Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Aunt and The Nephew

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Scott McClellan had his "bring 'em on" moment at a recent press conference discussing Bin Laden's dubious offer of a truce:

The terrorists started this war and the president made it clear that we will end it at a time and place of our choosing.
Actually Scott, those terrorists kind of have some say in the matter as well don't they? I mean, can anyone envision a scenario in which the terrorists continue to attack but we declare game over? So at the very least, our choices vis a vis the war on terror are qualified and contingent. Not to make too fine a point about a little press-conference bluster, but I detected the same type of solipsistic tendencies in certain leaked portions of the Pentagon's much anticipated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Embedded in this document is the thought that we alone can dictate the terms of future armed conflict and other forms of military confrontation. Via Kevin Drum the LA Times reported:

While some new lessons will be incorporated into the Pentagon review, the spending blueprint for the next four years will largely stick to the script Pentagon officials wrote before the Iraq war, according to those familiar with the nearly final document that will be presented to Congress in early February.

Iraq "is clearly a one-off," said a Pentagon official who is working on the top-to-bottom study, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. "There is certainly no intention to do it again." [emphasis added]
What kind of strategic planning is this? The thought that you prepare for the armed conflicts you would prefer to fight, regardless of the types of conflicts you will more likely have to fight. Like McClellan, it is as if the Pentagon is saying that we will choose the time and place of our wars - unilaterally declaring that no threats akin to Iraq or Afghanistan will challenge us in the future. Got that world?

Generally speaking, however, the real world has a nasty habit of disappointing such "best-case scenario" planning. Other states and non-state actors may not be as cooperative as we would like and some uppity types may even end up emerging as threats against our wishes - however inconvenient that may be to military planners. Considering the recent flourish of saber rattling with respect to Iran, it's as if the QDR is instituting a pre-emptive, self-imposed limitation on the means available to deal with that country. Regime change and prolonged occupation will either be off the table, or instead subject to the same mistakes, structural weaknesses and logistical shortcomings that we are encountering in Iraq.

Regarding the Iraq war as an anomaly is in some ways convenient for Pentagon civilians and uniformed officers. An armored assault across miles of desert is hardly the vision that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's civilian team laid out when it took over the Pentagon five years ago. At the same time, the human and financial costs of the war have made many senior generals eager to turn the page on Iraq.
Noah Schactman of DefenseTech has some additional insight on leaked portions of the QDR and how they relate to the general tenor of the strategic outlook:

But [asymmetrical threats do] not require, apparently, a wholesale change of direction. Terrorist-type threats will get some new attention. But the Defense Department isn't about to optimize for that threat, the way it did for the Soviet Union. Big money will continue to be spent on fighter jets designed to duel with the Soviets and destroyers designed for large-scale ground assaults. Grunts on the ground won't get much more than they do now. The war on terror may be "long." But, apparently, it's not important enough to make really big shifts.
[See, also, the always informative Armchair Generalist here and here for more QDR related information].

The Crazy Aunt In The Attic

There is an old truism that the US military establishment is always planning to fight its last war. There is one huge exception to this axiom, however. One war has been treated like the crazy aunt in the attic that everyone would rather ignore: Vietnam. After Vietnam, the Pentagon by and large decided that it didn't "want" to do large scale counterinsurgency again. So instead of dedicating its intellectual assets and monetary resources to studying those types of conflicts and developing comprehensive strategies to handle them, leadership instead opted to shift focus to big conventional war topics. Why bother with counterinsurgency when the leaders in the Pentagon would rather fight other types of wars? Sound familiar? Well, the crazy aunt's nephew might be taking a room next to her's in the near future.

Thomas X. Hammes, the author of The Sling and the Stone, saw this institutional neglect up close and personal. Hammes joined the Marines after the fall of Saigon and, by his own admission, became fascinated with the Vietnam war and the larger strategic arena of counterinsurgency/guerilla war that persisted (albeit in much smaller form) through much of the 1970s and 1980s. But he faced institutional resistance every step of the way, as his superiors and advisors constantly tried to steer his course of studies away from such out of fashion areas to more traditional and well received topics such as land war in Europe. Hammes eventually prevailed, sort of, but his work languished in relative obscurity for decades - even his seminal work on the subject couldn't find a publisher until after the Iraq war began and people recognized the demand for such thinking.

Kingdaddy, who has recently penned two series on counterinsurgency that are amongst the best scholarship in the blogosphere, had a similar experience. From his bio:

For all the attention paid to past conflicts (the American Civil War, World War II, the Napoleonic Wars, etc. etc.), for all the time spent on planning for the next war (a nuclear conflict with the USSR, another conventional war in Korea, etc.), very few people took seriously the wars we were already fighting. These were the "little wars," in which US interests weren't threatened by Soviet missiles or Korean armored divisions, but by as few as a dozen or as many as thousands of dedicated revolutionaries and their supporters. These were people equipped with small arms, organizational and tactical smarts, and a great deal of patience and cleverness. And they were causing us grief in practically every part of the world, from Vietnam to El Salvador, from Lebanon to Angola.

So, I focused my research in grad school on these little wars, and one major factor why we did so poorly in them: we were not trained, organized, or equipped for these conflicts. If the wars we were really fighting, against terrorists and guerrillas, really involved serious national security concerns, then we needed to do something more serious than we were at the time.

Unfortunately, when I finished grad school, my ambitions to be an academic, think tank researcher, or government worker of some stripe ran aground on two hard realities: (1) the recession around 1990 and 1991, and (2) the complete disinterest in this issue, from the university classroom to the Pentagon briefing rooms. [emphasis added]
But such ignorance came at a cost. Despite the bitter aftertaste of Vietnam, and the reluctance on the part of many to want to examine that painful chapter in greater detail, America's overwhelming military might made such conflicts almost inevitable. Hammes wrote this in his book:

4GW (Fourth Generation Warfare) is the only kind of war America has ever lost. And we have done so three times - in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. This form of warfare has also defeated the French in Vietnam and Algeria, and the USSR in Afghanistan...As the only Goliath left in the world, we should be worried that the world's Davids have found a sling and stone that work.
Yet surprisingly, American forces were caught off guard by their awkwardly termed "catastrophic success" in Iraq. Unaware of the likelihood that Saddam's forces wouldn't cooperate by lining up like good little soldiers in a conventional slugfest with the most dominant conventional military force the world has ever seen, the US military missed early opportunities to combat the insurgencies. Rather than WMDs, American military personnel found Saddam's Iraq littered with books penned by Vietnamese counterinsurgency experts. They were preparing to take on Goliath the only way they could.

But think about that for a moment. If you were an Iraqi military planner, what would you do? Seems blatantly obvious doesn't it? But somehow the war's planners never put themselves in Iraqi shoes - or boots so to speak. Not only was America's military brass initially caught flat-footed by what should have been the most predictable response from Iraq's military, it took many months for senior leadership to realize and acknowledge this reality. James Fallows wrote this in a recent article for The Atlantic Monthly:

By late 2003 the United States had lost time and had changed identity, from liberator to occupier. But in its public pronouncements and its internal guidance the administration resisted admitting, even to itself, that it now faced a genuine insurgency - one that might grow in strength - rather than merely facing the dregs of the old regime, whose power would naturally wane as its leaders were caught and killed. On June 16 Army General John Abizaid, newly installed as centcom commander, was the first senior American official to say that in fact the United States now faced a "classical guerrilla-type campaign." Two days later, in congressional testimony, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, seemed to accept the definition, saying, "There is a guerrilla war there, but ... we can win it." On June 30 Rumsfeld corrected both of them, saying that the evidence from Iraq "doesn't make it anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance." Two days after that President Bush said at a White House ceremony that some people felt that circumstances in Iraq were "such that they can attack us there. My answer is, Bring them on." Meanwhile, the insurgency in Iraq grew worse and worse.
Many went scrambling for counterinsurgency texts collecting dust on bookshelves when such reading should have been required many months prior to the invasion - or over the course of the prior four decades. Packer wrote in The Assassin's Gate that when General George Casey took the reins from General Sanchez in Iraq he immediately asked who his top counterinsurgency expert was. He was told that there wasn't one.

Fallows' article details some of the shortcomings that stemmed from the "behind the curve" rush to get up to speed on Counterinsurgency Warfare 101. Some of his observations seem to presage the ultimate tone of the QDR:
In many other ways the flow of dollars and effort shows that the military does not yet take Iraq - let alone the training effort there - seriously. The Pentagon's main weapons-building programs are the same now that they were five years ago, before the United States had suffered one attack and begun two wars. From the Pentagon's policy statements, and even more from its budgetary choices, one would never guess that insurgency was our military's main challenge, and that its main strategic hope lay in the inglorious work of training foreign troops. Planners at the White House and the Pentagon barely imagined before the war that large numbers of U.S. troops would be in Iraq three years later. So most initiatives for Iraq have been stopgap - not part of a systematic effort to build the right equipment, the right skills, the right strategies, for a long-term campaign. [...]

In sum, if the United States is serious about getting out of Iraq, it will need to re-consider its defense spending and operations rather than leaving them to a combination of inertia, Rumsfeld-led plans for "transformation," and emergency stopgaps. It will need to spend money for interpreters. It will need to create large new training facilities for American troops, as happened within a few months of Pearl Harbor, and enroll talented people as trainees. It will need to make majors and colonels sit through language classes. It will need to broaden the Special Forces ethic to much more of the military, and make clear that longer tours will be the norm in Iraq. It will need to commit air, logistics, medical, and intelligence services to Iraq - and understand that this is a commitment for years, not a temporary measure. It will need to decide that there are weapons systems it does not require and commitments it cannot afford if it is to support the ones that are crucial. And it will need to make these decisions in a matter of months, not years - before it is too late.

America's hopes today for an orderly exit from Iraq depend completely on the emergence of a viable Iraqi security force. There is no indication that such a force is about to emerge. As a matter of unavoidable logic, the United States must therefore choose one of two difficult alternatives: It can make the serious changes - including certain commitments to remain in Iraq for many years - that would be necessary to bring an Iraqi army to maturity. Or it can face the stark fact that it has no orderly way out of Iraq, and prepare accordingly.
While the QDR does contain certain elements of these recommendations (a nod to language training, special forces build-up, etc.), by and large the portions of the document made available thus far show the same symptoms as the Vietnam hangover. Rather than shift the thinking and allocation of resources to the more complex, less decisive arena of fourth-generation warfare (where the outcomes are less certain as is our advantage), the Pentagon would rather pretend as if Iraq didn't happen, isn't happening and won't happen again in the future. To a certain extent, this is understandable from a human nature point of view: Why voluntarily plan for a type of conflict that reduces our advantage?

That is not a viable strategy, however. While we might prefer it, future conflicts will not always begin or end at the time and place of our choosing. The failure to plan and expend resources accordingly is myopic folly on a grand scale.

[ed note: I fixed an innaccuracy that appeared in the first draft which read "when Abizaid took the reins" when it should have read "when General George Casey took the reins"]

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