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Outside View: Counterinsurgency challenges

As FM 3-24 correctly notes, in counterinsurgency the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly -- the better learning organization -- usually wins. We clearly still have a long way to go.
by Lawrence Sellin
Washington (UPI) Jul 28, 2009
The effective execution of full spectrum counterinsurgency operations remains a challenge for the U.S. military.

U.S. Army doctrine states that successful COIN operations depend on the synchronized application of combat, security, political, economic, psychological and civic actions. To achieve unity of effort, these activities need to be coordinated across military services, government agencies and in collaboration with the host government.

The often complex, ambiguous and multidimensional features of COIN are further complicated by the need to adapt to a rapidly changing operational environment. That is, to possess the capability to act decisively before the enemy does or respond to new enemy tactics with unique and timely countermeasures of our own.

According to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24, "The solutions to these intensely challenging and complex problems are often difficult to recognize as such because of complex interdependencies." It recommends adopting processes "to achieve a greater understanding, a proposed solution based on that understanding and a means to learn and adapt."

This methodology, called "Counterinsurgency Campaign Design," can be distinguished from traditional military planning as follows: "Planning applies established procedures to solve a largely understood problem within an accepted framework. Design inquires into the nature of a problem to conceive a framework for solving that problem."

Through Design, the Army is attempting to bridge the gap between adaptive and generative learning. Adaptive learning focuses on problem-solving without questioning the manner in which organizations define and solve problems. It is a mechanism for incremental change. In contrast, generative learning constantly challenges the organization's structure, processes and culture. It emphasizes continual experimentation, reassessment and organizational learning to remain flexible and effective in a rapidly changing environment. It has been described as the difference between being adaptive and having adaptability.

Unfortunately, the military has placed far more importance and provided far greater funding for technical systems, those focused on the management of integrated information technology systems such as networks, servers, storage systems, databases and basic communications software. This emphasis on the technical facet of command and control has neglected the need to create a more adaptive and learning organization through fundamental changes in the way military staffs function. Contrary to what one hears in many military and defense industry presentations, "bandwidth" is not everything.

The culture of military command and control needs to evolve. It is not enough just to have the technical capabilities of C4ISR -- command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Conventional staff operations require a transformation in culture to one that promotes an attitude for the active sharing of information across traditional boundaries and embedding dynamic communication, collaboration and learning as an integral part of the daily battle rhythm. This should encompass a set of processes and practices to maximize the value of knowledge by gathering, structuring and delivering it at critical operational junctures. The success of such an effort largely depends on sharing information horizontally at the lowest echelons possible, rather than the time-consuming process of running it up and down non-integrated staff stovepipes.

While people have the capacity to learn, the organizational structures created within the military frequently do not. In the military, form often precedes function. New workgroups are created with little thought of how their various functions will interact, whether their products will be mutually supportive or if they will ultimately contribute to a holistic view of the battlefield. Once the new structures are in place, an attempt is made to shape the processes to fit the structure rather than the other way around. Such an approach usually does not lead to greater staff integration or better performance but simply creates a collection of simultaneous arguments. That only increases cognitive dissonance under circumstances in which a commander requires a real-time and accurate understanding and vision of a highly complex situation.

COIN Campaign Design demands that the culture and processes by which problems are identified and analyzed provide a setting conducive to reflection and innovation even in a high tempo theater of operations. As Edgar H. Schein of the MIT Sloan School of Management describes in his analysis of organizations as facilitators or inhibitors of organizational learning: "therein lies a problem because we are now talking about changing our mental models, our personal habits of perceiving, thinking and acting, and our relationships with others that are thoroughly embedded. We are talking about having to unlearn some things before new things can be learned."

As FM 3-24 correctly notes, in counterinsurgency the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly -- the better learning organization -- usually wins. We clearly still have a long way to go.

(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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