Leadership and Counterinsurgency-the Marine view

This was the first book I finished of my new trio of goodness for the Society of Military History.

This volume, published by the Marine Corps University Press, which serves as part of their own intermediate war college system, provides the proceedings of a 2009 conference on leadership in COIN operations.  (Hey, Marines have their own university...who knew?)

The essays cover everything from battalion command to national level strategy and are presented by a number of top-notch historians and military commanders, including Eliot Cohen and H.R. McMaster.

From a historian's point of view, this volume is noteworthy as sort of a cross-pollination look at the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. military's efforts to apply the "lessons learned" from the Surge in Iraq to the Surge in Afghanistan.

Number ONE of course is to have a President who's serious about winning....which, of course, Bush was and Obama was not.  Little did these people know in 2009 that Obama was fundamentally not serious about doing anything thing but a show and tell that he wasn't a weak and ineffective foreign policy President...."LOOK, LOOK I'm surging to the GOOD war that I hammered George Bush about while I was a wienie Senator!!"...of course all of it on a strict timetable so he could retreat from Afghanistan like he FLED Iraq, consequences be damned...but HEY, we gotta pay for Obamacare...and free pre-school...and free contraception....and free puppies....and free unicorns....and now we will have another mess for another Administration to clean up after January 20, 2017...if we make it that long...Allah have mercy on him...the great Barrack HUSSEIN Obama.

OKAY, OKAY, enough snark....now back to the book...other than the irony that both Paula Broadwell and Dave Petraeus make large inputs to the book...which are pretty good, scandal aside...okay, yes I did snicker a little bit...all of the essays in this book are really first rate.  Things that stood out:
  • No matter how many "lessons learned" the military tried to transfer to Afghanistan from Iraq, the conflicts were fundamentally different.  Iraq was an urbanized, fairly modern cultural that Saddam just put into a time warp for 20 years after the 1st Gulf War.  Afghanistan, however, has never made it out of the 7th century...literally or figuratively.  The Iraq insurgency, while mostly home-grown and Sunni, with a side of Shia...was about political and economic power that could...given the right conditions...be morphed into a political situation that could be resolved...of course US troops would have helped that after 2011..but we already covered that.  The LARGE presence of external Al Qaeda fighters that were not native, were wildly more extreme than even the Sunni insurgents, and were treating their allies like dirt in many cases, gave rise to the Anbar Awakening and the US victory (yes I used that word) that came about in the 2007-2008 campaign...before Obama.  Afghanistan is a tribal country made up of rugged, unimproved terrain with NO national identity, for all intents and purposes.  The Taliban are for the most part Pashtun...live among the Pashtun and will always be welcomed by the Pashtun.  Maybe a little oversimplified, but not much....WE are the outsiders, will always be the outsiders and the Afghans will always HATE the outsiders more than the tribe in the next valley.  Moreover, if Iraq was rundown like Detroit..it has oil, water, and a fairly educated population that can eventually become economically self-sustaining...Afghanistan is rundown like Mogadishu...very little industry...not a lot of easily exploitable natural resources and inhabited by what are basically illiterate hillbillies.  AND of course, the great unspoken...even at this conference...was the role that Pakistan plays in Afghanistan as the great sanctuary and enabler of the Taliban.  The lack of external bases and, for the most part, sponsors in Iraq greatly helped US efforts to end the insurgency. 
  • HOWEVER, given all that...leadership does count in COIN operations.  Mark Moyer, who helped facilitate the conference, wrote an outstanding book on the topic and many of his ideas and concepts were discussed at the conference.  Fundamentally COIN is fought at the battalion and brigade level...sometimes down to the company and platoon level, so small unit leadership is a must.  More importantly, as many of the presenters highlight, each commander..from 2nd LT to COL or higher, must understand how their units' actions or inaction can have a huge impact on the overall fight. The issue of training and mentoring the Iraqi and Afghan army was also the subject of much discussion, with general agreement that the sooner the natives start providing their own security the better, but TOO soon and the government forces will crumble...or worse, defect...and nothing will ever get done.
This was a fine volume to introduce this trio of books...not spectacular.. but a solid piece of work on the challenges facing military leaders on ground as they try to implement "population-centric" counterinsurgency in a very rough part of the world.