What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A COIN classic

I'm continuing with the politically incorrect (i.e., in this case, creative, productive etc.) line of thinking here, which produced the likes of this paper (pdf) and this article pondering how the Brits could have done better against those insurging Americans. I'll do so to highlight an historical figure who said something very worthy of considering as a basic element of COIN philosophy. His deeds and legacy is nevertheless heatedly debated. Consult Wikipedia if you wish, but the point is that this post by me is not to discuss his character or his political career in ANY detail.
The point is what he said.
The person I'm talking about is János Kádár, who took power in Hungary after the 1956 uprising here was crushed by the Soviets. He gradually, but only very slowly, softened up the authoritarian system he inherited, and although there were bloody reprisals for what happened in the autumn of 1956, he later on consistently followed a rather sober approach to ruling an Eastern bloc country (small consolation for the victims of those early reprisals, nevertheless important as far as the bigger picture is concerned).
And he said: "He who is not against us is with us."
That nails it, doesn't it? In a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign you're looking to make people side with you for THEIR OWN good reasons, not for yours. You may create structural incentives to influence their choice in subtle ways, but you have to acknowledge there are limits to how much you can convince them to think in a certain way.
I found myself making this point during a lecture I gave as part of the Peace and Conflict Studies minor programme I'm running with colleague of mine Péter Rada at the Corvinus University of Budapest. Call it on-the-job enlightenment.
Meanwhile, having linked to Andrew Exum's article above - he has now left behind the blogging team at Abu Muqawama. Bad news but it's definitely easier to do field research and write a dissertation if you don't put out several blogposts a day (I know). So good luck over there, Abu.


Guy said...

I generally enjoy Mr Exum's writings but this article was most definately not. The USMC article he links to is much, much better though I'd take issue with Tarleton's Quarters as the truth of the matter is hidden in history.

The article though is short, lacking in detail, prone to sweeping statements and with a strange lack of context.

Firstly the article's aim is nebulous, is it about Basra 2008? About the Revolutionary War? Or about Britain's COIN history? A bit of all really and the article suffers as such.

Its interesting that the USMC paper places so much emphasis on diplomacy and non-violent forms of conflict/insurgency resolution whilst so much criticism on recent British efforts has focused on the lack of violence (incidentally as you know far more about this COIN lark- is there any papers or good sources on the UK's diplomatic efforts in Iraq? Cheers.).

Whilst the second and third paragraphs are interesting they aren't followed by other paragraphs that actually examine what Mr. Exum is discussing. It is all very well to talk of the folly of treating Iraq like N. Ireland or UK involvement in the COIN manual but there is no meat. How have UK forces treated Iraq like Ireland/failed to help the COIN manual? How has this affected them?

Then comes the bombshell that the UK was apparently never good at COIN. But again there is no substance. No discussion at all. Again this is a pity because I think there could be a fascinating discussion in this.

The next few paragraphs essentially repeat the USMC paper but with less context, detail and authority. He finishes with an attack on "English" arrogance that, well, comes accross with colonial arrogance (I admit I'm biased as I'm English but few things sound as arrogant to me as decrying the people of a whole geographical area as arrogant).

Sadly no mention is made of dozens of other critical factors: that most of the war was conventional, that Britain had to fight a superpower (the French) as well as the Rebels and which most importantly rendered the Royal Navy impotent, hostility towards the British cause at Parliament and even within the Army (where several officers resigned rather than fight Rebels who they viewed as having a justified cause), a fractured and insipid political group at home, little money and fewer men etc.

By looking only at certain elements the positive achievements of the British army are ignored. The attempted American-isation, the redesign of uniforms to increase practibility, refined and expanded training, tactical readjustments such as the creation and use of light and grenadier units and the innovations such as the reliance on the bayonet charge (which proved far superior to advancing and firing). Yes they failed overall, yes they were often outweighed by negative factors but to portray Britains campaigns as purely failures doesn't capture the constant innovation and adaption displayed during the war.

The Revolutionary War was complex and Mr. Exum's article is interesting but ultimately it is too divided, too brief and too one dimensional with much of the war ignored. Nonetheless I hope we see more of this reevaluation of yesterdays wars by todays ideas.


Péter MARTON said...

You're of course right, Guy, in that an ignorance of historical detail is often the consequence of thought experiments like this. And I'm not saying it necessarily always has to be that way.
Re: the criticism of the British approach in Basra - yeah, I just never understood all the criticism myself, either. Firstly there's the bigger picture that the UK involvement was symbolically precious support to the U.S. regardless of its practical worth on the 360-degree battlefield. And there can even be much doubt about what else could or should have been done in the UK's area of operations.
For instance, my impression of Sadr Junior is that he plays with a relatively cool head and he wants a role for himself in the Iraqi polity, instead of A) running his own counter-state; B) playing the global guerrilla for eternity.
Approaching this totally value-neutrally, with that sort of person I guess you would only want to have a shooting war if it's A) inevitable; B) if you want to shoot him off the playing field and you can pull it off.
In Sadr's case the shooting part of the story was sometimes necessary. But he couldn't be fought off the battlefield - his men could have gone just as asymmetrical as the Saddam Fedayeen and the Special Rep Guard have gone in the early days after the invasion. And I'm not even sure it's in Western interests to completely fight him off the playing field. To contain him, yes, but to eliminate him, an Iraqi nationalist, with only pragmatic ties to Iran?
Back to COIN in America - with the downsized post-1763 army the British Army needed to recruit 30,000 Germans even, to fight insurgents financed and equipped largely by the French by the end of 1776, with later even Spain and the Netherlands joining in. So definitely prospects weren't nice. And how could have been there more of a focus with so few men on the southern areas when New York was there all the time to be worried about?
The American experience is important mostly in that when you deal with a complex social setting you can look to exploit all sorts of faultlines to your advantage if you keep conscious of the political nature of the fight you're waging - arguably Britain hasn't done this enough... well, for a while.
But minding about politics in fact means making some concessions that are still acceptable to you. And accepting "defeat" just turned out to be within what was acceptable in that case. British merchants and the parliament realised that key trade interests will not be hurt if independence is accepted, whereas sustaining a futile and logistically very problematic war effort would have resulted in just that.
That's my take but of course I haven't studied the subject in that much detail and do correct me if there's something I argue mistakenly in your view.
Regarding British operations in Iraq, I'd first of all mention The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart. You may know it already. (It's certainly a very informative take and an insider perspective on the early context in southern Iraq.)

Joshua Foust said...

So, is anyone in Hungarian Security Studies NOT named Péter? I count three as of this post.

Péter MARTON said...

I do know of a fourth Péter, Péter Deák...