Thursday, June 20, 2013

Strategy Finally Clicks

Over the course of the last couple of years, I've offered various reasons for why I wanted to come to Aberdeen to get an MSc in Strategic Studies. I've told people that I wanted to get better at chess (which I haven't actually played in years), or at Risk (which I only ever played once, in April, and was quickly bored with). In actuality, my primary goal was to improve my existing credentials to help me keep climbing the corporate ladder, and my secondary goal was to spend a year in Scotland. That said, I wanted to better understand the strategic level of warfare.

Most people don't really understand the specific definition of "strategy", and it's generally just associated with a plan. In non-military vernacular, it often refers to a long-term plan, or is sometimes used interchangeably with the word "tactic". In fact, military scholars generally agree that there are three levels of warfare. The tactical level is the "lowest" - for example, when a platoon engages a hostile enemy position. The "middle" level is the operational level, sometimes referred to as campaigning - that is, combining a series of parallel tactical actions to produce a larger effect. Strategy involves the "highest" level, and combines operations and their subordinate tactical actions to produce a political effect.

The concept of a political effect is often lost on those outside the realms of either warfighting or military scholarship. For example, liberal journalists are quite fond of quoting policy-makers and military officers who say that the solution to the conflict in Afghanistan must be political, not military, in nature. In the minds of journalists, who are typically ignorant of the realm of military theory, this is a tacit admission on the part of military and political leaders that the use of force is incapable of solving the world's problems. In fact, military leaders (and some political leaders) understand that warfare involves the application of force to create the conditions for a desired political end state, vice producing that political end state. Military force is an instrument of policy, not a policy in and of itself. All of this is actually germane to the point of being a cliche, but it's lost on many journalists, politicians, and even many warfighters.

As I noted in an earlier post, I read a lot of documents this last semester about so-called "grand strategy", as well as a number of documents about what The Director calls "operational strategy". It's commonly said that the American government (and by extension, most Western governments) don't do strategy. When one considers warfare, and the way in which military force is applied by Western states, it becomes readily apparent that Western policy-makers are fixated on ways and means, but have a more tenuous grasp of how to apply those ways and means to facilitate political ends.

So, why do I say all of this? Simple: it's all well and good to speak in broad theoretical terms like this, but true mastery requires the ability to analyze theory, mix it with history, and apply it to solve contemporary problems. A few days ago, as I was sitting on a bench waiting for a delivery from Lionel's, I wrote the following in a notebook:
"Balkanization": Held up as a success story ("They paved the way for how we fight now." - Robert Kaplan, quoting Lt. Col. Thomas Wilhelm), actually a failure, long commitment for no tangible political benefit, the very definition of a failure to enforce political cohesion among people who were formerly forced into political cooperation. The Afghan example of combining precision strike and unconventional warfare, followed by foreign internal defense, was similiarly limited in the scope of its success because a long-term pre-war unconventional warfare approach produced a Northern Alliance who could fight without producing a shadow government that could gain the support of the people and govern. If the operational strategy is not complemented by a political strategy - that is, a plan for a political end state complimented by the use of force as applied by the warfighter - then the operational strategy cannot produce success.
And this, of course, ties into my dissertation, which involves drawing lessons from the Dhofar Rebellion for the purpose of applying force more effectively in order to facilitate a desired political end. Over the last week or so, I really feel like the various lessons of the past nine months have "clicked", or possibly congealed, in the last week or so. That's a great feeling. All of what I've learned here is valuable, but it's great to be able to tie it all up together and apply it. That's the whole point, right?

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