Asymmetric Blog Warfare

An asymmetric blogwar just broke out regarding the Army’s latest doctrinal manual on Stability Operations (see Jack Kem’s WPR feature for background). Before diving into the fray myself, here’s the sequence so far:

Jason Brownlee attacks the manual as an imperialist handbook, whereby the operational doctrine facilitates and drives the strategic urge for imperialist occupations.

Andrew Exum attacks Brownlee, arguing that the army would be irresponsible if it didn’t equip its junior officers and troops with the operational tools necessary to wage the wars America is actually now fighting. Any imperialist urge would come from the subsequent civilian misuse of those tools.

Spencer Ackerman sensibly referees the debate, pointing out that the doctrinal manual does present a strategic vision, but agreeing that the danger lies primarily in how it is used by the civilian command.

Dave Dilegge offers further arguments
for why, despite valid concerns over the use of stability ops doctrine, the doctrine itself is necessary and long overdue.

Sam Roggeveen makes the distinction between the doctrine and the capacity, pointing out that building an operational capacity via training and diverted resources by nature implies political and thereby strategic prioritizing. He also worries about the potential for the “bottom up” approach of stability ops ultimately replacing the Westphalian strategic approach to addressing global problems.

Finally, Kevin Drum professes his lack of “chops” to properly weigh in on the matter, a sure sign that he’s about to land a haymaker, which he does by wondering — ideological debates aside — whether stability ops doctrine actually works? Sure, Iraq has calmed down, but how certain can we be that it was as a consequence of the application of Gen. Petraeus’ COIN doctrine (a subset of the full spectrum stability ops doctrine)?

So far, I agree with everyone. Seriously, though, besides the obvious “category error” that Exum identifies in Brownlee’s initial critique (doctrine is not strategy, as Kem’s WPR feature very ably makes clear), I think the concerns are all valid, and I’ve found myself articulating one or the other of them at various times over the past year.

There’s a natural tendency, once a tool has been developed, to put it to use. Jacques Ellul even postulated the dynamic as a historical inevitability whereby a technique, once discovered, can no longer not be put to use. And doctrine and capacity obviously impact planning and contingency, and thus almost certainly exert a temptation for use. I’d go so far as to say that the Iraq War was as much about applying — and, as importantly, demonstrating the effectiveness of — the Revolution in Military Affairs and Effects Based Operations as it was about deposing Saddam Hussein.

As we all know by now, the invasion triumphantly validated the “Schock and Awe” approach, but the subsequent occupation ended up demonstrating the limitations of RMA and EBO in the context of the asymmetric warfare that regime change inevitably evolves into. That led to the urgent need for the new doctrine now causing all the discussion.

Kevin Drum’s point, though, really should not be lost in the dust raised by the hardcore doctrinal debate, as fascinating as that is. The COIN and Stability Operations doctrines are theoretically satisfying, and part of the danger they represent is that they provide a vision of war that appeals to both “left” and “right.” I’ve seen that vision described by David Kilcullen as “armed social work,” and that, given my experience as a non-degreed social worker and familiarity with the field, sums up my concerns about them. Social work interventions are almost always pretty convincing on paper, and most social workers are pretty satisfied with them as they sit and wait for their client to arrive at the unveiling. It’s once the client shows up to the intervention drunk or high, or doesn’t show up at all because they haven’t been released on bail yet, that the limitations of the treatment plan start to become evident.

So the idea that we might develop an exagerrated sense of our own capacity, one that will inevitably lead to disappointment, is a real one. And if there’s one thing that has reassured me about what I’ve called the Temptation of COIN, it’s Defense Sec. Bob Gates’ repeated insistence on balance and restraint, even as he’s fought tooth and nail to get the Pentagon to embrace the capacity it currently needs. That reinforces the need for vigilance regarding the civilian leadership, and explains why I’m glad Gates has stayed on.

But beyond the doctrinal debates, I think Sam Roggeveen nails the most farreaching implication of the tilt in American tactical thinking towards bottom up state building. Whether it’s the Anbar Awakening, whereby the Iraqi state’s monopoly on the use of force was subordinated to the operational exigencies of counterinsurgency, or the increasing calls for engaging local, clan-based authority in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency flies under the radar of the Westphalian order, with the hopes — not always justified — of eventually reintegrating it at a later point. That’s a prickly proposition in a global environment where many of the countries demanding increased influence in the Westphalian global governance system are very strong defenders of the principle of national sovereignty (China, for instance, but also India and Brazil).

So it’s worthwhile to keep a wary eye on the doctrine, even if it’s only to make sure that it’s still the strategy that drives its use — a point that everyone seems to agree on — and not the other way around.

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