It isn’t easy to discern the exact nature of emerging conflicts, however, those that grasp the interior social, political, even geopolitical components of conflict usually possess both the tenacity and fortitude to secure strategic clarity as war progresses. This is significant because as a conflict progresses through time, it changes; having grasped emerging components early, one can discern trends of great strategic value. When Clausewitz discerned four major components of conflict, he discerned that war has political, humanist and geopolitical components shaping the character of any conflict.
Why is this significant?
For decades, only a small handful of professional soldiers had the temerity to acknowledge what General Creighton Abrams experienced in Vietnam after Westmoreland; that the conflict in Vietnam was not three wars in one, but one conflict. Albeit Abrams instinctively knew the changing character of war, his genuine war fighting intuition told him that Vietnam as a conflict was not properly understood by either the Army, the Joint Chiefs nor Defense or Pentagon. Perceiving empirical insights as the sole positivist quality, the groupthink emerged that Vietnam was a communist insurgency, civil war and geopolitical chessboard, all in one. Abrams proved otherwise.
Prudence and superior tacit knowledge is invaluable for officers residing in high command. The only other senior official who knew General Abrams’ insight was General Harold K. Johnson, the Chief of Army Staff. Johnson paid dearly when he confronted Westmoreland for misplaced strategic insight forming U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Both Abrams and Johnson knew that the Americanization of the war was fatal when President Johnson openly refused to activate reserves.
We must prepare to understand early on, both the correct nature of any emerging conflict as well as difficult civil-military relations in conflicts that aren’t well understood early on. If the service chiefs fail to puncture through endemic bureaucratic groupthink, it can be fatal for any Republic. Think France after Algeria!
The past eight years has witnessed China, Russia and Iran test U.S. resolve. Each time, we’ve been found wanting.
The American alliance network is really in an advanced state of crisis. Even though coalition management is many times more difficult than theatre level engagements, alliances provide redundancies that are sine qua non for victory.
Throughout Aleppo, Crimea, Libya, assassinations abroad in U.K., the subversion of the Balkans as well as aggravated menace on the high seas, Putin continues to engage in dangerous levels of force that resemble probing actions of U.S. resolve.
If we don’t openly counter the aggressive probing of China, Russia and Iran, it will be impossible to deter escalated aggression. Geopolitically, both Russia and China possess superior interior lines of communication and engagement, so U.S. countermeasures are quite limited.
American enemies are demonstrating aggressive diplomacy, deft geoeconomics and overt military aggression to secure their interests while probing or openly weakening U.S. alliance partners.
Just look at how Putin enveloped Crimea while indirectly openly targeting Ukraine. Witness Chinese belligerence throughout the South China Sea, or the Iranian Shia crescent moving west from Baghdad into northern Israel. These are all examples of probing.
For these regimes, challenging American power is central to their statecraft.
Regarding the growth of Islamic insurgencies throughout North Africa or Mesopotamia, we must note the political, historical, religious and contingent complexity that characterize these conflicts. Why?
Because like Vietnam, if leadership fails to access, to properly understand the character of emerging conflicts we simply cannot hope to address U.S. policy properly. From President Kennedy right through Nixon, war planners didn’t really know nor understand who we were fighting.
The complex social, political and geopolitical dynamics of emerging insurgencies is abstract, yet it requires deft tacit handling if U.S. war instruments are to prevail.
Pentagon planners have demonstrated a deft handling of U.S. limits throughout Southwest Asia, acknowledging how Pashtun, Punjabi intransigence tied to opaque civil military relations throughout Islamabad aren’t U.S. war objectives.
Pentagon, Joint Chiefs and distinct members of Defense are up to the challenge. Is America’s political class?
Originally published on William Holland’s blog.