Dr Christian Tripodi, Senior Lecturer, Defence Studies Department
I don’t do irony. It’s far too knowing and indeed far too clever. Which is rather ironic as the title of my new book The Unknown Enemy: Counterinsurgency and the Illusion of Control suggests a thoroughly intentional nod to irony. Why so? Because in a book about COIN, the ‘Enemy’ referred to isn’t the shadowy insurgent. Instead it’s those oft-hidden factors and impulses that shape the way that western forces approach these tasks in the first place. In that sense the ‘Unknown Enemy’ is far more about the familiar ‘us’ than it is about the exotic ‘them’. The problem is that while all of this sounds very clever and ironic, the only ironic aspect of all is that I didn’t even get to choose the title. My editor did, and that was before they’d even seen the manuscript.
So, coincidentally ironic title to one side, what’s the book about? The answer is fairly simple in one sense. It’s about the western tradition of population-centric COIN and its application to what in the broadest sense may be described as ’nation building’. More specifically it’s about the use of COIN as an aspect of the sort of transformational endeavours that accompany large-scale and ambitious forms of liberal intervention, and which are used not only as a way of conquering space and defeating enemies but also as a way of helping establish forms of lasting political control in line with the interests of the intervening power(s). The book features five case studies that fit various aspects of this paradigm: The North-West Frontier 1919-39, the Algerian War 1954-1962, Vietnam 1964-1972, Iraq 2006-2009, and Afghanistan (Helmand) 2007-2011.
More complicated however, and what constitutes the bulk of the argument, is the implication of this vision. What these case-studies show is the (re)positioning of COIN into the uncomfortable space of ‘armed politics’. In each instance military power was used to aid a process of social and political engineering designed to help these target societies accommodate the new values and ideals that had been chosen for them. In this sense, and in a departure from the orthodox Clausewitzian tradition whereby military power traditionally creates the space for a political class to engineer the desired political outcome, COIN now became a far more directly political activity. Military actors were now actively part of ground level politics, forced to see the conflict not as a war per se but as a political campaign, albeit a violent one. Confronted by multiple actors and audiences, diverse and important in their own ways but each potentially motivated by differing perceptions and allegiances, the military actor is required to identify specific targets from among this kaleidoscope; to appeal to certain powerful elements for their support; to build alliances; to separate opponents; to influence key constituencies and agents. Alongside the ready use of force other behaviours now become prioritised; psychological operations, economic incentives, key-leader engagement, civic-action initiatives, and population control measures. All of which is designed to engineer forms of direct and indirect control for the purpose of allowing chosen agents and clients to prosper.
The effect of all of this is to turn population-centric COIN into a form of ‘political warfare’ and the extent to which military actors were genuinely willing to engage with this process, and the varying fashions in which they did so, is a central conceit of the book. This motif of COIN as political warfare throughout each of these case studies is designed to make us think more carefully about an operational method that talks a good game about being an inherently political activity (in the sense of its claim to recognise the sanctity of the political objective at hand), but whose practitioners frequently underestimate the extent to which they are inhabiting the realm of actual politics.
But that couldn’t be the be all and end all of the book. Simply describing COIN as political warfare, no matter how interesting the implications, only takes us so far in understanding why the fortunes of the intervening actors in each of the five featured case studies unfurled in the way that they did. To do that we need to turn in the first instance to a rather unlikely source; the communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is a prolific writer and I can’t claim to be a dedicated reader of his works. But he once made a throwaway point in a very obscure journal article and it stuck with me. Žižek was reflecting upon the (now infamous) speech by the former US Secretary of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld in early 2002. In response to those who to pointed to the vagueness of any links between Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, Rumsfeld postulated that;
‘…There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know’.
Enter Žižek. He had no qualms with Rumsfeld’s cod-philosophy but noted that there was one fundamentally crucial dimension missing, namely the ‘unknown knowns’, i.e. the things we don’t know that we know. These are the critical yet sub-conscious impulses that shape and direct our thoughts and deeds; what you might call the ‘hidden hands’ that help guide human understandings and actions. This is what I sought to explore in the context of my book. The fortunes of western actors in places like Waziristan, Algiers, South Vietnam, Anbar province and Helmand were dictated by factors that went far beyond the shifting of COIN into the political space. Because into this same space came the ‘unknown knowns’ that would exert massive and distorting pressure upon western military actors’ abilities to ‘do’ political warfare. So, what were these, precisely?
As I conceive them they were, firstly, the entrenched pathologies of armed liberal imperialism. Secondly, the very nature of war. Thirdly the distortions of COIN doctrine, and lastly the subtle but powerful influence of the Military Operational Code (MOC). Regarding the first of these, the description of these case studies as examples of armed liberal imperialism makes me sound like an aggravated social justice warrior. In reality it’s simply a recognition of a self-evident fact, namely the frequently forceful way in which Western actors have long sought to engineer outcomes in ‘weaker’ societies that accord to their own values and preferences. This form of imperialism however invariably results in certain unavoidable countervailing effects. The hidden hand in this instance is the certainties typical of policymakers in such situations, namely that the military conflict will be short, that the intervention will not alter the political landscape of the targeted state except in ways intended and, perhaps most importantly in the context of the book, that local political allies would be reliable. No matter the weight of often overwhelming technological advantage and military prowess on the part of the intervening power, the transformational nature of these conflicts demands a heavy reliance upon effective local collaboration. But if – as they nearly always are – these conflicts are also by their nature civil wars fought as much for local reasons as anything else then the objectives and preferences of the external actor have to take their place against the objectives and preferences of those fighting their own localised conflict. And the former will nearly always come a distant second in that respect. Here then lies fundamental problem of the ‘patron-client’ relationship and the frequent inversion of a power-dynamic whereby the advantage that is meant to rest in the hands of the intervening power more often lies in the grasp of its chosen client, who is invariably competing for a very different set of objectives.
What then of the second hidden hand, i.e. the very nature of war? These COIN campaigns may not fit the classic paradigm whereby military action simply paves the way for politics to construct desired outcome but what they don’t escape are the basic characteristics of war itself. In that sense they remain captive to the problems that attend any large-scale human endeavour that, in the midst of violence and confusion, pits myriad complex, interdependent variables against one another. They therefore observe the challenge of war’s nature, i.e. not the anodyne ideal of ‘a continuation of policy by other means’, but a far more evident reality. Namely the constant reactive struggle between the guiding forces of human design on the one hand and the elemental forces of chaos and unpredictability on the other. The application of COIN theory to societies as complex and reactive as those found in Hau Nghia, Basra or Helmand would expose practitioners to that reality.
Mention of COIN theory brings us to the third hidden hand: doctrine. The political scientist Tarak Barkawi has described the ‘world ordering’ and ‘world shaping’ properties of doctrine. What he means by that is that for its adherents, doctrine not only allows militaries to shape their own understanding of the world around them but it also shapes their understanding of how to act in that world. With respect to COIN, this understanding is loaded with a host of assumptions about what insurgency ‘is’ (the so-called insurgency narrative), how populations amidst insurgency behave (they crave – and seek to gravitate towards – legitimate political rule), and the basic remedies for such problems (bolster the legitimacy – through various methods – of chosen political regimes). The problem is not only whether these assumptions are correct (highly debateable) but reflects the fundamental problem of doctrine at this level. The codification of an infinitely complex reality into a set of basic principles is highly problematic in such circumstances, as is the encouragement to see strong relationships between actions and outcomes, cause and effect. Such mentality lends false confidence to the counterinsurgent’s belief in the ability to manipulate events occurring in the social realm to their advantage. The push toward population-centric thinking, i.e. a doctrine that places human society at the focus of enquiry, meant that military planners in places like Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq tended to conceptualise social reality in a way that reflected their inherent belief that if that social reality could be understood and codified then it could be controlled and even redesigned. They were wrong.
The final hidden hand is the Military Operational Code (MOC). An operational code shapes the actions and policies of organisations in predictable ways. Colin F. Jackson proposes that the military version of this code is dictated by a set of core beliefs that reflect the dominant logic of the military profession, which in this context is the inherent preference for the application of force in order to compel submission. The influence of this upon the sorts of COIN and stabilisation operations that characterise political warfare are myriad but, as Jackson observes, it tends to shape military actions in three critical ways. The first is that the symptoms of insurgency or rebellion – mass violence, armed opponents and small battles – tend to lend the impression – near enough – of conventional war. Consequently, military commanders tend instinctively to assume that the military defeat of their opponent is a prerequisite for dictating the desired political outcome. A not unnatural assumption if they have read their Clausewitz. This tends to encourage the immediate application of force before other non-violent initiatives can be allowed to take place. The second problem now emerges. The inevitable tactical victories invariably won by the counterinsurgent create a sense of measurable ‘success’ but only serve to obscure the lack of genuine progress being made toward a durable political settlement. This is then compounded by bureaucratic interests, namely the unwillingness of professional militaries to divert from this suboptimal approach lest it result in their being thrust into the less prestigious roles demanded by more subtle ‘political’ methods, which then has implications for resourcing and autonomy. The effect is stark. Western militaries seek to reject those aspects of political warfare that do not fit their ideals and preferences. They see themselves as being responsible for ‘war’, but also see that as something clear and distinct from politics.
What does all of this mean? It means that in the realm of political warfare, an operating environment like Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan becomes, in the words of the book, ‘A space charged with phenomena that military actors rarely comprehend, rarely even see and which they struggle to exert any meaningful control over. All in pursuit of a victory that might literally mean nothing’.