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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Mosul and America’s bipolar power disorder: We are still unable to work the spaces between war and peace

After the dust settles in Mosul, can the United States get better at ending conflicts instead of just fighting them?




By Col. Christopher Holshek, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest correspondent

What happens after the dust settles in Mosul will tell us how much the United States has addressed its pathological problem of being better at fighting wars than ending them — call it “post-conflict bipolar disorder,” or PCBD.

Debates on the use of force remain mired in the false dichotomy of “war fighting” vs. “nation-building.” A binary, tactical mindset still “dominates national security decision-making, prioritizes military means over political ends and confuses activity with progress,” as former Defense Policy Board member Nadia Schadlow put it.

Thus, “the United States vacates the space between war and peace” — in an era when that’s where things happen. This netherworld is characterized by nuance and complexity, sometimes a struggle for tactical mindsets to grasp. With the proliferation of legal and illicit state proxies, non-state actors and organizations, amplified and accelerated by 24/7 media and social networks that further distribute power, “battle of the narrative” becomes predominant.

America’s “PCBD” prevents seeing that persuasive and coercive forms of power are not mutually exclusive. It has for a long time. As noted in my own memoir, my early exposure to civil-military operations in the armored cavalry taught me how civil-military and (later) information and stability operations were an integral form of maneuver and economy of force — distinct, but not separate from physical firepower.

Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, among the Army’s top strategic thinkers, reminded civil affairs professionals that, “war is not confined to winning battles but rather is the consolidation of operations leading to sustainable and lasting political outcomes.” A contest of wills, human conflict is as psychological as physical — evoking the adage that the former is at least three times as critical as the latter. In any age, war of any kind is more “about people, not platforms,” as Narrative Strategies’ Paul Cobaugh puts it in its new book, Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare.

Just as battlefield success doesn’t always mean political victory, tactical prowess does not readily translate into strategic genius. While the military “does a terrific job of identifying tactical commanders” explained former Army War College commandant retired Major General Robert H. Scales, “no service has a parallel career system for selecting, educating and rewarding officers for strategic leadership.” This is a detriment to both the military and a nation whose martially enamored public has tended to blame strategic failures almost solely on the body politic.

What the Mosul operation should be making obvious is that whoever gets to the gaps in governance and civil society first and best will win the epic struggles of identity now taking place in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. “Unless governments reduce corruption, calm sectarian divisions, integrate all groups into the political process and deliver services to their citizens,” observed the New York Times, “extremists are sure to rise again.”

Going after the drivers of conflict and instability in gap areas of civil society, rather than the threats emanating from them, requires capacities found less in military and more in civilian entities. The way to defeat illicit powers and dark networks is to wage less war against their fighters than to wage peace against their sources of power. That means more, not less, civil-military engagement.

“Supporting a society to become more resilient could play a key role in preventing conflict and achieving a more sustainable post-conflict recovery,” concludes a U.S. Institute of Peace study. This comes through civil dialogue versus violence to redress grievances, and an enabling narrative that is more homemade than handed down.

But while U.S. diplomatic and military advisors helped wicker an elaborate campaign plan with the Iraqi government partly designed to avoid more sectarian conflict, a consensual arrangement for governing Iraq’s second largest and most complex city remains elusive. Despite months of preparation by the U.N. Refugee Agency and others, humanitarian demands will overwhelm their chronically less than 50 percent funded capabilities as the fighting protracts over months, rather than weeks.

U.S. security assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have been typically well over 90 percent train-and-equip, with scant attention to building stability and civil-military operations capacity. True to its tutelage, the ISF is combat proficient. As the Economist recently observed, it has won every battle against the Islamic State since March 2015, pushing the group out of 17 cities in Anbar, Diyala, and Salahaddin, three of the four main Sunni Arab provinces of Iraq. Nineveh, which surrounds Mosul, is the fourth.

But what about its capacity to help win the peace? The ISF’s collapse against the Islamic State two years ago was for more moral than material reasons. Its eventual success in consolidating tactical gains will likewise be the result of non-kinetics. Or not.

It’s not either/or, but both. “Kinetic warfare can combat the lethal capacities of the adversary but in irregular warfare it is essential to erode our adversaries’ power over populations,” Soft Power on Hard Problems editor Ajit Maan explains. “The weapon of choice in this war is the intangible art of influence.” Soft and hard power are not mutually exclusive, the book argues. In fact, they are often most impactful and sustainable combined. The real challenge is not whether to apply hard or soft power, but how to balance, align, and apply them — in a word: Coordination.

What is needed is a civil-military narrative that socializes that concept. “The good news is we have the weapons of choice and we know how to use them,” says Maan. “The bad news is not enough of us know how to use them, and the few of us who do have been unable to implement widely enough.”

Such a national narrative would enable not just more synoptic military leaders at lower levels of command who can think strategically and act tactically, as Scales and McMaster advocate. It would mean similarly synoptic diplomats as well as humanitarian and development professionals who think globally and act locally. That kind of change is institutional, not incremental.

If the United States cannot overcome its PCBD and master rather than just muster soft and hard power in the spaces between war and peace, someone else will eventually escape the Phase IV time warp. It just may not be someone we like.

Col. (ret.) Christopher Holshek serves as Senior Civil-Military Adviser to Narrative Strategies, the International Peace and Security Institute, and the Alliance for Peacebuilding, and is the author of Travels with Harley — Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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