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Altman: Military can learn from Amazon’s approach

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Published:   |   Updated: February 17, 2014 at 09:07 AM

Q: What does the Amazon-izing of America have to do with Afghanistan?

A: It’s not the drones.

It’s how the company approaches communities where it wants to expand, says Derek Harvey, a retired Army colonel, former director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at U.S. Central Command and now director of research for the Citizenship Initiative at the University of South Florida.

When Amazon wanted to build one of its massive warehouse facilities in Ruskin, the company didn’t just show up with construction equipment and begin to turn dirt.

“They had to understand the not-on-my-backyard crowd,” says Harvey. “They have to know who the movers and shakers are.”

Harvey offers another example of the importance of understanding the local human terrain.

When presidential candidates visit Iowa, “they need to know who the pastor is who influences the flock,” he says. “What are the influence drivers and what motivates the people in those communities? The people in Cedar Rapids are different then the people in Davenport.”

The same knowledge of on-the-ground realities, says Harvey, should be true of any U.S. foreign endeavor. Which is why he and David Jacobson, founding director of the Citizenship Initiative, put together “Modern Warfare’s Complexity and the Human Dimension” conference this week at USF. Subtitled “Implications for Policymakers, Warfighters, NGOSs and the Private Sector,” the two-day conference is devoted to examining “the increasingly important human, social and cultural dimensions in contemporary and emerging warfare and conflict, while also seeking to inform the debate about national strategy and military doctrine.”

Harvey provided political, threat and intelligence analysis to commanders in several capacities in Iraq between 2003 and 2006.

He says that the Amazon approach wasn’t taken in Iraq, which proved costly.

“We didn’t do it very well in Iraq,” says Harvey. “In the fall of 2003, people were saying we didn’t need to deal with the tribes, that those were a vestige of the past and the we were building a new Iraq.”

While cost nearly 4,500 U.S. lives and well north of $1 trillion, Harvey says there is still the same mind-set in discussions of a post-conflict Syria.

“They don’t want to deal with the tribes or consider them because we are going to build something different,” Harvey says.

The great pivot to Asia, or strategic rebalance, or whatever the latest term for our approach toward China and its shenanigans in the South China Sea aside, Harvey and Jacobson say that the future of warfare will likely be what we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, post “mission completed.” Not tank on tank and ship on ship, but wide-ranging battles against amorphous insurgencies and the shadowy narcotraffickers and other criminal organizations they deal with.

Understanding the human domain is key in that, Harvey and Jacobson say.

But that can make for an easy target, says Harvey, of those “who ridicule the idea of hearts and minds.”

Hence the conference, put on by the 3-year-old Citizenship Initiative, created to “build bridges to international organizations and elements of government, including (U.S. Special Operations Command) and Centcom, with think tanks and the business community,” says Harvey.

Tampa is an ideal place to have the discussion, in large measure because of the two combatant commands at MacDill Air Force Base, says Jacobson.

Distance from the Beltway, says Jacobson, is another advantage Tampa enjoys.

In Washington, so much energy is devoted to optics — how things appear as opposed to their substance — says Jacobson.

“That is a real problem,” he says. “It takes away from our ability to really get to the nitty gritty of these issues.”

Still, the reaction I got to my story about one of those moderators makes me think that optics will still rear its ugly head down in the land of palm fronds and pelicans.

The mere mention of Paula Broadwell, scheduled to moderate a panel on stability operations, drew great ire. Many were incensed that USF would invite someone who not only had an affair with David Petraeus, which ended his job as CIA boss, but according to the Army, she had her security clearance put on hold due to an ongoing Army investigation. And then there is the issue of her emails to Jill Kelley. They made the wife of a surgical oncologist an international icon whose email exchanges with Marine Gen. John Allen ultimately led to the end of his career after they were discovered during an FBI investigation into the Broadwell emails.

And, according to a lawsuit against the FBI and the Defense Department filed by the Kelleys because her name was leaked over emails sent by Broadwell, Petraeus’ paramour “stalked a senior military official and sent the Kelleys, Director Petraeus, and Gen. Allen the threatening and defamatory emails about Mrs. Kelley.”

Efforts to reach Broadwell were unsuccessful.

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Speaking of Petraeus, the conference will have a decidedly “Peaches” flavor. Harvey isn’t the only panelist and moderator to advise the former general. Fred Kagan, American resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and his wife Kimberly Kagan, founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War, both have. And so did other panelists I am really looking forward to seeing, including David Kilcullen, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served as an advisor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Linda Robinson also wrote a book about Petraeus - “Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq.” Author of the recently published “One Hundred Victories” about stability operations in Afghanistan, a topic I’ve been covering, Robinson is on the panel Broadwell will moderate.

Not everyone was enamored by the Petraeus counterinsurgency doctrine.

In August of 2010, Harry Tunnell IV,then an Army colonel who just recently left command of the 5th Stryker Brigade, wrote a scathing eight-page memo to John McHugh, at the time the Secretary of the Army, blasting the concept of counterinsurgency, or COIN, which is at the heart of this week’s conference at USF. In particular, Tunnell took issue with the interpretation of rules of engagement limiting U.S. military response.

“The COIN doctrine that does exist consists of musings from amateurs, contractors, plagiarized journal articles, etc.,” Tunnell wrote. “It is not professional and relevant because it does not reflect the studied body of best practice - the concepts it promotes, in fact, contribute to needless American casualties.”

Harvey says Tunnell’s countervailing attitude toward COIN is exactly why he was invited.

Opposing views, he says, “help us intellectually engage these issues.”

In a world where people only hear what they want to hear, that’s a concept I find refreshing.

The conference, open to the public, runs all day Tuesday and Wednesday at the USF Patel Center for Global Solutions. For more information, and to see the list of panelists and moderators I am remiss in not mentioning, go to citizenshipinitiative.org

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The Pentagon announced the deaths of four soldiers in Afghanistan, including one from Florida, last week.

Spc. John A. Pelham, 22, of Portland, Ore., and Sgt. First Class Roberto C. Skelt, 41, of York, Fla. died Feb. 12, in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when they were struck by enemy small arms fire. Pelham and Skelt were assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Fort Bragg, N.C.

Spc. Christopher A. Landis, 27, of Independence, Ky., died Feb. 10, on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, from wounds received when the enemy attacked his dismounted patrol with a rocket propelled grenade in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Fort Bragg, N.C.

Pfc. Joshua A. Gray, 21, of Van Lear, Ky., died Feb. 10, in Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident currently under investigation. He was assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.

There have now been 2,299 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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