Lessons from the Post-9/11 Campaigns

Hearts_and_MindsBy Octavian Manea

(Re-Published from Small Wars Journal, April 8, 2014) SWJ discussion with Gen. John R. Allen, US Marine Corps (Ret.), a Distinguished Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institution, working within the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence. Prior to joining Brookings, Allen commanded the NATO International Security Assistance Force and US Forces in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013.

SWJ: In the past, the US military trained for high-end maneuver warfare and intensive firepower—historical key ingredients of the American way of war. Since 9/11 we’ve seen a totally different approach. What has changed, in your experience, in the nature and the character of war, in how you wage war?

Gen. Allen: War is fundamentally a human endeavor; the character of war may change, but not its nature. Conflict may be characterized by high intensity firepower and maneuver dominated operations and campaigns or we may find that the character of war is dominated by counterinsurgency operations, or even cyber operations. But the nature of war still continues to remain the same, a human endeavor. What was unique about Iraq and Afghanistan was what we undertook after the decisive phase of the campaign, because both of them were seen as part of a paradigm that emphasized the traditional application of the American way of war. In the aftermath of those campaigns we ultimately undertook the kind of capacity building and nation-building that would be necessary for that state to endure. We wanted to make sure that what emerged after the destruction of both central governments is something that we could live with. That required and caused us fundamentally to change the manner in which we conduct operations in both theaters.

SWJ: What are the core questions a military commander needs to answer and guide his decisions in a counterinsurgency battlefield?

Gen. Allen: I think there are three very large questions.

The first question when you are involved in any counterinsurgency is how do we marshal the right combination of our forces necessary to limit and shape the insurgency? Being involved in a counterinsurgency campaign would seem to indicate that the host nation at its core has limited or no capacity ultimately to address fundamental issues. So the foreign intervention has to be one that shapes the insurgency while you are doing the next thing which is extraordinarily important, building the capabilities and capacities of the indigenous force to take over from the foreign expeditionary force. Frankly, recognizing when this moment has come and orchestrating the rebalancing of the foreign forces, with moving the indigenous forces into the lead to take over operations is critically important. The commander needs to recognize that moment and be prepared to reshape and rebalance the foreign force from an essentially conventional unit into a force with strong advisory and support capabilities. This is a very significant undertaking.

So first is shape the insurgency, second is to move the host nation forces into the lead and the third is to build the kind of enduring capacities necessary within the institutions of the host state that permit, ultimately, for that nation to continue to deal with the insurgency and also to endure over the long term as a viable political entity. All three of those things have to occur in a counterinsurgency campaign. How do I keep insurgency from winning, how do I get the indigenous security forces into the fight so they become a credible solution to the problem and how do we shape and build endurance in the national institutions so they can bring an end to the insurgency at the political and economic level supported by its own credible and capable security forces and has a hope of enduring beyond the departure of the foreign forces.

One of the challenges with foreign interventions and insurgencies, especially in the kind of interventions where we are investing a lot in capacity-building, is ensuring we are building or developing capacities that are culturally, socially, economically feasible to endure over the long term.  One of the things that I told to my staff, very early on when I have arrived in Afghanistan was that I didn’t want any more big ideas.  As I conveyed to my leadership, I wanted to stop trying remake Afghan institutions into Western institutions. Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador, Colombia each of those countries has a unique social environment, history, and faith – the combination of which over time shaped its institutions for governance and government. When we seek to create them in our own image we may well be creating a social dynamic that is unnatural. What I said to my staff was there would be no moratorium on good ideas. What I wanted was to have a good understanding of what works from the context of Afghan solutions. Stop trying to impose unique Western solutions to their unique Afghan problems and needs. Within their own capabilities, we needed to understand Afghan needs and requirements and invest in giving them the capacity to solve their problems or invest in their own capability to build capacities. But if we impose a Western solution and then provide insufficient or no sustainment we can’t expect anything other than collapse of those capabilities once we leave …

To read the full article, click here.

Octavian Manea is pursuing, as a Fulbright student, an M.A. in International Relations with a focus on global security and post-conflict reconstruction at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

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