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Tue. November 19, 2019
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IA-Forum Interview: David Ucko
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International Affairs Forum: You have a new book out, ‘The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars.’ You open the book with the statement that “the U.S. military has historically paid little attention to…counterinsurgency and stability operations.” These were viewed as outside the military’s responsibilities or not as important as conventional war-fighting. This summer, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Joint Forces Command, was quoted in National Defense magazine saying if we don’t adapt, we’re going to be dominant but irrelevant. However, you conclude your book saying the old thinking with its emphasis on conventional warfare capabilities and entrenched interests prevails. So are the counterinsurgency and stability operations a passing attraction? Dr. David Ucko: I think what General Mattis is expressing is really the culmination of learning that has occurred in the last few years and that I try to trace in my book. General Mattis has been one of the leaders of learning about counterinsurgency (COIN) that we’ve seen since really 2003 or 2004, and his appointment to the head of Joint Forces Command has been one of the key appointments in ensuring that counterinsurgency remains a focus for the U.S. military. Having said that, there are still a lot of entrenched interests and orthodoxies in the U.S. military. It’s a very conformist organization; one that is very big and that is very difficult to change quickly. For that reason, there’s this curious tension at this point between those who advocate a continued and greater institutional focus on counterinsurgency and those who’d like to revert to more traditional principles oriented towards major combat operations. That orthodoxy or that continuity expresses itself most forcefully in the budgetary resource allocation and also in the force structure of the U.S. military, both of which remain to a large degree oriented towards major combat operations rather than to stability operations. IA-Forum: You note that the two most fundamental variables in the configuration of a military force are the budget and force structure. So how does the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the major budgetary strategic document for the DoD, reflect this orientation? Dr. Ucko: There’s a lot of anticipation now for the QDR 2010 and what it will do. I think it might be helpful to put it into the context of previous reviews, and I spend one chapter in the book looking at the QDR of 2006. What one finds there, or perhaps even more so in the budget that accompanied the QDR’s release, was that there’s very little change. In fact, no real change at all from the types of priorities that the DoD has pursued for decades. Many sort of Clinton-era defense platforms and systems are still being pursued despite the strategic change of environment that is evident since 9/11 and even more with the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The division of funds between services, between the Army and the Marine Corps, the Navy, and Air Force, remained constant despite that fact that the ground forces were operating at a much higher degree of strain than the other services. The manner in which the Army and Marine Corps allocated the resources that they were given also remained unchanged. That is to say the Army pursued the “future combat system” and touted it as the solution to all of its future operations, and the Marine Corps (for various reasons to do with its institutional self-identification) pursued platforms that were mostly oriented towards amphibious attack, such as the expeditionary fighting vehicle and other means of getting Marines from the boats onto the shore. It should be added the Marines haven’t actually conducted this type of operation since somewhere around the Korean War. So one has to question the reticence to let go of some of these orthodoxies. What the QDR did was that it came out with a lot of very promising rhetoric about the importance of regular warfare and the need for the U.S. military to be able to conduct both the regular warfare and major combat operations. Unfortunately, in terms of force structure, there was very little change. The QDR in 2006 boosted the level of psychological operation forces and also the number of civil affairs, which are units that are in high demand but often not available in sufficient numbers in stability operations and counterinsurgencies. But that was really it. There was no real radical change to the regular forces’ force structure, which would be required given the particular, unique and challenging demands of stability operations. IA-Forum: From your vantage point, what would you see as a better force structure in the QDR coming up? Dr. Ucko: I have to say first of all that it’s going to become very difficult to transform the military whilst it is also engaging in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even just in terms of producing doctrine and also the expertise needed for these operations. Unfortunately in institutions such as the Training and Doctrine Command [TRADOC], their manpower and resources are being slashed basically to finance the wars, so there’s sort of an evil circle in that regard. But in an ideal world, what you’d want to see is a bottom-up review of what it is that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are being asked to do and how they are equipped, resourced and structured to do that. The whole learning process that I describe in this book has occurred against the backdrop of “force modularization” for the Army – basically a transition from a division-based force to a force based around brigade combat teams - a new unit for the Army. Some have characterized this as the biggest and most revolutionary change since the Second World War. That process of change provided for a level of fluidity that could have been exploited to really incorporate some of the lessons learned in theatre in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it has not happened. The brigade combat teams are still predominantly focused towards major combat operations. There’s very little in them to suggest an institutional focus and stability operations or a conviction that these types of campaigns will be fought in the future. So what I would like to see in 2010, and I think that hoping for this is probably naïve on my part, is a much more fundamental review of what it is we’re actually asking the U.S. armed forces to do and a concomitant restructuring of its principal unit. IA-Forum: Your book focuses on three questions. Let’s start with the first one. How has the military improved its ability to conduct stability operations? What did you find? Dr. Ucko: The way I tried to categorize this very large and broad process is by dividing it into three strands. The first strand is on the conceptual level. If we look at the U.S. military of 2000 and 2001, the understanding and the appreciation of the nuance of counterinsurgencies or stability operations is really minimal. There was no real scholarship going into it. The military had the experience of the 1990s peace-keeping operations, but given that they were conducted in permissive environments where you didn’t have this insurgency threat, they were much more conducive to success than what we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The overlap between those kinds of experience and what we’ve seen more recently is not so great. So, from 2005 in particular, two years into the Iraq war, what one sees is increasingly nuanced elaboration of what these types of operations are and the challenges they present. That obviously has lead to doctrine as a sort of primary manifestation. In 2004 there was an interim counterinsurgency manual produced by the U.S. Army. If we compared that with the final counterinsurgency manual that was released in 2006, you can see clearly the conceptual advances that have been made. Similarly the joint community has released various joint operating concepts for stability operations and irregular warfare and in recent years all of these documents have become increasingly population-centered rather than enemy-centered. That is to say there is a growing acknowledgment that these types of operations really rely upon the perceptions of the local population and not on the ability to target individual enemies or adversaries. So that’s on the conceptual level. The second strand where learning has really occurred on the institutional level. I think as a result of the conceptual understanding of what these operations are and the challenges that they pose, there’s been an increased effort to learn and to push that learning process forward within DoD. That has resulted in the establishment of various nodes and offices, centers of excellence and departments dedicated to various roadmaps and directives institutionalizing the ability to conduct these types of operations. And there’s really a myriad of initiatives to that end at this point, so much so that it becomes almost impossible to trace them all. I think this process was greatly helped by the 2005 Directive, 3000.5, ["Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations"] which DoD released basically to put stability operations on the same level of importance as major combat operations. But of course the other great contributing factor was the war in Iraq and the urgent need to get things right there before things deteriorated further. The third strand is operational. Where what you see is from really the beginning of post-conflict operations in Iraq, some units managed, through ad hoc and improvisation, to devise a very sophisticated counterinsurgency approach. Unfortunately these were often an exception to the rule. But increasingly and particularly with the formulation of the surge, what one sees is that the U.S. military has gone from conducting operations in Iraq that were primarily oriented towards strikes and raids and so forth, to really population-centered, community-oriented counterinsurgency operations. That transition in a matter of years is revolutionary and I think a fantastic manifestation of the learning that has occurred. IA-Forum: How do you think DoD Directive 3000.5 affected the military in terms of being an organizational learning opportunity? Dr. Ucko: I think 2005 was really the starting point for the institutional reform for stability operations within DoD. It was really a year of flux, where you see some signs of change, but also a lot of resistance to that change. So what the DoD Directive 3000.5, which was released in November 2005, did was to provide an authoritative voice and clear conceptual support for these types of operations. It defined the operations and defined the U.S. Department of Defense’s remit in these operations and to did so very broadly so as to include not only the provision of security, a task that the U.S. military felt more or less comfortable with, but also in the absence of civilian partners, the undertaking of non-military or civilian tasks until civilian partners could either join in the effort or local institutions could be stood up. So it really provided a shining light on what the problem was and an authoritative voice for the need to learn. Now it should be said that the implementation of the Directive, with almost a hundred tasks there for implementation, has been less certain. Certainly some progress was made, in doctrine but also training, education, and experimentation fields. But overall I think even the team within the Office the Secretary of Defense mandated to check on the implementation process has had to concede that in terms of overall stability, operations’ capacity there has been insufficient follow-up. So all this structuring is icing the force. There hadn’t been sufficient follow-up for their liking. IA-Forum: You focus on the learning process involved for the DoD. What aided that learning and what obstacles got in the way? Dr. Ucko: I would look first at the factors that aided the learning. The most critical factor has been the U.S. military’s engagement in Iraq. There’s no doubt to me that had there not been an ongoing counterinsurgency campaign that the U.S. military was engaged in, there would have been no need for the type of learning process that I describe in the book. But as critical has been the U.S. military’s open climate for discussion and information exchange. Particularly since 2005, there has been a climate where bottom-up review and criticism of established principles and orthodoxy has been welcome and that has led to various very promising initiatives. There’s been bottom-up learning initiatives, such as companycommand.com, a website where officers can basically share best practices and lessons learned. And also various blogs such as Small Wars Journal or a blog, Abu Muqawama, which has become a veritable node for learning within the military, within the U.S. government and beyond internationally. So that’s been two great assets in the learning process and that have been accompanied also in terms of the official Army publications. A greater willingness to deal with issues in an open manner, to take criticism, to be humble in the face of new challenges, and to learn. The intellectual acumen of some of the officers leading this process has also been a unique asset. I think that has really enabled what I would describe as a revolutionary departure from old principles to what we see today. On the obstacles, I think as with any organization it’s always difficult to achieve change, particularly in an organization that is as conformist as the DoD, so there’s been a level of entrenchment that has had to be overcome. Change has to occur with the consent of the senior leaders of the organization. Yet in acceding to that change they are in a sense devaluing their own experience, so that accounts for some of the slowness in achieving that type of learning. More generally I think what we’ll see increasingly is a mis-characterization of the lessons to be learned from Iraq that will really threaten the progress made so far in terms of learning counterinsurgency. There’s an idea or narrative that counterinsurgency doesn’t work: “It isn’t worth it, look at Afghanistan, look at the trouble that U.S. troops are having there, why should we spend any more resources trying to focus on these types of operations?” Or, an alternative narrative saying “Well, counterinsurgency may have been important for Iraq and Afghanistan, but we would be foolish to do this again so let’s get back to what we do and what we know best.” I think both of those narratives are misguided. The troubles in Iraq and more specifically in Afghanistan today have to do not with the failure of COIN, but with the failure to apply COIN from the very outset, basically losing a lot of valuable ground and now having to basically reverse previous errors. On the notion that learning counterinsurgency is learning to fight the last war, I think a realistic outlook on trends such as urbanization shows that whenever you have an expeditionary force being deployed they will operate in cities and foreign cultures and foreign languages facing enemies, that would be really foolish to confront the U.S. military in a conventional manner and will instead resort to the same types of tactics we see in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of this points to a future of operations that may not be necessarily counterinsurgency operations per se, but that will call for very similar skill sets and capabilities and that’s why I think the learning of counterinsurgency is really just the learning of how to conduct modern wars. IA-Forum: It seems in Afghanistan now that air power is both a blessing and a curse. The work of drones and close-air support helps ground troops, but hurts the public perception of the U.S. efforts when civilians are killed inadvertently. Further, special operation forces became the pre-eminent force for counterterrorism operations and a regular warfare after 9/11. And the Marines are supposed to be the “shock troops”, the amphibious assault force, so where does this COIN and stability operations emphasis leave the various branches? Would you see a change in how the branches are organized and is there too much redundancy? Dr. Ucko: I wouldn’t necessarily argue for a wholesale reform of the branches. I think that would probably be too hopeful, given the scope of change and what’s actually possible. I do think the change of focus is going to center a lot on who’s recruited and what it means to be a soldier, what it means to be a Marine. When the commandant of the Marine Corps emphasizes the fact that Marines had to be shock troops, then I think that may risk sending out the wrong message. Similarly, there was initially a lot of criticism of the U.S. Army’s creed which centered on basically being a warrior rather than say a soldier. It has to do really with the self-perception of the institution and why people join the Army and so on and so forth. There was a study conducted a few years back comparing the recruitment material between the U.S. Army and the Canadian Army and there was a clear difference between the high-tech combat oriented recruitment material in the U.S. and the much more community-oriented and more humanitarian-oriented material in Canada. Now I’m not saying that there’s any need to trade places. I mean the U.S. still needs its combat capability, but there may be a need for greater balance so that being a soldier and being a Marine is also about conducting counterinsurgency rather than just being an out and out warrior or shock troop. IA-Forum: Now you call stability operations “a growth business” and you see the trend since World War II and certainly since 9/11 going this way. What role do you see for the State Department in this, and is the interagency process strengthened in this new orientation? Dr. Ucko: I think the first thing to say is that the military simply can’t do this all by itself. These are operations that require a “whole of government” approach. That’s something that’s often said. And State has a very important role to play in that, as does USAID and the Department of Justice and so on. The problem, of course, which is something that I elaborate on in the book, is that often the civilian branches of government find it difficult to get to the scene. The military has a great advantage in deployability and it has the manpower and the resources and perhaps most importantly, the capability to operate in an insecure environment, which civilian partners simply lack. So for that reason the military is often left alone and it simply is not practical or possible for it to wait for civilian partners to turn up and take care of what’s in a sense their remit. A recognition of this has produced two different and some might say contradictory pressures within DoD. One has been to lobby for greater civilian capabilities for counterinsurgency and stability operations. The military has been the biggest cheerleader for the S/CRS (the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization) because it realizes that the more civilian efforts are involved, the more equitable burden sharing can be and really some of these skills, some of these efforts, and these operations should be conducted by civilians. So it’s only right that they are part of that overall effort. The second effort has been to realize that when civilians are not there, the U.S. military, the Army and the Marine Corps in particular, have to be ready to assume the whole gamut of tasks, at least until civilian partners can be deployed or until local institutions can be stood up. So I think there’s a greater role to play for the State Department and I think the interagency approach is strengthened to the degree that there’s a realization of its role. There’s been some great initiatives in U.S. AID and S/CRS and so forth to enhance the civilian role in counterinsurgency, but when it comes to boots on the ground and insecure environments it’s still very difficult for these organizations to get there and to stay there, which is why the military has to maintain its own focus on the whole gamut of tasks under the counterinsurgency umbrella. IA-Forum: Recently private security contractors protecting the U.S. embassy in Kabul have been criticized for highly inappropriate behavior off-duty and contractors generally now outnumber soldiers in Afghanistan. So how do contractors affect the success of the counterinsurgency? Dr. Ucko: Yes, this is a critical issue. The problem with private military companies (PMCs) is that their mission is not necessarily oriented towards the population in the country that they serve, but defined according to a certain contract. That becomes a real problem when even tactical tasks by the intervening force can have strategic implications and when locals do not really make a distinct difference between whether someone is a PMC employee or a U.S. soldier. I don’t see an easy way out of this. It may be necessary to alter the recruitment and drawing up contracts with PMCs, but really it also has to do I think fundamentally with the lack of manpower within the country and that, in turn, reflects on the difficulties of standing up local forces to take care of some of the security, such as static defense duties and other security responsibilities that pertain. So perhaps the problem could be addressed in part at least by accelerating those types of efforts and relying less on often overly expensive PMCs from the West. IA-Forum: In counterinsurgency, victory can be hard to measure. Are we asking our military to engage in drawn out conflicts that end only when both parties are exhausted? Dr. Ucko: Ideally not. Ideally the point of the exercise is to seize the initiative and maintain momentum. I think the notion of mutual exhaustion would be a very unsatisfactory end point to what is often a very painful campaign. Victory is a misleading word, but in the framework of counterinsurgency, you could see victory perhaps as creating an order that is preferable to the status quo ante. And it’s also self-sustainable, that is that it won’t unravel once the intervening forces are removed. Now that takes a very long time and that’s why these conflicts are so drawn out. In a sense, are we asking our military to do this? Well, of course if there was a way of avoiding these types of operations all together, I think that that would be infinitely preferable. The problem is that these types of operations are not always easy to avoid and for some of the reasons that I touched on before, I see the complexities that we see in Iraq and Afghanistan as being representative of future campaigns. So it doesn’t look good. It is not the type of operations that the military has wanted to fight and perhaps operations that are rapid and decisive, which were two key words in defense planning prior to Iraq, because these were the types of operations that the military was structured to conduct. These are neither rapid nor decisive, but unfortunately it seems to be the only operations that we’re going to face. So that’s why I feel that one way of undercutting their complexity and perhaps making it less of a grueling process is to prepare accordingly rather than to pretend that these counterinsurgency campaigns are not to re-occur. IA-Forum: In the new counterinsurgency era, where do special operations forces fit in since there’s such a reliance now on ground troops? Dr. Ucko: The division of tasks between the special operations forces and a general purpose troop forces is an ongoing debate. I think that due to the numerical inferiority of the special operations community, there are of course certain limitations to what they can and cannot do. Clearly in terms of advising and training foreign state forces, that is something that it’s increasingly recognized as a task that can be undertaken by general purpose forces rather than the special operations community per se. There simply aren’t enough of them to go around. What is their role? I think they have owned counterinsurgency since the Vietnam era and they have many very useful skills and capabilities in these types of campaigns. Unfortunately, as I detail in the book, for a long time the special operations community overemphasized direct action and the sort of kicking down of doors and so on over and above the more development tasks such as training, assisting and advising as well as civilian affairs and psychological operations. So there’s a need within the special operations community as well to perhaps change its interpretation of what irregular warfare is all about and also a need within the regular forces to take on more of the advisory and training missions that have traditionally been within the remit of the special operations community. IA-Forum: You emphasize the importance of the learning process for DoD since 9/11 and Iraq. What do you think the U.S. military is learning in this difficult year in Afghanistan? Dr. Ucko: I think if there’s anyone who came out from Iraq thinking that the FM3-24 counterinsurgency field manual presented a silver bullet or a sort of magical solution to all the problems insurgency related, I think those hopes have been firmly quashed in Afghanistan. I don’t think that many people had that idea. Mostly it’s critics of counterinsurgency that seem to ascribe this kind of doctrinaire silver bullet approach. But I think that we’ve seen a practical manifestation of the idea that is in the FM 3-24 that if a tactic works this week, it might not work next week. And if it works in this province, it might not work in the next. So I think there’s a great need for adaptation and for shaping your strategy to local conditions. I think the second lesson learned is that achieving security is only one, albeit a very important, task of a counterinsurgency campaign, particularly in the aftermath of the elections in Afghanistan. I think there’s a growing realization that is a limit to what U.S. forces or NATO forces can do if the host-nation government simply is not singing from the same hymn sheet, so to say. The allegations of fraud in the elections and the venality of some government ministers really puts into question whether a capability building operation such as counterinsurgency, which is after all intended to increase the legitimacy and ability of the central government will in fact work. And I think the third learning is that fighting counterinsurgency as a consensus coalition such as NATO is extremely difficult. The climate in Europe, between all of the European NATO member states, about Afghanistan and about counterinsurgency even is very different from the climate in the U.S. The discussion varies fundamentally. To achieve a common approach as a sort of unity of action between all those members of NATO has been and continues to be a fundamental challenge. I think it’s not a particularly conducive framework in which to conduct these very complex operations. Dr. David Ucko is a Transatlantic Fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin, Germany and an adjunct Fellow at the RAND Corporation. His book, The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars, was published in 2009 by Georgetown University Press.

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