Small Wars Journal

The Localization Strategy: Complexity to Adaptive Resilience 

Tue, 04/06/2021 - 11:42am

The Localization Strategy: Complexity to Adaptive Resilience 


By Pierre Jean Dehaene


The Localization Strategy (LS) is devised to assist Western expeditionary forces to navigate through the jungle of complexity with the application of local logic and energy. The name itself is a stark reminder that yesterday’s logic and success is intimately tied to yesterday’s circumstances. New eyes are needed time and again as connections keep changing the nature of things. Soldiers must learn to unlearn and military planners must learn to reset themselves to zero. The LS’ main purpose is to take as many lessons identified from inadequate Western practices in war over the past twenty years and structure them into one approach. This approach attempts to “add a pinch of spice to existing ideas and literature” and is graphically represented by the Resilience Temple. George Box famously said, ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. I hope the Resilience Temple provides a useful sequence of practicable ideas for overcoming the uncertainty and volatility of conflicts in the 21st Century.


Important note: To avoid confusion regarding referencing; the Localization Strategy (with the Resilience Temple) was written and conceptualized by the author of this paper. 


The Resilience Temple:

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This paper will unpack the Localization Strategy (LS) using the Resilience Temple (RT) illustrated above. It is well understood by now that every conflict is unique, constantly in flux, and reflects social, political, and economic trends. The choice of the word localization to name this strategy reflects the significance of exercising local logic and energy and the importance of explicitly tailored (real-time) approaches to each theatre of conflict. In other words, yesterday’s logic and success is tied intimately to yesterday’s circumstances. The term draws out the need to look at ‘conflict ecosystems’[1] with new eyes, learning to unlearn, and learning to “set oneself to zero”. Every solution is unique to the problem at hand and every problem progresses, matures, expands, and adapts. Therefore, every solution must also progress, mature, expand, and adapt. 


The Localization Strategy has nine principles[2], but only the major blocks seen in the RT will be expounded in this paper: The Human system, complexity, minimalism, the 6 pillars, and adaptative resilience. The RT aims to visualize these principles with a classical military understanding of strategy as ends, ways and means. The pillars of the strategy provide practical guidance on how to convert understanding (potential energy) of the human system to psycho-socio-organizational drive[3] – necessary for adaptive resilience. Potential energy, in this context, is comprehending the human system[4]; the foundation of the Resilience Temple (See the “means triad” discussed below). In essence it means understanding the soil in which resilience grows, then aligning tactical and strategic actions[5]


The LS has been applied in Niger now for three years by the Belgian Special Forces Group.[6] This case study will be unpacked in a forthcoming paper which will provide many practical examples and results of applying this type of approach in security force assistance operations. 


The Human System




Whenever possible, think and then act. Understand the systemic problem before solving it. Know yourself and know your biases. The use of force – to emphasize Sun Tzu – must be precise. 




The human system – the foundation on the Resilience Temple – is defined in the LS as everything within a society that influences behavior[7]: namely culture (world view), politics, and economics[8]. The following non-exhaustive list is to give a clearer idea of what is meant by understanding, absorbing, empathizing with, and untangling the human system:

  • Religion 
    • Theology vs “the church/mosque” (the gap between theology and the ideas of those who practice the religion can be very insightful).
    • Invocations of the sacred
  • Perceived physical and spiritual future[9] 
  • View and purpose of self and society 
  • Socio-economic norms and mores 
  • Informal and formal networks and perceptions of legitimacy[10]
  • Legitimization of power and the psycho-social mechanisms of influence 
  • Perceptions of current events and perceptions of history
  • Grievances – chosen glories and chosen traumas[11] 
  • Governance 
  • Ideological resonance of different groups and their narratives
  • How groups rationalize conflict, group psychology 
  • Politicized ethnic identities 
  • Tribal shame and honor codes 
  • Sources of social institutional resilience


The intention behind unpacking aspects of the human system above is to get away from common simplifications within the military when it comes to “the human domain”. I have chosen to use “human system” rather than “human domain” to align more suitably with the LS’ focus on energy and complexity. The term “system” carries a sense of complexity and connection central to understanding the entire premise of the LS. Emphasizing the characteristics of a complex system (interdependence, interconnectedness, autonomous, decentralized, non-linearity etc.[12]) in that of the human system


The human system provides the means (the knowledge) for the “strategic-tactics”[13] necessary for effectively reinforcing partner forces in the long term. In other words, the human system is the “thinking part” before the “speaking part”. It is the foundation of the resilience temple which could transform the “temple” into a castle, or fortress, or mud hut, or bamboo cabin, or yurt, or a stilt house etc[14] depending on the environment. The point is that actions must be carried out in full consideration of local logic and energy. Much more energy should be spent on understanding the problem (the system) than on finding the solution, hence the thickness (and location) graphically represented in the Resilience Temple for the Human System. Einstein famously points out that if he had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution. Conflict ecosystems are complex and understanding the problem generally leads to increased humility and measured responses. The proverb is true, the more you know the more you realize how little you know. The study of the human system offers (and continuously offers) the cognitive fuel for the rest of the Resilience Temple. 


A solid awareness of human factors is propitious for rapid adaptations and imaginative solutions. It must be said relentlessly in military education that knowledge fuels imagination. Every researcher understands that “flow” (genuine comprehension that triggers a cascade of connections in the mind) comes primarily from immersion into his or her subjects for weeks or months on end. The greatest discoveries have come from women and men who have spent thousands of hours studying, reading, and thinking. Imagination and creativity in all domains emerges from understanding the essence of things. Napoleon is known to have said that imagination rules the world and Einstein stresses that the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination. Imagination, I suggest in this paper, and for the purpose of emphasizing the importance of first understanding the human system, is the culmination of knowledge. Knowledge – arguably – that doesn’t reach imagination is incomplete.


The Resilience Temple places the human system as the foundation and the starting point of all actions directed towards the stimulation of adaptive resilience. All action, whether kinetic[15] or non-kinetics, must be grounded and connected to the human system. If, in order to regain control for example, kinetic actions must be carried out, the comprehension of the human system is the key to out-thinking the enemy. Challenging narratives, disrupting logistics, inciting confusion, maintaining initiative, and tactically disorientating the enemy all must begin with a proper understanding of the human system – the “means” of the LS. Generally, it is thought that “means” are material assets available for combat operations. Similar to broadening the idea of power with the spectrum of force, the LS also broadens the idea of “means” to be more focused on out-thinking rather than out-fighting. 


Lawrence Freedman says, ‘whatever our goals, strategy in the first instance will always be shaped by current circumstances and start with a specific problem. If there are no pressing problems at hand, there will be an absence of strategy’.[16] The human system as described above will and should shape strategy in real-time. As mentioned in the introduction, problems blend and evolve, requiring a constant finger on the pulse. The human system should be the starting point and cognitive source of the resilience temple and by consequence, act as a strategic rudder. Now a word of warning about taking the utility of the human system too far in warfare, Harry Yarger, a senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University, writes ‘strategic thinking is about thoroughness and holistic thinking. It seeks to understand how the parts interact to form the whole by looking at parts and relationships among them – the effects they have on one another in the past, present, and anticipated future.’[17] This holistic perspective would require ‘a comprehensive knowledge of what else is happening within the strategic environment and the potential first, second and third order effects of its own choices on the efforts of those above, below, and on the strategist’s own level’.[18] Freedman says this is a council of perfection – unattainable; there are only so many potential sequences of events that could be worked through in a system full of uncertainty, complexity, and chaos. Hence the importance of the “means triad” in the resilience temple (human system, minimalism and complexity) described in the complexity section below. In short, the implications of complexity bring to earth the council of perfection advised by Yarger. 


The Human Domain Model, developed by Jan Weuts, is an excellent model for explaining to senior leaders within defense and government where and why the focus is off. He explains that traditional defense departments concentrate on the direct and kinetic use of force to defeat a physical threat. Yet victory (that is winning the peace) in these conflicts, understood as such, does not result from defeating the physical threat. Victory, according to Weuts, will always occur in the human domain. Furthermore, his Human Domain Model questions traditional notions of time and space and as a consequence brings out the need to re-evaluate training, education and priorities in material acquisitions. I highly recommend reading Weuts’ masters thesis – referenced in the endnotes – as it draws out why Western military practice has focused so much of its effort in the direct and kinetic use of force.[19] The model effectively demonstrates the narrow focus of military operations and encourages a broader understanding of conflict by expanding on three other quadrants (aside from traditional direct kinetic quadrant): the direct non-kinetic, the indirect kinetic, and the indirect non-kinetic. In short, Weuts’ human domain model is the most effective tool I have come across to explain to decision makers the constricted view of war in an increasingly interconnected world.  




‘Gentlemen, we have run out of money, it is time to start thinking’ – Winston Churchill




Be resourceful, remove excesses in imported material and ideas in order to rely more on local realities. This reliance is about proximity and connection, which is essential to understanding the human system. 



This toilet paper image demonstrates the relationship between what you have and the “forced” consequence of enhanced thinking. There is something about resource-poverty that makes humans smarter. We think harder only when we have to[20]; Churchill’s quote above supports the same idea. Lawrence Freedman insists that strategy is an art that comes into play when situations are uncertain, when there is a problem, when there is a lack of resources, or when the tool is insufficient or even useless.[21] As the proverb goes – and the logical inverse of what Churchill and Freedman have pointed out – the more you have the less you see. Though this saying is philosophical à la base, it retains a strong element of strategic truth. 


The most common misunderstanding, or rather simplification, is that minimalism is solely a quantitative concept.[22] As in less is more, and less exclusively represents material and personnel. Firstly, I would like to insist that less is not always more because it is largely dependent on conditions, which should go – one would think – without saying.[23] Additionally, less is a very relative concept. Without going further into how minimalism is often misunderstood or simplified, the following section will clarify the meaning of minimalism in the Localization Strategy, as it is often misunderstood. It will start with a clear definition broken down into two parts. The rest of this section will elaborate on these parts to show how they connect to other principles and especially to the stimulation of adaptive resilience (the end-state of the LS). 


Minimalism moderates unforeseen (negative) consequences in unpredictable and volatile environments. Essentially it does two things: 

  1. removes excesses,[24] 
  2. and stimulates strategies and tactics adapted to local realities. 


There has been a great deal of discussion on light footprint approaches over the past ten years, even being referred to as a central part of US strategy in 2013.[25] The following attributes are closely associated to this “post”-Afghanistan-Iraq approach: keeping costs low, working within the constraints of the system, prevention, working indirectly through indigenous actors (by, with and through), long timelines, less entangling approaches, building and preserving networks, avoiding unilateral actions, avoiding surges, and the idea of less being more.[26] These are all valuable points to think about and many of them find themselves in some form or another within the principles unpacked in this paper. However, minimalism as a central principle in the resilience temple, has a different emphasis than the list of attributes mentioned above. As a consequence, a different grammar will be used. 


Non-intrusiveness, or rather calculated intrusiveness, is closely related to minimalism in that every conflict ecosystem – generally fragile and complex – is sensitive to input. Reducing any excess lowers the risk of triggering unforeseen second and third order effects.  Accordingly, it is a good idea to remove what Nassim Taleb defines as “noise” – that which is superfluous, and focus on “signals” – that which you need.[27] The more noise there is, the more difficult it is to detect the signals. Avoiding excess equipment and/or personnel is the first step to “material” minimalism. Concentration becomes more dispersed as the “machine” becomes bigger and more demanding of mental and material resources (often just to run itself). Minimalism, in this material sense, naturally causes increased attention and reliance on local means and processes. In fact, scarcity is a natural stimulant of strategic and tactical acumen[28]; there is no more money, it is time to start thinking. 


Minimalism is directly linked to adaptive resilience. It requires that foreign forces come in with the least “noise” possible (unless control is completely lost by local security forces). A small presence is ideal[29], but more importantly a light presence. A light presence is an attitude and mindset. The more resources (materially and immaterially) are brought in, the less local energy and logic is required of soldiers. For example: if a team only has four instructors for training a company of 150 men and women, it will have to rely on local cadres to assist them. If they do not have the necessary training material, they will have to improvise and acquire local means through local processes. The more there is reliance on partner forces in the context of security force assistance, the better. Resourcefulness is one of the pillars of the LS, an important ingredient for stimulating adaptive resilience (along with the 5 other pillars discussed below). 


Using resources that are native (and therefore sustainable) to the environment must be practiced consistently, when the context permits. Not only does this provide insight into the circumstances in which local forces must operate, but it also sets the conditions for sustainable investment. The energy put into training, equipping, advising and assisting local forces should be understood as an investment. It must pay off, and energy put into the environment must retain its value. 


Finally, looking at the graphic below, let us imagine that there is a line that represents what is thought to be needed to carry out a successful operation (equipment and personnel). It is a line that is not always reached as soldiers often have to “make do” with what is allocated. Now soldiers must still carry out their mission as best possible. They will compensate the lack of material with deeper thought (maximize the equipment they do have) and more creativity (using local resources). This “ether” of compensation, represented in yellow, is an adaptive and flexible mindset, is determination, is creativity, is self-belief, is innovation, is resourcefulness, is synchronization – all qualities at the heart of adaptive resilience. 


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The Churchill citation and the toilet paper image disclose that “thought” must compensate for lack of resources. This immaterial energy (the “ether” of adaptive resilience in the image above) is antifragile, in the words of Taleb – if used effectively, it can even gain from disorder[30], the ultimate form of adaptive resilience. 


Complexity and the “Means Triad” of the Resilience Temple


‘Imagination rules the world’. – Napoleon


‘The sense-making machinery of system one makes us see the world as more tidy, simple, predictable, and coherent than it really is. The illusion that one has understood the past

feeds the further illusion that one can predict and control the future. These illusions are comforting’.[31]  – Daniel Kahneman





Advantage from what there is (the human system), victory from what there is not (known unknowns and unknown unknowns). Understand everything by what you do not understand. 




The human system, complexity, and minimalism all make up the “means triad” (understanding the potential) in the resilience temple. On the right side of the temple you will notice “right view” describing the purpose of this triad. Combining these three particular elements for understanding the potential is very intentional and must be expounded. To reiterate, before any action is taken, the right view is indispensable. Comprehending the human system offers local knowledge (steering clear of templating and the unconscious application of yesterday’s logic), very possibly transfiguring the temple into a fortress, bamboo cabin, yurt, or stilt house depending on the characteristics of the “system”.[32] However, this knowledge is never complete and complexity is a necessary reminder of uncertainty, unpredictability, and ambiguity. Armed with local knowledge and the realization of uncertainty, minimalism – the last of the triad – concerns itself with excess baggage in the form of equipment and personnel but also, and more importantly, in ideas[33] and preconceptions about reality.


Minimalism, in the resilience temple, is the last “thought filter” before the ways[34]: or in other words, before the process of channeling the potential, unearthed by the means triad, begins. Minimalism encourages the strategic tactician applying the LS to think about the socio-political conditions of the human system and how sensitive it might be to foreign input. The means triad sets up the right view before right actions are taken. Essentially, complexity, minimalism and the human system work together to prepare and refine what is knowable for a volatile, unpredictable, and interconnected world.


Complex systems are non-linear, interconnected, interdependent, decentralized, autonomous, hierarchical and have ambiguous causal relationships.[35] Generally, disruptions lead to a series of cascading side effects that will rarely be replicated because time and space constantly act upon the system in unforeseen ways. It is essentially the dynamic connectivity of the system that makes it impossible to control through manipulation or intervention. Coping with friction (or rather with complexity) is the ultimate strategic question according to Lawrence Freedman.[36] I have replaced friction with complexity as I believe there are many strategic and tactical similarities in their consequences. Lawrence explains, in his voluminous book Strategy, that the essence of good generalship was to triumph over friction, and for our purposes to triumph over complexity. One of the major sources of Clausewitzian friction, according to Barry Watts, is imperfect knowledge and chance.[37] In complexity parlance, this is the unpredictable, the uncertain, the unknown knowns, or the unknown unknowns. Like with friction, one must understand complexity in order to overcome it whenever possible and one must also be careful to expect a standard of achievement that complexity makes impossible.[38] 


There have been those who have tried to eliminate the effects of chance and uncertainty on war by finding a set of rational principles based on quantifiable data.[39] Michael Handle uses the prisoner’s dilemma to discredit the assumption that the conduct of war can be ‘infused with the spirit of rationality’.[40] With the so-called revolution in military affairs of the 1990’s, triggered by a highly effective “precision sensor war” in Iraq, the illusion of getting rid of chance and uncertainty rapidly disappeared in Somalia and the successive wars throughout the 90s. The enemy always survives and happens to find vulnerabilities to every technological step forward. Success brings asymmetry in the words of Taleb, as now there is more to lose than to gain.[41] Without delving into the topic further, very few still believe it will ever be possible to remove chance and uncertainty from combat, to totally “control the battlefield”. 


Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon have written ‘Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Disruptive Age’, in which they discuss at length how leaders should not only survive, but thrive in this extraordinarily complex world. Taleb also encourages the idea of gaining from disorder, from disruption, from volatility, and from time – which he identifies as the ultimate stressor. How does one harness complexity, or pull down the levers that enhance complexity, or simply learn to work with it? The aim for Gowing and Langdon in their book is to thrive on change and volatility, not to be derailed by it.[42] What does this mean for military tactics and strategy? 


Planning processes should take complexity fully into account. Taleb insists that wisdom in decision making is more important than knowledge.[43] Planning processes at all levels must make space for unknowns every step of the way. Training and education must prepare and encourage soldiers to be agile and imaginative. (See below for a list of recommendations for developing a culture that can cope with complexity.)  Simplicity is a tactical pillar for providing the cognitive space for adaptability. The mind reacts much quicker when it plans for change, when it understands the non-linear nature of a complex ecosystem, resulting in unpredictable and cascading side effects. Vigilance, adaptability, and creativity make a powerful combination for overcoming the blinding problem of complexity. The strategic tactician must set the conditions for these qualities to have the space (through simplicity for example) and the sustenance (education) to grow stronger and stronger. Bottom line: train, educate, and equip to deal complexity.[44] 




Important factors for developing an organizational culture that can cope with complexity:  


  • Recognizing the unlimited human ability to ignore ignorance.[45] 
  • Things that haven’t happened, happen all the time, therefore we must learn to unlearn. 
  • Do not simplify, recognize complexity.
  • Promote imagination and creativity and promote methods to increase adaptability quotients.[46] 
  • Friction is potential energy (the future is full of it), learn to handle and morph it into positive momentum.
  • Leadership must stay connected, they must be able to “touch the ground” in order to look, listen and feel. 
    • Everyone in the ivory tower is convinced that they still see the ground. 
  • Develop learning institutions. Speed of learning must be greater to or equal to the speed of change.
  • Listen carefully to the men and women on the ground.
  • Create safe places to fail.[47] It is okay to fail, as Thomas Edison says, ‘I have not failed, I have found one thousand ways that do not work’. Discovery and failure are intimately attached. Dare to fail, grow in learning. 
  • Organizations move at the speed of trust. Promote a culture of integrity and openness. 




Breaking down the LS’ logical process results in the following: the world is unpredictable and complexity is recognized as the tactical and strategic terrain of the modern battlefield. Therefore, the purpose of knowledge becomes two-fold: to gain understanding and to fuel imagination. The aim should be to stumble upon solutions by testing and learning with an organizational culture that supports and encourages this behavior (see list above). Minimalism, like complexity to the human system, offers caution as complex systems are sensitive to input and soldiers are more aware (hence connected) as a consequence to a “forced” reliance on local conditions and resources (within reason). Having reached this point in the logical process, the next step (the ways) builds up into action (the pillars of the LS below). In conclusion, the human system, complexity and minimalism (means triad) make up a healthy combination of ideas for stimulating the conditions for strategically infused tactical actions (the 6 pillars) directed towards stimulating adaptive resilience. Adaptive resilience – the next principle and end state of the resilience temple – is the imperfect solution for a volatile, uncertain and complex world. 


Adaptive Resilience (psycho, social, and organization level)


‘As in jungle warfare, one has advantage when one accepts complexity and stops trying to fight against it by forcing it into the more straightforward polarized concept of war. The endless foliage of the jungle, like the infinite complexity of human societies, stops being an exhausting barrier to progress once one relaxes in that environment and comes to see its advantages’[48] – Emile Simpson 




How will my plans and actions – from the smallest tactical act – increase the adaptive resilience of my local partners (security force, population, or organization).  




Adaptive resilience, as the end-state in the resilience temple, is the ability of host nation soldiers being assisted (as a collective) to improve their core purpose and integrity as a security force in the face of unpredictable change and/or turbulence. Adaptation becomes key to this process, hence, for the sake of clarity, adaptive resilience was chosen to avoid the common observation that simply maintaining purpose and integrity may not necessarily involve transformation. Andrew Zollie, the author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, proposes – after defining resilience from several fields of study (engineering, psychology, business, and ecology) – that resilience is principally concerned with ‘continuity and recovery in the face of change’.[49] Nassim Taleb, the author of Anti-fragile, rightly insists that resilience defined as such is not enough for dealing with complexity. He points out that ‘the resilient resists shocks and stays the same, whereas the antifragile gets better’.[50] It should be clear that adaptive resilience is about transformation, that it implies a rate of learning and adaptation that is equal to or greater than the rate of change. 


Designing a strategy with an end-state that complements a complex world is at the heart of the LS. There are several key implications to this underlining principle: 1) Resilience is a relative concept, highly dependent on the nature of the object; 2) increased resilience will always morally align with the ultimate goal of war in liberal democratic states;[51] 3) and finally, a clear end-state makes little sense when there is little to no clarity concerning the problem. Accordingly, the LS conceptualizes the desired end-state as more of a vision or principle than a clear and measurable effect. Adaptive resilience[52] is a broad end-state in a general direction, and because it is a general direction, it can counter the effects of mission-creep that often result from trying (forcing) to reach a clear end-state that was largely drafted with a distant view of the problem. 


What makes one person or entity resilient is not what makes another person or entity resilient (even between family members). To understand resilience is to truly understand the nature (and connections) of the object or system that is being acted upon. This magnifies the direct (and real-time) relationship between the human system (often changing and complex) and the desired end-state. It also links solutions to a proper understanding of the problem, recognizing that complexity makes understanding the problem very difficult, if not impossible. Unfortunately, there is rarely enough time to gain sufficient clarity before actions are (or must be) taken, therefore it is best to have a ‘vision of change around which responses can emerge’.[53] This vision, in the LS, even through the occasional thick fog of complexity, is adaptive resilience. 


An end-state in the form of a vision allows for more adaptability, flexibility, imagination and creativity, which are also excellent skills for confronting fog and friction/complexity; in other words, reality. War is meant to bring about peace with new terms of behavior. It is meant to eventually stabilize and bring profit (first) to the winning side. For Western powers, winning the peace – the ultimate purpose of war – requires establishing conditions that win the will of the people[54] on the winning and the losing side. Otherwise, there is no winning within the normative confines of (Western) liberal rights, freedoms, and liberties.[55] Referring to strategic fixedness, there should be no caveats to applying values, especially when the fog (complexity) is thick, and setting the conditions for adaptive resilience will always be a good “direction” towards winning the people – home and away – and therefore achieving the ultimate end-state of all wars: peace in the form of submission (shorter term) or in the form of compromise (longer term).[56] 

Adaptive resilience is an ideal end-state in a complex world where liberal values rightfully cause hesitation to act with “force”. ‘Resilience provides a middle ground between over-ambitious liberal peace-building and under-ambitious stability, (re)directs attention to local resources and practices, and is ambiguous enough to be acceptable to everyone’.[57] Aside from the positive ambiguity adaptive resilience provides as a strategic direction in a volatile world, the LS simultaneously attempts to broaden and expand the idea of force to be more relevant to “wicked problems”: the strategic context of the 21st century.


6 Pillars of the Resilience Temple: 


Adapted from: Pierre Dehaene (2019), ‘The Localization Strategy: Strategic Sense for Special Operations in Niger’, (CTX Winter 2019)


The six pillars below – making up the ways (or channeling the potential) of the resilience temple – should be understood as broad “action-pillars” that provide “on-the-ground strategic direction” to assist and guide intervention forces. Fleshing out these principles and determining how they can become actionable in security force assistance operations (or more direct operations)[58] depends largely on the information provided by the human system (the bedrock of the resilience temple) and a sharp imagination.[59] The six pillars are meant to stimulate the potential generated by the “means triad”[60] in order to rouse a more resilient and adaptive psychology, organizational culture, and structure for TTPs[61] in the target audience. Each pillar below represents key “channels” of a social system (see slider image below), of course more could be added. Sliding the different channels upwards (to provide a mental picture) increases the adaptive resilience of the concerned human system (whether village, platoon, company, battalion, division, or even nation). The pillars will deliberately be described in broad lines as every environment is special. This allows for the indispensable space for interpretation and application. Therefore, the finer implications for each pillar are a study in their own right and fall outside the scope of this paper. 


Pillar 1: Harvest local strengths and skills


These skills develop in a society over time as a result of the ways in which the society interacts with its physical environment. They involve symbiotic survival skills and localized (tacit) knowledge, and can be used to understand what coping and recovery in that particular environment is about. See how force assistance can enhance, broaden, capitalize on these local strengths and skills.


Pillar 2: Strengthen local and regional relationships


This can be done by identifying social networks, prominent community influencers, strategically prominent groups, perceptions of legitimacy, and building on themes and messages that resonate with the population. Relationships are the key to overcoming destabilization. Local leaders and communities can be linked through programs and activities that are mutually aligning and mutually beneficial. As analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo put it, ‘If we are dealing with a system profoundly affected by changes external to it, and continually confronted by the unexpected, the constancy of its behavior becomes less important than the persistence of relationships.’[62] Always try to identify and link relationships that will strengthen the given human system from disruption or purpose of action.


Pillar 3: Promote positive behavioral adaptation. 


Encouraging groups to find new ways of dealing with adversity.[63]  For example, instead of following attacks with reactive violence and upheaval, trained security forces and less volatile societies should be able to produce a rapid reorganization that strengthens vulnerabilities exposed by the attack. At an individual and group level, positive behavioral adaptation also promotes a sense of self-efficacy. According to psychologist Albert Bandura, this is important because ‘people’s beliefs in their efficacy play a paramount role in how well they organize, create, and manage the circumstances that affect their life course’.[64] Leadership development is an important component of societal hardiness, and can be the glue that holds communities or organizations together when assistance forces (eventually) leave. Understanding the power of beliefs is also critical. It offers a framework from which to draw meaning and answer the “why” questions of life. A common religion or set of spiritual beliefs can greatly enhance a society’s ability to bounce back and overcome hardship. 


Example: Give instruction in a way that increases the confidence of soldiers. Building them up so that when they are confronted by new problems, they step forward and not backwards (connecting to their religious narrative, can enhance the effort). As an instructor, demonstrate that you do not know everything and that you must also use trial and error. Work through problems with them, showing that it is normal and even good to trip and fall before getting to solutions. Otherwise Western forces often unintentionally suppress the self-efficacy of partner forces with their more developed (and often unattainable) technology, wealth, education, and training. 


Pillar 4: Enhance problem-solving awareness. 


Such awareness allows impulses and feelings to be managed, and places regional conflicts within a larger picture. Some people are able to see problems—and solutions—only through their own eyes and need to be taught how to understand an event on different levels at the same time. If an actor uses force in a way that complies with its notions of justice, such as following a local tribal code, but offends observers’ or supporters’ assumptions about justice, then that actor will lose legitimacy. In war—especially in these days of constant media attention—everyone must consider how the media (or allies, or partners, or neighbors) will decide to frame actions and reactions. Problem-solving awareness utilizes reason, emotion, and especially morality in warfare to strengthen the local and international legitimacy of a partner force or community.[65]


Pillar 5: Increase resourcefulness


Sustainability can be cultivated by demonstrating and practicing resourcefulness, particularly since fragile social systems can be very sensitive to inputs, including new technologies, goods, money, and ideas (2nd and 3rd order effects are difficult to predict). Resourcefulness can both reduce the partner nation’s dependency on outside help and counteract the defeatist attitudes that can arise from a perceived lack of the “right” resources.[66] By cultivating an adaptive, creative, and make-do mindset, a society becomes better equipped for uncertainty and volatility. 


Pillar 6: Harden local networks. 


This involves identifying the vulnerabilities of networks to a wide range of possible future disruptions, ‘paying particular attention to the interfaces between networks, the boundaries between organizational responsibilities, and the connections with the [population] being served by these services’.[67]  What are the societal, economic, and political connection points that allow for formal and informal “flow” (as defined by counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen in his book Out of the Mountains)?[68] It is vital to consider the potential vulnerabilities and opportunities in cyber, telecommunications, and other critical infrastructure, and take steps to reinforce them where needed. 





The LS brings many ideas together, but essentially it is a strategy designed to maneuver in complexity. It takes the illustrative shape of a temple, but transforms as local logic and energy (the human system) are drawn up through the various conceptual filters (complexity and minimalism) to stimulate adaptive resilience. The pillars are meant to inspire tactical actions with a persistent strategic bearing. The strategic tactician must constantly assess whether energy is expended in a sustainable manner[69] – into a container (the social, economic and physical environment) that can hold and retain it. Incremental gains that properly consider the absorption and retention rates of the target audience are the way forward for deep impact.[70] Working with local logic and energy – within the constraints of Western rules of engagement and values – connects what is brought in (materially and immaterially) with what should remain


The LS is applicable on the whole spectrum of force, from indirect to direct actions. Tactical methods will change, but the strategic sense supporting those actions should remain the same. Being tactically versatile on the whole spectrum of force – capable of building rapport and persuading counterparts with words and actions while being surgically lethal with an assault rifle – is the soldier needed in the 21st century. Force (and power) is a relationship, not a possession, and it must be used – first and foremost – with strategic sense. Tactically, it can be possessed (momentarily overwhelming the enemy), strategically it cannot. In the long term, every action – whether tactical or strategic – must build towards strengthening the given human system with favorable consequences for the winning side. The blinding problem of complexity makes it difficult to know which end-state will bring advantage in the long term. For this reason, adaptive resilience is chosen as a default, not because it is a perfect solution, but because it will always be in the right direction as the picture slowly sharpens. 


The Localization Strategy must be “nested” in a more global and comprehensive strategic environment.[71] A nation employing the LS (or any strategy for that matter), must do so as a whole-of-government – in which all tools of the state are in synch. The objective (stimulating adaptive resilience), from the state’s perspective, must be aligned with its overall (ideally long term) intentions; communicating consistently – in words and actions – to the home population and nations of the world. The LS should be known and supported by all ministries, especially those that communicate and act outside the home nation. It is a strategy that speaks a similar language to that of development and foreign affairs in particular, which considering the spectrum of force outlined above, should in fact be the case. These state efforts and tools of influence must cross over and carry forward with a consistency in logic. The ministries are all extensions of the same entity: the state. Here is where the strategy is ultimately nested and where its true conditions for success lie.  


Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in the beginning of his book Antifragile, uses the analogy of wind – representing uncertainty, chaos and randomness – extinguishing a candle, yet energizing a fire. He says that one should seek to be the fire and wish for the wind. Managing and eventually harnessing complexity and uncertainty in the context of expeditionary warfare, is the ultimate objective of the Localization Strategy.  


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of any government entities.




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[1]  A term borrowed from David Kilcullen meaning ‘multiple competing entities seeking to maximize their survivability and influence’ in David Kilcullen (winter 2006-2007), ‘Counter-insurgency Redux’ (Survival vol. 48 no. 4) p. 122.

[2] Avoid creating dependencies, calculated intrusiveness, Less authority more relationship, Emphasize strategic sense over strategic effect, compress the tactical and the strategic, Synchronization and coordination, minimalism, complexity, and adaptive resilience.

[3]  To keep it simple and properly reflect the vastness of the subject, the human domain (system) in this paper is defined as everything that influences human behaviour.

[4] The human system encompasses (amongst everything else that could influence human behavior) beliefs, values, and habits of mind; legitimacy and power, cognitive diversity, narratives of glory and trauma, ideological resonance, perceived spiritual and physical future etc.

[5] The Deep Development Team (DDT) concept was conceived by the author and Jan Weuts in 2014 to provide “constant live” strategic bearing to SF teams that largely focused on tactical concerns and training (the Belgian Special Forces Group is currently standing up this capability within the operational detachment with the incredible support of Tom Van der Spiegel and Bob Dufrane). The term itself should make it clear that it is a strategic capability/enhancer as modern warfare forcefully compresses the tactical into the strategic.  The DDT will use the LS as a baseline to orient their how, why, and what as a force enhancement/sharpening capability along the whole spectrum of force for SF teams.

[7] (Admiral) William H. McRaven (2012), ‘Posture Statement of Admiral William H. McRaven, USN, Commander, United States Special Operations Command Before the 112th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee’, March 6, 2012,

[8] There are many other sub-categories often found in acronyms like DIMEFIL and PMESII but essentially the definition chosen for the LS is as simple as it is complex; like war according to Clausewitz.

[9] James J. F. Forest (2012), ‘Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria’ (JSOU Report 12-5) p. 118.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Douglas Porch (2013), Exposing the Myth of the New Way of War, p. 31

[12] See section on complexity.

[13] Term coined by Jan Weuts. Former special forces operator and innovator in the Belgian Special Forces Group.

[14] Jan Weuts metaphor.

[15] Use of direct force.

[16] Lawrence Freedman (2013), Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press: New York).

[17] Henry Yarger quoted in Freedman (2013), Strategy, p. 238.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jan Weuts (2016) Master’s thesis unpublishedExplorations into the Human Domain of Conflict: towards a model, which bridges the gap between theory and praxis’ (University of Portsmouth, UK) and a series of briefings on the human domain based on the implications of the aforementioned research.

[20] Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow carefully explains this phenomenon in great detail.

[21] Freedman (2013), p. 612.

[22] Again, making the distinction between small footprint (quantitative) and light footprint (qualitative). I have often heard officers say something along the lines of “they are sending 70 people instead of 12, so much for the light footprint approach”. It makes it seem that this approach is only about one thing, which it is not, and in fact it is much more about the tending results of coming in small, as far as attitude, creativity, resourcefulness, relying on local resources, sustainability, avoiding material-dependency, etc.

[23] The subject of my PhD is to look at the conditions (terrain factors) in which less is more and the conditions in which more is more.

[24] Determining what is “excessive” is largely subjective. It depends on the purpose and context of the mission; but one should always recall General Sir Rupert Smith’s warning about the deployment rather than the employment of force. There are at least two fronts in every mission: the frontline and the backline. For the backline (politicians and commanders at home), a mission can simply be the awaited excuse to deploy forces and material into theatre and/or to prove new concepts or equipment. This mission can be hidden behind the “frontline mission” (which acts as a smokescreen) and justified by the backline as a “win-win”. This command mindset is highly vulnerable to excesses, complicating affairs on the already complex and volatile frontline. Simplicity has always been considered a good way of confronting complexity. This is because simplicity allows the cognitive space to remain alert, analyze, and finally adapt with appropriate speed and agility.

[25] Fernando M. Luján (2013), Light Footprints: The Future of American Military Intervention, p. 5.

[26] Luján (2013), p. 21.

[27] Taleb (2012), Antifragile, p. 125.

[28] The subject of my PhD at King’s College London.

[29]  Fernando Lujan quotes a special forces officer saying ‘it’s hard to be arrogant when you are outnumbered’, p. 9.

[30] Necessity, the mother of innovation.

[31] Daniel Kahneman (2014), Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York), p. 204.

[32] This must be emphasized as in 2018 a senior officer commented that the LS would not work in Burkina Faso because the circumstances were different than in Niger. It was evident that even the name of the strategy was lost on this senior officer.

[33] Doctrines, techniques, and procedures.

[34] In the ends, ways and means strategic model offered by the resilience temple. The ways is represented by the 6 pillars explained below.

[35] Paul Cilliers (1998), Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems (Routledge: New York), p. 4.

[36]  Lawrence Freedman, (2012) Strategy, p. 89.

[37] Barry D. Watts (2012) Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, p. 6.

[38] Freedman (2012), p. 89.

[39] Michael Howard (2002), Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p. 14.

[40] Michael Handle (1989), War, Strategy and Intelligence (Frank Cass & Company: New York), p. 19.

[41] Taleb (2012), p. 152.

[42] Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon (2018), Thinking the Unthinkable (John Catt Educational Ltd), p. 273.

[43] Taleb (2012), p. 152.

[44] T.X. Hammes (2006) The Sling and the Stone, p. 272.

[45] Daniel Kahneman (2012) Thinking Fast and Slow, p. 201

[46] Abstract concept that measures the extent to which someone is able to adapt. More and more online articles and podcasts on the subject. Very interesting developments from the IQ, to the EQ, to the AQ.

[47] Gowing and Langdon (2018) Thinking the Unthinkable, p. 110.

[48] Emil Simpson, (2012) War from the Ground Up, p. 99

[49] Andrew Zollie (2013), Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, p. 7.

[50] Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012), Anti-fragile, p. 3.

[51] Winning-the-peace and bringing back balance to a conflict ecosystem.

[52] Closer to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as anti-fragility.

[53] Richard Hummelbrunner and Harry Jones (March 2013), ‘A Guide for Planning and Strategy Development in the Face of Complexity (Background Note), p. 4.

[54] ‘The hallmark of the new paradigm of war amongst the people’. Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, p. 273

[55]  The values of liberalism in the form of inalienable rights, freedoms, and liberties.

[56] That the resulting peace brings lasting advantage to the winner through changed behavior.

[57] Wolfgan Wagner and Rosanne Anholt (2016), ‘Resilience as the EU’s Global Strategy’s New Leitmotif’ (Contemporary Security Policy), p. 1.

[58] The utility of the LS is not limited to security force assistance. The spectrum of force (explained in a forthcoming paper) demonstrates all the different ways in which power can express itself. Direct action will require different tactics, but should not require a different process of strategic sense-making. The LS is a general approach for any human system in conflict; all actions are for the purposes of bringing a favourable outcome to the intervening forces. A favourable outcome, for Western forces in the 21st century, cannot be separated from a stable and sustainable end-state. Even pragmatically, Western forces do not have the patience nor the treasure to act with wanton destruction. In colloquial jargon: ‘you touch it, you own it’.

[59] By this I mean two things: 1) the 7th sense of Ramo – being able to see how connections change the nature of objects and 2) finding creative solutions with a proper balance of local logic and energy.

[60] The “means triad” works to “Understand the Potential” of the concerned human system.

[61] See ECARe Cycle in: Pierre Dehaene (2019), ‘The Localization Strategy: Strategic Sense for Special Operations in Niger’, (CTX Winter 2019).

[62] Ramo (2009), p. 176.

[63] Bearing in mind that there are many codes of conduct – shame and honor – within groups and societies that can and do increase destructiveness. These codes can play right into the hands of aggressors and must therefore be understood; there implications discussed in a way that brings the battlesphere (media, public perception, to the battlefield. 

[64] Albert Bandura (1995), Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge), p. 35.

[65] David Omand (2010), Securing the State (C. Hurst and Company: London), p. 77.

[66] For example, countering an ambush is done differently by forces who have greater means. In this case heavier weapons and perhaps air assets over head. Lacking these resources partner forces can be demoralized, demotivated, and start to think that they cannot effectively repel an ambush with their limited means. A fighting force should never go out into battle believing it cannot win.

[67] David Omand (2010), Securing the State (London: C. Hurst and Company), p. 77.

[68] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (London: C. Hurst and Company, 2013).

[69] In quantity and quality.

[70] Often times Western trainers want results that are not sustainable in security force assistance. For example, they teach everything themselves as the local cadres “don’t know what they are doing”. They want tactics and techniques to be executed at their level of expectation. They get frustrated because the human system they are working in cannot produce those desired results. Westerns forces need to set goals that are reachable and sustainable by the system they are trying to effect. Gains of 5% - considering the current potential of the target audience - should be reachable and held, setting a new baseline from which to set new achievable objectives. Either way, for security force assistance, this approach will primarily focus on developing leaders. Leaders are the key to energy retention and growth as they are the glue allowing “the vessel” (the given human system) to retain the effort and energy poured in. But again, it must be done in a way that considers the adhesiveness of the glue. The stronger the glue, the more energy and effort can be put in; the relationship is symbiotic.

[71] Remark by retired Colonel Christophe Closset in 2018, first Belgian SOCOM director of the Belgian army.

About the Author(s)

Pierre Jean Dehaene is a PhD candidate at King's College London and a soldier in the Belgian Army with a special operations background.  



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