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Mark Moyar has a reputation for going against the academic grain. One of his previous books, "Triumph Forsaken," is a full-throated, unapologetic defense of assassinated South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and US involvement in Vietnam in general. His inability to land a tenure track position at any American university despite his glittering resume (summa cum laude from Harvard, D.Phil from Cambridge), presumably because of his conservative viewpoints, has been the subject of debate in the academy - and a civil lawsuit.
In this, his most recent piece, on the hot topic of counterinsurgency, Moyar takes aim, indirectly, at the celebrated US Army / Marine Corps COIN Manual published in 2006, which focuses on population centric doctrine as the touchstone for a successful COIN campaign. The author's main thesis is that good leadership - defined as a combination of charisma, creativity, sociability, flexibility, empathy and morality - is just about the only thing that really matters. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, "It's not about the book" -- it's about the man. Moyar uses nine case studies, all of which but one (Malay Emergency) were US experiences, to demonstrate his point, both in the positive, examples where good leaders made all the difference, and the negative, where the lack of such leadership led to failure, often despite the use of population centric COIN best practices.
Moyar has dug up some great quotes from legends to support his case. One of my favorites comes from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who was asked by Winston Churchill to opine on the situation in Malaya at a time when things were particularly bleak for the British cause. Monty's plain spoken response is a gem and encapsulates Moyar's central argument: "To determine what must be done is only half the answer, and the easiest half; that of itself will not achieve success. In all this welter of trouble 'the man' is what counts. The second half of the answer is to produce good men, really good men, who have the courage to issue the necessary orders, the drive to insist that those orders are carried out, and the determination and will-power to see the thing through to the end." The end result was the selection of Sir Gerald Templer, the COIN leader par excellance, according to Moyar, a man who almost single-handedly turned around the entire campaign for the British.
Two other quotes of note come from Vietnam, Moyar's academic specialty. Robert Komer, the head of COORDS and a leader Moyar describes as effective but hampered by his abrasive style, once said, "I started out looking at Vietnam as a problem in resource allocation, and ended up looking at Vietnam more as a problem in getting the right Vietnamese in the right jobs." (For the record, this review is being submitted from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where I'm serving with the NATO forces in a counterinsurgency role, and based on my ground level experience here, I couldn't agree more.)
The next comes from General Creighton Abrams, a COIN leader of rare skill, according to the author, on par with Templer, even. "Leadership - where that's good, they're good. Where it's mediocre, they're mediocre. Where it's piss poor, they're piss poor. It's just that simple. We've had some very dramatic examples here of where one man has changed - one man, just the commander, and in a month and a half's time you've got an entirely new outfit. Used to be flat on its ass, wouldn't go anywhere, couldn't fight. Only changed one man - transformed the whole thing."
But for every Templer and Abrams - or Ramon Magsaysay (Philippines / Huk), General David Petreaus (Iraq), General Carlos Vides Casanova (El Salvador), Brigadier General Franklin Bell (Philippines Insurrection), or Major General Henry Halleck (US Civil War Missouri occupation) - there are numerous uninspiring or failed COIN leaders, many of whom proved their leadership abilities in other capacities, such as conventional warfare or political administration, such Philip Sheridan (Texas and Louisiana during Reconstruction), Sir Henry Gourney (Malaya), General Elwell Otis (Philippines Insurrection), Ambassadors Elbridge Dubrow and Henry Cabot Lodge (Vietnam), and Lt. General (ret.) Jay Garner and Ricardo Sanchez (Iraq).
There's no denying that good leadership is important, perhaps even critical, in COIN operations. But what highly competitive group endeavor doesn't require strong leadership as a sine qua non for success? Is there any Fortune 500 corporation or championship athletic team that gets by on "best practices" or individual talent alone? I don't think so. There were aspects of this book that reminded me of another highly acclaimed historical piece on counterinsurgency, John Nagl's "Eating Soup with a Knife." Nagl's central thesis is that armies that exhibit traits of a "learning organization" are more effective at counterinsurgency that those that don't. No surprise there. Likewise, is it really surprising that armies with strong, charismatic, empathetic and inspiring leaders perform better than those with out?
Moyar concludes with a number of recommendations based on the insights from his nine case studies. Paramount and most peculiar is a call for the focused military recruiting of certain personality types, specifically those with INTJ personalities on the Myers-Briggs scale. I certainly guffawed when reading this section, although my opinion was slightly muted by the fact that I'm an INTJ currently in a COIN role in southern Afghanistan, so it was a modest personal fillip. Moyar's core argument is that the military is a naturally sensing-judging organization and tends to attract and promote sensing-judging personalities, rather than the intuitive-thinking types most critical, in his opinion, to COIN leadership.
Moyar's other recommendations are more level-headed. He emphasizes the need in selecting credible leaders of quality for the military and civil leadership of the host nation security forces at the expense of quantity, even if that means welcoming back men from the old regime or with questionable backgrounds. Furthermore, the author notes that one of the primary jobs of the military commander is to constantly assess his leadership team, promoting and firing commanders frequently in accordance with their performance. He frequently highlights how effective COIN leaders like Templer, Magsaysay and Petreaus were always on the go and visiting the field, while the COIN failures like Otis, Gourney and Sanchez spent most of their time cooped up in an office behind a pile of paperwork. Finally, Moyar stresses the criticality of empowering traditional elites to the greatest extent possible. He frequently equates the US experience in Iraq to the federal government during Reconstruction (he says the preferred analogy to post-war Germany is flawed), where local elites were dismissed wholesale and replaced with largely incompetent outsiders with an innate hostility to the indigenous population and where significant social and economic programs, including elections, contribute little and have the potential to be extremely damaging. Indeed, Moyar has strong words for elections in COIN strategy. "Democracy in counterinsurgency is like dynamite in a coal mine, capable of reshaping the environment to the user's advantage or of destroying everything, the user included."
In closing, Moyar's clarion call for leaders of substance and dedication in undeniably valid. His case studies are mostly well done, although the one on Iraq is long and occasionally acerbic in tone, while the case study of Afghanistan is light and superficial. I must say that the urgency I know feel to identify Afghans, particularly local Pashtuns of ability and traditional leadership status, has been heightened after reading this book.
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There is much to praise about Moyar's work here. He presents nine excellent case studies of counterinsurgencies, some of which succeeded and some of which failed. If the early cases - the Civil War and Reconstruction - leave you thirsting for more, that is because few writers have looked at these as "insurgencies" and Moyar's cases lay the groundwork for more detailed study.
Also, his chapter on Vietnam is spectacular. For those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid of popular histories, his appreciation of Ngo Dinh Diem is an eye-opener. I would have liked more references to the source material in his footnotes, instead of his own book, but that well-regarded work is fully footnoted, so I will just have to go to it. Also, although I was somewhat skeptical of his theme of the centrality of leadership when I began the book, he soon convinced me of the correctness of this view.
However, I am not so keen on the only case study of which I have personal knowledge - the current Afghan conflict. Although his general analysis is solid, there are details and analyses which are unsatisfactory. First, and I may be reading too much into his text here, he seems to share the sentiment of Peter Galbraith and the Obama Administration that you can topple the local government with impunity. This is surprising for a writer so clear headed about the results of the US-promoted Diem coup. You either dance with the one that brung ya or you leave. You don't try to rearrange the government to suit the foreigners' needs. The successor will never get the street cred that he needs.
Second, like almost every Westerner I've read on the subject, he fails to realize the attraction of corruption in a country like Afghanistan. Corruption is a combination welfare system and intelligence network. If you are in a position of authority, you are expected to skim as much revenue as you can from your official duties. But you don't pocket it; you pass it down to employees, fellow tribe members, family and many others. No one makes a livable wage, so you use this to supplement their income. In return, the recipients owe you loyalty and information. I used to marvel how, if you told something to a janitor, by the end of the week a cabinet member would have been aware of what you said. This is a neat and efficient system which provides a valuable local function and while we may be able to channel it to useful ends, we will never be able to end it. Moyar's blanket condemnation of corruption is off the mark.
And so is his condemnation of warlords. Some of them are very good indeed. They need to go, but one has to be aware of the delicacy of the situation. They provided the bulk of the forces to topple both the Russians and the Taliban. To turn yesterday's heroes into today's goats is not an easy thing to do. Imagine the uproar if, after the American Revolution, the French who helped us gain independence suddenly decreed that Washington was a warlord who needed to be ousted and that, oh, say, Button Gwinnett had to be installed as President. We face the same situation there.
Finally, and most seriously, he doesn't even mention the role of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador from late 2003 through 2005 in his text. I had the honor of serving under him in 2004 and 2005 and his leadership highlights Moyar's own theme. Moyar mentions that during that period, warlords were being brought under control, but he doesn't say why or how. The reason we had a moment of sunshine in the Afghan conflict was largely because of the character, courage and intelligence of Ambassador Khalilzad. I remember one time, when he ordered a flight of B-52s to fly over the capital city of a warlord who was being particularly obstreperous. The B-52s dropped no bombs, but they flew very low and very noisily. "I have to show him that I am a bigger warlord than he is," Zal told us. That is the stuff of leadership.
Despite my reservations, this is a solid contribution to the subject of counterintelligence and well worth the time invested by even the professionals.
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Stephen J. Ryan
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I know it's a cliché, but I really wanted to like this book. I had just gotten back from Afghanistan, and Moyar's thesis - that leadership is the critical element of counterinsurgency - tracked with a great deal of my experience on the ground. My master's work focused on terrorism and insurgency, and I hoped that I would be reading something that would expand my intellectual horizons on a topic of importance to me personally as well as to the U.S. and the West presently.
Moyar's book fails spectacularly on all counts, which unfortunately only serves to undermine his thesis (which I actually think deserves a far better and more studious examination than the one he provides here). There are two major flaws, in my mind, and I'll discuss each in turn.
This book's first gaping flaw is that it fails to actually define insurgency, which any serious student of counterinsurgency literature should notice. It's a flaw that permeates the entire book, as Moyar conflates guerrilla warfare (a tactic) with insurgency (a political-military entity designed to overthrow a government via asymmetric means). This is particularly evident in his case studies (for which he never provides selection rationale, an unforgivable oversight in political science), where he lumps in Reconstruction with El Salvador and Iraq. Moyar's (incorrect) conception of insurgency is essentially a military strategy of asymmetry through force of arms - guerrilla warfare - completely ignoring the political dimensions, most pertinent among them legitimacy.
Ironically, this sets up his analysis to basically argue that insurgencies can thus best be understood as contests between elites, with the side with better elites emerging as the victor. While that may be true at the tactical level of guerrilla engagements, this Focoist (Leninist/Guevaraist) conception of insurgency has been fairly roundly discredited in contemporary literature. Interestingly, Moyar doesn't address Maoist insurgencies at all, which focus on the population as a center of gravity. While contemporary literature is not necessarily correct, it puts the burden on Moyar to prove his point in terms of quality and quantity of evidence, which he fails to do. As a side note, Moyar in several cases gets so caught up in his own revisionist history (Vietnam in particular but also El Salvador) that he strays from his central thesis.
The second flaw is the organization and layout of the book. Moyar essentially creates a topology of leadership attributes, naming 10 (and throwing in an extra one or two for good measure) as key attributes for counterinsurgency leaders. He then meanders between leaders and leadership attributes, occasionally returning to his topology but more often than not ignoring it. He seems to select leaders within various conflicts at random - selection criteria would have been even more useful here - and has a couple of odd choices for "great COIN leaders," like Creighton Abrams in Vietnam. (This is likely a product of Moyar's historical revisionism - the 2nd half of the Vietnam War was a conventional force-on-force contest between the US/ARVN and NVA, so I'm not sure how COIN leadership is relevant.)
If this book were well-organized, it would have measured a sampling of leaders from various insurgencies against those attributes, found which attributes were present in each case, and then drawn conclusions from that. (A case study method focusing on individual leaders rather than conflicts would also have been an improvement.) Unfortunately, Moyar appears to have fallen prey to the intellectual trap of trying to prove something he devoutly believes instead of testing a hypothesis in an objective manner. While this might be forgivable from a first-year graduate student, it's unacceptable from anyone trying to make a serious scholarly contribution to a field of study.
Moyar is not an insurgency expert, a run-of-the-mill historian, or an established academic - all of which shines through in this book that tries to do far too much with the intellectual equivalent of Swiss cheese backing it. I would love to see his thesis tested rigorously without a predetermined outcome, and I would be curious as to how one might measure rigorously the attributes Moyar lists - N.B. Myers-Briggs is not rigorous - and how one might best select leaders in various insurgencies so as to get a wide sampling of good, bad, and mediocre leaders and see how they stack up differently against his hypothesis. But in that sense, it's like building a house of cards - because Moyar doesn't have basic expertise in insurgency nor does he have conventional historical views, his entire book is built on a very weak foundation and falls apart when you realize his core assumptions range from questionable to simply incorrect or incomplete.
I think I know where Moyar was coming from - this book is aimed at a military audience that wants to deal with the military side of the equation, but that's at best half of any insurgency. The study of insurgency and counterinsurgency isn't simple enough that you can simply cleave the political and the military apart and have any kind of serious analysis. Clausewitz's overly paraphrased dictum, "War is merely the continuation of politics by other means," rings particularly true of the insurgent decision to use violence (and is reflected in the historical struggle of virtually every true insurgency he examines) to force a political change.
It's also worth noting that his policy recommendations - or what pass for them at the end of the book - are either poor or basically non-existent, and ignore a whole field in how you develop leaders and/or organizations and organizational culture. A forgivable offense as that would take an already-sclerotic analysis over a bridge too far, but it would actually give the book a little more heft.
In short, Moyar fails to make a serious contribution to the literature on counterinsurgency. His book suffers from analytic and structural flaws and he never tests his thesis in a rigorous manner. You can disagree with some of Moyar's historical viewpoints, which theoretically doesn't doom his thesis, but the complete lack of analytic rigor makes this a non-starter. (It's also generally unacceptable in academia to use your own work as primary evidence of your thesis, as Moyar does with his Vietnam chapter.) It doesn't open up a new field of study in counterinsurgency; rather, it simply shows how little Moyar actually knows about the subject.
I would point those who are serious about getting smart on insurgency to Bard O'Neill's Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, Second Edition, Revised and on counterinsurgency to John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. The latter, in my mind, shows what analytic rigor looks like when applied to the study of insurgency - anyone who is interested in counterinsurgency study would do well to take notes.