This means unit readiness will be downgraded due to lack of training and from lack of serviced weapons systems. Individual training at Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) institutions will be cut by as much as 40% in the second half of FY13 which will create a significant backlog of untrained soldiers in their assigned Military Occupation Specialties (MOS).  The aviation MOSs will be hit the hardest. The DoD just told its civilian employees yesterday that furloughs are likely.  In the event, the Army civilian workforce will essentially be working 20% fewer hours and taking a 20% cut in pay for the final two quarters of FY13, meaning less time for them to train the army, develop the army, support the army, etc.   More weapons systems and munitions that industry was ready to begin manufacturing in FY13 will be delayed.

Finally, hundreds of thousands of contract jobs in manufacturing and service support will either be put on hold or eliminated.  In total, the cuts would lead to a loss of an estimated 1 million jobs from the (civilian) defense sector, including DoD itself.  This directly affects veterans who make up around 44% of DoD civilian workforce.  Luckily, many of them have pensions to fall back on, but this may not be enough.  And still, the essential systems and services they provided will cease to exist.  Their pay will disappear from the economy. The missions of the service contractors, however, will not go away and active-duty soldiers will be forced to take them over. Things like gate guards, grounds maintenance, food service, vehicle maintenance, and other tasks that have been performed by contractors since the military began implementing contract efficiencies in the 1990’s will land back in the laps of soldiers, who will be pulled away from the training and readiness programs, or at least those which the U.S. will still be able to fund.

So what?

Some of you reading this might be thinking, ‘So what? Life is tough. These are times of austerity and there is no reason the U.S. Defense Department and the defense industry should be immune.’  Or perhaps you wonder how much of a negative impact these cuts can really have given that the U.S. defense budget is, far and away, the largest in the world.

These cuts may not lead to the U.S. becoming a second-rate power, at least not in the near or mid-term, but there are serious potential consequences.  To put it simply, in the near-term, if something blows up in Iran or Korea or some other unpredictable place later this year or early next year the U.S. will not be postured to respond effectively.  What other country can intervene to ensure international stability?  To take a recent example, France was unable to get its own troops to Mali without U.S. support.  Furthermore, delays in fleet maintenance and procurement of systems has a direct correlation with the degradation of the combat power of American land forces.


Spinning Modern War: The First Draft of Counterinsurgency’s History

Editor’s note: The author is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the U.S. government.

The Army hates intellectuals. It loves fighters – especially tank-drivers – and it’s wedded to an anachronistic way of thinking about war that gives primacy to high-intensity armored combat. The stinging failure of Vietnam drove a fundamentally conservative officer corps to ignore the messy, complicated, and borderline un-soldierly tasks essential to success in modern conflict. Were it not for the fearless struggle of a few unloved dissidents, the Army would remain manifestly unsuited for the “political wars” of the 21st-century.

That’s how the story goes, anyway, in Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.

In its basic outlines, the tale is as familiar to students of military thought as a folk motif to the anthropologist: Populated largely by the Colonel Blimps of an obsolete service branch, the stodgy, conservative, retrograde establishment resists the lessons of modernity, punishes dissidents, leads men to needless slaughter and armies to shocking failure, and must be saved from its errors by those it has cast aside—the intellectuals, the iconoclasts, the Young Turks who perceive war correctly. It’s a fine story, and one that’s particularly gratifying to Americans: suspicious as we are of military professionalism and forever anxious about civil-military relations, there’s something perversely soothing about a senior officer corps that can’t think for itself.

There’s a kernel of truth in this narrative, of course. Military conservatism did play a part in the disappointments in Crimea, the Transvaal, Flanders, the Ardennes, and Vietnam, and it doubtless contributed to the parlous condition of occupied Iraq. Institutional culture (and the mere physics of bureaucracy) can produce friction, slow the adoption of new ideas, and create strong incentives for conformity. Often it is only the force of will of a powerful and committed champion that enables reformist thinking to make a dent—even when the reformers are armed with the very best insights.

But the story of organizational adaptation – and that’s what The Insurgents is, for all its revolutionary vocabulary – is rarely so dramatic and personalized as Kaplan’s occasionally breathless claims would have you believe. A shift as dramatic and pervasive as the “COIN revolution” doesn’t emerge simply from the committed work of a few Big Idea People (even when one of them wears stars), but rather from the confluence of operational necessity, learned experience, and command priority. Most of the soldiers and Marines who were struggling to suppress violence and bolster host-nation governance had never heard of David Galula, but their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan had as much to do with the institutional military’s reorientation as did the theorizing of the “COINdinistas.”  Whatever Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and General Ricardo Sanchez may have thought about irregular war, “the insurgents” were pushing an idea whose time had come.

Kaplan hints around this truth, seeming in places even to concede it. So many generals and senior officials are at one time or another listed among the “gets it” crowd that it’s difficult to see who might be left to counter this COINdinista “insurgency.” No fewer than five of the book’s minor heroes are said to have particularly enjoyed the same revolutionary warfare offering in West Point’s history department, and we’re made to understand that the whole of the light infantry and special operations communities have irregular predilections. But nothing casts more doubt on the heroic man-against-the-Army narrative than this basic fact: David Petraeus – Ranger School honor man, son-in-law of a West Point superintendent, aide and protégé to generals, and combat commander of perhaps the Army’s most storied formation – was the ultimate Army insider. And if indeed “the Army as an institution tended to scorn officers who stood out or were too bookish,” one wonders how Arabic-speaking Olmsted Scholar John Abizaid, University of Chicago history PhD Daniel Bolger, Yeats-quoting Martin Dempsey, and Chinese linguist and double-MA Karl Eikenberry ascended to such impressive heights.

The Insurgents is the sort of journalistic “current history” popularized by Bob Woodward and Tom Ricks and decidedly not a scholarly work, but Kaplan’s use of sources disappoints just the same. A more thorough investigation of the Army’s involvement in Vietnam and the institutional and doctrinal changes enacted since that war would benefit the reader, whose understanding will surely suffer from the author’s unquestioning regurgitation of the contentious arguments in Andrew Krepinevich’s and John Nagl’s highly critical (and extremely flawed) books on the subject. Kaplan does well to note the “war of information” waged by Petraeus and friends against potential critics, but he cedes what may be the most important ground in that war: the writing of history.

A number of minor errors will distract the careful reader (the 4,000-soldier 101st Airborne Division?), but these flubs are of little consequence to the broader message of the book. More importantly, what are we to make of an analysis so dependent on the unexamined conclusion that senior military leaders prioritized organizational preferences over success in war? Kaplan repeatedly alleges that irregular conflicts were “not the kind of war the Army wanted to fight,” which may well be true (to the extent that the Army has a collective will); to imply then that the Army refused to prepare for them primarily as a matter of preference is tendentious and wrong. Surely a more even-handed consideration of the facts would address both the controlling influence of policy and, within the Army, legitimate differences in judgment about how best to accomplish the mission—not just some inane and ahistorical longing for big tank battles.

The book shines when it most resembles long-form journalism: the chapters that deal with the drafting of FM 3-24, which are comprehensive and well-reported—long on factual narrative and short on judgment. Most of the names in Petraeus’s “cabal” will be familiar to close observers of the last decade’s counterinsurgency debate – Con Crane, David Kilcullen, Michael Meese, “Gunner” Sepp – but the author highlights the role of obscure officers and bureaucrats alongside those of Leavenworth’s “Jedi Knights,” providing fascinating color on people who didn’t show up in the newspaper. The Insurgents’ best moments come when Kaplan introduces the supporting cast: the 101st’s division planner in Mosul, a helicopter pilot and Cornell PhD whose dissertation focused on security assistance reform; the Pentagon official whose responsibility for the Quadrennial Defense Review prompts a crash course in stability operations; a Special Forces officer who, when called upon to write the first draft of the COIN manual in 2004, has to ask his boss for an insurgency reading list. A more narrowly-scoped chronicle of the development of COIN doctrine would have capitalized on the strength of Kaplan’s reporting – his eye for compelling detail – while avoiding the sorts of broad judgments and unfair generalizations that tarnish The Insurgents.

But in the end, Kaplan’s book is too dependent on the tale told by “the insurgents” and their acolytes to be a truly definitive account. Its conclusions rest too much on the easy, conventional wisdom reflected in contemporary media analyses—and suggested by media-savvy “friends of Petraeus.” The disinterested student of this period’s history will likely have to wait until our current wars – and the careers of those who wage them – have wound down before an appropriately thorough treatment appears.


Hell on Wheels as State or Nation-Building

I have a confession: When I first discovered Hell on Wheels, a TV show on AMC, I spent large part of a couple days watching the entire first season. In an effort to tie this into what I do and stave off my guilt over binging on TV when I should have been working, here we go: Hell on Wheels as nation-building.

Hell on Wheels is about the construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad as it moves west. The title of the show refers to the setting – Hell on Wheels is the name of the always moving settlement that sits at the front end of the tracks. The anti-hero protagonist is Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier (played by Anson Mount) who comes to Hell on Wheels to hunt down the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. But, as Mount said in an interview, ‘[T]his show isn’t just about revenge. Or even just about the building of a railroad. It’s really about the building of a nation.’…So ok, this isn’t my original idea, but I’m citing my work and like any good academic, I have my own twist on it.

Mount is talking about America specifically, the ‘opening up’ of the American West, and – as the show’s creator Joe Grayton put it – the ‘re-founding’ of America after the Civil War. I’m not, but let’s explore what they mean.

The Western frontier is the greatest source of America’s most potent founding myths, more so than the Revolutionary War. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously proffered the frontier thesis, which argues that American history and institutions have been shaped, above all, by westward expansion.  These institutions were forced ‘to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people–to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.’

Western films have followed suit. The frontier gives us archetypical American as the independent, stoic hard man subordinating nature, fighting evil (with great violence), and surviving despite the odds. All of the American Film Institute’s top ten Westerns deal with these themes. Turner continues:

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.

While interesting (among other things, Turner’s argument has a lot to say, implicitly, about American foreign policy), this isn’t what I’m talking about. I don’t mean ‘nation-building’ only in this sense. I am getting at a more generalized usage of the term.

In 1985, Charles Tilly wrote an essay titled, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.’ Tilly’s fundamental hypothesis boil down to the following points:

  • War makes states
  • Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making belong on the same continuum
  • Mercantile capitalism and state making reinforce each other.

As per the title, he argues that the distinction between organized crime and creating states is not a clear one. In Tilly’s words:

At least for the European experience of the past view centuries, a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market in which operators of armies and states offer services to willing consumers, the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government.

Tilly provocatively argues that governments bear a strong resemblance to racketeering rings seeking to monopolize force in their territory. Tilly describes his argument:

Power holders’ pursuit of war involved them willy-nilly [my comment: bonus points for usage of ‘willy-nilly’] in the extraction of resources for war making from the populations over which they had control and in the promotion of capital accumulation by those who could help them borrow and buy. War making, extraction, and capital accumulation interacted to shape European state making. Power holders did not undertake those three momentous activities with the intention of creating national states – centralized, differentiated, autonomous, extensive political organizations. Nor did they ordinarily foresee that national states would emerge from war making, extraction, and capital accumulation.

Instead, the people who controlled European states and states in the making warred in order to check or overcome their competitors and thus to enjoy the advantages of power within a secure or expanding territory.

After reading Khald Fahmy’s excellent All the Pashas Men, which is about Mohammad Ali Pasha, the Albanian founder of modern Egypt, I am sure that Tilly’s argument is not limited to the European experience.  Mohammad Ali was a mafioso extraordinaire and he knew what he was making.  He wanted to split his franchise off from the Ottoman Empire and European powers were only happy to oblige.

Back to Hell on Wheels: it is a microcosm of the state building process.  The show portrays entrepreneurs (of violence, industry, and commerce) and ‘big men’ trying to knit together a new collective – laborers, foremen, merchants, and prostitutes – toward a common commercial and industrial goal – the building of a railroad.  These actors are constantly challenged by managing the divided interests and agendas within this collective defined by race, religion, and politics.  These multiple, fluid solidarities are constantly erupting into conflict. The Irish laborers despise the newly liberated black former slaves.  Contempt is mutual between the Yankees and the Confederates who only recently laid down their arms and turned west.  Non-immigrant Americans look down on the Irish ‘papists’ – who make up most of the labor force.  Everyone fears and hates the Cheyenne Indians, who lurk in the plains waiting to strike – the enemies of ‘progress’ and ‘modernization.’

The biggest big man is Colm Meany’s Thomas Durant (a real person).  He is the businessman driving the tracks across the plains – his national project – leveraging the resources of outside powerbrokers – investors, a U.S. Senator, and banks – paying and intimidating laborers, and, above all, looking after himself.  Building the railroad is his war.  Durant induces, persuades, divides-and-conquers, and coerces. He performs these four activities, which, according to Tilly, all fall under the umbrella of organized violence: war making (fighting external rivals), state making (fighting internal rivals), protection (fighting the enemies of his clients), and extraction (‘acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities’).

At several points in the plot, Bohannon becomes Durant’s chief but troublesome instrument of control – the Moltke the Elder to Durant’s Bismarck.  Justice, in the earliest period of the nation, is merely the will of the strong à la Thrasymachus; cold-hearted realism in pursuit of profit and power.  In Tilly’s words, ‘[t]he uncertain, elastic line between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence”‘ is a pervasive theme.

HBO’s excellent show, Deadwood, got at many of the same themes along with The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, the Sopranos, and even the Godfather Trilogy, but these are all explicitly about the criminal enterprises with a confusion of motives.  The characters in these dramas lack the unifying purpose that binds together the characters in Hell on Wheels – the construction of a railroad.

So how do we judge whether or not violence or political rule is legitimate or illegitimate?  Scholars have filled volumes over the course of centuries in an effort to answer this question, do don’t expect a satisfying answer here.  It is a question of pressing concern in Afghanistan, where, as I wrote in a recent issue of the Sentinel, the Afghan state adheres rather strictly to the idea of organized crime as state making.

As the French Revolution raged, the British political theorist Edmund Burke wrote that ‘many estates about you were originally obtained by arms, that is, by violence…but it is old violence and that which might be wrong in the beginning, is consecrated by time, and becomes lawful.’  For Burke, stability in the present day was the salient factor in determining legitimacy, but not the only factor.  For Hobbes, it was really the only one.  Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France launched a fierce debate on what constituted true political legitimacy.  His most prominent opponent was, of course, Thomas Paine.

Many observers of Afghanistan implicitly and explicitly take a Hobbesian position – that the state’s legitimacy hinges on its ability to provide stability, full stop.  Others are more concerned with democracy as well as the rights of women and minorities.  I advise that those others, in the words of the Man in Black from the Princess Bride, ‘get used to disappointment.’

A third season of Hell on Wheels is expected sometime in 2013.  Let’s see if Durant and Bohannan can keep things stable. The first season is on Netflix.  And no, AMC did not pay me for this, but if they want to, I’m cool with that.


All Politics and Civil War is Local: Helmand’s Micro-Conflicts

Chris Cramer opens his excellent book on civil wars with (and takes his title from) a powerful quote from Leonardo Sciascia’s novella, Antimony. A Sicilian miner, drafted by Mussolini to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, remarks:

A civil war is not a stupid thing, like a war between nations, the Italians fighting the English, or the Germans against the Russians…a civil war is something more logical, a man starts shooting for the people and the things that he loves, for the things he wants and against the people he hates; and no one makes a mistake about choosing which side to be on…

In the latest issue of the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, I have a new article: ‘The Micro Level of Civil War: The Case of Central Helmand Province‘ (pdf). I wrote this article as a reaction against the way that civil wars and Afghanistan in particular are commonly depicted in the media, by our political leaders, and by senior military officers. The narrative of the war in Afghanistan has NATO’s International Security Assistance Force on the side of the Afghan state against the Taliban and Haqqani Network.  When I worked in Helmand as a member of a Human Terrain Team, I saw how Afghan politics – both violent and non-violent – was driven by the aggregation of what I called ‘micro-conflicts,’ – localised and enduring conflicts and rivalries.   Most were not choosing sides and fighting based on the causes of the Taliban or the government.  Rather, their primary motivations seemed to revolve around decades-old factionalism, land and water disputes, and competition over the narcotics trade.

This isn’t peculiar to Helmand or Afghanistan.  We see this now in Syria, as policymakers and intelligence analysts struggle to understand a civil war that seems to pit the ruling Alawites against a majority Sunni population. The reality, however  is far more complex and contingent on local political dynamics, which are inevitably rooted in local history.  Jon Lee Anderson’ recent New Yorker article provides an effective treatment of localism in the Syrian case.

What are the implications for those of us who study war?  As I argue in my article, civil wars are best understood by a two-fold approach that examines alterations in social relations over time.  This approach: 1) assesses local conflicts at the micro-level and understands how these aggregate into larger-scale conflict and effects; and 2) shows how macro-level political shifts destabilize existing social relations at the micro-level.  Without using both avenues of analysis, our understanding of any civil war will be incomplete.  For those of you who read Charles Tilly and Roger V. Gould, this isn’t a new construct as it applies to larger sociological and historical questions.  But, with a few exceptions, this approach hasn’t yet seeped into the study of civil wars.

Enjoy the article!


Setting the Record Straight on Eradication in Helmand

There is a robust poppy eradication campaign in Helmand and it is the single most destructive and predatory thing being done to the population.

Both the US and Britain would be well-served by an honest assessment of our collective shortcomings in addressing the scourge of poppy farming and the opium trade in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. As a U.S. Army civilian employee, I worked in Helmand alongside British troops in 2010-11 and am one of a small number of people who has conducted field research to assess the impact of counter-narcotics programs on the population in Helmand. Unfortunately, Sean Rayment’s article in the Telegraph – ‘Why Britain’s pledge to end Afghanistan’s deadly heroin trade has failed’ – is riddled with factual inaccuracies and a dated view of counter-narcotics policies and programs in Afghanistan. For Rayment, the answer to the question posed in the headline is simple (and strongly implied, but never directly stated): People growing poppy are the enemy and their crops must be eradicated, but we haven’t done this. He reports:

When asked why poppy fields aren’t destroyed, given that they represent almost the sole source of the Taliban’s income, most officers simply say: “It isn’t our problem”.

I never met a British officer who was so blithe about the poppy problem, but that aside, Rayment bemoans the lack of an eradication program when, in fact, there has been one in place for years. And it has been an utter failure.

In fact, there is no greater failure in Afghanistan than the counter-narcotics effort. It represents every contradiction of Western policy and strategy, every facet of Western hubris, and all of the elements of the civil-military divide that has plagued the campaign.

Contrary to what Rayment suggests, Western troops and civilians in Helmand have been involved in poppy eradication. Task Force Helmand and US Marine Regimental Combat Teams have long ceased their involvement in eradication because, as many predicted, eradication swelled the ranks of the Taliban and led to more dead soldiers.

The civilian agencies, however, have stayed in the game at great cost to the campaign. For the past few years, the British-led Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team has partnered with the provincial government in Helmand to fund and manage an Afghan-‘led’ poppy eradication effort. This program, designed and funded by the PRT, the United States Agency for International Development, and the United Nations, has aimed at dis-incentivizing poppy cultivation through wiping out some fields in order to provide a credible threat and push farmers toward planting wheat and other crops – for which they are given seeds. These agencies have purchased eradication tractors for the Afghan National Police and set them loose on the population.

Contrary to the United Nation’s own reporting, this program has been an abysmal failure.

Eradication only destroys 3% of the province’s total crop and does not create a credible threat. The crops meant to substitute for poppy are simply not nearly as profitable. Many farmers who have lost their poppy to Afghan police eradication tractors one year have chosen to plant poppy again in the next.

Funds continue to flow to the insurgency. Even if we could somehow eradicate more than half of Helmand’s poppy, drugs would still make their way to British streets. Afghanistan produces an estimated three times the annual global poppy demand for heroin.  And the 3% of the province’s crop that is eradicated is concentrated in the ‘green zone’ of the Helmand River Valley – the key terrain we have been trying to win over. Most of these farmers are terribly poor. They are not making a fortune from poppy. It merely helps them get through the year in a harsh, war-torn land.

So what is the point of eradication?  What is its primary purpose; its raison d’être? No one can answer this question, but it is still somehow called a success by the United Nations and the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

Eradication has succeeded in one area: destroying the lives of these rural families who depend on their meager profits from poppy. As one farmer remarked, ‘If somebody takes away your water on a hot day, what do you do?’

But the PRT ignores this and they do so quite easily. The people in charge of running the counter-narcotics campaign are rarely, if ever, permitted to leave the confines of Lashkar Gah City and assess the fruits of their labor. Those who have systematically researched the impact of these programs in Helmand’s rural, contested areas, including people like David Mansfield and me, have come to the same conclusion: the eradication effort isn’t effective. It ruins lives.

This is the ultimate irony: In a campaign premised (rightly or wrongly) on the idea  of alleviating the grievances of the population and winning its ‘hearts and minds,’ the single most damaging thing being done to Afghans is a Western and UN-funded crop eradication program.

The low-level poppy farmers who suffer the most from eradication are not evil men and drug pushers. More recent efforts to target the real ‘bad guys’ – drug cartels and large traffickers in Afghanistan and the larger region – have borne some fruit, but in terms of starving the insurgency of its narcotics funds, it is ‘too little, too late.’ If this is a drug war, we have lost.

Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy 


Actually, I’m Not: A Response to Prine

Carl Prine had some not-so-kind words to say (5,500 of them) about my (1,500 word) article on Foreign Policy’s AFPAK Channel and about arguments he ascribes to me that I did not make.

I am going to address these issues point by point (in 1,400 words). I will address the arguments rather than the people making them in the hope they might extend the same courtesy to me and others in the future. It is important that we strive to have civil debate and discussion. Vitriol clouds otherwise reasonable arguments and entrenches people in their differences.

The core argument of my FP article was that we would be ill-advised to let our counter-insurgency capabilities and lessons wither because insurgency is not going to wither. While it is important to critically appraise the policy and strategic failures of the last decade, it is also important to learn the right lessons and maintain the right capabilities to deal with future irregular armed actors that challenge American interests. That is the discussion we must have, rather than keep rehashing the angry debates of the last decade that have produced more heat than light.

Neither Prine nor Major Mike Few have disagreed with that core argument either in Prine’s blog post or Major Few’s more level-headed response in FP.

Now, onto the angry debates of the last decade…

A) Service: Prine objects to my use of the word “served,” to describe my position with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). When I worked for HTS, BAE Systems hired people into the training program. We then went through the U.S. Army hiring process while in training. Those of us who made that cut “transitioned” to become Department of the Army Civilians before we deployed.

I took the same oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution that Prine and Major Few did. And I put my life at risk in service of that oath. I worked as an Army employee in Helmand, Afghanistan, carrying a weapon, wearing ACUs, going on foot and vehicle patrols alongside soldiers, and I saw combat. I have seen first-hand the human costs of war. I certainly saw it as service to my country, but others may make up their own minds as to what is and is not “service” as they understand it.

B) Not a newbie:  Because Prine has not heard of me before and did not like my article, he called me “new to the field” and ill-read in an effort to discredit me. Let me set the record straight. I have been close to these issues for the last decade as a student, scholar, and most recently practitioner of sorts.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to the study of insurgency/revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency a decade ago by the great Sam C. Sarkesian (who sadly passed away this year) as a student at Loyola University Chicago, which is when I bought and first read the Small Wars Manual.

After a few years in DC, I went to London and received my MA from the King’s College War Studies Department where I was fortunate to engage with and learn from David Betz (who blogs here at KoW), John Mackinlay, Theo Farrell, and Michael Rainsborough, which is why I was amused when Prine suggested I familiarize myself with David’s and John’s work.

Contrary to Prine’s remarks, not only did I read John’s book, The Insurgent Archipelago, in draft and published form, but I am thanked in the acknowledgments. I had to read Callwell, Galula, Thompson, Kitson, Mao, Giap, Marighella, Debray, and several others in an excellent course run by David and John at King’s on the evolution of insurgency and counter-insurgency.

And as far as some of the other thinkers named at LoD, I drew heavily on Leites and Wolf in one of the studies I carried out for Task Force Helmand as an HTT Social Scientist. I adapted the report and presented it recently at the biennial conference of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, the world’s premiere organization for civil-military affairs. It is currently being adapted for publication. My other work has focused largely on Islamism and terrorism.

I won’t go through my own experience and familiarity with the other scholars on Prine’s extensive list. I don’t think I should have had to mention all of these people in my original article to avoid ridicule. Moreover, I had a word limit. Bloggers often don’t.

Equally relevant is my direct experience on the ground, in support of operations in Central Helmand Province, a very troubled place. And I do appreciate Prine’s kind words about a recent talk I gave last month on that troubled place (audio here).

Needless to say, I recognize COIN theory is not “new” as such. However, in 2006 and 2007 it was framed as “new thinking,” by many observers, officers, and scholars, including one of Prine’s favored scholars (who I also enjoy reading), Steven Metz.

C) Honest misunderstanding: Prine misunderstood what I wrote when I said Colonel Gian Gentile, COIN critic extraordinaire, “represents the first, second, and final strands of anti-counterinsurgency discontent” (I refer readers back to my article for the context). This is a fair mistake. I could have written it more clearly. I was referencing the prior paragraph where I presented “five inter-related drivers” of anti-COIN discontent.

Colonel Gentile’s critiques, which I have read for years with interest (if not always agreement), generally focus on the first, second, and last of these drivers. Prine disagrees with some of these – particularly the relevance of numbers (1) and (4).

D) Armor: I am also tweaked for noting that both Major Few and Colonel Gentile are armor officers, but not noting the same about LTC (ret.) Nagl. I did know Nagl’s branch and perhaps could have noted it, but Prine is reading way too much into this.

Major Few is not as public a figure as the other people mentioned in the article. I was providing background and one of the few things his Small Wars Journal bio states is that he is “an active duty armor officer.”

For the record, I saw armor used to great effect in Helmand by the US Marines, the Brits, and the Danes. I also served under and with some amazing British armor officers and had some fun riding around with armored cav units.

E) Defense Industry: I concede the points Prine makes in his 860+ words on contractors, costs, and the defense industry. His remarks bring context and perspective to the one sentence I devoted to the subject in my article.

F) Operations and Strategy: Prine states that when I draw on Theo Farrell’s “Campaign disconnect: operational progress and strategic obstacles in Afghanistan, 2009-2011”, I am proving my ignorance of military affairs. I disagree. One of the signal failures of our Afghanistan campaign is that despite substantial operational progress, we have not gotten much closer to what we could view as a victory. In other words, we have secured a lot of key populated rural valleys and district and provincial capitals and held them with the Afghan National Security Forces. But, as Farrell argues, there is an “operational-strategic disconnect” in our Afghan campaign.

G) We don’t disagree on much: Finally, Prine and Major Few make a mistake when reading my article. They overlook the central argument and focus on my critique of Few’s unfair and unkind words about the morality of those who have participated in or developed the ideas behind counter-insurgency, in the defense industry and think tank communities. One might even argue that he was demonizing them, which is what I stated in my much-maligned comment to his blog post. He mistook this observation for a personal attack on him (when actually, the subject of my remarks was his attack on third parties).

My FP article is not about Major Few, but this seems to have gotten lost in their responses. In fact, there is so little daylight between my own argument and Major Few’s in his response on, that I am having trouble figuring out where we disagree aside from the tone we prefer to use when we communicate with others on professional matters (no matter how personally we feel about them).

But I hope this will change in the future when we inevitably encounter each other’s work.


Correction: The “new thinking” quote was in the forward to Metz’s report, written by Douglas C. Lovelace, Jr., the director of the Strategic Studies Institute. Another of people framing modern COIN as somehow “new” can be found here.


The views and opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Department of the Army, Training and Doctrine Command, or the Human Terrain System.