There are two new Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense in the US Department of Defense. Joe Felter is DASD for South & Southeast Asia, while Colin Jackson is DASD for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. They are important figures for managing US defense relations with southern Asia, and for creating and implementing US military strategy in the region. Felter covers India, Indonesia, etc, while Jackson covers Afghanistan/Pakistan (both report to the Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs).
Both are political science PhDs with extensive military backgrounds, and they represent a level of expertise and knowledge that is foreign to many parts of the Trump administration. I went to grad school at MIT with Colin, and was once on an APSA panel with Felter way back in the day. They’re both serious people who have written quality research on counterinsurgency.
What does their academic work suggest about how they might approach the challenges they face? Felter’s work is embedded in a series of hugely influential collaborations with Eli Berman and Jacob Shapiro that focuses on how economic incentives, state violence, and service provision affect civilians’ willingness to collaborate with governments. Though the specifics vary quite a lot by paper, Berman and Aila Matanock summarize this Empirical Studies of Conflict (ESOC) approach here. Felter is comfortable with quantitative data, and especially micro-level data on fine-grained variation. Much of his work focuses on COIN, but he also played a major role building the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He does not have a background in India, or working on more traditional IR issues that the Indians will be interested in (i.e., Doklam and its aftermath).
Appropriately-provided aid is central to the COIN prescriptions Felter advances. He was part of the Afghanistan “surge” reporting to McChrystal and Petraeus, a resource-intensive offensive aiming to pull the Afghan civilian population over to the side of pro-state forces. This did not work well (as I predicted in 2009. . .); I think a lot of the aid/development-focused research assumes a set of basic state capacities that Afghanistan sorely lacks. Felter’s approach to COIN doesn’t involve itself with questions of high politics, instead advancing a resolutely micro/tactical orientation to both theory and method. Felter has been deeply embedded in the American war on terror, and he’s not exactly a bomb-tossing radical – his work is all about making US foreign interventions function more efficiently.
But even if not an ideal fit for places like Afghanistan, where state formation and core political questions are more important than how to roll out new development projects, these strategies are actually quite well suited to the kinds of places he will focus on as DASD, such as anti-Islamist counterterrorism in the Philippines and Indonesia. We should expect him to push carefully-evaluated, data-heavy development and training programs in close cooperation with partner militaries. I’d be surprised to him rocking the boat on India issues; Delhi, I suspect, will be happy with him.
Jackson’s dissertation (sadly not turned into a book, but ungated here) is far more skeptical of many aspects of COIN, and American policies in general, than Felter’s work. Like Felter he is a COIN specialist first and foremost; he’s served in Afghanistan, but is not a Pakistan/IR or India-Pakistan person. He’s also published some nice work on airpower and information operations. Jackson’s dissertation focuses on organizational dysfunction in third-party COIN operations. He is quite cynical about military organizations, arguing that left to their own devices they develop debilitating pathologies – an orientation to war that he calls the “military operational code” blends with bureaucratic defensiveness to make it hard for militaries to learn new strategic approaches to war, as opposed to endless, fancy, but empty tactical innovations.
He uses a variety of historical case studies to argue that civilian interventions into COIN campaigns are valuable for correcting these pathologies and, provocatively, that resource-scarcity can be good for COIN, since it prevents militaries burning through lots of resources in pursuit of their favored operational techniques. Money too often provides a buffer that prevents cold-eyed strategic assessments of what will be necessary to win, and so limiting resources forces innovation and strategic assessment. His focus is on constructing stable political orders, which is a different kind of challenge than reducing violence or improving operational techniques. The Models 1 and 2 of COIN that he acerbically critiques are, in my opinion, still the basic orientation of American counterinsurgency, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His Model 3 requires political bargaining and order-building that professional militaries are ill-suited to attain.
This makes Jackson’s work a very different kettle of fish than Felter’s – and a nice fit for Afghanistan, where fundamental issues of political order are more central than in a place like the Philippines. Left to his own devices, Jackson’s thesis suggests a low-footprint war in Afghanistan under close civilian control and a tight spigot on resources that mainly seeks to forge a variety of possibly-unsavory deals in pursuit of a grim stability, rather than tidy Weberian notions of a firm central state backed by unending American cash. This could be good for Pakistan, as a partner in stabilization – or bad for Pakistan, as the US does business in a much less technocratic, and more ruthless, manner than it has previously. Whether his orientation turns into DOD policy in any way, of course, is open to question, since his dissertation is distinctly different from the military-dominated approach to Afghanistan currently in vogue in the Trump administration.
Felter and Jackson are both experts with long and deep experience working on many of the issues that will occupy them in their jobs. That can only be good news for US foreign policy.