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Clear, hold, build - in Ukraine

Jim DoughertyMay 16, 2024 Updated May 24, 2024 (0)


How to fight terrorists - whether on the ground or from the sky

In their excellent book, Conflict, the Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, General David Petraeus and historian Andrew Roberts make the case that the most successful counter-insurgency strategy of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, one repeatedly forgotten and relearned at great cost, could be neatly summarized as "clear, hold, build": clear out the bad guys, continue to secure and protect the local population, and finally help with reconstruction and support to make life better for people. Then, and only then, expand outward to more areas - this as opposed to forgetting the second and third steps while chasing enemy forces all over the country and failing to protect the areas already liberated from renewed intimidation, propaganda and violence.

"The biggest of the big ideas," they wrote of the lessons learned from the Iraq war, "is that security in a counter-insurgency campaign is job number one. If the population cannot be... protected, all other initiatives will come to naught." (Conflict p. 338) Or "Security is the foundation that makes all else possible; without it, nothing else is attainable." (p. 82)

Clear, hold, build: protect and rebuild cleared and free areas of Ukraine - and keep them that way

While Ukraine is not an example of the need for a counter-insurgency strategy in the classic sense (and hopefully never will be, since it would be Russians running it!), there are similarities which may help us find better alternatives to the escalation, appeasement or isolationist strategies (or non-strategy in the third case) commonly discussed, based on the 'clear, hold, build' approach. 

In Ukraine, the Russian terrorists have one of the largest militaries in the world, vanishingly little support from the population, and mostly rain down their violence from the relative safety of cruise missiles, drones and artillery. Still, their attempt to intimidate, terrify and demoralize is the same -- as, crucially, is the difficulty of countering those attacks with "search and destroy" missions against an enemy that is very hard, in some cases impossible, to reach. While the Viet Cong melted into impassable jungle, Putin's Russia cannot be attacked, we are told, lest escalation lead to a wider, possibly nuclear war - that is the jungle he hides in, threatening us all if we dare enter.

Whether that self-restraint on the part of the democracies is warranted or the product of unreasonable fear or intimidation is irrelevant - it is a political, psychological and diplomatic fact. And the longstanding US policy of avoiding outright conflict with Russia, while deterring aggression wherever and whenever possible - whatever its faults - is the one that has gotten us through almost 80 years in the nuclear age without Armageddon.

Or, as the authors of Conflict put it in advocating for deterrence over war, "The amount of money that needs to be spent might seem vast but historically it has always proven to be a mere fraction of what it costs in blood and treasure when deterrence fails." (p. 442)

Indeed when deterrence, such as if was - admixed with appeasement, waffling and uncertainty - failed in Ukraine with the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, the cost in human life and resources was staggering, and we found ourselves in yet another proxy war where the options all appear bad or worse.

That's where we have to learn from past mistakes and apply "clear, hold, build" - admittedly in not exactly the same circumstances, but very instructive just the same - now, before it is too late to prevent defeat, our own demoralization, or an even more dangerous, expanded or nuclear conflict.

Much more air defense needed to protect Ukraine

With terror from the skies, the only way to 'clear' the enemy and protect the population is more and better air defense, but mostly more. A lot more. Add a couple zeros to whatever you're thinkin', Secretary Blinken. And, not just everywhere half-built, half-a--, all at once, but, in addition to the capital Kyiv, start with an area that is most easily protected and supplied - perhaps the Lviv Oblast - and can be 'held' - that is protected to the point where normal life can resume to whatever extent possible in wartime, and the 'build' can begin - in this case of the industry, mobilization and military assets needed to help Ukraine further protect itself. And, where military training and support bases, air bases, airports, electricity generation, transportation hubs, water and other critical infrastructure, as well as foreign investment, joint partnerships, munitions manufacturing, military leave facilities, returning refugee accommodation, employment and support, and non-government organizations can operate freely, both to support the war effort and rebuild Ukraine.

The acid test would be if investments could be insured at affordable rates (possibly with governments underwriting the underwriters), and foreign workers, including specialists, professionals and military support personnel, possibly even with their families, would feel comfortable working there. That's how safe it has to be. A tall order, but West Berlin, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel and others have shown it can be done.

Instead of waiting for an armistice or peace to rebuild Ukraine, start now: show the Western answer to aggression and brute force with better and smarter and more technology, deployed at scale to allow industry, free institutions and the Ukrainians themselves to not only survive - although that is the first and essential requirement - but to thrive. Do 'clear, hold, build' on an industrial scale - like South Korea, Taiwan and Israel, deploy the weapons of freedom and a free people, guarded by the most advanced defenses and technology we can muster.

Better protect core areas, then rebuild and expand

Then, expand outwards, as rebuilt areas are secure - "the 'oil-spot' approach, clearing, holding and rebuilding one spot or area then expanding it, as an oil-spot expands" (Conflict, p. 83) . Instead of just the all-or-nothing of total war, also apply this incremental method to protect and rebuild one area at time. Only in this case, using the resources of an industrial country and an industrious people to not only rebuild their own area or region, but help provide the means to protect and rebuild more of their country and finally liberate it completely.

In other words, fight the Cold War fight of maximum defense, steady deterrence, a strong and free economy, the rule of law, and personal and political freedom versus tyranny, brutality, poverty, corruption and oppression - which we know we can win because we did it already - instead of fighting the hot, total wars of the first half of the 20th century - which we have no way of knowing if we would win, or even survive, in the nuclear age.

Israel, in particular, in conjunction with the US, UK, Jordan and other allies, showed even very recently how it can be done, with the near-perfect defeat of the April 13 Iranian assault, stopping 99% of about 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles and 120 ballistic missiles through its Iron Dome, David's Sling and other defenses.

That's the model to follow. The best, most advanced defense possible, then 'build' - not just a village in Vietnam or a block in Baghdad, but the step-by-step protection and rebuilding, one area or region at a time, of a whole country, a country that is fighting to protect not only its own freedom, but fighting on the frontline against a ruthless, cruel and murderous despotism to protect the lives and liberties of us all.


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