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Friday, September 14

Zenpundit weighs in on Petraeus-Crocker war trigonometry

I was concerned that my interest in development issues relating to the poorest countries might have caused me to read too much into the ideas sketched by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during their testimony before Congress. And I felt very tentative about interpreting their ideas. So I asked Zenpundit Mark Safranski to analyze my Petraeus-Crocker Trigonometry of War post. Mark's reply interspersed his instructive comments with the post. For the sake of clarity I am republishing much of the post and putting Mark's points in boldface. Before starting, a few notes about three of Mark's comments:

> By coincidence I added the SWJ (Small Wars Journal) Blog to the Pundita blogroll yesterday morning. Particularly in light of Mark's comments below, it seems SWJ contributors really understand the modern era of warfare.

> Regarding the trigonometry analogy -- it's not mine. During testimony Crocker said something to the effect that Petraeus was working out the "geometry" of the fighting. I think it was Petraeus who added that Crocker was working out the "trigonometry" of the political end -- or maybe it was Crocker who said it. Anyhow, the trigonometry analogy was an "AhHa!" moment for me. I had been trying to get a handle on the strategy they'd worked out, and suddenly the analogy illuminated the basic idea.

> Regarding ignoring Maliki -- the provincial governments must be integrated with the central government, firstly and foremost because Iraq is a command economy heavily dependent on oil revenue. So the bottom-up approach is very limited unless coupled with the top-down approach, which is what Crocker's team is working to accomplish.

Okay, now to Mark's comments:

I read the transcript [of the Petraeus-Crocker testimony] as I could not watch. The transcript is available at the SWJ Blog. (A worthy addition to any blogroll for those interested in counterinsurgency, nation-building and "small wars". Many of the authors of the new Army-Marine handbook blog at SWJ and/or are associated with the Small Wars Journal or magazine in other ways.)

I took notes but many times threw aside my pen in dismay at the level of questions put to the team. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and their 'brain trust' of advisors had hammered out a new approach to warfare. The approach integrates economic and political tactics heretofore reserved for the post-conflict phase of war. The approach is so new that nobody -- not the congressionals, not the reporters who later questioned the team at a press conference -- had a lexicon for putting informed questions to the team.

Technically, this warfare is not "new" though it might as well be as far as the senior leadership of the US Army and civilian policymakers are concerned. The ignorance level is high because the "lessons learned" regarding counterinsurgency ("COIN" in Army jargon) in Vietnam were systematically purged from military archives and educational institutions by the Westmoreland clique at the Pentagon in order to practice CYA. For a short history, I strongly recommend reading Lt. Col. John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife; it's excellent.

You are correct, though, that there is a large knowledge gap operating here between Petraeus/Kilcullen/McMaster and Big Media/Congress, though I think about half the time that works in Petraeus's favor.

BTW, if you recall a couple of years ago the back and forth over Tom Barnett's book The Pentagon's New Map - Tom was trying to sound the alarm/offer a new paradigm on the need to integrate economics/intelligence/political agencies with military operations. That's grand strategy (like Containment) rather than COIN (which is operational and tactical), but the two are aiming at the same problem at different levels of policy.


So one had to snatch bits of understanding from examples given by Petraeus or Crocker, and try from these to cobble together a picture of a war like no other. Pundita is also struggling for a lexicon, so I hope the reader will indulge my first attempt to describe what I absorbed from the proceedings.

The core of the new approach is that mechanisms of governance are introduced as a weapon against armed enemies during kinetic (force) operations.

Yes - this is a political war over the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the populace. Unfortunately, the Iraqi government is incapable of playing ball. We are de-legitimizing AQI far more effectively than we are legitimizing Maliki. A definite improvement but we are not home yet.

One idea behind the military surge in Iraq was to tamp down the insurgency enough to allow the new government to get on its feet. But Petraeus and Crocker found a circular problem in Iraq:

With no means except warfare to influence the government, insurgents would continue fighting unless the 'Carthage solution' was applied -- a solution that would be morally unacceptable to the Coalition. The only other alternative within classic warfare was a troop size of overwhelming proportions, and to leave the troops permanently occupying the country.

Possible only with population "buy-in" - as with Germany and Japan after WWII and the ROK after the Korean War. We won't get that except in Kurdistan, which has the external threats to contemplate.

Then, in a manner of speaking the brain trusts sat down and did trigonometry. Would it be possible to counter every angle of armed resistance with creation of a governance mechanism? A mechanism that provided the insurgents with a more efficient approach to getting what they wanted from government?

Nice metaphor. I'm envious.

The answer was clearly, 'Not in all cases.' There are aspects of the insurgency that are actually classic proxy war masquerading as insurgency.

True. Iran, Syria and KSA (though with different players).

But if people in a province had been shooting for years and still not gotten the authority and funds to build, say, a sewer system, it was possible to go back and forth between government and the shooters to work out mechanisms for (a) putting sewer construction into a budget and (b) mechanisms for carrying out a budget administered by the central government.

Discreetly hire the relatives of the shooters to build the sewers. Either the shooting stops or the sewers get built or both.

So when Petraeus and Crocker spoke at the proceedings about building government from the bottom up and linking this with building government from the top down, that's what they meant. Governance procedures are worked out, in ad hoc fashion, based on demands from Iraqis who previously only had the option of violence to demand their share of power and resources. The procedures are folded into tactics for fighting insurgents.

IMHO: This is a bottom-up to lateral connection effort. The central government has (intentionally) squandered the political capital of democratic elections because that serves the interest of factional leaders running parties like the Dawa. We must humor then ignore Maliki while creating "facts on the ground."

Contrast this with the traditional military approach of overcoming an enemy, then setting a new government in power, and leaving the government to eventually work out procedures for dealing with provinces/tribal regions.

We grew up with the legacy of the omnipresent threat of the Leviathan State, foreign and domestic. A paradigm shift is required for ex-Cold Warrior conservatives ( or liberal doves for that matter) to embrace the threat of the failing state where the state goes through a similar "dynamic collapse" that the economy did during the Great Depression, unable to re-start itself. Like markets, failed governments sometimes do not "clear" for the next social contract to be created.

Sometimes a bad state run by bad people is better than complete anarchy where worse people have free reign. A caution to consider before bombing Iran into the stone age and then potentially seeing a zone of anarchy from the Turkish border running all the way to China and a major oil producer sidelined for five to ten years in an era of rising global demand for oil.

See Martin van Creveld 's The Transformation of War, The Rise and Decline of the State and The Changing Face of War. Also, The Sling and The Stone by Colonel Thomas X. Hammes.


Readers who have leaped ahead might ask whether the new approach has applications for all backward states where outside armed intervention advances or imposes a new government. My answer is my oft-repeated plea to abandon blanket application of any kind of strategy -- whether economic, military, or political.

Agreed. Also, sometimes you have greater leverage with less. Help is then valued more.

Clearly there is a lot of back-and-forth allowable in the Crocker-Petraeus approach because the new government is cooperating in some measure with the US. So the team can go to the shooters and ask, 'What are you upset about today?' Then take the answer back to the government and suggest a governance protocol or system that solves the problem that's causing the shooting.

The approach depends on cooperation from the government that might not always be possible in all countries with backward governance procedures. But the basic idea behind the Petraeus-Crocker approach is very powerful in that it frames armed conflict as a problem of efficiency.

If it's going to take half your town killed to protest lack of clean drinking water; if the government has to get many troops killed to tamp down the violence in your town -- both sides can see the value of approaching the conflict as a failure of the efficiency principle.

The efficiency principle goes out the window if the government is rogue; e.g., if it's no more than a gang protecting smuggling routes and contraband trade. But yes, on a carefully chosen individual basis, there are applications for the Crocker-Petraeus trigonometry in other countries with backward governance systems.

With every case of possible intervention, going back to the drawing board is always an option of first resort. Again, see Nagl on the Malayan Emergency.

But is the approach really working in Iraq? That's what Petraeus and Crocker traveled to Washington to explain: yes, it's working but the ad hoc, case-by-case basis is slow and prone to setbacks. The biggest problem for the US is that Iraqis who have agreed to try the approach are insisting on using the US military as a stand-in for parliamentary representatives.

As Ambassador Crocker explained, Iraq is still a traumatized country. Iraqis don't trust the mechanisms of representative government. They still see government as a phenomenon of rulers rather than systems. They greatly distrust the central government, which oversees a command economy.

They trust their primary loyalties - kith and kin, tribe and sect. Neighbors there are often relatives. Whom would you trust - your cousin, some distant official of a different ethnicity or a foreign soldier pointing a gun at your wife and children? Part of COIN is to stop doing the latter.

Meanwhile, the central government's faith in ethno-sectarian quotas to administer the country has collapsed -- so much so that Maliki visited Sistani earlier this month to discuss abandoning the quotas in favor of a merit-based Cabinet makeup. Sistani's answer was not made public, but Maliki remains convinced by events that only a "technocratic Cabinet" can earn the trust of the provinces.

Will Iran support the creation of a meritocracy in Iraq's central government? Not if they have their way. But Crocker pointed out that because of historical and ethnic reasons Iran is quite limited in their ability to influence politics in Iraq. And Tehran is fast wearing out their welcome among many Iraqi Shiites. That leaves Iran to influence through force of arms, so the struggle for the Coalition is to expose the approach as a very inefficient one for Iraqis.

Iraqi Shiites are also nationalists. We may not know the difference between an Iranian and a Shiite Arab but the Shiite Arabs certainly do.

As the congressional proceedings on Monday and Tuesday emphasized, all this struggle is costing the USA about 9 billion dollars and 60 casualties every month. Will the American people muster the determination to continue supporting a new approach to warfare? The trouble is that for years Americans have shown much patience and determination.

Somewhere I hear laughter. I suppose it's Clausewitz's ghost. But if war is mostly a game of chance, there are steps to improve odds. One step would be for General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to give up hope that news media and think tanks can explain the Iraq campaign to the American people.

I think they have - and the frustration index of MoveOn.org and related fellow travelers is telling evidence.

The team needs to take into account the newness and complexity of their approach. [...]
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