Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Kandahar Massacre and the Strategic Corporals

There is a concept taught to aspiring officers in military colleges around the globe that puts the state of world affairs in the hands of their most junior leaders. They are often referred to as the 'Strategic Corporal'. The tragic events in Kandahar this week highlight the broader implications of this concept and exposes the fragile mandate on which Western powers rely for foreign expeditions.

Strategic Corporal

The concept of the Strategic Corporal has existed in military thinking for some time, but the phrase was coined in the Marines Magazine in 1999 by General Charles Krulak while examining the concept of a 'Three Block War' and called for a rethink of the way junior commanders in the US Marine Corps were trained. The concept has subsequently been adopted a number of Western militaries.

Krulak recognised the changing nature of international conflict in the post-Cold War period which he described as a "troubling age characterised by global disorder, pervasive crisis, and the constant threat of chaos". The 'Three Block War' idea, drawing on contemporaneous mid-level conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia among others, identified the new requirement for Western militaries to be able to conduct warfighting, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations all within the space of three contiguous city blocks.

Krulak also acknowledged the implications of increased media, and therefore public, scrutiny of military actions at the tactical level. He identified that in these high-stakes, asymmetrical battlefields, the junior commander, or indeed, rifleman will be required to make quick, sound tactical decisions "that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion". He concluded that "in many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well'.

Events this week in Afghanistan highlight that the individual conduct of soldiers beyond the scope of purely tactical situations is having an increasing effect on strategic goals.

Last in a line

This has been a bad year for US-Afghan relations.

The methodical murder of 16 Afghan civilians, including children, by a US serviceman earlier this week is the last in a series of incidents placing strain on the relationship. In February, copies of the Koran were among seized religious literature burned at Bagram Air Field prompting deadly protests and an apology from the top US commander. And, in January,  a video of US soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses was published on YouTube, again prompting bloody protests in Kabul.

The number of Afghan civilian casualties has been increasing over the last 5 years, with 3021 killed in 2011. The majority of killings have been at Taliban hands (2332), but the largely inadvertent deaths at coalition hands have fuelled growing Afghan foreign hatred and exasperated the Afghan government.

This most recent incident has prompted a stern resolution from the Afghan parliament stating that the government had  "run out of patience with the arbitrary actions of foreign forces" and calling for a halt to further negotiation on the strategic partnership agreement needed to ensure a legal platform for ongoing US operations until the planned withdrawal in 2014.

They went further to "seriously demand and expect that the government of the United States punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan". This unlikely to happen. The military-technical agreement signed with the Afghan government ensures that any US personnel charged with wrongdoing are to be handled under US military law. Moreover, the prospect of a US soldier, regardless of the heinous nature of the alleged crimes, facing trial and capital punishment under the Afghan legal system would be untenable domestically in the US, particularly during an election year.

In an environment where ongoing US-Afghan partnership is under threat, and where even hawkish US politicians were already increasingly pessimistic (or realistic) about their country's involvement in the conflict, this incident may prove a turning point for the viability of ongoing foreign intervention in Afghanistan.

Forming Public Opinion

The task of projecting force into foreign fields is expensive financially, in lives and ultimately in political capital. A recent report published by Brown University placed the financial cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars at nearly $4 trillion and, using conservative estimates, the human cost at 236,000 war dead and 7.8 million people displaced.

Governments have always been beholden to public opinion for ongoing support of foreign military expeditions. Research suggests that the public are relatively tolerant, or at least apathetic, about the benefits versus costs of war provided the cause is perceived to be just. Support has been shown to erode quickly however, if the costs escalate and there is not consensus amongst political leaders in upholding the justness of the cause.

Foreign wars, particularly in the modem context, are not generally wars of direct national defence and so there is the perception of an elective quality to involvement. Governments engaged in costly and protracted foreign military interventions inevitably face the point at which the costs outweigh what remaining benefit there is, and public opinion turns against them.

The role of the war reporting in precipitating this turning point is not new. The Crimean War (1853-1856), which can be viewed as among the first 'reported' foreign wars, heralded intense public reaction to military setbacks. The Snowball Riots in 1855, in which 1500 were dispersed by baton charge from Trafalgar Square, were a response to dissatisfaction with the war, including the failure of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

News of war, however, was slow to make its way home. A public sense of the course of war was based on strategic and operational failures. Sir Douglas Haig's strategy of attrition at The Somme, for example. Or, more recently, the convincing early successes of the Tet Offensive only a month after US General Westmorland had said that the Viet Cong were "unable to mount a major offensive" and invited them to "try something, because we are looking for a fight".

The Three Block War

In the age of the Three Block War, however, with the advent of television and Internet,  more instant and vivid reportage of war takes us to the individual level, and to the importance of the strategic corporal.

The three most reported incidents of the Afghanistan War this year have not been new offensives, heavy casualties, or peace talks; they have been the actions of junior soldiers, acting alone or in small groups, and off their own initiative.

Incidents like these, which in the past, may have been lost in the grubby business of war, are now each strategic way-points in the conflict. Most recently, the Kandahar massacre has derailed strategic talks and promises further instability in the form of protests, which will undoubtedly cost lives. Domestically in the West, each incident dents further the political will and public support for ongoing war.

Ultimately, in a war where it is widely recognised that military victory is unachievable and political resolution unattainable, it is the cumulative cost of the actions of these Strategic Corporals and the ones that follow that will bring this war to an end.


  1. Add to this that the strategic corporal is expected to operate in a theatre with poorly defined strategy for a campaign with no military goal, and has to assay his tactics in a poorly defined areas of engagement involving multiple, trans-border power brokers and an enemy that is essentially indistinguishable from the civilian population. How ISAF's star-spangled shoulders are expecting this to go anywhere but sideways is at this point hard to comprehend. Strategic Corporal might be a novel concept, but the sad part is that there is nothing novel about these invasions and consequent insurgencies.

    I do disagree on one point. As you point out, media exposure does affect the occupation's palatability to the homestead population, but to what extent does that transmute into policy? This is the 11th year of the conflict, and right from the onset, the campaign received more popular opposition than the vietnam conflict saw toward its close. Consider that the media in addition mainly repeated the mantras of the just war dogma from defence sources. The pivotal sale of the just war concept was essentially the result of news organisations bartering quality of information for easy access to press handlers and a convenient and exciting narrative. Many where undoubtably swayed, and yet still, opposition was high. The opposition has been growing for every year, albeit with some degree of fluctuation, and despite this, troop deployment in Afghanistan has increased each year.

    Even more unpopular was the Iraq war. Still,
    withdrawal from Iraq unfolded as stipulated in the agreement the Bush administration struck with Iraqi provisional authorities. US diplomats were pushing for extensions and higher permanent troop presence, and this was only avoided by the adamant refusal of the Iraqi government.

    In fact opposition to the costs and use of a large expeditionary force has hit an all time high, and yet the US is increasing its defense budget, contructing additional permanent bases, and reconstituting their south american fleet.

    All this leads me to believe that popular opinion plays a far smaller role in determining war policy than it is ascribed.

  2. I agree that popular opinion in the Afghan War has remained low consistently, particularly for the last half decade. I think events like this have an incremental effect on popular support, but do not have the transformative effect they may have had in the past. Maybe its that there is an uncomfortable apathy now towards the wars - the fire is out of the anti-war movement and despite a desire for withdrawal, there doesn't appear to be sufficient energy politically to make that feeling felt.

    On the Just War point, I think Americans cling to the idea that Afghan campaign has its roots in a response to 9/11 and the broader concept of defending itself from terrorism. Certainly the media have a role in perpetuating it, but I believe it holds more truth than the premise for the Iraq war - was viewed almost immediately as a cynical exercise. The crime was that it lasted as long as it did.

    I guess the paradox of these conflicts is that the US facilitate the development of a new government (admittedly out of the ashes of their invasion) that becomes sufficiently self-determined to evict them. Victory and Defeat.

  3. On the first point, I would say that we have seen an increasing disconnect between representatives and electorates. I am of course speaking specificly about the US now. Determination of candidacy for public office is at this stage so contingent on financing from private interests, that candidates have no competitive alternative but to pledge support for legislation favoring these interests. All this of course in order to pay very expensive propagandists for the job of selling the candidate to the electorate as one would kitch merchandise; by ensuring that the electorate substitutes a rational evaluation with an emotional evaluation.

    If the legislation smacks of public distaste, it is usually buried under vacuous "values" fluffery like abortion, gay marriage, and religiosity; big, emotional drown-bytes that envoke bigotry and solidarity alike, but are decoupled from affairs of state. Alternatively, the legislation is spun in such a way as to persuade the public that they will benefit from promoting said interests.

    More importantly regarding matters of war, is the bandy of the expression "national security", which by now is only rivalled by perhaps "love" in diffuseness. In campaigns it is used to envoke chest-beating patriotism amidst more diffuse fluffery like "freedom" and "supporting the troops", all the while brandishing agression against non-aligned states, out of fear of appearing "yella". "What's the matter McFly? Chicken?"

    What constitutes "national security" is by now so removed from any form of palpable threat to self and community, that state action under its invokation is inconsequencial to the electorate and their daily goings-on. The result is that the state enjoys near null requirement of accountability from the electorate in this context (with the exception of hippies, who are invariably dismissed as fringe fanatics).

    The confluence of these factors ultimately translate into an electorate reduced in power to the ceremonial role of choosing between candidates proffered by capital-heavy interests (often identical interests), and an electorate whose opinions on matters of state are either apathetically uninformed and inconsequencial for the retension of office.

    This is at least my best attempt at explaining why public opinion on the Afghan war has not affected policy.