Civilians Missing From Action

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 2:48 pm
U.S. soldiers, Iraqi Army soldiers and Iraqi civilians (

U.S. soldiers, Iraqi Army soldiers and Iraqi civilians (

During his 2003-2004 tour in Iraq’s Anbar Province, a leading Army counterinsurgent officer named John Nagl confronted many frustrations — from improperly trained Iraqi soldiers to the combat deaths of his own men. But one problem was as acute then as it is chronic now: the inability of civilian government experts to get involved in counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During an interview with The New York Times magazine, in a piece often cited as a touchstone for the counterinsurgency community, Nagl pointed to an empty chair and remarked about the civilians in the Coalition Provisional Authority, ”Where’s the guy from C.P.A.? He should be sitting right there.”

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Those chairs have essentially remained empty through the five years of war in Iraq and six and a half in Afghanistan. There has been one well-received effort at integrating civilians with the military for counterinsurgency: the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which bring together soldiers, diplomats, aid workers and other experts to provide on-the-ground governance advice. But the consensus within the counterinsurgency community is that the PRTs, as they’re known, are ad hoc and understaffed.

That creates a fundamental problem for counterinsurgency, which seeks to draw a civilian population’s political and personal allegiance away from a guerrilla force. If a counterinsurgency effort is primarily a military effort, it will probably fail — as the French counterinsurgency expert David Galula wrote in his seminal 1964 book, “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.”

“David Galula tells us that counterinsurgency is only 20 percent military — the rest of it is political, diplomatic, economic and information warfare,” said Nagl, now retiring as a lieutenant colonel. “We’re getting better at the non-military aspects of counterinsurgency. [The] State [Dept.] is leading the effort to create an interagency counterinsurgency guide, which is a great start. But we still have a long way to go.”

As the structure of the nation’s wars changes, so, too, must the organization of the U.S. government, argues the new generation of counterinsurgency theorists. They say that diplomats, reconstruction experts, governance advisers, economists, lawyers and even agronomists must be as easily inserted into a theater of battle as troops are — and must work with the warfighters in the effort to convince a population not to ally with insurgents.

This capability is now largely missing. So some counterinsurgents are trying innovative methods to solve the problem. But it is still unclear if they will be sufficient — let alone timely enough to reverse the fortunes of both current wars.

There are many reasons why American civilians working for the government have stayed on the sidelines of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, the United States still lacks a corps of civilians ready to deploy into conflict zones. That is unlikely to change. “We’ll never match boots on the ground with wingtips on the ground,” said Eliot A. Cohen, counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, using a shorthand term for diplomats that is common among the counterinsurgency community.

For another, the process of interagency coordination — particularly on the wars — has left little reason for confidence in recent years. In the early years of the fighting in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld feuded bitterly over bureaucratic control in managing the occupation. The State Dept.’s year-long, multi-volume report on Iraq reconstruction was famously rejected by Rumsfeld, largely because its authors — denizens of the dread Foggy Bottom — were considered suspect. The departures of both men has eased, but not solved, the problem.

With Rice as secretary of state, the lines of communication between State and Defense improved. Yet Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2005 to 2007, advocated a wholesale reorganization of the U.S. government along the lines of the landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, that forced the military services to work together.

“As we look to the next 10, 20, 30 years of combating an enemy that is not going to confront us tank on tank,” Pace said in a speech last summer, “we’re going to need all the agencies of national power to be responsive inside the enemy’s loop. We do not have a mechanism right now to make that happen.”

If a counterinsurgency effort is primarily a military effort, it will probably fail…

That’s not to say there aren’t proposals. The most recent emanates from — unsurprisingly — the Pentagon, which is still the primary bureaucracy in control of both wars. Celeste Ward, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, recently began an unconventional initiative for interagency coordination on irregular warfare.

Known as the Consortium for Complex Operations, or CCO, Ward’s initiative is a virtual university and online hang-out for the new generation of counterinsurgents to meet, debate, hone their skills and learn how to play nicely with each other. Headed by two rising counterinsurgency wonks, Mac Bollman and Janine Davidson, the consortium operates with a skeleton crew of 12 full-time and part-time employees out of a Crystal City office. But the consortium hosts an online “portal,” or website, that is the real value of the effort.

“We like to say that CCO has a portal, it is not a portal,” Ward said in a phone interview. “We do have a physical location, in Crystal City, but the portal is the really important aspect of CCO.”

The consortium, which launched at a State Department-hosted conference on April 28, offers a variety of educational programs on its password-protected website. There are courses in stability operations and counterinsurgency, naturally — but also in humanitarian assistance, regional knowledge, multilateral organizations, conflict resolution, the rule of law and “train-the-trainer” courses, among others. These are all derived from lessons gleaned in different government agencies. The curriculum is largely a collection of existing courses contained within civilian and military organizations, or based on research from government-sponsored think tanks

A recent pre-launch study conducted by the U.S. Institute of Peace called it “the most comprehensive collection of courses related to complex operations available to date.” “Complex operations” is a hybrid term for various forms of counterinsurgency and irregular warfare.

If someone wants to join the consortium’s virtual community, he or she will will apply for a password, Ward explained. Ideal candidates, as described by Ward, are “trainers and educators. A professor at the Army command and general staff college. An NDU [National Defense University] professor. A former [Provincial Reconstruction Team] leader. Someone like me, [with] two tours in Iraq, a DASD [deputy assistant security of defense].”

Ward, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 and then returned to Iraq in 2005 to advise Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who was then the corps commander, said there will probably be consortium blogs, as well. “What I’d say,” she explained, “is it provides an intellectual home.”

Ward does not see the consortium as able to solve all the government’s problems with the civilian end of counterinsurgency, let alone the intractable bureaucratic task of interagency coordination. Many have failed before her. In 2005, for example, an effort in the State Dept. called the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization was created to do the job that the consortium is now attempting. S/CRS, as it is known, is now regarded as having lost momentum since its first director, Amb. Carlos Pascual, left to take a job at the Brookings Institution.

More famously, last year President George W. Bush announced a major search for a “war czar,” to orchestrate all the elements of Iraq from the White House. Several people reportedly declined the job before Gen. William Lute stepped up for it.

Meanwhile, the consortium is trying to offer an alternative — with a staff of four full-time employees and an annual operating budget of only $2.5 million. But Ward does see the job as familiarizing relevant civilian officials with their military counterparts — and with each other. “When you get [to a war zone], saying ‘I know who these people are’ — I can’t tell you how instructive it is not to be working with a military organization but inside one,” she said. “What CCO can do is facilitate opportunities to communicate with X number of agencies, organizations and, I hope, identify and organize opportunities to do training together, and discuss issues working together.”

It would certainly win the approval of one leading counterinsurgent who first called for just this sort of group. “The Consortium for Complex Operations is clearly a step in the right direction,” Nagl said.

Time will tell how large a step it will be.

This is the sixth in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents.

Part One: The Colonels and ‘The Matrix’

Part Two: A Famous Enigma

Part Three: Petraeus’ Ascension

Part Four: The Insurgent as Counterinsurgent

Part Five: King David

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