Tuesday, December 02, 2008

No Soup for You! (Please)

As alluded to in my prior post in what is now a three part series focusing on defense spending, this post will examine the topic of Pentagon spending priorities - and the larger strategic implications that stem from such allocations. In that previous post, I excerpted the following passage from Travis Sharp's piece:

The United States could take some current funding away from expensive high-tech weaponry, which may be useless in future Iraq-style conflicts, and redirect it toward enhanced intelligence, diplomacy, counterinsurgency training, language competency, humanitarian assistance, and nuclear nonproliferation programs.

A recent article by David Sanger (which Hilzoy and Publius touched on) suggests that just such a redirection could be in the works, as indicated by those selected by Obama to fill out his national security team:

[A]ll three of [Obama's] choices -- Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the rival turned secretary of state; Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander, as national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, the current and future defense secretary -- were selected in large part because they have embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena.

The shift, which would come partly out of the military's huge budget, would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.

For now, I'll echo publius' cautious optimism that Obama does, in fact, mean to follow through on such plans and that, in order to facilitate those efforts, he has surrounded himself with people whose centrist bona fides will provide some political cover. But a lot depends on just where the redirected resources flow to, and to what extent the overall expenditures can be reduced and not just diverted.

There are, unfortunately, a couple of Obama campaign pledges that should temper the already timid hope that Obama intends to meaningfully alter the national security landscape. First, Obama has suggested that he plans to continue the expansion of the size of the active duty military. From the campaign website:

Obama and Biden will complete the effort to increase our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines. They will also invest in 21st century missions like counterinsurgency by building up our special operations forces, civil affairs, information operations, foreign language training and other units and capabilities that remain in chronic short supply.

Second, and relatedly, Obama has promised to increase the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan.

These policies, if pursued in earnest, could undermine any effort to significantly reduce the prodigious size of the Pentagon budget and could render the redirection of resources a meaningless reshuffling of the deck chairs on a slowly sinking ship. Allow me to explain.

Increasing the size of the our ground forces won't be cheap, and even if Obama can succeed in trimming the Pentagon's budget with respect to high ticket items, those savings could quickly be devoured by the considerable costs of maintaining an expanded force. Further, while there are also potential savings to be realized by reducing our presence in Iraq, shifting those freed-up military resources to Afghanistan would reduce that fiscal advantage. And with little discernible benefit to be had in terms of the effort in Afghanistan.

Put bluntly, the situation in Afghanistan does not lend itself to military solutions. Even the optimists - the can-do counterinsurgency practitioners - acknowledge that Afghanistan presents a considerably more difficult set of problems than Iraq (and wasn't Iraq easy!) and will take many years to get right (if at all, and that's a big "if"). Trying to impose a centralized, Western-oriented system of governance on a country with little meaningful history of centralized rule and a dislike of foreign interference in general is a fool's errand, and one that ignores the lessons obvious from the Soviets' failed effort to remake Afghanistan with a vastly larger troop presence.

Rather, a negotiated settlement that engages the various regional powers whose interests and concerns must be addressed is the far more prudent course. Although not an easy or guaranteed fix itself, it has the advantage of not requiring enormous military commitments for the next decade or so.

The hope is that Obama recognizes the complexity of the conflict and the inadequacy of military tools to address it, and means to pursue the negotiated course rather than a troop buildup coupled with the implementation of optimized counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. The fear is that the Obama administration will be seduced by the putative efficacy of COIN doctrine and that, as a result, it will do more to realign Pentagon spending than reduce it and increase the costs of doing business in Afghanistan to such a point as to erase the savings to be had from withdrawing Iraq. The expansion of ground forces can also be seen in this light, as that is seen as a necessary prerequisite to implementing COIN best practices.

While COIN can serve a purpose in limited settings, the fundamental lesson to be derived from COIN doctrine is political: to avoid, at all costs, situations in which you would need to apply it. When some of its leading practitioners and scholars liken COIN to "eating soup with a knife" the proper take away is to order something else from the menu. Put simply, throughout post-WW II history, examples of truly successful COIN operations are few to none, and the prospects going forward aren't any brighter.

"But what about the necessary counterinsurgency operations that we must engage in?" one might ask. To which, I would hand the mic to Jim Henley:

Insurgency can’t pose an existential threat to the country. Is there a single instance of insurgency warfare conquering foreign territory? Even if you consider South Vietnam and North Vietnam to have really been separate countries, it was, as certain hawks never tire of pointing out, Hanoi’s regular Army that conquered the South. The FLN could kick France out of Algeria, but it could never rule France. Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon in the 1990s using guerrilla warfare. It couldn’t use the same tactics to drive Israel out of Galilee. Insurgencies can prevent foreign or local governments from consolidating control over the insurgents’ “own” territory. Guerrilla movements that get big enough have been able to take power in their own countries.

But they can’t conquer. Insurgency is fundamentally reactive and, if not always merely “defensive” . . . parochial. A guerrilla army swims in the sea of the people, like the man said, and foreigners make a lousy sea. Even if all “the terrorists” wanted to follow us home after we “cut and run” from Iraq, they could never have remotely the effect here that they manage in Iraq. Here they lack a sea.

By and large, a country like the United States only needs to commit to an ongoing posture of counterinsurgency if it is also committed to serial military domination of foreign populations. In fact, the United States is currently so committed, on a bipartisan basis. But that’s an unwise and immoral posture that will lead to national ruin in the medium to long term. The Iraq defeat offers one of those rare moments for real national reappraisal, an openness to genuine reform. Rather than work at getting better at executing an unwise and immoral grand strategy, let’s choose a different one.

That being said, I agree with Andrew Exum when he argues that COIN is not inherently imperialistic, but rather is typical of most military doctrines in that it is normatively neutral and the outcomes of its application are dependent on how and why politicians choose to use it. To use Exum's example:

Operational doctrine is just that -- operational. You could apply [COIN scholar] Galula to a UN-sanctioned peace-keeping mission in Haiti, and there wouldn't be anything dirty or imperialist about that. (Well, not much anyway.)

However, the "non-imperialistic" applications of COIN (stabilization operations mostly) will tend to be smaller, shorter in duration and multilateral in force composition - or, at least, we should be exceedingly wary of any operations that have the potential to deviate from those criteria. Thus, expanding our capacity to handle COIN in those limited ways, in limited settings, should not require massive new expenditures on increased troop levels and the creation of a new military and quasi-military agencies to assist the effort.

Some spending on non-military tools, and redirection away from military approaches would be welcomed. But simply changing the nature of the military spending, and continuing hopeless military adventurism, wouldn't be much of a change, believe me.

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