Rome '08 Workshop

Thinking about Strategies 

Vice Admiral Ferdinando Sanfelice di Monteforte

Italian Military Representative to NATO 

Vice Admiral Ferdinando Sanfelice di Monteforte


Today’s proceedings had a lot to do with “strategy shaping.” Strategy, though, is a difficult animal to handle. Unlike politics, it looks beyond two- to three-year time spans, and, also unlike politics, as Gen. Camporini pointed out, it is not reactive—it helps focus on the ultimate aim. Therefore, a lot of reflection is needed, as Peter Flory rightly said when he mentioned that Gen. Ulysses Grant regretted that he had not reflected more on the likely course of action his Confederate opponent, Gen. Johnson, might undertake. 

Sun Tzu said something similar when he stated that “The winning general spends many hours in his tent before the battle.” Actually, I am not certain whether he meant that a general, before battle, should have a sound sleep, like the Prince of Condé, or if he was encouraging his compatriots to do what Gen. Grant should have done, namely, to think out a well-conceived plan. 


A well-conceived plan implies having clear knowledge of the tools you are about to use. One tool that we have is Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLTs). 

OMLTs are not involved with training. They provide Afghan National Army (ANA) units with the human capabilities they do not have, such as the ability to coordinate fire, synergy in action, provisioning of medevac helicopters, and so on. OMLTs are precious, but they do not increase the skills of their Afghan fellow soldiers, unless these are taught to them through an ad-hoc curriculum. 

A young diplomat from my country, in fact, was puzzled at the difficulty nations have in providing OMLTs, whose numbers range between 19 and 35 elements each, only to be told that the provisioning of one OMLT implies the stand-down of an operational battalion, which has to give up all its key figures at the junior officer and NCO level in order to generate the OMLT. 

ANA training, in short, is a lot more than OMLT provisions. It is no surprise, therefore, that SHAPE insists that medium- and long-term measures be taken in accordance with its well-conceived and comprehensive plan. 


It is worth mentioning that the Comprehensive Approach, another tool that was mentioned earlier, is based on EBAO—the effect-based approach to operations—and that the latter relies heavily on bottom-up feedback, so that the top brass can draw lessons in real time not only from failures but from successes. A risk looms over the whole system, however. How can a young lieutenant tell a highly opinionated general that he has to change approach—without incurring his wrath? 

As was noted today, there are strong, diverging opinions on the approaches that should be taken in Afghanistan, so strong that they recall Mahan’s statement about “those strong, even uninterested emotions (which are) the only factor diplomacy cannot master.” An example of that is the Surobi District case, in which the local population, reassured by ISAF’s presence and ability to cooperate, is handing over large amounts of weapons and narcotics. Because of this, the nation providing forces to the district had to partially give up its plan to concentrate in another region, very much like Amb. Winid said, because a turnover between units in that area would have hampered cooperation. On the other hand, some influential media were quick to pretend that any province in Afghanistan is a self-standing reality, and therefore the Surobi case cannot be reproduced elsewhere, i.e.the validity of a policy of cooperation with local elders, carried out as done in Surobi is not generally valid. When politics try to shape also tactical aspects of a campaign, as those newspapers did in this case, EBAO is dead! 


I would like to mention, while we are on this subject, what Corbett said about strategy, namely, that it should enable those involved to extract from the particulars of any single situation the general, recurring aspects, so that “the normal case” can be found, very much like finding the musical theme from which all variations are derived. 

So, strategy fears emotion, and implies finding, by trial and error, the right way to reach the desired aim, the zweck. This requires sound knowledge of the human environment. An international organization—not NATO—issued several documents stating that knowledge is connected to intelligence. Well, it is much more than that! 

In explaining the essence of knowledge, a recent book recalls that, when he was in Madagascar, the French General Gallieni—the very man who stopped the German offensive of 1914 by summoning all the taxis in Paris, thus deploying quickly the troops required to stop the enemy—“compelled those who worked in his staff to know as deeply as possible the history, the culture, the mindset and behavior of all the tribes they were facing.” The need for deep knowledge is not new, and, because Gen. Gallieni was operating in a counter-insurgency context, this form of operation is not new either. 


Very recently, Spain celebrated the 200th anniversary of its invasion by Napoleon; the books published on this occasion may shed new light on the difficulties of his counter-insurgency campaign, whose magnitude was only slightly less than the German effort during World War II. Many of the features of this campaign in fact bear a close resemblance to what happened in more recent years and show the need to carefully balance direct action with local ownership. 

Before looking at the most recent instances of this issue, I would like to recall what happened in northern Italy between 1943 and 1945. Of the 25 German divisions deployed there after the armistice to stop the advance of the Allies through the peninsula, more than half were diverted to carry out counter-insurgency action—little attention was devoted to developing local forces, whose training took an extraordinarily long time because of the scarce resources allotted by Germany. Therefore the Italian insurgents, or partisans, as they were called, were well supplied by the Allies and able to distract increasing numbers of troops from the battlefront. 

Now, however, the Allies are reluctant to act directly and are not overly enthusiastic about filling a steadily growing CJSOR. This may be disappointing, but it is how alliances are. Many years ago, in fact, the French strategist Daveluy said that “alliances were made to wage war at a cheap price,” and he claimed that the opposite should be true, that all alliances should throw into the fight whatever they can in order to succeed. 

Unfortunately—and Vietnam showed this at length—the more troops you pour into a theatre, the more the resistance stiffens, and you and your allies end up exhausted, unmotivated, and incapable of acting alone. Countering narcotics traffic in Afghanistan, therefore, will require a careful balance between the will to succeed quickly and the need to avoid transforming the Afghan operation into a fight in which the locals move increasingly to the insurgent side. 

In an environment in which the opposition is land-heavy, there is no point in trying to match numbers by relying on superior firepower. Asymmetry is at the heart of this science, and the enemy’s weak spots must be targeted. The history of counter-insurgency, though, shows that such an approach is seldom taken. Sending more troops is a way to avoid deep thinking. 


Today we also discussed the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Here, fortunately, strategy shaping is in full swing. PSI and Operation Active Endeavor are demonstrating the soundness of Mahan, who said, “One ounce of prevention is worth one pound of treatment.” 

However, there is a distinction between fending off WMD attacks and dealing with the aspirations of those states that wish to dissuade others from using them, very much in line with Gen. De Gaulle’s remark “On va lui arracher un bras.” Gen. Camporini said that security concerns lead to a lot of violence if they are not properly taken care of, and for this reason the struggle against proliferation will not be complete without complementing muscle with some guarantees. 

International organizations exist to do that, but the problem that emerged from today’s debate is what kind of relations should exist among them.  


Being associated with both NATO and the EU, I have observed two interesting points. 

First, international organizations are, from time to time, inherently incapable of having normal relations with other international organizations, very much like people suffering from enormous stress. Unless the root causes of their malaise are cured, they will be unable to behave as others wish. 

Also, international organizations are continually tempted to argue with their member-states, often about relatively minor issues. Those nations, though, not only provide the international organizations with money and force, but they are their natural customers, and they expect results, often disproportionate to the resources provided. 

In order to overcome these and the other challenges of our times, living in an environment marked by harsh competition and growing tension, we need patience coupled with steadiness. Only strategy will help us to go beyond the action-reaction loop, which is so common but so self-defeating. 

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