Pixel Tracker

Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 1:54 pm | Partly Cloudy 63º

 
 
 
 

Michael Barone: Little Wars Turn Messy Because of Politics on the Ground

"The examination of war from an exclusively military perspective, isolated from its social and political context, leads to false conclusions and poor strategy."

That is the conclusion of Emile Simpson, a former infantry officer in the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, in his book, War From the Ground Up.

The book has won extraordinary praise from the veteran British military historian Michael Howard, who wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, calling it "a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military."

Howard compares Simpson's book to the classic On War by Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. Both experienced a war that was utterly different from what they had been trained for and tried to explain it "from the top down as well as from the ground up."

Clausewitz experienced the total war wrought by Napoleon's massive citizen armies and the large armies raised by Prussia, Austria and Russia in response. "War," he famously concluded, "is merely the continuation of policy by other means."

In such large wars, the outcome is rarely ambiguous. Each side pursues the "absolute victory" promised by President Franklin Roosevelt in his Pearl Harbor speech. Virtually everyone recognizes that result when it happens.

When the result is ambiguous, the result can be disastrous, as when Germany surrendered in November 1918 rather than be overrun by the Western powers. In the ensuing years, Adolf Hitler and others argued that Germany had been stabbed in the back by enemies within and sought revenge.

Simpson argues that in most of the conflicts that liberal democracies have engaged in since 1945, things are not so clear. These are little wars, against enemies difficult to define, in which "tactical actions often need to be considered primarily in terms of their local political effect."

Inevitably, "a decision to attack one group or support another ... will attract some realignment in the local political situation." And "strategy has to operate within a complex political environment that nobody can ever fully understand."

This was particularly true in Afghanistan, where kinship ties and local loyalties meant that the same individuals might, at one time, support the Taliban and, at another, the central government.

In such conflicts, Simpson argues — as Samuel Huntington does in his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State — that there is no clear separation between the political setting of goals by the civilian commander-in-chief and the decisions carried out by military tacticians.

In conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, political considerations must be taken into account, not just by civilian leaders and theater commanders, but also by lieutenants and sergeants.

If they fail to "change policy in response to military reality," the result is "like driving a car through the rear-view mirror rather than looking at the road ahead: It swerves all over the place and may crash."

This is hard for liberal democracies to do, he admits. But something like it has been done by U.S. and coalition troops, under Gen. H.R. McMaster in Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004-06 and Gen. David Petraeus in Anbar and elsewhere in 2007-08.

It is critical, Simpson argues, for the troops to live with the locals, getting to know them personally and gaining their trust. It is critical also to have a convincing "strategic narrative" that is flexible enough to appeal to different publics — to soldiers, to locals, to neighboring countries and to elites and voters back home.

His major historical example, the 1962-66 British-Indonesian conflict in Borneo, is not entirely reassuring. There in response to Indonesian guerrilla and regular army attacks across the colonial border, British Commonwealth troops seasoned in jungle warfare in Malaya and Burma retaliated with cross-border attacks.

But this occurred largely out of view of the press and the public. Neither government, for reasons of its own, declared war nor acknowledged that a conflict was going on.

The recent raids in Libya and Somalia and drone strikes in Yemen and elsewhere suggest that the United States, even after leaving Iraq and preparing to leave Afghanistan, is engaged in more conflicts than headlines indicate.

Some will take Simpson's book as an argument to avoid such conflicts altogether.

Others, who believe that the United States must act to eliminate terrorist havens, should take it as a warning that Simpson's wars, like Clausewitz's, are devilishly difficult.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.