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Stabilizing Iraq With and Without the Islamic State - War on the Rocks

November 16, 2016
The military campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has generated much-needed attention to “day-after” scenarios.  This includes security arrangements for Mosul city and governance structures that address competing territorial claims by diverse ethnic and religious groups in Ninewa province.  Even if Mosul is relatively secured, ISIL remnants will likely go underground, re-integrate into cities and outlying areas, and wage guerilla warfare to destabilize the Iraqi state.  Underlying these threats are ISIL’s root causes — namely Sunni Arab grievances — and the potential for another iteration of this jihadist movement to emerge in the future.  To thwart this outcome, some analysts, media, and officials have proposed different ethno-sectarian solutions such as creating regions based on sects and ethnicity, arming “the Sunnis” and “the Kurds,” and finding ways for “deeply skeptical Sunni territories to support a Shi’ite dominated government.”
These solutions are faulty. As a recent research trip to Iraq confirmed to me, while ethno-sectarianism persists in Iraq, its influence on post-ISIL stabilization should not be overdetermined.  Important shifts have occurred in Iraqi politics and society since the ISIL onslaught in Mosul in June 2014, rendering state partition along ethnic and sectarian lines even less likely today than a decade ago.  Instead, the Iraqi state has broken down into hyper-fragmented entities with their own militias, all of which seek recognition, economic benefits, self-rule, and self-protection within the Iraqi state. ISIL’s consequences include demographic shifts, re-ordering of internal boundaries, and pacts and divisions within and across communities.  Any successful plan to stabilize Iraq must address these developments. At minimum, both policy and plans should enhance Iraqi sovereignty and focus on local governance and security arrangements in official territorial units, rather than particular ethnic and sectarian group interests.
State Break-Down, not Break-Up
The key political challenge in former ISIL safe havens is determining authority and control over territories and resources.  Although these tensions precede the ISIL onslaught, particularly in northern Iraq’s “disputed territories,” they have become far more complicated in the hyper-fragmented Iraqi state.  Delineating internal boundaries is an issue not only between Baghdad and Erbil, but one that now involves a multitude of sub-state actors and their militias.  Groups are also divided from within.  Some are affiliated with Baghdad, others are tied to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and   still   others   oppose   both — with  no  real agreement on how to administer territories.   Some of these groups are also acting as proxies for external actors — namely Iran and Turkey — which seek to maintain zones of influence inside a weak Iraqi state.
Source: Australian government
These hyper-localized dynamics enhance the potential for conflict, particularly in disputed territories. Violence has already erupted in former ISIL safe havens in northern Iraq between different local militias: namely Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Sunni Arab tribes, Kurdish Peshmerga, and other local militia forces.  Tensions also exist at a societal level, where distrust and hatred between some communities is palpable.  In one locality in the Kurdistan Region, Sunni Arabs refuse to go to the same hospitals as Yezidis, while Yezidis will not send their children to school with Arabs.
Communal tensions coincide with Sunni Arab political grievances.  Most continue to feel marginalized, particularly given their post-ISIL conditions.  More than 3.2 million Sunni Arabs have become internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the past two years. Their homes are destroyed. Their villages, towns, and fields are wastelands.  Although one third (over one million) have returned to their homes with support from the Iraqi government, United Nations, and local officials, most have not due to ongoing security threats — IEDs, unexploded ordnance, Iranian-backed PMFs, and lack of services.  The 1.4 million IDPs living in the Kurdistan Region for over two years cannot fully integrate, while others in disputed territories are being “transferred” to different localities to prevent their permanent settlement. These challenges will continue as tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs flee their homes in Mosul. They are creating or reinforcing a sense of disfranchisement that has the potential to become a source for al-Qaeda and ISIL recruitment, just as it has done in the past.
Still, opportunities to stabilize Iraq have emerged, at least in the short and mid-term.
The recent reset in Baghdad-Erbil relations is not only based on shared aims to defeat ISIL and U.S. influence but also economic and political expediency. Some important factors include the drop in world oil price and serious financial crises, Kurdish power struggles, attempts to leverage Turkey, and an unviable Kurdish independence project.  This is why, instead of calling a referendum for Kurdish statehood, Iraqi Kurdish leader Mas’ud Barzani returned to Baghdad in September 2016 as part of a KRG delegation, affirmed that the Iraqi government was the Kurdistan Region’s “strategic depth, and has attempted to negotiate KRG oil exports with Baghdad once again.  Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi will also likely continue attempts to negotiate with Erbil (in fits and starts), particularly as Baghdad seeks to increase oil exports from Kirkuk and the northern corridor – which is under the de-facto control of the KRG.
Pacts have developed between some Sunni Arab groups and Baghdad that were unthinkable two years ago.  In contrast to 2014, whereby nearly all Sunni Arabs reacted against a highly sectarian Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, tens of thousands of Sunni Arab forces have mobilized alongside the Iraqi Security Forces, elite counter-terrorism forces, PMFs, and Peshmerga to fight ISIL.  Sunni Arab political grievances also differ across and within territories, based on distinct issues and changing incentive structures.  For instance, although Sunni Arabs adamantly reject Iranian-backed PMFs and want to be treated as equal citizens, their main criticisms are government weakness, corruption, and failure to provide services, jobs, and security.  These criticisms are not necessarily sectarian and are being made by most Iraqis as part of an ongoing reform movement.  Sunni Arabs emphasize that they are not against Shi’ite communities (some Sunni Arab tribes also have Shi’ite members) but government officials who encourage sectarianism.  Some local Sunni Arab leaders would accept Iraqi Army, federal police forces, or Kurdish Peshmerga in their localities, alongside local police, while others would not.
Part of these shifts can be attributed to the ravages of ISIL.  Although ISIL has brutally targeted Shi’ites, Yezidis, Christians, and other minorities, it has also waged war against and repressed Sunni Arabs.  Unlike in 2014, many Sunni Arabs that initially welcomed or tacitly supported ISIL have turned against the group, particularly after it resorted to extreme violence. Those with family members who were with ISIL, either tacitly or actively, are being accused and held accountable  by fellow Sunni Arabs.   Revenge killings are occurring within and between Sunni Arab tribes, as well as between urban Sunni Arab militias inside Mosul.
These dynamics are unfolding in a hyper-fragmented Iraqi state, whereby political entities or leaders are scrambling to ascertain authority, secure territories, and balance local power by negotiating deals with external patrons — Iran or Turkey — as well as different local power brokers.  Deals have already developed between the Iraqi government, some Sunni Arab tribal leaders and different Kurdish officials in distinct localities. They are based on economically and politically expedient needs; opening trade routes, enhancing investment and business, and securing internal boundaries.  These arrangements are essential given the KRG’s expansive territorial gains that have increased its operating costs and security requirements during a time of deep financial constraints.  They also provide provincial and local leaders with access to resources and security that the Iraqi government cannot offer — at least for now.
One problem is that these de-facto arrangements may work at a provincial level, but they can undermine official state interests and institutions.  For instance, Ma’sud Barzani and some Sunni Arabs, including former Ninawa governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, — influenced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — jointly seek to divide Ninawa into several new provinces . The Iraqi parliament, however, opposes this plan and recently passed a law affirming that the borders of Ninawa and other territories would not be changed until Mosul city is liberated, and then only by local populations in a referendum.  This reaction coincides with large-scale opposition across Iraq — from nearly all Arabs and most Kurds — to Turkish President Erdogan’s efforts to militarily engage in the Mosul campaign.
Consequently, the Iraqi government will be pressed not only to integrate Sunni Arabs into the state and make them feel that they are equal citizens but to provide security, jobs, and services across hyper-fragmented localities.    It must do so while communal distrust is salient, regional states are challenging Iraqi sovereignty, populations are demanding a strong and effective federal government, but one also limited in its powers,and with Baghdad beset in its own political turmoil and economic crises.  One way to set the stage for stability is to encourage pacts between local authorities and Baghdad based on joint extraction (and security) within existing provincial and regional (KRG) structures.
Indeed, transactional pacts will not necessarily remove local patronage and smuggling networks or resolve deep-rooted disputed over territories. They also have political trade-offs.  Greater complexity and decentralization will likely increase political entropy across Iraq, particularly if the lines of authority between provincial, regional, and state authorities remain unclear or contested. Still, as long as the Iraqi state is weak, hyper-fragmented, and financially stressed, these arrangements may help create conditions for the necessary devolution of authority, shared governance, zones of stability, and economic reconstruction. They can help integrate some de-facto authorities, including local militias that have developed over the past two years, into official state institutions, and as part of provincial administrations or the KRG.
Policy Recommendations:
These dynamics and trends have implications for U.S. policy.  Washington should recognize the highly localized challenges of stabilizing post-ISIL Iraq and the limitations and opportunities to affect long-term outcomes.  Rather than attempting to resolve all of Iraq’s challenges or fix the Iraqi state by reinforcing identity politics, the United States should assist the Iraqi government in creating zones of stability that can contain ISIL and mitigate its resurgence in former jihadist safe havens.  Where can the U.S. government start?
Reinforce Iraqi state capabilities and sovereignty. The United States should continue to emphasize Iraq’s territorial integrity, state sovereignty, and existing provincial boundaries per the 2005 Iraqi constitution.  Any de-facto territorial changes made during the anti-ISIL campaign should be considered unofficial until recognized by the Iraqi government. Focus should be on strengthening state institutions, to include security and power-sharing arrangements with provincial administrations and the KRG. All military and training support, including to the KRG, should continue to be channeled through and be approved by federal authorities in Baghdad.
Contain ISIL and enhance border security. Counter-terrorism support to the Iraqi government should continue. It needs to include training of the Iraq Security Forces and Peshmerga, enhanced border security and security procedures at checkpoints in towns and cities, and support for the integration local militias, including some PMFs, into the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga. The United States should also assist the Iraqi government in negotiating border security in northern Iraq with Turkey and the KRG.  The Iraqi government should be pressed to disband, weaken, or isolate Iranian-backed militias through deals with local leaders.
Train Local Police.  The United States should assist the Iraqi government in training local police forces alongside federal police.  Particular attention should be given to disputed territories and developing and enhancing local police forces in provinces populated by Sunni Arabs and minority groups.
Humanitarian aid and reconstruction. The United States should continue to provide financial and technical support to U.N. and Iraqi government efforts to resettle IDPs and reconstruct former ISIL safe-havens.  International organizations and neutral third party actors should work with the Iraqi government and local officials to help implement reconciliation efforts at national and local levels.
Approaching Iraq’s post-ISIL stabilization challenges from an ethno-sectarian lens not only ignores complex political realities on the ground, but it threatens to reverse important political and societal shifts that have emerged in Iraq over the past two years.  The hyper-localized nature of Iraq’s security challenges also suggests that post-ISIL stabilization is politically rooted and will differ across provinces based on distinct demographics, territories, and local economies.  This effort should commence today, alongside current military operations, and not after ISIL is considered to be defeated.

Denise Natali is a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University where she specializes on regional energy politics, Middle East politics and the Kurdish issue. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. She can be reached on Twitter at @DnataliDC.
Image: KurdishStruggle, Flickr

Losing the Peace is Still Losing - War on the Rocks

October 17, 2016
Adversaries are exploiting gaps in the American peace-war paradigm.
Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series in which thinkers from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) will explore the U.S. military’s phasing construct and the line between war and peace. Be sure to read the first installment, “American Strategy and the Six Phases of Grief.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford has expressed frustration with the U.S. military’s phasing construct, saying he doesn’t find it “particularly useful” for addressing today’s challenges, such as “gray zone” conflicts. This disconnect between the phasing construct and present-day challenges is merely the latest symptom of a deeper problem in how the U.S. defense establishment thinks about war. For the past quarter century, U.S. defense thinkers have used terms such as “asymmetric warfare,” “hybrid warfare,” “irregular warfare,” “unconventional warfare,” “unrestricted warfare,” “ambiguous warfare,” “gray zones,” and “military operations other than war” to describe adversary approaches and military operations that don’t fit within the narrow box of traditional or conventional “war.”
At a certain point, it is worth asking whether the traditional U.S. concept of war is too narrow or even if it is “conventional.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that war does not fit into “neat, tidy boxes.” There are many ways to use violence or the threat of violence to achieve political aims. Perhaps it’s time to drop the qualifiers and expand the default concept for what constitutes war. The U.S. military acts like a team playing a game for which it wrote the rules. Unfortunately, the other teams never agreed to play by them. Instead of annotating each deviation the other team makes of our “rules,” maybe it’s time to burn the rulebook.
It all comes, perhaps, from watching too many World War II movies. This conflict infuses American culture as the archetype of what war is and, more importantly, what war should be. Politics is set to the side as militaries clash in total war, with unconditional surrender as the aim. This is a type of war, of course, but it is a historical anomaly. It does not describe the American experience in almost any other war, from the Revolutionary War to the current conflict in Afghanistan. Grenada and Panama might fit the bill, brief though they were, but the War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, World War I, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Kosovo War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War all did not. Some of these were messy guerrilla conflicts, but even those that were fought against nation-states defied the paradigm of unconditional surrender and total victory. When the wars ended, the adversaries still remained. In some cases, this meant that the peace that ensued was only temporary. Disagreements over the balance of power persisted, and before long conflict flared again. Unresolved issues in the Revolutionary War led to the War of 1812; the Spanish-American War was followed by the Philippine-American War; World War I was followed by World War II; the Persian Gulf War was followed by 25 years of continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq; and militarized confrontation on the Korean peninsula persists to this day.
The U.S. military’s six-phase planning construct affords no space for the fact that conflict and competition does not always end when the fighting ceases, that the struggle for power and dominance continues. Sometimes the end of fighting means total victory, but sometimes it means a return to something like the gray zone conditions the United States faces today, a space comprised of military competition and coercion short of outright war. Similarly, the phasing construct ignores the possibility that crises may not lead to total war. It views the day-to-day jockeying for position and brinksmanship that nations engage in only through the lens of a prelude to full-scale war, a major blind spot in addressing today’s “gray zones.” In these spaces, Schelling is a better touchstone than Clausewitz.
Limited war has gotten a bad rap since Vietnam. The U.S. military’s response after Vietnam was to go the other way, with the Powell Doctrine as the logical reaction. The Powell Doctrine, however, is of no use for countering tactics that hover below U.S. thresholds for escalation. It seeks clarity — military operations with overwhelming force, a clear exit strategy, and only when diplomacy has failed. Military operations should have clear objectives — and the muddled incrementalism of Vietnam isn’t a playbook to follow either — but the Powell Doctrine assumes a sharp peace-war divide that is not always realistic.
In many situations, military force is diplomacy, through violence or the threat of violence. Moreover, securing political aims requires persistent engagement. Long-term competition may be punctuated by periods of sharp crises or violence, but military power must persist to be relevant. The extended (and taxing) no-fly zone operations following the Persian Gulf War were a logical and unsurprising aftermath to a conflict that shifted the balance of power in the Middle East, but left Saddam Hussein standing. This reality is fundamentally at odds with the Powell Doctrine’s desire for rapid, decisive action followed by equally rapid American withdrawal. This is not because military power was misapplied in the Persian Gulf War and its aftermath, but because the nature of competition and conflict is such that achieving one’s aims requires more than simply the application of violence. It requires resetting the table after the shooting ends to build a peace on your terms, and building that peace often requires years or decades of intense military efforts.
Even when initially decisive military victory is swift, as it was in the defeat of the Taliban in 2002 and Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, securing American political objectives in the aftermath can prove long and difficult. American military thinking favors the decisive battle, however, and shortchanges the necessary but messy crafting of a new political order in the resettling after a conflict. Phase IV “stabilize” operations — even despite nearly 15 years of struggling through them — still take a backseat to Phase III “dominate” operations in terms of force planning, doctrine, training, resource allocation, and risk mitigation. This is a problem, because crafting a new political order that is in America’s interests after a conflict is the only reason for going to war in the first place. “Winning the war and losing the peace” doesn’t count as a “win.” It’s like fumbling the ball at the goal line — it doesn’t count. Colin Gray has noted:
Stability operations must be approached as being integral to strategy, not as behavior that follows the “war proper.” War is only about the peace that follows. It should be waged in such a style that the subsequent peace is not fatally mortgaged. With respect to irregular conflict, the current focus of most attention, stability operations, are, or should be, part and parcel of the U.S. strategy from the very outset.
Gray’s critique is a challenge to expand the American military concept of war. War is more than simply the decisive battle. It is about the use of military force to achieve political aims, which includes limited war, deterrence, gray zones, and stability operations. Ironically, this broader paradigm is the ultimate Clausewitzian approach, one that places the pursuit of political aims first. If military force can be used to achieve one’s political aims short of resort to outright war — as America’s adversaries are trying to do with gray zone tactics — then all the better. Force is a tool that can be used in many ways to achieve political aims.
The obstacles to thinking this way about war predate Vietnam and even Clausewitz. They stem from the very origins of Western civilization and the advent of a “Western way of war.” In his sweeping tome, A History of Warfare, military historian John Keegan places the origins of the Western way of war and the desire for the decisive battle in the invention of the Greek phalanx:
The battles of earlier and other peoples … had continued to be marked by elements that had characterized warfare since its primitive beginnings — tentativeness, preference for fights at a distance, reliance on missiles and reluctance to close to arm’s length until victory looked assured. The Greeks discarded these hesitations and created for themselves a new warfare that turned on the function of battle as a decisive act, fought within the dramatic unities of time, place and action and dedicated to securing victory, even at the risk of suffering bloody defeat, in a single test of skill and courage.
The phalanx was not only a revolutionary tactic but, more consequentially, a revolutionary conception of warfare. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades and pressing against the enemy in a wall of flesh and shield was a dramatic departure from the skirmishing and individualized combat that characterized warfare for millennia. It required a surrender of the self to the group and a level of courage —a recklessness for one’s own life — that would be familiar to modern militaries, but was deeply at odds with other highly individualized warrior cultures.
In the ensuing centuries, Western militaries came to be organized predominantly around the decisive battle, a form of warfare that requires highly regimented and disciplined formations. From the formations of Swiss pikemen to the rows of musketeers reloading and firing at each other without flinching, the Western way of war has revolved around men stoically facing death en masse, trusting in the organization’s ultimate victory even as they are mowed down by the impersonal machinery of war. When Western militaries have faced adversaries unwilling to confront them head-on, they have often struggled, always seeking to draw their ghostly opponents out of the shadows and into decisive battles. Yet tactics of “evasion, delay, and indirectness” — what Keegan describes as “Oriental warmaking,” with roots in the horse warriors of the Eurasian steppe — can also be highly effective. Napoleon’s advance into Russia wasn’t defeated with a decisive battle. The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam with a decisive battle. There were no decisive battles in the Iraq and Afghanistan counterinsurgency wars. China isn’t securing the South China Sea today with a decisive battle. The Western way of war is a way of fighting, but it isn’t the only way.
This bias toward the decisive battle is pervasive not just in the U.S. military, but across Western culture. The game of chess, for example, stands in stark contrast to the Chinese game of Go as a metaphor for conflict and competition. In chess, opponents square off on a field of battle, advancing forward under protection and eventually killing one another in a relentless bloodletting until only a few pieces remain. In Go, by contrast, players place stones on an open playing field to secure positions with the goal of encircling one’s opponent. Both games are elegant and strategically complex abstractions of competition, but they embody different philosophies of victory. In chess, winning consists of killing the opponent’s army and capturing the king. In Go, winning consists of outmaneuvering the opponent and encircling him. In chess, pieces are either dead or alive. In Go, the balance of power tilts slowly like the shifting of sands — or like the dredging of sand into artificial islands.
The Defense Department’s planning, as reflected in its war games, operational plans, planning scenarios, and resource decisions, rarely captures the full breadth and diversity of the various modes of competition and conflict. Instead, they revolve around phase III operations — the decisive battle. This reflects a narrow concept of “war” the United States is comfortable with, but other operations are given short shrift.
Phase III “dominate” operations are important. If the United States is to remain a global power, it must be able to dominate adversaries in the decisive battle. The United States must also be able to leverage military power to secure American interests in situations short of major combat operations as well. U.S. dominance in phase III is likely to continue to drive adversaries to avoid the decisive battle and compete in other ways, making other forms of warfare equally important. Weakness in phase III can cause the United States to lose a war, but dominance in phase III alone is not enough to win one.
The United States doesn’t get to pick the type of wars it fights. The enemy gets a vote. The U.S. military desires “full-spectrum” capabilities — being able to fight across the spectrum of conflict — but more often than not, that results in a focus on Phase III operations with the assumption that other activities are “lesser includeds.” Yet the character of warfare is different at different points along the spectrum of conflict, and it requires different forces, training, and doctrine. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have painfully demonstrated, a military suited for conventional force-on-force conflict is ill-prepared for counterinsurgency or peace enforcement. “Lesser includeds” is a myth that should die.
The six-phase planning construct isn’t the root of the problem. It is a symptom of the true problem, which is an overly narrow concept of war and peace. The United States struggles in gray zones and stability operations not because the phasing construct requires the military to pay less attention in these phases, but because in the American mind these activities aren’t “war.” Joint Publication 1 states, “The ultimate purpose of the U.S. Armed Forces is to fight and win the Nation’s wars.” This is either an incomplete statement or the concept of what constitutes war needs to expand. The United States today faces areas of militarized competition that aren’t war as we traditionally conceive of it, but aren’t peace either. To compete effectively in this space, the United States needs a more fluid understanding of the spectrum between war and peace and of the military’s role in securing America’s interests. A revised phasing construct — or an entirely new replacement — should facilitate this more expansive view of thinking about competition and conflict, not reinforce existing predilections toward the decisive battle. As this series progresses, we’ll begin to explore new paradigms that aim to broaden the understanding of competition and war.

Paul Scharre is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. He is a former infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Opal Vaughn

Painting by Numbers: A History of the U.S. Military's Phasing Construct

November 1, 2016

Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series from thinkers at the Center for a New American Security that explores the U.S. military’s phasing construct and the line between war and peace. Read the first and second articles here.

Ask any budding student of security or member of the military where the focus of conflict is, and you’ll hear an emphatic “phase III operations.” The period in which decisive combat operations are undertaken is the meat and potatoes of America’s military. Glorified historical battles typically occurred in this phase, and most training and equipment is designed to operate in high-end conventional combat. Yet these high hopes have not proven decisive over the past 15 years. As Paul Scharre explored in the first two installments of this series, the phasing construct does not reflect reality. It was once valuable as a tool for force planning, but it has been applied too broadly and without sufficient utility.
Phasing’s Origins: The Unipolar Moment (1992-1993)
The origin of the phasing construct rests in the early post-Cold War era. Following decades of conflict against the Soviet Union and in the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. Department of Defense went back to the drawing board to assess possible crises and evaluate force structure in light of the unipolar moment. The 1992 National Military Strategy contained many of the underlying concepts that later took form in the phasing construct, namely the idea of rapid decisive victory. The 1993 Bottom Up Review (BUR) matured this vision and presented the first iteration of the phasing construct for major regional conflicts that continues to inform operational planning today.
The BUR identified a range of possible post-Cold War uses of military force, including peacetime presence operations, weapons of mass destruction deterrence, threats from major regional conflicts, and smaller crises that would require U.S. peacekeeping or stability operations. In the emerging world order, the United States was unsure which adversaries would threaten U.S. interests, so the BUR designed a force structure that could accommodate two nearly simultaneous regional contingencies, as well as steady state peacekeeping and presence operations.
To determine the appropriate force structure for this period, the BUR identified four “phases” of a major regional contingency and their respective tasks required. The model scenario was based on a major regional actor, such as North Korea or Iraq, invading a neighbor. The United States would flow resources into theater from forward bases and sea ports. Then, the United States would achieve a quick and decisive victory requiring little troop presence afterward. The campaign would be broken into four phases. Phase I entailed halting the adversary’s invasion. During phase II, U.S. combat and logistics resources would flow into the theater and diminish the enemy’s capabilities. In phase III, the United States would “decisively defeat the enemy.” The campaign would conclude with phase IV, in which some forces might remain to provide post-war stability.
While the campaign outlined in the BUR was intended to be generalizable, the phases were clearly influenced by the stunning U.S. success in the Gulf War only two years prior. An obvious shortcoming of this model is that a swift buildup of forces may not be replicated in a country with only a few forward U.S. bases nearby, not to mention prepositioned stocks, easy airlift or seaports, or ready supporting allies.
However, these were not its only limitations. The phasing construct was developed to estimate force requirements for conventional regional conflicts, not an overarching model for the conduct of war generally, great power conflict, or nuclear actors. The BUR did not provide an analogous model for peacekeeping or stability operations, the number of which were expected to increase under U.S. global engagement. Further, the BUR indicated an expectation to fund other actors, such as the United Nations, to carry out peace enforcement and transfer this task from U.S. forces. Finally, the requirement of fighting two wars required a quick, decisive victory in one theater before shifting the brunt of resources to the other fight, while maintaining steady-state strategic nuclear and presence operations. Rapid victory was expected, and conflicts were assumed to remain conventional competitions between state actors. The construct institutionalized many of these unrealistic assumptions that the phasing construct perpetuates today.
The details of the phasing construct have evolved over time as the concept has been refined incrementally to reflect a wider range of contingencies beyond the simple Gulf War model. As this happened, the phasing construct also took on a wider role, evolving from a model of a specific type of regional campaign to a broader model for military operations as a whole. The marriage of operational plans to day-to-day operations and extended stability operations has reinforced its usage beyond the regional conflicts for which it was designed.
Evolution of the Opening Stages of Conflict (1995-2006)
Phases I and II have changed slightly since their original conception in the 1993 BUR, as the timing of conflict onset has been delayed and the deterrence phase has been formalized. In the BUR, major regional conflict opened with hostilities in Phase I and required halting an invasion. In response, local forces would defend against the attack, and other U.S. forces would rapidly deploy into theater for the battle. In 1995, updates to Joint Publications (JP) referred to phase I as prehostilities wherein shows of force deterred conflict, which could include the deployment or sustainment of forces. In the 2001 JP 3-0, actions in this stage remained largely the same, but became deter/engage and finally simply deter in 2006, which it remains today. While the initiation of conflict has shifted to a later phase, phase I operations have maintained a focus on shows of force.
Phase II has evolved accordingly from focusing on stabilizing a front halted in phase I, as in the 1993 BUR, to being the phase in which hostilities begin today. In the original conception, the front was stabilized by building up forces and capabilities for the coming fight while also preventing the enemy from regaining the initiative and potentially degrading the enemy’s forces before a counteroffensive. This buildup phase was lodgment in 1995, but was changed to seize initiative in 2001, which it remains. Today, if offensive operations begin, they start in phase II, as U.S. forces seek to gain the initiative over an enemy. The principle, however, has been constant: enhance U.S. ability to operate while decreasing that of the enemy.
With these modifications to phases I and II, the construct in 2001 included four phases, shown pictorially as a spectrum of warfare. It looks relatively familiar to the contemporary viewer. Updated phases I (deter/engage) and II (seize initiative) were followed by the unchanged phase III (decisive operations) and phase IV (transition) operations.
Source: JP 3-0, 2001
Source: JP 3-0, 2006
Addition of Noncombat Phases (2005-2006)
The biggest changes to the phasing construct were its expansion from four phases of the 1993 BUR to the six-phase construct in use today, which went into effect with the 2006 updates to the JP 3-0 and JP 5-0. The new phases bookended the original four, and both new phases existed at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. Phase 0 shaping operations are steady-state operations that link combatant commander theater maintenance to operational plans. This idea is built on the premise that it is less costly to prevent war than to wage it. Actions in this phase typically include building partner capacity and humanitarian missions to engage local populations.
Phase 0 formalized attempts to prevent conflict during steady-state operations. Then-Deputy Commander of European Command General Wald described phase 0 operations in detail in late 2006, extolling their value in training allies and partners, building interoperability, and preventing extremism through population engagement. These concepts were similarly reflected in a number of other documents, including the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which focused on helping shape the interests of countries facing “strategic crossroads.” While the 2006 QDR did not name phase 0 operations outright, it reflected thinking similar to the 2006 versions of JP 3-0 and JP 5-0, which do discuss phase 0 operations. The value of steady-state military operations in shaping the security environment to prevent conflict or enable decisive operations permeated official documents across the Department.
The 2006 Joint Publications update also added a phase V to extend post-war stabilization operations into two phases: phase IV stabilize and phase V enable civil authority. This clarified the important role of post-conflict stability operations. In the original BUR, phase IV operations were described as “provide for post-war stability.” Interestingly, the 1995 JP 3-0 had two phases following a “decisive combat and stabilization phase,” a follow-through phase and a posthostilities and redeployment phase. The 2001 JP 3-0 returned to one post-conflict phase known as transition, more similar to the original BUR model. Stability operations only comprised one phase from 2001 until the 2006 update.
The 1993 BUR assumed operations on the lower end of the conflict scale could be handled by multinational forces or would require few U.S. forces. This fallacy became starkly apparent as Operation Iraqi Freedom progressed. While the BUR said “some” troops may remain after major combat operations concluded, the decisive success of the initial invasion of Iraq was met with stunning challenges as an insurgency emerged out of the chaos of the regime’s collapse. The addition of Phase V was part of a broader focus on post-conflict stability operations that attempted to elevate their importance.
The 2005 Department of Defense Directive 3000.05 “Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations” emphasized the need for all of the services to elevate stability operations to the level of combat operations. The 2006 updates to JP 3-0 and 5-0 emphasized the need for stability operations across all phases of conflict and the addition of phase V doubled the phases of conflict that specifically addressed it. Since the phasing construct was intended as an aid for force planning, this represented a concerted shift toward force considerations for operations beyond decisive combat.
As the thinking underpinning the construct changed, so did the depictions of the model. The 2001 document included an image depicting the phasing construct as the spectrum of warfare, but the 2006 update indicated the consecutive nature of the phases with arrows flowing from earlier phases to later ones. The parabola shape of force flows and military effort used today did not exist until the 2011 update to JP 3-0. Since the original role of the phasing construct was as a force planning tool, an image of overall force usage existed in the 1993 BUR. This image showed more forces required to win two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts over time, who could then return to steady-state operations after victory. This usage mirrors the parabola image of force flows if only one conflict is considered.
1993 Bottom Up Review Force Planning
Source: JP 3-0, 2011.
Operational Paint by Numbers in an Age of Changing Conflict
The current iteration of the phasing construct has been in place since 2006, but its skeleton is built around the bones of the 1993 BUR. Phases help commanders determine resource allocation over time and conduct force planning. The changes that added noncombat-intensive phases indicate an understanding of the need to consider periods other than decisive operations. Operational art is just that — art. The phasing construct provides a “paint by numbers” model to help allocate resources during planning, but it cannot solve all conflicts. Current joint doctrine indicates phases will be carried out sequentially and marked by events that trigger transition from one phase to the next. The level of military effort shown in the parabola graphic is “notional,” but implies that phase III requires the most effort and time. Despite its continued evolution, the phasing construct still suffers from shortcomings. Its implication that phase III operations are the most demanding in effort and time is starkly at odds with U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the phasing construct is of little utility for the gray zone tactics potential adversaries use to intentionally avoid U.S. phase III operations.
The phasing construct was intended for a conventional campaign against an outmatched state actor with stronger U.S. forces, assured access and logistics, and little need for messy state-building after the conflict or extended competition beforehand. Over time, a construct designed for a repeat of the Gulf War morphed into a larger model of war. Only immediately after the Cold War was this specific model possible. As the sole superpower fresh from delivering a roundhouse kick to the world’s fourth-largest military, the United States was capable of making these assumptions. But today, these assumptions are completely divorced from the reality of strategic competition or long guerrilla wars. Looking forward, the U.S. military should explore new paradigms for conflict and competition, which coming articles in this series will do.

Lauren Fish is a Research Associate for Defense Strategies & Assessments at the Center for a New American Security.
Image: DOD Photo by Sgt. Darron Salzer

Waking Up to the Truth About the Sunni Awakening - War on the Rocks

November 23, 2016

Martha L. Cottam, Joe W. Huseby, Bruno Baltodano, Confronting al Qaeda: The Sunni Awakening and American Strategy in al Anbar (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016)

The campaign to retake Mosul is well underway with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) consolidating gains in the eastern districts of the city. And despite stiff resistance and the potential for infighting among the anti-ISIL coalition, which ostensibly could stall the advance, the city will most likely be liberated by early 2017. So with ground forces making progress and Mosul’s fall certain, observers have turned their commentary to the day after the Iraqi flag flies again in its second largest city, and rightfully so. The politics of Ninewa province, frozen in time due to ISIL’s conquest, can begin in earnest once again. But irrespective of whether Mosul falls at the end of this year or early next, for better or for worse, it will be the policies of a new U.S. administration that will ultimately influence Iraq’s trajectory toward a more, or less, stable nation.
But before the Trump administration decides on a cabinet and chooses which policies to keep and which to discard, we should reconsider some legends and narratives that have led to certain solutions offered up by the American foreign policy establishment for the future of Iraq. One such narrative that bears reexamination, and has even influenced counterinsurgency efforts in other theaters, is the apparent success of the Sunni Awakening (Sahwa), in which Sunni tribes formally partnered with U.S. forces to fight Al Qaeda in Iraqin 2007. The accepted narrative of this movement has had a profound impact on the establishment’s proposals for Iraq and, similarly, on views about the future of Sunni political autonomy in certain provinces of the country. For example, it underpinned major aspects of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s counter-ISIL policy proposals and those of her reported pick for secretary of defense, Michele Flournoy. Each advocated directly arming Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes if need be and “[leveraging] the creation of a Sunni hold force to increase the possibility of a power-sharing outcome between Baghdad and the Sunni minority.” Furthermore, it clearly informed the views of John Bolton, currently under consideration for secretary of state, when he called for the creation of a “Sunni-stan” to be carved out of Iraq and Syria in a 2015 New York Times op-ed.
This troublesome narrative, first disputed by Douglas Ollivant in 2011, describes how a U.S. troop-surge, armed with tactics derived from a new counterinsurgency manual, recruited the Sahwa out of Iraq’s hostile Sunni population in 2006 and 2007 leading to the decimation of al Qaeda in Iraq by 2009. Iraq, by that point, appeared to be largely stabilized and the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq were chased underground into non-relevance. The precipitous U.S. withdrawal in 2011 allowed Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who had previously stymied the integration of the Sahwa into the ISF, to dismantle these necessary allies. This act turned out to be a crucial stepping stone for the return of al Qaeda in Iraq as the Islamic State, or ISIL.
However, this simplistic telling misses key aspects of the Sahwa story, which then leads to ill-considered policies. For starters, the Sahwa was a bit more complex than the “tribal uprising” that we tend to depict. As the Sahwa movement spread outside of Anbar in 2007, it witnessed the integration of large numbers of former Sunni nationalist and Islamist insurgents who were under tremendous pressure from Shia militias and were fighting their own war with the Islamic State of Iraq. A comprehensive story of the Sahwa includes, at the very least, mention of the psychological effect on Sunni Arab calculus of this crushing sectarian civil war waged by Shia militias that had reached a peak in 2007. Knowing who filled the Sahwa’s ranks during this period and their intentions and allegiances when siding with U.S. forces is critical to understanding both how and which elements of the later Sahwa disintegrated and further explains Baghdad’s reactions. These are just some of the important nuances missing from the fuller story that should make us reconsider the legend.
A recently published book titled Confronting Al Qaeda: The Sunni Awakening and American Strategy in al Anbar is a good place to start for interrogating our understanding of the movement. In the book, Cottam and Huseby trace the factors that influenced the strategic choices by the majority of relevant actors of the Anbar Sahwa — tribal leaders, administration officials, and military leaders alike — from the beginning of the Iraq War through the formation of the Anbar Sahwa and finally the withdrawal of U.S. forces. After all, Anbar was critical to the larger movement as its birthplace and the inspiration for what spread to other Sunni areas like Babil, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, as well as Baghdad.
The fact that there was a Sahwa at all is amazing after the Bush administration’s poor start in Iraq and the prevailing view among Iraqi Sunnis of the United States as a font of mistreatment, bias, and imperial incompetence. Simply put, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. military were seen as direct threats to the Sunni way of life. So, the tribes sought an ally and, according to Sunni tribal chiefs, Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq quickly assumed the role of protector against the occupiers. Eventually, this alliance suffered, as al Qaeda in Iraq could only moderate its Salafi-jihadist political agenda and desire for political domination for so long. Distrustful tribesman began to rebel against this real and greater threat to the tribal system, starting with the Abu Mahal in Al Qaim in 2004 (nearly three years prior to the surge) and reached out to U.S. forces for assistance.
As the Sunni conversion was underway, U.S. forces underwent their own, which was brought about by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq amidst a civil war. Meanwhile, U.S. forces found glimmers of goodwill and an effective approach in Tal Afar, Ramadi, and elsewhere as they haphazardly and inconsistently experimented with different tactics and strategies. The two sides, both at a crisis points, discarded previous perceptions, found allies in each other, and teamed up to fight al Qaeda in Iraq.
But the process to collectively arrive at these realizations took nearly three years and both Anbar’s tribes and the coalition had to be willing to rethink their assumptions about the other. In contrast, al Qaeda in Iraq was far too mired in its Manichaean ideology to permit new information to change its view. Had the group made accommodations with the tribes’ way of life, the Sahwa would most likely have been stillborn. It appears the organization has only barely learned this lesson: acting benevolently to the citizens of Mosul in the first two weeks of its takeover in June 2014, posing this time as protector against Maliki’s sectarian tactics, before revealing its Salafi-jihadist state-building enterprise and carrying out a number of massacres. However, its contemporary in Syria, Fatah Al-Sham, seems to have learned the lesson that ISIL has not and, worryingly, may have more staying power. Meanwhile, ISIL remains too rigid to accommodate and again finds itself under attack from within and without by a patchwork of allies.
But despite the on-going progress against ISIL, the coalition still has its work cut out for it. The addition of some variation of a Sahwa-like organization to this mélange of allies and its permanent integration into Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) may be crucial to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs against the return to sectarian authoritarianism and prevent yet another resurgence of the Salafi-jihadist would-be-state. Yet, how such a force is created and integrated into Iraq’s broader security apparatus is critical. It cannot be properly accomplished without an appreciation for the deep seated distrust in Iraqi society (especially after the Camp Speicher massacre), its stubborn conspiracies, and entrenched political identities, which all can be understood only through a sophisticated command of Iraqi history — to include recent history.
And here the nuanced story of the Sahwa has a specific role to play as a cautionary tale. The Sahwa’s eventual integration into Iraq’s security forces was anything but certain after having been nurtured and reared to adulthood by U.S. forces outside of government control. The Sahwa ultimately failed not because of Maliki’s sectarian policies — a symptom of a bigger problem — but because of the perceived political threat it posed to the Baghdad government and the profound lack of trust between the parties.
With this deep distrust in mind, a change from the Obama administration’s seemingly sluggish policy, which prizes coalition building over more expedient (unilateral) action, should be carefully considered against the risks of long-term failure. Even though the Baghdad government is obstructionist and a change in policy in the next administration might seem sensible, more “hawkish” action would inevitably result in a similar miscarriage of events. And while the prospect of further external attacks — whether directed or inspired — is truly terrifying for citizens not only in Europe and the United States, but in Turkey and the broader Middle East, only a deliberative policy, like the current one, that takes into account local Iraqis’ present-day multifaceted fears, mistrust, and individual attitudes can usher Iraq through a reconciliation into a more stable future. Perhaps this aspect of Obama’s anti-ISIL strategy is worth keeping.

Nicholas J. Kramer is a U.S. Army officer currently serving as a Foreign Area Officer, specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. He is a Special Forces officer with service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has advised Iraqi soldiers, Afghan Special Forces, and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). He recently graduated from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey, California. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. William Greer, 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Combat Camera

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