The Lessons of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: QMN054
Martial Mental Models: The Quartermaster, Monday, 5 August
(Today’s report is a 10 minute read)
BLUF: Across nearly two decades the US military has involved itself in a few different counterinsurgency efforts at different stages and there’s been a ton of real, good thinking about how to approach the problem of counterinsurgency overall. The canon has expanded significantly to include New York Times Bestsellers, think tank studies, robust blogs supported by nonprofits, and the unearthing of some solid gold tomes that explain step-by-step how to topple a government. I'll direct you to the best ones here.
Brady here. As we near the 18th anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, it seems like a good time to examine some of what we’ve learned since then. Militarily, probably the concept with which we’re most familiar today that we weren’t familiar with before is insurgency. Across nearly two decades the US military has involved itself in a few different counter-insurgency efforts at different stages and there’s been a significant amount of real, good thinking about how to approach the problem of counter-insurgency overall. The canon has expanded significantly to include New York Times Bestsellers, think tank studies, robust blogs supported by nonprofits, and the unearthing of some solid gold tomes that essentially explain step-by-step how to topple a government. I’ll provide an overview here and some explanations.
Amazon today lists some 700 titles in counterinsurgency, but the most important, memorable and influential include John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (about counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam and the Malayan Emergency) which my 2005 battalion commander bought for every staff member, David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla (looking at insurgent-centric explanations from Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and Pakistan) which my ODA read together in 2010, and The Counterinsurgency Field Manual (whose release in 2006 signaled a major shift in approach by US forces) with a first chapter that provides perhaps the best primer of the entire concept (images below). Nagl’s book is valuable but academic, and Kilcullen’s is academic but tries hard to appeal to a wider audience and simplify the answers it gives.
In 2005 some Marines started up Small Wars Journal - which has served as a news aggregator, a multi-author blog on current events as well as a repository of perspectives on the last 18 years of American conflict from the lowliest private to the most senior general. In addition to being the counterinsurgency website of record, it has sections focused on insurgency and crime in Latin America and the evergreen topic of Urban Operations. Though counterinsurgency operations at scale have died down since their peak in 2007, the site is still going strong and remains perhaps the most comprehensive open online resource for counterinsurgency concepts.
The most interesting part of the US’s attempt to understand insurgency and counterinsurgency in the past two decades has been the resurrection of long-forgotten in-depth studies and primary sources. These include those from France’s experiences in French Indochina and Algeria (most notably Roger Trinquier’s and David Galula’s - not to mention Gillo Pontecorvo’s excellent political movie Battle of Algiers), Lester Grau’s works on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan (The Bear Went Over The Mountain and its mujahideen-focused companion-piece The Other Side of the Mountain), and Bernard Fall’s examinations of Vietnam in Street Without Joy and Hell In A Very Small Place. All these fascinating historical examples should make us feel dumb for failing at counterinsurgency for so long - the answers were sitting on bookshelves waiting for us to simply consider.
The single greatest resource of information from the insurgency side has become the US Army Special Operations Command’s (USASOC) Assessing Revolutionary And Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) Studies site. Between Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary and Resistance Warfare and Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies (see image below) examining communist insurgencies in the 1960s, a reader has pretty much all the knowledge required to set up and run an organization to overthrow a sitting government. Every time I pick up one of these manuals I get the feeling that it should be classified considering the volatility of the information inside.
The lessons I hope the US has learned about counterinsurgency is that it takes a lot of troops, close integration with local pro-government forces, and constant presence. You have to sway the “undecideds” in the middle before the insurgent does, and in doing so you have to somehow show you’re in it for the long haul, but not an occupying force. It’s an unbelievably difficult balancing act that nobody should ever take as lightly as we did in 2003. The amount we’ve studied and re-learned these lessons in the last two decades is remarkable, though, and deserves some consideration, lest we forget them again. (BJM)
THINKING FIRST INSIDE THE BOX: LIMITS AND USES OF A MODEL by Kevin Todd
Kevin here. BLUF: The US Army uses many mental models - tools and processes to help standardize information gathering to ensure that the applicable information is properly captured and posed - to gather information for a commander and staff to guide the decision-making process. These tools are not perfect by any means, but extremely helpful when trying to understand the complexity of a problem. The ASCOPE PMESII-PT Crosswalk is a tool that planners use to help understand their operational environment, providing necessary context and background information to help bridge the knowledge gap between conceptual and detailed planning. Knowing when and why to use it is important in understanding what it’s capable of.
In the summer of 2014, I was one of 15 field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels), all with combat experience, taking a yearlong course on how the Army develops plans that turn high level strategy into tactical actions on the battlefield. The conversation this day was about understanding the operational environment. We were taught that in order to be successful in developing conceptual approaches to complex problems we must do three things. First, we must understand the end state or theater level objective (this is usually the easiest part of the process because the guidance comes from the leadership of the governing organization). Secondly, we must “frame the problem” in its current state, meaning we’ve got to comprehensively understand all key aspects and characteristics of the problem and identify all obstacles that stand between the current state and the desired end state. Once we understand the desired end state and have framed the problem then the planners can begin to use creative thinking to develop a broad approach that will remove all the obstacles and friction preventing the organization from achieving its objective.
The Army Design Methodology process. ADRP 5-0, The Operations Process (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, May 2012), 2-6.
Using the example of the current Civil War in South Sudan, the facilitator of the lesson, a PhD from the University of Kansas, asked the group to take 60 minutes to begin framing this problem set. Naturally, this group of seasoned veterans who had an extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan all agreed upon using an Army tool called the ACSOPE/PMESII PT Crosswalk.
The Army's ASCOPE PMESII-PT Crosswalk is a tool that planners use to help understand their operational environment, providing necessary context and background information to help bridge the knowledge gap between conceptual and detailed planning.
ASCOPE stands for Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events - and represents broad categories that are constant for every operational environment. Conversely, PMESII-PT covers the variables that change from by location and together they provide a commander and the staff a greater understanding of the problem. The operational variables of Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, Information, Physical Environment, and Time are what's important for the commander and the staff to better understand the problem. When these variables are combined they provide the description for the commander in which he/she can now visualize and assess the current environment.
Upon completion of the ASCOPE/ PMESII-PT Crosswalk exercise the conversation took an unexpected turn. Our professor sternly warned us about the dangers using restricting tools and incomplete processes when attempting to truly understand a problem. Simply put, the professor asked us "how could we put 2000 years of culture and history into six tiny little boxes and expect to gain any semblance of contextual knowledge of the problem".
I thought the critique was fair - I understood the professor's plea and really appreciated the teaching point, but it didn't sit well with the group. My classmates protested - explaining we shouldn’t throw aside a proven model, approved as doctrine, just because it doesn't provide a complete and comprehensive factbook. Our professor didn't understand a few truths about combat planning:
Time is not on any operational planners' side. Normally operational planners have somewhere between 48-72 hours to frame a problem and provide as much contextual information to the commander in order to move on from conceptual to detailed planning.
The skillset of an Army operational planning team doesn't have a subject matter expert on Africa. Though most operational planning teams are educated and extremely capable, the best you are going to get is surface deep, not a lot of expert-level depth.
If we don't have tools and process, and we also lack area expertise, our ability to apply creativity to an operational approach becomes counterintuitive to the remaining planning process. Sometimes tools are simply used to ensure that planning actually happens - just like assumptions are made in order to facilitate continued planning.
Models like the ASCOPE/ PMESII-PT Crosswalk are necessary and beneficial to the planning process. Though it’s not a perfect tool for completely understanding 2000 years' worth of culture, it is a starting point with which planners can start to tease out information into processable chunks that when put together give the commander the best information available to make an educated decision. (KST)
BOOK REVIEW: THE ART OF ACTION by Stephen Bungay
Brady Here. More than a couple veterans have had the idea of applying military planning processes to business, but few have actually gone and worked out which processes would be most beneficial and why. The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results by Stephen Bungay provides a wide ranging but very readable explanation that military processes around planning and communication can help make sure the things that business leaders plan to accomplish actually get carried out. The author makes a well-crafted connection from early 19th century military theory to contemporary business, showing the reader how accepting some truths and limitations about human capabilities leads to better results. At 228 pages it's consumable across a few days.
Stephen Bungay is a former CEO and 17-year Boston Consulting Group consultant. Currently he’s the Director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre in London and as an acclaimed military historian has published various books, including The Most Dangerous Enemy: An Illustrated History of the Battle of Britain and Alamein. His added background as a historian is probably the reason he’s able to somehow connect Carl von Clausewitz to British Airways’ and Komatsu’s management philosophies - which he does admirably.
The Art of Action does a few things really well: it focuses on the importance of commanders intent, on the criticality of backbriefing, and it helps to prove that it's not the plan, but the process of continuous planning and execution, that's key. Bungay explains early on that the cause of failure and difficulty in the military realm is the same in business: friction. Nothing ever happens the way you expect it to, and a million little things pop up along the way to make the work painful. By changing organizational culture to push decisions down to the lowest level, armies and businesses have minimized risk and made execution faster and much more effective. What this requires is trust and good, continuous communication. This allows teams to close gaps in knowledge, alignment and effects to produce results that fit the intent. And Bungay doesn't just claim it's all a good idea- he shows you how to do it.
The Art of Action is probably the business book I've recommended the most to people and certainly the one I've re-read more than any other. You'll come away with usable methods to immediately improve your planning and execution. No other book that I've found better applies a number of martial models to business, and I recommend it to any reader of this newsletter before any other book. (BJM)
GEAR REVIEW: The GORUCK Backpack
Gear nerds write a ton about backpacks, so I'll stop myself from adding to the library and just point you to Carryology’s 2019 induction to their Hall of Fame, the original GORUCK GR1. As GORUCK owners, KS and I will tell you they're all well-designed (easy access), well-made of strong materials, and thus near-indestructible. And if you want proof I've put this model to the test, you can see me with some other combat veterans trying to destroy GORUCK’s Civvy Kit Bag in at a GORUCK Challenge in 2012 - which is another sweet piece of gear we’ll cover in the future. (BJM)
HOW TO PUNISH 20,000 PEOPLE AT ONCE: Crackdown at Lejeune: Inside the 2nd Marine Division commander’s controversial call for discipline (6 min) “On April 16, Furness fired off a policy letter to the entire 2nd Marine Division detailing a new “basic daily routine” for North Carolina division Marines. “We have allowed Marines and Sailors to walk around with long hair, nonexistent or poor shaves, unserviceable boots and utilities and improper civilian attire,” the letter reads. “There are weeds growing around our building and work spaces and trash everywhere but the dumpsters where it belongs.” (BJM)
THIS JUST IN: Anxiety Looks Different in Men (6 min) “When people think of anxiety, they may picture the excessive worry and avoidance of frightening situations that often plague those who suffer. These afflict men, too. But there’s a growing recognition among psychologists that men are more likely to complain of headaches, difficulty sleeping and muscle aches and pains. They are more likely to use alcohol and drugs to cope with anxiety, so what looks like a drinking problem may actually be an underlying anxiety disorder. And anxiety in men often manifests as anger and irritability.” (BJM)
REAL TALK FROM A TRAINER: Do You Need A Navy SEAL? (10 min) “Coaches need to place their teams in the best position possible to succeed. I have seen teams participate in these SEAL training exercises and the result was not resulted in mental toughness, team bonding, or teaching athletes to “push harder”. The result was exhaustion – which places the athletes at a higher risk of injury during the next training session. Injuries – either new or re-aggravating a previous injury cause “undue” adverse results and frustrate the support staff (performance coaches and athletic trainers). When the head coach doesn’t heed the advice of his staff, he undermines their expertise diminishes their training endeavor.” (BJM)
CRITICAL THOUGHT FOR TECH ADOPTION: We Need a New Science of Progress (9 min) “Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.””
Remarks Complete. Nothing Follows.
KS Anthony (KSA) & Brady Moore (BJM)