Reflections on the Joint Urban Warrior ’06 Conference
The Joint Urban Warrior ’06 Conference was an opportunity to hear a frank discussion on the current and future challenges in fighting against the more complex battles of the 21st Century. Insurgency, asymmetrical warfare, 4th Generation Warfare, guerrilla war – no matter what your preference is for terminology for the low intensity conflicts encountered in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere throughout the globe, the fact is these conflicts are unique challenges to democratic nations.
Monday’s session consisted of a series of briefings. In attendance were military representatives and a sprinkling of civilian experts from eighteen nations.
The presentations were by no means dominated by the American contingent, but given by representatives of Britain, Canada, Singapore, Israel, New Zealand and Australia. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps discussed the challenges and strategies to deal with “The Long War.” The British presenter gave an overview about the country’s experiences with counterinsurgencies in Malaysia, Aden and Ireland, and stressed that one conflict cannot be equated with the next, as the cultural complexities and different physical terrains exist in each conflict and present unique challenges. The Singaporean presenter showed a flashy video of the city-nation’s developing Urban warfare capabilities. The Israeli presenter briefed on the evacuation of the Jewish settlements from Gaza. The Canadian presenter gave an overview of Canada’s philosophy in fighting insurgencies, and shared the Canadian military’s experiences in Afghanistan. The Australian and New Zealand presenters also shared their views on counterinsurgency warfare, and discussed lessons learned in the East Timor conflict.
Each presentation was followed by a question and answer session. As the session was not-for-attribution (meaning I could not directly quote anyone during the conference without permission), and the presenters and participants were open about shortcomings in the various wars, problems with intelligence and in governmental and military decision making processes.
Perhaps the most interesting debate came after the Singaporean presentation, which stressed technology and ‘kinetic’ (fighting) operations over ‘non-kinetic’ (humanitarian) operations. This elicited several questions and comments about the need to incorporate civil-military operations in urban war fighting and counterinsurgency operations. The audience was quite cognizant the focus on technology and combat alone is not a successful strategy for stability. The hard lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, Aden, Malaysia, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere are deeply ingrained among the officers in attendance.
The common theme discussed among the presenters were the complex nature or “terrain” of the 21st century battlefield, which includes: terrorist groups (or non-state actors); militias; the physical terrain; interactions with neutral or potentially hostile third parties such Non-Governmental Organizations and the media; the role of religion and culture when dealing with civilian populations, the effect low intensity conflict has on a military geared to fight classical wars; war-fighter skills; the impact and over reliance on technology; human intelligence vs. technological intelligence; and the “information war.”
While the terminology used to discuss the methods to fight a counterinsurgency differ, the concepts are essential the same. For example, the Marines refer to the tactical fight as “The Three Block War” (the close if not simultaneous conduct of combat, stability and support, and humanitarian operations) while the Canadians discuss in terms of the 3D war (the integration of Defense, Diplomacy and Development during combat operations).
I’ll respectfully disagree with my friend Jack Kelly on one of the two points made in his post Elephants in the Living Room. He stated the “role of the news media in the war on terror” was an “elephant that went unrecognized from the podium”. The Australian presentation given on day two of the conference specifically addressed this issue. The presenter stated the media lacks “context” when covering the war, and at times can be a hostile entity on the battlefield and at the strategic level. In fact, the presentation included images of journalists on the battlefield in East Timor. The issue of context is a theme often discussed here at The Fourth Rail (and in fact is the main reason for the existence of this blog), and it was heartening to see our friends from down under echo this sentiment. Other briefs touched on this issue of the media as well, and discussed how the media was, like it or not, an essential player in 21st Century warfare.
I will agree with Jack that there was little effort to define the enemy in terms of radical Islam and determine the scale of the enemy’s reach, but I feel this may have exceeded the scope of the conference. However, at one point during the question and answer session at the end of the U.S. Army briefing on The Long War, it was pointed out that the enemy was radical Islam and Islamic terrorist. The point was made that while Columbian narco-terrorists are dangerous, they do not pose a direct and immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, and therefore are not the primary focus of counterterrorism efforts. When the issue of Hezbollah and their place in this war was brought up, the answer given was “Hezbollah is on our to-do list.”
Day two of the conference consisted of break out sessions or “blue cells”, where small groups met to discuss the issues raised during the presentations. I worked with the cell designated to address the issue of cultural awareness and the military’s need to adapt to the complex nature of the 21st Century battlefield. The cell focused on the need to understand the local and national customs and traditions, religion, language and how to train military personnel and implement outside solutions to maximize success. The group was unanimous in the belief the military needs to develop the skills of the “Strategic Corporal and the Tactical General” in order to succeed. There seemed to be a focus on internalizing the skills within the military, and a reluctance to look outside for solutions.
I explained a good interpreter is worth his weight in gold, and the military should work to have interpreters at the platoon level. I used my experience with the initial negotiation with the Sulemani tribe while I was in Husaybah. The Sulemani tribe fought with al Qaeda in the Qaim region and lost, and was now looking for ways to work with the local government, Iraqi troops and the U.S. Marines. The negotiation to get the Sulemani to attend the region conference was driven by Lieutenant William Oren, the platoon commander at Battle Position Beirut, and “Icy”, the platoon’s interpreter. Lieutenant Oren and Icy did an excellent job as the Sulemani did indeed come to the table. Icy is not just a superb interpreter, but he understood the local customs and what motivate the tribal leaders. Icy, at age 21, acted as both an interpreter and diplomat, and Lieutenant Oren was wise to accept his counsel. But these negotiations may have benefited with the attendance of seasoned diplomat.
We also discussed how the combat units would benefit from “embedding” non-traditional resources such as diplomats, interpreters, and even anthropologists at the tactical level (at the brigade or even the battalion level), much like the model of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams which are used in Afghanistan and are now appearing in Iraq. I advocated that in some cases this should occur at the company level when units are spread over wide areas (such as they are in the Qaim region in western Iraq).
The feeling among too many State career folks is that integrating the military into these PRTs, and working on civil-military matters together with DoD, is allowing “them” into too much of “our turf.” It’s a turf war, which the department is more adept at fighting than a real one. Nobody will say it, but too many around here see themselves sophisticates, who don’t mingle with DoD troglodytes. It’s shameful.
Naturally, some in the department feel that it is “not their job to talk to the masses.” I actually heard someone say that yesterday. Rather, they see their position as more of a 19th century man of leisure, dining with privileged elites.
It should be noted that I did not notice any members of the Department of State in attendance at the conference. The inter-agency battles need to be put aside. We are fighting a war that requires the full resources of our government, and these political battles only task the resources of our troops on the ground.
Again, with thanks to the Wargaming Division of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, and hospitality of Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle at the Small Wars Journal.