Can AQ Win a War of Attrition?

Some (but not all) guerrilla and/or terrorist leaders subscribe to a doctrine that while that while they cannot use force to immediately destroy the forces of their opponent they can inflict a heavy enough cost over time to make their opponents capitulate. Others use attrition as a point of operational buildup for a conventional strategy of annihilation, like the PLA’s Huai-Huai campaign that destroyed Nationalist strength in Northern China and set the stage for the KMT’s flight to Taiwan. Sometimes, however, attrition is not an option for a guerrilla leader. George Washington was put in the problem of an army that could not fight the Redcoats head-on in a battle of annihilation but could not maintain itself long enough to win a war of attrition.

The main thrust of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s new book suggests that AQ believes it can win a war of economic attrition and sees itself through the framework of a war of attrition. I haven’t read the book so it will be interesting to see how Gartenstein-Ross develops this thesis.

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Real Networking

Stanley McChrystal on networks:

“Like all too many military forces in history, we initially saw our enemy as we viewed ourselves. In a small base outside Baghdad, we started to diagram AQI on white dry-erase boards. Composed largely of foreign mujahideen and with an overall allegiance to Osama bin Laden but controlled inside Iraq by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI was responsible for an extremely violent campaign of attacks on coalition forces, the Iraqi government, and Iraqi Shiites. Its stated aim was to splinter the new Iraq and ultimately establish an Islamic caliphate. By habit, we started mapping the organization in a traditional military structure, with tiers and rows. At the top was Zarqawi, below him a cascade of lieutenants and foot soldiers. But the closer we looked, the more the model didn’t hold. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s lieutenants did not wait for memos from their superiors, much less orders from bin Laden. Decisions were not centralized, but were made quickly and communicated laterally across the organization. Zarqawi’s fighters were adapted to the areas they haunted, like Fallujah and Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and yet through modern technology were closely linked to the rest of the province and country. Money, propaganda, and information flowed at alarming rates, allowing for powerful, nimble coordination. We would watch their tactics change (from rocket attacks to suicide bombings, for example) nearly simultaneously in disparate cities. It was a deadly choreography achieved with a constantly changing, often unrecognizable structure.”

This is ultimately the heart of what John Robb, John Arquilla, and others have been writing about for some time. It’s often striking how militaries in the 1990s struggled to become network-centric, but other organizations achieved it at a fraction of the cost. Of course, networking did not bring AQI and others strategic success. It only was perhaps effective on the tactical and operational level.

This perhaps points at the problem with networking in military operations. With the exception of John Arquilla’s recent monograph (not available online, see Naval Postgraduate School for a copy) on what a netwar against al-Qaeda would look like, the writing about networking and military operations is overwhelmingly tactical and operational. Thus the risk is that would-be netwarriors get trapped in tactics and operations while neglecting the strategic whole.

There is a similarly here between Shimon Naveh and other writers’ discussion of “blitzkrieg” (I hesitate to use that term because of its ahistorical nature–the Germans never called it that) as a tactical system that provided a basis for operational imagination but was overwhelmingly focused on the smallest of levels.

Retro-Progressivism and Grand Strategy

Much of Thomas Friedman’s writings over the last few years have focused away from foreign affairs per se and more so on the area of domestic competitiveness. Friedman, like many other writers, sees domestic health and political culture as key to political power abroad. Where he differs, however, from other writers, is his visceral embrace of technocracy. Friedman posits the key to American survival is an enlightened class of experts skilled in technocratic arts of governance. Such notions are part of an older tradition of American grand strategy whose usefulness to the modern era is somewhat dubious.

Take his Sunday column “Serious in Singapore.” Friedman, having taken a trip to a 5th grade classroom in Singapore, extols the industriousness and creativity of the Asian city-state–in marked contrast to lazier compatriots back home. Sprinkled throughout the op-ed are paens to Singapore’s pragmatism and success in building a well-functioning society. The timing of the op-ed, which offers (qualified) praise to an managed state, is a little bizarre in light of a large-scale revolt against a large authoritarian state in the Middle East.

This theme is more explicitly explored in a much-criticized interview on China in which Friedman stated:

So I don’t–I, I–I’m worried about this, it’s why I have fantasized–don’t get me wrong–but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment. I don’t want to be China for a second, OK, I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness. But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.

Friedman more fully fleshed out his views in a 2009 column about the health care debate:

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Although these quotes may suggest otherwise, it is unlikely that Friedman really does see a Singapore or Chinese-style managed authoritarian capitalist state model as viable or desirable for the United States. It does, however, express a fear that there is something fundamentally irresistible about these states’ growing power that mandates that America borrow some of their energy and dynamism. His work meshes with a rash of popular fear that conjures up images of an army of Southeast Asian students accomplishing nearly superhuman intellectual feats in the classroom and the boardroom. Friedman’s constant odes to Asian competitiveness and industriousness and chiding of supposed American laziness fits well with this genre. It is also personal, as Friedman’s frequent visits to Chinese and Singaporean elementary school classrooms reveal.

Obviously, no one is going to argue that industrial-scientific mobilization is unimportant to political, economic, or military power. Although we often (rightly) malign technocentric thinking in strategic affairs, we all want to be the man with his hand on the Maxim gun at Omdurman rather than the charging Mahdists about to be shot to pieces. However, Friedman’s oeuvre goes beyond the familiar nationalist imperative to out-compete the opposition (a rather old American rhetorical trope since the late 19th century), into a love affair with industrial-era models of education, managed political systems, and enlightened experts. This positivist idea suggests that complex, intractable political-economic problems are solvable as long as the right people, equipped with the right tools, are allowed to operate free of ideological confusion.

Friedman’s idea runs counter to an impressive array of research in political science, anthropology, and economics ranging from Friedrich Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge in Society” to James C. Scott’s more recent classic Seeing Like a State. Scott and Hayek, furthermore, both reacted against modernist ideas that favored heavily planned political systems and economies and benevolent, omniscient classes of experts.

In sum total, the most bizarre thing about the vision of technocracy that Friedman presents is that it is in fact very old. The 1920s and 30s were full of Western political-military thinkers who were dubious or conflicted about democracy and were alternatively troubled or excited by the seeming success that authoritarian nations in Europe and the East had in turning their countries into formidable powers. Friedman fits squarely into a tradition that John Jordan aptly describes in his history of pre-World War II technocratic thought.

Some of these modernist ideas were valuable, many of them weren’t–for the simple and banal reason that most public policy problems are not engineering projects, an insight grasped long before TRADOC made “wicked problems” a household phrase in the American defense community. Investing in infrastructure, elevating pragmatic elites, and improving math curricula alone are not going to make America competitive. I suspect Friedman understands this too, if his extensive caveats to his own op-eds are any guide.

Rebuilding the domestic sources of American power is important element of any grand strategy, and a good deal of this will by necessity deal with industrial, educational, and economic issues. However, the idea that it can be willed as a kind of giant nation-wide engineering project goes against most of what we know about large-scale human problems. Most importantly, Friedman’s constant, almost Amy Chua-like valorization of Asian societies and governmental system also misunderstands the substantial barriers to political, economic, and scientific innovation present in those societies.

Network-Centric Warfare…..and Pandas

I am late to the party that Crispin Burke has started again, but I have a valid excuse–looking for sponsors for the good Captain’s Balling out of Control Center of Excellence. Now that JFCOM is closing, we might have to consult a NATO partner and two former adversaries for assistance. We might even get the Israelis and the Chinese on board, and finally end the Korean war while we’re at it. In any event, when in doubt consult Silvio Berlusconi for the importance of Balling Out of Control for a nation’s national security.

But I digress. Burke and a heavily armed panda have teamed up to dump on an attempt by a man best known for Bat Nipples to single-handedly revive the “vulgar” version of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW)’s hubristic view that C4ISR will lead to decisive political-military dominance. Only this time, it is expected to work as a means of monitoring the border between North Sudan and the emerging South Sudanese state.

Conflict Early Warning and Response is a growing topic of importance, indeed there is an excellent blog by that very name. What emerges from reading the blogger’s survey of professional technical attempts and the scholarly literature is an extremely complex effort to integrate all kinds of technological and human sensors, historical and context-specific data, and develop methods for structuring analysis and creating effective systems for managing information.

Needless to say, such a process requires a lot more than satellites and volunteers.

Chain Links

  • One big part of contemporary urban operations is counter-sniper technology (C-Sniper) that allows troops to more quickly verify the source of a shot. Now, it looks like the same technology–albeit greatly expanded–is being utilized in counter-gang operations in the US (h/t John Robb).
  • If you’re in California, check out Milken Institute’s annual “State of the State” conference. I still have the forlorn hope (even though I’m in DC now) that CA can be salvaged.

The End of the “End”

A lot of things come to an end. The enjoyable PF Changs Spicy Chicken I consumed on Saturday evening ended when there were no more pieces of chicken on my plate. Arnold Schwarzneggar’s epic campfest Commando ended when the last screaming junta soldier with an enormous mustache fell haplessly from a tree after being shot. Some people’s faith in true love ended when Marilyn Manson’s marriage to an equally weird Rose McGowan ended in acrimony. My own admiration for George Lucas ended by the time the eminently repulsive persona of Jar Jar Binks crawled across the screen. So it’s clear that many things and beliefs have a habit of coming to an end.

This basic fact of life has been perverted by the obsession that people have with declaring the “end” of a given trend, product, nation, or issue. Part of it is publicity–people want to be the first to declare an old trend over, which is just as important as finding a new trend. There was a remarkably cogent analysis of this tendency in either TechCrunch or Boing Boing, but I am having some trouble finding it in either of their archives (link will be put up later if I can find it).

The problem is this. It is relatively easy to tell when, say, a parrot is dead, despite what Monty Python has told you. After a certain point, it’s obvious that a nation is “dead”–like the Holy Roman Empire, the Soviet Union, or the curiously named country of Upper Volta. But since the future, as William Gibson teaches us, is “unevenly distributed,” it is difficult to really tell if a large-scale entity or process is really over. We should exercise caution in doing so. After all, where is my jetpack?

Joseph Tainter and Aleksandr Svechin Walk Into A Bar

Joseph Fouche does it again, with a great critique of Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies–which has been one of the defense bloggerati’s recent favorites. While praising Tainter’s insights, Fouche makes a point about its limitations:

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter deals with the hard material reality of power and its division through politics. It does not deal with, except tangentially, the soft material reality of narrative and culture. This isn’t Tainter’s fault: power and politics are readily material; they are readily quantified. Narrative and culture are diffusively material. Like gravity, their influence is easier to see than they themselves are. Archaeologists like Tainter can only see culture through the faint shadow it casts through the material artifacts that somehow survive the passage of time. Science has not reached a level of complexity sufficient to solve the problem of quantifying culture. This isn’t because quantifying culture is impossible. It is because, given the present level of complexity and quantity of power on offer in contemporary societies, quantification of culture offers such poor marginal returns that the further effusion of resources can’t be justified. Culture, like computers for the Romans or nuclear power for the Maya, lies beyond the complexity event horizon.This leaves the role of diffuse phenomena in collapse only vaguely understood. Tainter dismisses most past attempts to capture cultural lightning in a bottle as “mystical”. Yet, there is there there. Ignoring the diffuse would leave only a crippled field of study, even if it left that field of study only able to aspire to be an art and not a science.

Tainter, in essence, looks at society as a problem-solving organization. If given a problem, it sorts it and solves it. Fouche brings in one of Clausewitz’s ablest interpreters, Aleksandr Svechin to make the point that while tactical issues can be made “scientific” (if only temporarily), strategy, politics, and culture are an entirely different matter. Tactics, at their heart, deal with problems that are solved. Tainter’s book, while magnificent on a material factor, still leaves out the root of why complex societies adapt or fail. The question, however, is whether this is possible given the limitations of our knowledge about civilizations like the Maya.

On that same note, I was at a party a couple nights ago where the conversation turned to Trevor Dupuy, HERO, and the Quantified Judgment Method of Analysis (QJMA) came up as a topic of conversation (yes in DC parties where we talk about such things exist). There is a lot of reflexive bashing of quantitative research and analysis in War Studies, a good deal of it justified when it looks at quantitative models misapplied and unjustified when it dismisses quants altogether. I wonder whether it will eventually be possible to quantify things such as culture or politics eventually for wargames and analysis. It is difficult to forecast the future, and a couple centuries from now the electronics might exist to do so. But based purely on the last 200 years of military history–in which everyone from the “geometric” school of military operations to the 1960s “whiz kids” failed to do so, I am very skeptical.