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A Manual for the SysAdmin Force

February 18, 2008


In a recent post [Attention Turns Again to Afghanistan], I noted that the U.S. military was paying a lot more attention to the mission of “nation building.” To underscore that point, the Army just released a new operations manual on the subject [“New Weight in Army Manual on Stabilization,” by Michael R. Gordon, New York Times, 8 February 2008].

“The Army has drafted a new operations manual that elevates the mission of stabilizing war-torn nations, making it equal in importance to defeating adversaries on the battlefield. Military officials described the new document, the first new edition of the Army’s comprehensive doctrine since 2001, as a major development that draws on the hard-learned lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial military successes gave way to long, grueling struggles to establish control. It is also an illustration of how far the Pentagon has moved beyond the Bush administration’s initial reluctance to use the military to support ‘nation-building’ efforts when it came into office.”

There was more than a little “initial reluctance” to “nation-building” when the term and potential mission first emerged. In fact, it was considered “mission creep” and was anathema to many military leaders. It was not just the Bush administration that had it doubts. Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry remarked, “Generally the military is not the right tool to meet humanitarian concerns. We field an army, not a Salvation Army.” Philosophically, Perry was correct. Mixing military operations and humanitarian efforts has always been problematic. As I noted in my last post on Afghanistan, that was the state of things when my partner, Tom Barnett, introduced his notion of a System Administration Force, whose primary purpose was securing the peace (i.e., nation-building). Despite the military’s apparent change of heart, questions remain as to whether the force structure is properly aligned with the new doctrine.

“Some influential officers are already arguing that the Army still needs to put actions behind its new words, and they have raised searching questions about whether the Army’s military structure, personnel policies and weapons programs are consistent with its doctrine. The manual describes the United States as facing an era of ‘persistent conflict’ in which the American military will often operate among civilians in countries where local institutions are fragile and efforts to win over a wary population are vital. [In an interview], Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, … called it a ‘blueprint to operate over the next 10 to 15 years.’ ‘Army doctrine now equally weights tasks dealing with the population — stability or civil support — with those related to offensive and defensive operations,’ the manual states. ‘Winning battles and engagements is important but alone is not sufficient. Shaping the civil situation is just as important to success.’ In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is enmeshed in rebuilding local institutions, helping to restore essential services and safeguarding a vulnerable population. The new manual is an attempt to put these endeavors — along with counterinsurgency warfare — at the core of military training, planning and operations. That would require some important changes. ‘There is going to be some resistance,’ General Caldwell said. ‘There will be people who will hear and understand what we are saying, but it is going to take some time to inculcate that into our culture.’ Even as they welcomed it, other Army officers said there were inconsistencies between the newly minted doctrine on how to wage war and current practice. Army brigades in Iraq have too few combat engineers to support civil programs, they said. Also, they added, the Army does not promote officers who advise the Iraqi and Afghan security forces as readily as battalion staff officers and needs to improve their training.”

Tom believes that the fighting and System Administration forces should be separate. One reason is that the roles and missions of the SysAdmin force require much more participation by non-military groups and much less warfighting capability. Another cultural challenge, as Gordon points out, is that officers involved in stabilization operations don’t enjoy the same reputation and promotion rates as those involved in warfighting.

“Even as they welcomed it, other Army officers said there were inconsistencies between the newly minted doctrine on how to wage war and current practice. Army brigades in Iraq have too few combat engineers to support civil programs, they said. Also, they added, the Army does not promote officers who advise the Iraqi and Afghan security forces as readily as battalion staff officers and needs to improve their training. Some Army officers have also questioned whether the development of the Army’s Future Combat System, a multibillion-dollar program in which air and unmanned ground sensors will be networked with armored vehicles so that soldiers can attack targets from a safe distance, is consistent with this new vision of war.”

Tom Barnett likes sports analogies. He compares intervention operations to game with two halves. The first half is the kinetic military operation that “wins the war.” The second half is the nation-building operation that “secures the peace.” Tom’s point that the U.S. is great at conducting first half operations but unprepared to conduct second half operations was unfortunately demonstrated in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The American military’s difficulty in securing Iraq has led to much soul-searching within the armed forces on how to prepare for future conflicts. Col. H. R. McMaster of the Army, who commanded the successful effort in 2005 to secure the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, asserts in a new article that an exaggerated faith in military technology and a corresponding undervaluation of political and military measures to secure the peace undermined American efforts in Iraq. ‘Self-delusion about the character of future conflict weakened U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq,’ he wrote in Survival, a journal published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Colonel McMaster added in the article that the Army ‘is finding it difficult to cut completely loose from years of wrongheaded thinking,’ noting that assumptions that high-technology systems will provide the American military with ‘dominant knowledge’ of the battlefield has formed much of the justification for the Army program to build the Future Combat System.”

I am, of course, interested in this new direction for the military because it goes hand-in-hand with the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ approach for helping post-conflict nations rebuild. As I repeatedly stress, development and security must be pursued simultaneously. The new doctrine should help bring greater understanding to this connection.

“General Caldwell said the manual would influence Army education and training by stressing the sort of skills that are needed to bring stability to conflict-ridden states with weak governments. ‘There will be people who naturally will say, “If I can do high-end offense and defense, I can do any lesser kind of operations,”‘ he said. ‘What we have found through seven years is that is not the case.'”

This comes as no surprise to Bradd Hayes, Enterra Solutions’ Senior Director for Communications and Research. In 1997, he and a colleague, Jeffrey Sands, while professors at the Naval War College, wrote a book [Doing WIndows: Non-traditional Military Responses to Complex Emergencies] they predicted that nation-building would become an important military mission. They wrote:

“Since the end of the Cold War, many in the defense community have decried the military’s increasing role in [military interventions], claiming that such participation diverts the military’s focus from warfighting and lead to decreased unit readiness. We have learned, however, that when one lives in a glass house, one eventually ends up ‘doing windows’ (i.e., the dirty, labor-intensive jobs that must be done but no one wants to perform). … Like waves on the ocean, complex emergencies continue to appear on the horizon, threatening to slam against the cliffs of international stability. … [Hence], the military is likely to continue its involvement in such operations.”

They went on to detail many of the roles that have now become doctrine in the new manual a decade later; but better late than never. Gordon concludes:

“Some steps to improve the Army’s abilities in these areas are already under way, [General Caldwell] asserted. By way of example, changes are being made in the way combat engineers are assigned, to give commanders more flexibility. Some of the Army’s up-and-coming officers, however, say much more needs to be done, including attracting more officers to disciplines that the manual says are so necessary, like advising foreign security forces and assisting with civil affairs. ‘The parts of the Army closest to the battlefield have adapted, including tactics and doctrine,’ said Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who wrote a widely circulated article criticizing how the generals fought the Iraq war. ‘However, the institutional Army, to include our organizational designs and our personnel system, is essentially the same as before 9/11.’ He added: ‘The most important tasks we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan are building host-nation institutions, including security forces and governance. We need to attract the very best officers into these specialties to be successful at these tasks.'”

I agree that capacity building is critical for getting post-conflict nations back on their feet and headed in the right relation. There is still much to be worked out in how the military deals with “first half” and “second half” operations, but the new manual is a good start.

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