Christopher Paparone has written extensively about the conceptual relationships between alternative philosophies of science and the new military planning process called Operational Design (this is his first post that got my attention, and the four that comprise his current discussion on Design). He uses the philosophical work of Parmenides and Heraclitus to illustrate different beliefs about ontology (what is the nature of reality?) and epistemology (what is the nature of our knowledge of reality?) in military organizations. Paparone illustrates that classic military planning is based on the Parmenidian tradition, which accepts the existence of a stable objective reality and posits the formation of scientific, accurate knowledge that provides ‘truth’ about the real world. Both Parmenidian philosophy and conventional military science are consistent with the modern positivist scientific tradition borne out of the Enlightenment and guided by human reason.

Paparone argues that Operational Design rejects a positivist Parmenidian philosophy of science. Instead, Design is consistent with the pre-Socratic philosophy of Heraclitus, who emphasizes that the existence of the world is constantly in flux and that our knowledge of it is only transitory and can never be complete. Modern-day postpositivist followers of the Heraclitian tradition argue that the progress offered by Enlightenment science is impossible and that human reason can never reach an objective perspective of the entire world.

On this basis, Paparone suggests that the discussion of Operational Design in FM 5-0 is incorrect because it posits a Parmenidian goal similar to Enlightenment science. FM 5-0 and scholars at the School of Advanced Military Studies repeatedly state that ‘understanding’ is the purpose of Design.[1] However, Paparone argues that ‘understanding’ is the wrong way to think about Design because it violates Heraclitean assumptions about the nature of reality and our knowledge of it. ‘Understanding’ a complex reality is impossible in the Heraclitean tradition because it implies that we can overcome the perceptual limitations of subjectivity. He makes his objections most clear in a footnote in his latest SWJ piece:

Design makes no such assertion that [understanding] is even remotely possible when facing wicked, high VUCA situations. Hence, the designer may expose the fallacy of this assertion, for example, by asking complexity scientists or chaos theorists to enter the conversation in order to poke ontological and epistemological holes into the doctrinal assertion. (Paparone, p. 7, fn. 25)

Thus, Paparone is challenging the SAMS-based conception of Design by suggesting it falsely seeks a modern, positivist form of knowledge (epistemology) that is inconsistent with a postmodern and postpositivist view of reality (ontology). In philosophy of science terms, Paparone is critiquing Design for its inconsistent commitments to the Parmenidian tradition and ‘positivist’ philosophy of science. Instead, Design ought to fully embrace Heraclitian ‘postpositivist’ positions that recognize the limitations of human knowledge.

However, I want to argue that ‘understanding’ is actually consistent with Heraclitus and a postpositivist epistemology. In social science, ‘understanding’ is often contrasted with ‘explanation’, the scientific goal of positivist Enlightenment science. In striving for explanation, scholars seek to discover law-like generalizations that apply to all phenomenon. Deriving explanatory relationships between independent and dependent variables has been the hallmark of behavioralism in American social science, and was especially prevalent in American political science up until the 1980s. Thus, behavioralists assume that all human action is an unmediated response to external stimuli – scientific explanations identify which stimuli universally cause responses by human beings.

However, other scholars have rejected the behavioralist explanatory model of science in favor of interpretivism, which posits that social actors react differently to external observations depending on how they subjectively assign meaning to them. Because social actors interpret observations differently, they do not respond to external stimuli similarly. This means that the law-like generalizations of behavioralism and Enlightenment positivism are impossible to make about social behavior. Instead, interpretivists seek an understanding (verstehen) of the subjective perceptions of social actors that lead them to take intended actions. As a scientific purpose, understanding was pursued first by German sociologists such as Max Weber and Georg Simmel, who rejected positivist modernism’s faith in its ability to ‘objectively explain’ the real world. Thus, interpretivists begin from the assumption that their own knowledge is limited and cannot be complete – social scientific knowledge can only inform us as to how other actors interpret events around them.

If interpretivism is an idea of science that privileges ‘understanding’, then there is no reason why it cannot be the basis for critical thinking and reflective learning. Although Paparone says that ‘understanding’ lies in the Parmenidian tradition, its use by German sociologists who reject modern positivist science suggests its approach to knowledge and epistemology compatible with Heraclitus. Thus, when Paparone argues that commanders should foster a critical dialogue to appreciate reality, developing this ‘appropriate’ perception requires interaction with every other relevant operational actor to understand their perception of reality. Understanding is epistemologically consistent with appreciation, and both derive from a realization of the incompleteness of subjective human knowledge.

However, this does not mean that the Parmenidian tradition has no place in Design methodology. Military organizations still have to plan detailed actions to implement a concept of operations. Thus, there may still be a place for mission analysis in the later stages of the military planning process. And, military organizations must still recognize that there is an objective ‘real world’ separate from its corporate existence. In counterinsurgency, this refers to the population, its perceptions, and the coercive capabilities of local combatants. Therefore, Operational Design should not embrace a postpositivist ontology that assumes that existence itself is completely subjective, and that no objective reality exists outside our perceptions. Although perceptions of reality and the material objects within it may exist in constant flux, they still exist ‘outside’ of us when they are shared by many people. Perceptions can be an objective social fact, although one that can change rapidly with new events that radically alter relationships in a complex society.

On this basis, Operational Design adopts a mix of philosophy science assumptions. It begins with a positivist, Parmenidian ontology that recognizes the existence of ‘real’ things external to ourselves, things like ideas, perceptions, material objects, coercive force. We ‘positively’ have to interact with those things to change them to some desired outcome. However, we do not necessarily know the relationship between those things. We can never objectively see all of them and the totality to which they each contribute, preventing us from knowing how to precisely cause a desired outcome. Instead, we can only learn to view reality from the subjective perspectives of actors in those relationships through critical dialogue with them and act with those perspectives and the expectations held by other relevant actors in the world. This type of Design model represents a Heraclitian, or postpositivist epistemology, that accepts the limits of our knowledge and the need to reflexively and critically learn about the perspectives of others to improve it. We appreciate the world only by understanding different perspectives of it by others who live in it. And, because random events may alter the interpretive process of other actors, the commander must constantly learn about how the emergence of new events (including his own actions against them) alter and create new perceptions of reality. Thus, critical reflexivity functions as the concept that unites a positive ontology and a postpositivist epistemology and mediates our knowledge of the world and our actions within it.

Paparone’s four-part series is an excellent illustration of the philosophical basis of Operational Design, and he presciently holds much promise for a reinvigorated military profession that investigates the philosophical considerations of warfighting. But his criticism displays a postpositivist overreliance on Heraclitus and leaves no room for any sort of Parminidian recognition of reality, our social relationship to it, and our ability to continuously learn and adapt to it. A sociologically informed approach to Operational Art does incorporate Parmenides through ontology, and combined with Herclitian epistemology, it suggests all action into the world must be mediated through a critically reflexive of learning from those actions to make better future ones.

[1]Understanding is also prevalent in other military organizations such as Human Terrain System, whose mission statement is “[t]o provide deployed commanders with the relevant socio-cultural understanding necessary to meet their operational requirements.”

This week I will pick up Woodward’s new book about the strategic deliberations of the Obama administration regarding Afghanistan. I’m very interested in reading the terms sheet written by Obama that dictated American strategy, goals, and objectives. The tension between doing counterinsurgency operations but explictly rejecting a full-scale nation building strategy will be what to look for.

However, I realized last night that Robert Kaplan is indeed right and that geography does matter. Particularly when performing counterinsurgency operations in a landlocked country. This makes logistical capabilities dependent on a neighboring country, and pissing them off would probably be a bad idea.

This is precisely the situation we have in Afghanistan. And for all of the emphasis we have on changing Pakistani behavior to eliminate Taliban safe havens and support, counterterrorism air strikes across the border in Pakistan in pursuit of those same adversaries has severely jeopardized our relationship with them. Suddenly, the Pakistanis want to show how dependent we are on them to logistically supply manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operations. It is really any coincidence that tankers stuck at the border by the Pakistani state were hit by the Taliban?

Ruthlessly pursuing counterterrorism in one country to support counterinsurgency in a neighboring one means we should be willing to tolerate political blowback when our CT ops kill the wrong people. The more dependent we are on the former to supply operations in the latter, the greater the strategic contradiction in pursuing both politics.

I remember I said something awhile ago about drone and helicopter strikes in Pakistan as an undeclared war. Here’s their reaction:

Wednesday’s helicopter incursion appeared to have crossed a line for the Pakistanis that “could lead to some very serious consequences,” a senior Pakistani military officer said. The Americans, he said, “underestimate the reaction” to something that “amounts to no more and no less than attacking the Pakistani army.”

This has always been the strategic limitation of airpower counterterrorism, Exum and Kilcullen always warned against it.

The Pakistanis said that after U.S. helicopters “engaged through cannon fire” with the post, the soldiers fired warning shots with their rifles. The helicopters responded with two missiles that destroyed the post, killing three soldiers and wounding the rest.

Within hours, Pakistan had ordered the nearby border crossing at Torkham closed and NATO supply trucks were idling there, according to transporters stuck at the pass and officials in the region. The pass, which lies north of Peshawar, is the main entry point for U.S. and NATO fuel and supplies transported from the Pakistani port of Karachi over land into Afghanistan.

Our problem is our inability to identify the enemy and thus confuse it with ‘allied’ troops. When insurgents are supported by government forces, we shouldn’t be surprised when we accidently kill the latter while pursuing the former.

*changed the original title because I forgot about Yemen.

NYT says that NATO has launched Operation Dragon Strike across Khandahar, Zhari, and Panjwayi districts. Dragon Strike comes after weeks of ‘shaping operations’, comprising development/civil affairs missions combined with direct action raids on insurgent leadership and personnel. Dragon Strike appears to be a ‘decisive operation’ intended to displace insurgents across Western Kandahar. It comes only after all reinforcements are available to maneuver synchronically to disrupt the insurgency and extend political-social stability. If the mid-level Taliban and criminal elements are already ‘weakened’ and ‘demoralized’ by raids and detentions, then West Kandahar should be ripe for an operational maneuver that applies counterinsurgency principles to create social and political some space for emergence of local governing institutions.

This begs the obvious question about those institutions, their tendency for corruption and illegitimacy, and the strategic contradictions involved in supporting state institutions through counterinsurgency operations. As mentioned earlier, our relationship with the Afghans (to some degree) constitutes the ‘culture of corruption’ that appears to be embedded in their politics. Counterinsurgency is great operationally but won’t resolve the major strategic contradictions undermining the ‘space’ for the development of local institutions. As long as other power relationships continue, like those fostered by other agencies and NGOs through corruption and dependency, that political space remains limited.

Aspects of the Afghan war now resemble the Iraq war in summer 2007, when Operation Phantom Strike was launched to stability in the major population belts around Baghdad and across central Iraq (see Kim Kagan’s excellent book on this). Dragon Strike seems to be evidence that the campaign structure of full-spectrum operations has retained some consistency, with shaping and decisive operations that should be followed by sustaining operations. The length of time for deployment of all units into shaping operations determines the timetable to synchronize decisive clearing operations, and it has been much longer in southern Afghanistan in 2010 (11 months) compared to Iraq in 2007 (8 months).

However, in shifting to full-spectrum operations, the operational pattern of today’s counterinsurgency appears to have changed from its classical version: Instead of ‘clear, hold, and build’, modern COIN is ‘shape, clear decisively, and sustain’. The last step (if the counterinsurgents get there), seems to be when the political strategy will always be tested – and that’s when the model begins to fail. Absent a political settlement and no gradual improvement by institutions fostered by diplomatic and developmental support, then the new Operational Art can fail to be enough to achieve the strategic goal – the creation of local institutions that enforce legitimate order.

Little theory has been devoted to understanding how that happens, and as well as the limits of military action (counterinsurgency) on making possible institutional public space and socioeconomic development. This is where political operational and strategic art is lacking, and in its absence, the associated costs may be perceived to be higher than any military success. From a sociological perspective, the question becomes ‘how do we synthesize and share an understanding of social reality with local stakeholders that accounts for their own perceptions and ‘rational’ mindset’? Unless the strategic environment is framed in such a way to ensure that we all see strategic problems the same way, any attempt to transform the social and political environment from instability to stability through military operational solutions will not be sufficient. Operational successes are then not fulfilled by strategic ones, which currently explains the political impasse in Iraq. For all the Afghan Surge’s potential successes, it will likely suffer the same strategic pitfalls.

It’s time to move beyond operational art and begin thinking about state building and the constitution of bureaucratic identities as the new strategic art.

James Russell writes a fantastic article that shows how the military framed the war in Anbar and Ninewa provinces in Iraq as law-enforcement operations and developed new tactics to learn about the local environment. These included a census, vehicle registration, and the distribution of humanitarian aid to households. At the staff and commander levels, intelligence was linked directly to operations and battalions adopted a decentralized command structure. Once the conflict was reframed, a new set of SOPs were generated that supported the long-term of goal of understanding the perspective of the people and the social relationships and networks connecting them and the insurgency:

“The standing operating procedure (SOP) for the unit typically focused on: (1) Planning and establishing the COP; (2) Ensuring route security so each outpost could be kept resupplied; (3) Clearing operations after the COP had been stood up to clear IEDs and find weapons caches; and (4) Census patrols to follow after the clearing operations to consolidate the position and gradually work its way into the human terrain of the area – the real target of MacFarland’s campaign.” (609)

Not only does Russell illustrate how the military organically innovated new operational practices, he also throws cold water on Lyall and Wilson, who argue more mechanized counterinsurgency forces are more likely to be starved of information because of minimal social interaction with the people:

1–37 deployed into Ramadi as an armored battalion – a legacy unit organized and equipped for conventionally oriented fire-and-maneuver missions. The unit demonstrated significant adaptive flexibility and built what can only be described as sophisticated and systems-oriented COIN capacities in executing its part of MacFarland’s campaign to retake Ramadi. While the Army is particularly noted for a rigid command hierarchy and a campaign-style approach to warfare, this unit clearly demonstrated its capacity for learning and searched for optimal solutions, accepted disparate sources of information, and constantly sought to build its understanding of the operational
environment. (610)

However, Russell describe how innovation involves abandoning past operational practices and the realization that existing practices are not fulfilling strategic objectives. Learning occurs both inside and outside of military units – civilians have to also learn what interactive practices can lead to cooperation with counterinsurgents. In other words, Russell doesn’t explain how both counterinsurgents and civilians develop a common understanding and perspective of each other within the war. And: what about the elite level interaction between American forces and the Iraqis, particularly those who led Iraqi security forces and the Awakening. How did the operational and tactical innovations developed by the military contribute to making that cooperation possible? This is when our innovation creates symbiotic and cooperative innovation amongst them – how can we explain their collaborative innovation? And how did they develop an intersubjective understanding of the war at that moment? A social constructivist approach could answer all of these questions.

I missed Dexter Filkins’ latest piece):

It’s not as if the Americans and their NATO partners don’t know who the corrupt Afghans are. American officers and anti-corruption teams have drawn up intricate charts outlining the criminal syndicates that entwine the Afghan business and political elites. They’ve even given the charts a name: “Malign Actor Networks.” A k a MAN.

Looking at some of these charts—with their crisscrossed lines connecting politicians, drug traffickers and insurgents — it’s easy to conclude that this country is ruled neither by the government, nor NATO, nor the Taliban, but by the MAN.

It turns out, of course, that some of the same “malign actors” the diplomats and officers are railing against are on the payroll of the C.I.A. At least until recently, American officials say, one of them was Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother. Mr. Karzai has long been suspected of facilitating the country’s booming drug trade.

I like this passage because it shows how Arquilla is both right and wrong: networks are the predominant actors in world politics and can undermine states, but they might also constitute states as well. Thus, by applying Arquilla’s logic to state building, networks can be affected to help produce states – relationships between state and non-state actors (religious, economic, social) and create political conditions conducive to rule by corporate bureaucratic organization. If true, two important questions follow: what are the characteristics of networks that span the boundaries of state authority? How do those relationships affect the internal components of the state, and how might change in those relationships change also change its internal composition?

To answer, we must first understand the relationships between inside and outside of the Afghan state that constitute it, and the roles of bureaucratic agents of the state. If roles are socially learned, those actors’ previous interactions provide experiences that guide future action and impact the possibility of system-wide change. Change is constrained by the previous choices of actors to make or break relationships that establish expectations -this is how some choices greatly affect the incentive structure in future choices and also the meaning we attribute to specific action that legitimates or delegitimates certain choices.

Thus, the weakness of the Afghan state (its security and collapsing financial institutions, its inability to claim soveriegnty by reducing violence against its citizens) is somewhat influenced by our relationship with it. While some components of the international community are actively striving to improve governance and build empowering relationships with local institutional partners, others form relationships with both state and non-state actors for ‘efficiency’ that solve problems in the short-term but create long-term contradictions. This is the ultimate effect of agencies like the CIA empowering Afghan warlords and power brokers for the first years of the war.

As the war would down, th Bush administration was faced with two policy choices. IT was clear by the summer of 2002 that the warlords were becoming stronger while the Karzai regime lacked the resources to complete. The unstated U.S. strategy was the leave Karzai ineffectual in the capital, protected by foreign forces, while relying on the warlords to keep Pax Americana in the countryside and the U.S. SOF forces to hunt down al Qaeda. It was a minimialist, military intelligence – driven strategy that ignored nation building, creating state institutions, or rebuilding the country’s shattered infrastructure. By following such a strategy, the United States left everything in place from the Taliban era except for the fact of regime change. (Rashid, p. 133)

What remained were petty warlords whose approach to power was formed during the Soviet invasion, whose strategy for power involved attracting wealthy patrons (the Soviets, Pakistan, America, Iran) and plundering enemies. The U.S. empowered the actors that created popular grievances amongst the people once addressed only by the Taliban. Absent any support to deepen the Afghan government’s capacity, Karzai no choice but to appease and accomodate former warlords by including them in the state.

These exchange relationships and the normative beliefs that legitimate them (essentially patronage) are still in place and create incentive structures that do not fulfill our original goal – creating the conditions for the emergence of a legitimate bureaucratic and corporate institution that supports socioeconomic stability. Given Karzai’s lack of state capacity, he could not challenge the warlords and had to co-opt them, bring them into the ‘patronage’ of state institutions and tolerate their own enrichment and clientelism. The idea that the U.S. and NATO would assist the Afghanis in ‘building’ a legitimate Afghan state (and establishing social relationships and institutions that undermined warlords and promoted traditional and modern forms of civil society) wasn’t ever thoroughly operationalized until 2009 (for example: Seth Jones reports both Western governments and contractors launched multiple failed attempts to strengthen the Interior Ministry, pp.164-176). Despite all the the work of Petraeus, patronage relationships continue that exist that still undermine his counterinsurgency and state-building strategy.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Malign Actor Network underneath the Afghan government doesn’t understand what we want from it (in terms of good governance and anti-corruption) when we engage in patronage at the same time. Even if the CIA gets great information from Afghan gov’t officials, pursuing that short-term goal reinforces relationships that compromise our long-term strategic goal. This produces a policy failure, and it results from multiple agencies operating under alternative strategic agendas. Regarding Karzai’s tolerance of corruption, we have gone from confrontation to accommodation to confrontation and back to accomodation because we still haven’t addressed our own implicit support of it. And we have yet to support Afghan state building because we have never organized all our agencies around a common state building policy. Lacking such strategic clarity, the initial strategy and operationalization of the war – buying influence and empowering local warlords and power brokers – still continues today and reinforces the expectations and incentive structures that allow corruption and patronage to persistently undermine the Afghan state.

Update: more evidence of no ability to translate strategic intention into new modes of interaction.

The issue, the senior official said, is determining “what amount and what type of corruption feeds the Taliban and undercuts our capacity and any Afghan government’s capacity to govern” versus what is culturally “endemic” in Afghan society. Senior officials, including Obama, have publicly insisted the United States is not trying to create “Shangri-la” or “Switzerland” in Afghanistan. The goal, they say, is a stable society that will not permit al-Qaeda to reestablish its presence there.

But military commanders have expressed confusion in recent interviews about what that means on the ground, particularly in terms of where to draw the line in their relationships with Afghan power brokers at all levels.


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