Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 25

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.


Why the Taliban are watching the British polls

July has been a bloody month for British forces in Afghanistan, and policymakers in London are now feeling the consequences. Fifteen British soldiers died, including eight within one 24-hour period. British deaths in Afghanistan, 184 since 2001, now exceed their toll from Iraq. According to the Washington Post, the departure of soldiers’ coffins from an air base near London previously went unnoticed. Now hundreds, sometimes thousands of people line the streets in the small town of Wootton Bassett to observe the processions.

Although 4,000 U.S. Marines entered the Taliban’s heartland in southern Helmand province at the beginning of this month, the Taliban seem to be largely bypassing the Americans to focus on the British contingent in the center and north of the province. This should not be a surprise. Public dissatisfaction with the war is growing in Britain and Prime Minister Gordon Brown‘s unpopular Labour government is facing a general election by June 2010. Taliban strategists likely believe they have a chance to drive the British from the field.

If media hits in the British press concerning the situation in Afghanistan are a "metric of success" for Taliban strategists, they should feel pleased that the battle is going their way. On July 12, Small Wars Journal rounded 18 news, video, and opinion pieces on Afghanistan, all published in the British press within a two-day period.

The issue for the Labour Party is whether it is going to defend a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stabilization campaign in Afghanistan during the general election campaign. The opposition Conservative Party’s tactic is to harshly criticize the government’s competency and its "too lofty" mission objectives. Labour will have to either argue for the status quo or agree to downgrade the mission in Afghanistan and cut back the British Army’s actions against the Taliban.

The Taliban are likely thinking about Canada’s experience in Kandahar province. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, inherited the Afghan war from the previous Liberal Party government. As the war grew more unpopular and the 2008 general election loomed, Harper was unwilling to argue for an open-ended military commitment. The Liberals were similarly unwilling to defend their decision to commit Canada to the war in 2001. Prior to the October 2008 general election, the two parties agreed on a common policy to end Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan by 2011. This decision succeeded in eliminating the war as a campaign issue, but it also supported the Taliban’s war objectives.

Will Gordon Brown and his Conservative opponent David Cameron be similarly tempted by the "Canada option"? Should Taliban pressure on British soldiers remain, Brown would surely want his Afghan problem to go away. Cameron might also have no interest in defending the war in a general election and may feel he enjoys a sufficient advantage on other issues.

I am not questioning the bravery or skill of Britain’s and Canada’s soldiers. For almost eight years, they have sustained grievous casualties and still go out on patrol. Nor is this a criticism of politicians or voters who in the end will respond to the circumstances they face.

Rather, it is a description of the difficulties modern democracies face in fighting painful irregular wars. It is also an illustration of why these democracies need some new doctrines for irregular warfare — the Taliban are showing how to blow up the current ones.

Adaptation means learning how to learn

In the latest edition of Armed Forces Journal, Frank Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, discusses four schools of thought for organizing U.S. military ground forces. Pentagon planners will have to make decisions about weapons purchases, basing, training programs, and doctrine based on the kind of world they anticipate. Implied is the assumption that it would require a long time and much expense for ground forces to adapt to a situation planners did not anticipate. But is this assumption correct?

Hoffman describes the four schools of thought:

  • Counterinsurgents, who emphasize the high likelihood and rising salience of irregular adversaries
  • Traditionalists, who place their focus on states presenting conventional threats.
  • Utility Infielders, who balance risk by striving to create forces agile enough to cover the full spectrum of conflict.
  • Division of Labor, who balance risk differently by specializing forces to cover different missions to enhance readiness.

Pentagon planners will likely focus on the third and fourth options as the two alternatives that most minimize risk. But the two options attempt to cover the full range of threats in two different ways. The Utility Infielder option takes a "jack of all trades, master of none" approach, the risk being that partially-prepared U.S. ground forces might fare badly against a competent adversary. The Division of Labor option creates a few military units specialized for each point on the spectrum of conflict, but risks having those few specialists overwhelmed and abandoned by colleagues thoroughly trained for unneeded tasks.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, discussed the solution at Small Wars Journal. In his essay, "Training Full Spectrum — Less is More," Chiarelli affirms that there is not enough time for a ground combat unit to fully prepare for every possible contingency. Since forecasts about the future operating environment will almost surely be wrong, U.S. ground forces will have to adapt.

Chiarelli observed during his career that adaptation is rapid for soldiers and units that have learned how to learn. The best way to do that, Chiarelli discovered, is to learn to do a few things to a very high standard, rather than many things to a mediocre standard. Chiarelli concludes that in the process of learning to do a few things very well, people and organizations acquire processes and habits that allow them to acquire new skills at a rapid rate.

Chiarelli’s conclusion would point to the Division of Labor option. Yet the Army and Marine Corps have been reluctant to create truly specialized units within their general-purpose forces; this has been deemed operationally risky and bad for institutional culture. The default option remains the Utility Infielder approach.

Few question the need for rapidly adaptable forces. But what if the method for achieving adaptability overturns the services’ long-standing cultures and traditions? That will be a test of the leadership’s adaptability.

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