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Thread: A Strategic Question and Three Insights

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    Council Member Bob's World's Avatar
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    Default A Strategic Question and Three Insights

    Often, I find, when faced with difficult, often emotion-laced, problems, it is better to ask questions than it is to offer suggestions. To that end, the embedded slide is from a recent presentation I gave.

    In an age of strategic uncertainty, it is far too easy to rely heavily upon what one is very good at, or comfortable with. When one then designs their metrics around those "comfort programs" one can easily mislead one's self over time that doing something well -and locally suppressing the symptoms of a problem for some period of time in some discrete place in the process - is the same as doing good.

    But when one steps back and looks at the larger picture over a longer period of time, the flaws of this tactical logic become increasingly apparent.
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    Robert C. Jones
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    (Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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    Default Recipe for disaster?

    Robert,

    One acute observer of the US policy-making community in a book review noted:
    ...a US policy community and military who have repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan the mistakes made in Vietnam. These include a failure by the military to scope out the nature of the threats they are facing, and the propensity of the policy community to either ignore or shoot the bearer of unwelcome tidings.....
    Does anyone within this community want to ask themselves this question, let alone commit it to paper?

    One could argue that the ability of the policy-maker to directly observe and control the use of military force makes questioning harder. Add in embedded media and the rest that can enable the domestic public to watch.

    It would be very painful for the US military and beyond to acknowledge that today it has repeated the tactical brilliance of WW2 Germany (notably the army and air force), so misunderstanding the broader issues involved in war.

    Who would have thought when the USA exited South Vietnam, with much anguish, embarrassment and pain that a united Vietnam has such close, friendly relations just as it 'pivots' back to Asia?

    SWC has debated military adaptation many times, plus a few times for non-military partners. We need A2A: ability to adapt.

    Do we recognise our opponents mistakes enough?

    Luckily I read your post and this evening a long review of Williamson Murray's 'Military Adaptation and War: With Fear of Change', by Ben Barry in Survival (December 2012-January 2013, catching up my pile of journals ).
    davidbfpo

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    Often, I find, when faced with difficult, often emotion-laced, problems, it is better to ask questions than it is to offer suggestions. To that end, the embedded slide is from a recent presentation I gave.

    In an age of strategic uncertainty, it is far too easy to rely heavily upon what one is very good at, or comfortable with. When one then designs their metrics around those "comfort programs" one can easily mislead one's self over time that doing something well -and locally suppressing the symptoms of a problem for some period of time in some discrete place in the process - is the same as doing good.

    But when one steps back and looks at the larger picture over a longer period of time, the flaws of this tactical logic become increasingly apparent.
    This is an interesting question, but one that basically compares apples with truck tires. Both Columbia and the Philippines are on an upward trend overall in many respects, but both still have serious problems (their problems, not ours, but we still share some common interests). Our support in both cases is helpful, but it far from being the decisive factor in sustaining the reduction of the violence and facilitating economic growth. As in most of these cases it appears electing the right leaders who actually convince the people they're acting in their interests had the most fundamental impact. However, we should appreciate that in both cases the insurgencies still exist and at any time an event could trigger them to flare up to their previous level of intensity.

    In Columbia and the Philippines our "assistance" was and remains appropriately limited, but this also implies we didn't embrace on a major social engineering project to remake these countries in our image (at least not in the 21st Century). Most importantly the threats in both countries were not a significant threat to the U.S. interests and their governments shared our concerns for the most part, so we could work together. There was no need to invade those countries and oust their governments. In other words we didn't disrupt the existing norms.

    The contrast with Iraq and Afghanistan is so stark it isn't worth highlighting the key differences since they are apparent. We were successful in both locations initially (so called decisive operations against our armed opponents and ousting the governments), but quickly started stumbling after this. We could argue the merits of invading Iraq to begin with, but in the end we have to accept our political masters will lead into wars of choice occasionally, and our job after debating the issue is to support the decision once made, so for now lets focus on that. Quite simply we failed to plan for and resource the consolidation phase (stability). The policy guidance we received once it was realized we were going to be there for a while consisted on unrealistic policy objectives. Finally, we refused to accept our role as an occupying power and gave the forces who eventually rise against us plenty freedom of movement.

    In short comparing our minimal role FID role in the Philippines and Columbia with our direct roles as an occupying power and major combat stability force in Afghanistan and Iraq isn't overly helpful. Furthermore, conducting FID like we did in the Philippines was never an option in Afghanistan or Iraq, so again why the comparison?

    Posted by David,
    ...a US policy community and military who have repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan the mistakes made in Vietnam. These include a failure by the military to scope out the nature of the threats they are facing, and the propensity of the policy community to either ignore or shoot the bearer of unwelcome tidings.....
    I have no idea who this policy observer was, but I think comparing whatever mistakes we made in Vietnam with Afghanistan and Iraq is a bit of stretch. Vietnam was very much about containing communist expansion as part of the Cold War. We were drug into that particular location based on a number factors that converged, and not least among them was the political situation on the home front that demanded politicians to be tough on communism.

    These were completely different wars. Afghanistan was a counter strike and an attempt to destroy our AQ adversaries. Iraq was presented as a preventative war, and an argument by some that it was somewhat tied to the war on terror. Our engagement in Vietnam on the other hand was much more complex.

    Despite the difference there are similarities:

    Both Vietnam and Iraq were wars of choice, arguably in hindsight driven by poor policy decisions.

    In Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Iraq (in that order), we allowed the adversary to find safe haven in a neighboring state.

    In all three we pursued unrealistic policy objectives tied to social and political engineering.

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    Trending toward strategic success in the Philippines? More like running in circles, I'd say.

    Either way, I'd agree with Bill's "apples and truck tires" comment. Providing assistance to an existing, functioning government with an existing, functioning armed force, either if neither government nor armed force is functioning ideally, is a fundamentally different enterprise from removing a government and attempting to install a new one.

    To me the problem here is less "relying on what we're good at" than selecting goals that require us to do things that we cannot do, no matter what tactics or strategies we adopt. We cannot build a nation. We cannot transform a bad government into a good one. We cannot "install" democracy or "good governance". We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's bung.

    "Winning" is achieving your goal, and the first step to winning is selecting reasonable and achievable goals. Starting out withe goals like "install democracy" or "fix the economy" is like stepping up to home plate with 2 strikes against you and no bat. Assigning a military force the mission of accomplishing these goals is like asking an engineer to perform brain surgery. Adopting goals that require us to embark on massive transformative social engineering missions is a one-way street to failure.
    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”

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    I too agree with much of what Bill and Dayuhan have provided in response to this question.

    Do the Philippines and Colombia have decades, or more, to go to get to a system of governance that fosters natural stability across their respective populaces? Absolutely.


    Can the US somehow "fix" their problems for them, or "defeat" the threats to the current system? No.

    But arguably the Iraq and Afghanistan the US first intervened in were no worse overall, and in some regards better, than the Colombia and Philippines we were invited to assist.
    Certainly the nature of the US response and resultant situations very much are "apples and truck tires."

    But is that primarily due to the differences in the situations or the differences in our approaches???\

    I will not name and cannot count the number of senior US officials who lobbied mightily to convert an OEF-Philippines "apple" into an OEF-Afghanistan "truck tire."

    I also agree that limiting ones objectives is crucial to ones ability to attaining the same (and in not creating a strategic disaster on accident by not understanding the very predictable 2nd and 3rd order effects of our actions).

    In many ways I think the strategic failure of Vietnam; and the looming strategic failures of Iraq and Afghanistan (the book is not closed on either, they could, with mighty course changes somehow avoid that fate), was not due to the "unwinnable" nature of the problems, but rather due to the unwinnable nature of our intervention and scope of our objectives. They unwinnable by design, not by nature.

    There are many now who clamor in the name of Transnational Organized Crime to turn US design for Mexico and Latin America writ large into a "truck tire." They rely heavily on the lessons learned in, and the capacity built for Iraq and Afghanistan to validate their arguments for bring that same kind of "success" to the problem sets there that we applied to problem sets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I predict the same outcome. Brilliant tactical effectiveness; Trillions of dollars spent; localized and temporary zones of suppressed "threat" activity; maximum scores across all of our very tactical and objective metrics we design to measure our success; - and a strategic mess worse that what we found left in our wake.

    For me the #1 planning criteria has to be absolute and uncompromising respect for the host nation's sovereignty and legitimacy. Not as we legally define it. Not as we perceive it. But as the host nation legally defines it and as their diverse populaces perceive it.

    #2 is narrowly limiting our objectives within the context of those left and right limits drawn for us by the host.

    #3 (but done first) is to ask first what it is we can change about ourselves to mitigate the problem that is compelling us to believe we must intervene to help change some other. Often this only requires a change of the tactics of our foreign policy rather than a change of the goals of our foreign policy. A simple updating for the world we actually live in today, rather the world we lived in when said approaches were first designed. For the CTOC issue it demands a hard assessment of domestic policies designed by and for ourselves, but with major negative impacts on others (that are creating effects growing to a scope that now begins to threaten us).

    We have a Powell Doctrine that lays out good considerations prior to committing to war; we probably need a similar doctrine of considerations prior to committing to any type of foreign manipulation/intervention in general. One that takes into account the realities of the relative shift of power between governments and populations created by modern information technologies.
    Robert C. Jones
    Intellectus Supra Scientia
    (Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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    Council Member Bob's World's Avatar
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    Also, as an aside, it was pointed out to me that there is some question as to if the quote I attribute to Sun Tzu is actually his. Many sources attribute this to him, but it is not in "The Art of War."

    I really like the quote and believe it is an important "truth" - but where did it really come from?
    Robert C. Jones
    Intellectus Supra Scientia
    (Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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    Default Learning from an older empire?

    As is the SWC way, you look at something different and find an item you missed. In this case the comments on a SWJ article on Vietnam:http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/pri...rimary-sources

    Amidst was this comment, which fits here:
    No question the British Military ran solid counter-insurgent operations from the start. Done well, this will indeed suppress virtually any insurgency. We've seen this most recently in Sri Lanka, and time and again in recent years in Algeria and the Philippines. None of those cited examples, however are resolved like Malaya is. Dare to ponder why.

    The British realized that the cost of their pre-WWII model of colonial control exceeded the benefits in the post-WWII environment; so they gave up on that political construct and adopted a new one that shifted their role from one of master and protector to that of mentor and protector. Big difference. IMO it is this sea change of political / policy context that is critical.

    For the US during the Cold War, and now during what we (ridiculously IMO)call the "War against al-Qa'ida" we still cling to a perspective that is far too controlling in nature and that also has costs (and higher order effects in terms of trans-national terrorism) that far exceed the benefits. We have not yet learned the lessons that the British learned before us (at least judging by the recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism).

    School is in session, however, so we still have time to learn before the bell rings.
    davidbfpo

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    For me the #1 planning criteria has to be absolute and uncompromising respect for the host nation's sovereignty and legitimacy. Not as we legally define it. Not as we perceive it. But as the host nation legally defines it and as their diverse populaces perceive it.
    That has to start at the policy level, it must be said. If our policymakers, in their distinctly finite wisdom, decide that it is necessary for us to remove a government and install a new one, or to remodel a nation in an image that will allow us to describe ourselves to ourselves as a benevolent belligerent, that planning criterion goes out the window. These goals are fundamentally incompatible with host nation sovereignty.
    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”

    H.L. Mencken

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    Council Member TheCurmudgeon's Avatar
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    Although I mostly agree with your analysis, there are just a couple of issues I have.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    In many ways I think the strategic failure of Vietnam; and the looming strategic failures of Iraq and Afghanistan (the book is not closed on either, they could, with mighty course changes somehow avoid that fate), was not due to the "unwinnable" nature of the problems, but rather due to the unwinnable nature of our intervention and scope of our objectives. They unwinnable by design, not by nature.
    I think you are arguing to limit the scope and objectives of the intervention. In that case I agree with you. If you are arguing that a different design would have created democracy in Vietnam or Afghanistan, then I have issues.



    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    For me the #1 planning criteria has to be absolute and uncompromising respect for the host nation's sovereignty and legitimacy. Not as we legally define it. Not as we perceive it. But as the host nation legally defines it and as their diverse populaces perceive it.
    Yes and no. Are you arguing that if we had left the Government of South Vietnam run the country and us just get involved in the war, I am not sure the outcome would have been different.

    In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, where you effectively destroy the government, you will have to decide whose sovereignty you are going to recognize. So while I understand the sentiment, I am not sure this is always possible.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    #2 is narrowly limiting our objectives within the context of those left and right limits drawn for us by the host.
    Again, regime change doesn't allow for this.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    #3 (but done first) is to ask first what it is we can change about ourselves to mitigate the problem that is compelling us to believe we must intervene to help change some other. Often this only requires a change of the tactics of our foreign policy rather than a change of the goals of our foreign policy. A simple updating for the world we actually live in today, rather the world we lived in when said approaches were first designed. For the CTOC issue it demands a hard assessment of domestic policies designed by and for ourselves, but with major negative impacts on others (that are creating effects growing to a scope that now begins to threaten us).
    This is an interesting way to solve a problem, lower your expectations.

    All kidding aside, I wish it was that easy.

    In my mind there are two big difference between the two situations. The first is time. We have been involved in South American for a long time. I remember projects down there in the early 1980's.That is over thirty years ago.The second is exactly what you describe although I don't think it matters for the reasons you do. We never attempted to replace the entire government of either of those two countries (overtly anyway) and therefore we had a sovereign with whom to deal with. Our scope was limited in accordance to terms worked out by the two of us (with some incentives by us to get involved in the first place). But I don't think that is what turned these countries around. They did it on their own. And perhaps five years from now all that work will have gone down the tubes. And perhaps twenty years from now, of the three countries that made up the former Iraq, Kurdistan will be a democracy. It is a little early to declare victory or defeat if we are trying to compare these situations.

    Ultimately I have to agree with Bill - I don't know if it is wise to compare these two situations to try to draw lessons from them They are too divergent.
    Last edited by TheCurmudgeon; 08-02-2013 at 05:47 PM.
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    Council Member Bob's World's Avatar
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    You can't just cherry pick some point where we have already committed ourselves to a strategically unachievable situation (what we have done to that point and what we set as our measure of success) and say, no, you can't design this problem for success.

    They key is to design for success from the very beginning. Before the problem is ever tossed to the military to "solve." Equally, the military needs to move beyond current doctrine that sees all conflicts in terms of some threat to defeat and some government to either remove or preserve at the same time. For populace-based conflicts the real road to a better place for the "host" country is a solution that increases the total % of the populace who feel like they have reasonable opportunity for success in the emerging system. For the US, success is in creating conditions that allow us to effectively service and exercise our interests in a manner that is not perceived as excessive or inappropriate by this same population. Old standards established by and for colonial and containment operations of eras past simply don't stand up to the conditions of the emerging environment.

    Equally important to remember is that all four of the conflicts I mention were conflicts of choice for the US. We chose to go there, we chose the political goals we hoped to achieve, and we chose the approaches of governance, development and security we ultimately employed.

    Certainly Vietnam would have become a unified state with a communist government if we would have allowed events to follow the course created by the people who actually lived there. We feared that outcome (domino theory) so acted to prevent it. To obstruct self-determination for others in order to prevent a larger regional outcome that we saw as detrimental to our interests. But we now know that Vietnam feared an expansion of Chinese influence into SEA even more than we did. We over-emphasized the ideology employed to throw off French colonialism and did not recognize that a self-determined, communist Vietnam ally would serve us far better than an externally contrived solution forced upon the people of the region by US military power. Ditto in Afghanistan. We failed to learn the strategic lesson of Vietnam, but wrote reams and reams on the tactical lessons. Good tactics cannot overcome bad strategy.

    As to apples, oranges, etc; all of four of these situations are more alike than different at a fundamental level. Clearly each is very unique in the details of culture, history, politics, geography that should contribute to our decision to intervene or not, how to intervene if we do, to what ends and what approaches to employ to achieve those ends.

    My point is that because we do not have a good, accepted body of work on how to think about these situations at a fundamental level we tend to make poor decisions up front, before the first troop is ever deployed.
    Robert C. Jones
    Intellectus Supra Scientia
    (Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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    Council Member TheCurmudgeon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    Certainly Vietnam would have become a unified state with a communist government if we would have allowed events to follow the course created by the people who actually lived there. We feared that outcome (domino theory) so acted to prevent it. To obstruct self-determination for others in order to prevent a larger regional outcome that we saw as detrimental to our interests. But we now know that Vietnam feared an expansion of Chinese influence into SEA even more than we did. We over-emphasized the ideology employed to throw off French colonialism and did not recognize that a self-determined, communist Vietnam ally would serve us far better than an externally contrived solution forced upon the people of the region by US military power. Ditto in Afghanistan. We failed to learn the strategic lesson of Vietnam, but wrote reams and reams on the tactical lessons. Good tactics cannot overcome bad strategy.
    I agree. In fact I could not agree more. For whatever institutional reason, American military leaders like to pretend that conflict takes place in isolation of other events. Why the people are at war is not relevant to how to conduct the war. Tactics are independent of policy objectives. What comes before and even what comes after is almost as irrelevant.

    At what point do military leaders tell politicians that their policy objectives are unrealistic? It seems that the military have created a clear line between war and policy. We like them over there and us over here. Perhaps that is the scariest thing about COIN - it takes the military way out of their comfort zone.
    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    As to apples, oranges, etc; all of four of these situations are more alike than different at a fundamental level. Clearly each is very unique in the details of culture, history, politics, geography that should contribute to our decision to intervene or not, how to intervene if we do, to what ends and what approaches to employ to achieve those ends.
    I don't think they are the same. Iraq and Afghanistan were Democratization/Nation Building; Philippines is an separatist insurgency; Columbia is a criminal/ideological insurgency. Therefore how to address them, from the beginning, should be different. They are different wars all together.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    My point is that because we do not have a good, accepted body of work on how to think about these situations at a fundamental level we tend to make poor decisions up front, before the first troop is ever deployed.
    Again, I could not agree more. But without a change in corporate culture, even if you write it, no one will read it.
    Last edited by TheCurmudgeon; 08-09-2013 at 04:18 PM.
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    Posted by Bob's World

    You can't just cherry pick some point where we have already committed ourselves to a strategically unachievable situation (what we have done to that point and what we set as our measure of success) and say, no, you can't design this problem for success.

    They key is to design for success from the very beginning. Before the problem is ever tossed to the military to "solve."
    Strongly agree, and it seems we're using it now to almost re-engineer our strategy without changing the ends. That will fail, and it will be blamed on design. Military planning processes work when you have good planners, not when you have poor planners or worse yet poor policies. We always want to blame the process, that is the wrong target.

    Certainly Vietnam would have become a unified state with a communist government if we would have allowed events to follow the course created by the people who actually lived there. We feared that outcome (domino theory) so acted to prevent it.
    Not open up another debate on Vietnam at this time, but the domino theory wasn't unfounded. For different reasons Laos and Cambodia fell under communist rule, and Thailand faced a communist insurgency that was defeated. Our design for containing communism was arguably wrong. Additionally, China was the smaller player, the USSR provided the bulk of support to North Vietnam.

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    Default Capacity building's first appearance in doctrine

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Moore View Post
    Posted by Bob's World



    Strongly agree, and it seems we're using it now to almost re-engineer our strategy without changing the ends. That will fail, and it will be blamed on design. Military planning processes work when you have good planners, not when you have poor planners or worse yet poor policies. We always want to blame the process, that is the wrong target.



    Not open up another debate on Vietnam at this time, but the domino theory wasn't unfounded. For different reasons Laos and Cambodia fell under communist rule, and Thailand faced a communist insurgency that was defeated. Our design for containing communism was arguably wrong. Additionally, China was the smaller player, the USSR provided the bulk of support to North Vietnam.
    @ Bill or others - I've asked this a couple of times before, but when did capacity building show up doctrinally? This is related to the period right after the end of the cold war and related to the UN and its work, isn't it? When did the military first start using the term?
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    Council Member Bob's World's Avatar
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    Not open up another debate on Vietnam at this time, but the domino theory wasn't unfounded. For different reasons Laos and Cambodia fell under communist rule, and Thailand faced a communist insurgency that was defeated. Our design for containing communism was arguably wrong. Additionally, China was the smaller player, the USSR provided the bulk of support to North Vietnam.
    I agree the domino theory was well founded, but equally I believe the effect of the expansion of "communist" influence in that region was grossly exaggerated. Seriously, with your UW hat on, what other ideology could more effectively rally the energy of peasant farmers tired of being forced to a life of working in poverty the land of some distant, entitled land owner?? The nature of Ideology does not create the problem, in large part the nature of the problem picks the ideology. We would do well to remember this as we continue to sweat over employment of an Islamic based ideology to motivate Sunni Muslims to rally to coerce change of the local and distant systems of governance controlling their lives.

    I suspect the Vietnamese were far more concerned about China's designs on their newly liberated territory than we were. Working with the Russians was simply smart business on their part. After all, we weren't helping them, so who else to turn to both force the US to stop meddling in Vietnamese sovereignty AND to protect that same sovereignty from Chinese expansion??

    when did capacity building show up doctrinally?
    Not sure when it showed up, but it did gain a great deal of traction around 2004/5. We had the success of the "Basilan Model" from Dave Maxwell's great efforts there working with the Philippine military being held out as a better way to apply US support to these types of situations in sharp contrast to what was happening at that time in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq insurgency was in full swing, and the US backed Constitution forming a Northern Alliance monopoly with the associated election of Karzai to lead it was moving the ousted Taliban to revolutionary action to challenge that intolerable condition in Afghanistan. (our actions to counter that revolution in Afghanistan quickly began to grow the parallel resistance insurgency that has occupied much of our energy there since).

    I recall specifically "capacity building" becoming a buzz term, and us having to do a bit of research to figure out what exactly the difference was between "capacity" and "capability."
    Robert C. Jones
    Intellectus Supra Scientia
    (Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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