2008/08/21

A strategic Mobile Defense equivalent for COIN

I read Manstein's "Verlorene Siege" recently. He's recognized as one of the greatest generals of WW2 and wrote that book in the 50's.

One of the interesting parts of that book was a repeated side-note; an accusation at WW2 generals that they failed to break the trench war pattern by voluntarily sacrifice ground to resume mobile warfare once the enemy advances into the widened neutral ground.
That fits pretty well to his WW2 operational concept "Schlagen aus der Nachhand" (Mobile Defense) which allowed the enemy to go beyond the Clausewitzian "Kulminationspunkt" (culminating point of attack) before a decisive counter-attack destroys the attacking armies.
It requires a great deal of patience, discipline and military understanding by the politicians (Hitler most often lacked that) to allow the generals to use such a devastatingly effective operational plan.

I believe that I found a modern-time parallel for COIN.
The low level of Guerrilla combat in Iraq seems to me to be at least in part due to the overwhelming combat effectiveness of the occupation forces. The deterrence is so strong that the classic Maoist Guerilla warfare stage of open confrontation was never really attempted. There were some major fights as in Fallujah, but those were in their size rather reminiscent of the numerous combat actions in Vietnam than Vietcong's all-out Tet offensive or Castro's drive to Havanna.

The parallel is probably not yet clear: Imagine the counter-Guerilla parties would be able to provoke a general, decisive uprising that could be defeated conventionally and decisively.
The Vietcong didn't recover from the Tet offensive - regular Northern Vietnamese troops did most of the fighting afterwards.

To provoke such a large-scale open uprising would require less, not more military power in the country (but availability of quick strategic reinforcements).
The counter-Guerilla forces would need to give up some strength and ground first and to deceive the Guerillas about the relative physical and morale strengths.
That's certainly a risk; to give up some strength and ground to entice the enemy into an extremely vulnerable action to defeat him decisively.

To give provoke a risky Guerilla offensive by intentionally giving up some control and strength could be a counter-Guerilla strategy, resembling the extremely demanding operational concept of mobile defense / "Schlagen aus der Nachhand".
It might work in Afghanistan.

Sven Ortmann

8 comments:

  1. Well you mentioned TET. A tactical defeat for North Vietnam but a strategic victory. Thanks to the media. Now let´s transfer this into Afghanistan-and the situation has happened before(not willingly though). NATO and ANA let the Taliban seize ground on their purpose to trick them into open warfare. Due to the secretness(as we all know Taliban read SpiegelOnline too) the Western world does not know that trading ground was the NATO strategy. So after 300-500 fighters have been killed and the ground retaken, the press will be full of reports that the Taliban feel so strong and reconstituted again to wage offensive actions against seemingly weak NATO/ANA forces. A broad discussion(if any) on the sense of commitment to the mission will be the outcome. PR victory for the Taliban.
    I like the idea on operational level...but I doubt that it can be sold to the media and therefore to the people nowadays.

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  2. An interesting idea. I would certainly like to hear more about it when you flesh your ideas out a bit more.

    However, I am not sure if such a thing (racking up enemy bodycounts)can totally defeat a guerilla movement. Look at the Canadian experience in Kandahar, specifically OP MEDUSA (Fall 2006)where a similar idea was employed (although you may care to differ about this). Taliban soldiers were enticed into the open in Panjwaii and were subsequently destroyed by conventional means. Yet, despite killing so many Taliban, the insurgency remains. At least that is my interpretation.

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  3. Well, South Vietnam lost afterwards not to Vietcong, but to the NVA. There's no such thing as NVA in the Afghanistan scenario (or no such thing like VC, depends on whether you equal Taleban with VC or NVA).

    The key in Afghanistan is to allow the Afghani Army to bear the burden. A very much decimated opponent would help it.

    There's another side-effect that I didn't mention in the article, because it's quit off-topic:

    I believe that the Western Forces in Afghanistan are the main recruitment argument of the Taleban. They wouldn't be able to replace high losses if they had no foreign infidels as opponents.

    And if we take the idea to its maximum; a temporary withdrawal would also test all those assumptions behind the Afghanistan mission:
    http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2008/04/reasoning-about-afghanistan-war.html

    I wrote this article at a time when the permanent demands for more troops (the most primitive imaginable reaction to military troubles) finally led to the planning of troops increases. Even if the idea is not the best, it should still remind readers that there's more than numbers - there's art of war, and it should be used.

    @tbird; it's not only about body count. A highly visible defeat, likely followed by a phase of general weakness, would also be a big hit on morale. It would also give several desirable messages to third parties. Like that no matter how much Taleban succeed, they'll be chased away anyway.

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  4. Sven,

    Thanks for replying to my comment.

    Regarding your strategy, I think recent experiences (or at least experiences as I perceive them) seem to go against your analysis. Everytime ISAF forces withdraw from an area the Taliban take it back and terrorize the locals; when we return we end up doing a lot of damage to both people and infrastructure; we withdraw again and the cycle continues.

    The point is that the locals become wary of ISAF ("they never stay and provide long term security"). Consequently, they either support the Taliban (either through terror or distrust of ISAF) or are neutralized in supporting us.

    I look forward to your reply of this critique.

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  5. well, the Canadians did already something like that; provoke conventional battles and the Taliban got beaten up badly. Problem; it wasn't decisive.

    The same problem is in your argument; you mention the tactical level, but my proposal was about the operational level.

    It's of course a risky plan (I would in fact see the most risk in politics like demolitionman mentioned, not local reactions) and could go wrong. Just like the simple "more troops" can fail.

    The plan itself is actually not that important - it's important to think more about the war, to use the art of war - and not just ask for reinforcements. That's what the Italians in Lybia 1940 did before their huge army there got beaten by a British crack armored corps equivalent. To just ask for more troops is not smart in itself, but standard political routine.
    Nobody in our capitals seems to encourage risk-taking and art of war publicly - they talk only about personnel numbers instead.

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  6. Sven,

    I've been mulling this in my head for a while now, and though I see possibilities in what you propose, I'm still unclear just how you see this concept working at the operational level. If I am not mistaken, you are proposing perhaps a single, decisive, campaign of annihilation? Would this be somewhat akin to how the Northern Alliance defeated the Taleban on the conventional battlefield in late 2001-early 2002, where Western intelligence officers and special operations forces provided critical support (and especially directing air support) to allied Afghan troops? In other words, by withdrawing Western forces (less said intelligence and SF troops), it could provoke a series of show-downs between Afghan Government and Taleban troops, with the former defeating the latter with the aid of Western (air, etc.) support?

    Best,

    Norfolk

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  7. The basic idea is to change the game to a more favorable rule set.

    The opponent would be enticed to behave more bold and aggressive and to expose himself. It can be smashed once vulnerable, and the body count and territorial gains would hopefully be less relevant than the morale and political effect.
    The message should be that the Taliban's fight is hopeless because they can be defeated at will - and will be defeated every time they approach power.

    This is a general idea, not a detailed operational plan. I can't tell how to pull it off exactly, but it would need to include some loss of territory and a temporarily reduced presence.

    The key is to make them believe that they're winning. The morale consequence of defeat depends on this.

    We are able to send 10,000-20,000 troops in very quickly if we prepare for it - even with heavy material in Kabul depots. We can also defeat them 2001 style.

    Any operational plan that turns this from an endless early stage guerrilla war into something with a potential lucky end deserves to be considered.

    I lost (if I ever had) my trust in the idea to build a civil society and effective state in the midst of a civil war. That's an absurd idea.
    We need to either leave AFG or defeat the Taleban - both won't be achieved by occupation & nourishing a corrupt puppet state.

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  8. I think that for Afganistan resistance (Taleban, more or less independent tribal leaders, narcodealers) this Mobile Defence is already lesson learnt. During some months since oct 2001 US units hunted for big enemy units. I think that they remember those B-52 siluettes very well. I'm sure that they understand this diception. Other question is how long they will wait before they start to gather bigger units after our departure. Maybe they just establish parallel hiararhy via targeted killinigs among collaborators, that gives good enought terror atmosphere. This can be done without large formations.

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