Posts Tagged ‘strategy’

Another sad and typical story from Afghanistan:

A Marine lieutenant colonel and sergeant have died in Afghanistan in what appears to be a shooting by an Afghan policeman.  . . .

“While this is a serious incident, the actions of this individual do not reflect the overall actions of our Afghan partners,” said Marine Maj. Gen. James Laster, the International Security Assistance Force’s deputy chief of staff for joint operations. “We remain committed to our partners and to our mission here.”

We can’t win “hearts and minds” without supporting and building up an Afghan government.  And we can’t do that without recruiting policemen and soldiers.  But we really don’t know who we’re recruiting or why.  We don’t speak their language.  Even if we did, we’d be surprised at how hostile they are on account of their religion and primitivism.  The Taliban crazies and “friendly” elements in Afghanistan look much the same.

This type of thing has happened a lot lately, including in the 9 person massacre of American airmen last month. And our military always says the same thing, that this is some “rare exception.”

There is no easy answer, consistent with our impossible nation-building mission.  But there is one easy answer that will actually work to prevent this kind of horror and also restore our strategic flexibility:  Get Out! Indeed, we’re not in the more terrorist-saturated Pakistan, and obviously we have problems with al Qaeda there, but they can’t project power to us since we’re relatively far away, and yet we can still take out terrorists there from time to time, just as we do in Yemen and Somalia and other places where our forces are not stationed.  One thing is for sure:  the people we’re supposedly helping in Afghanistan hate us, frequently kill us, and we cannot trust “our partners,” all the way up to their president.

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I’m really amazed, frankly, that for ten years the commanders of US efforts have said that “we’re making progress” as things seem, more or less, not to have changed much after the bulk of al Qaeda fled into Pakistan’s western tribal regions in early 2002.

Retired Marine Bing West’s new book looks very interesting.  He basically says we’re not winning, the commanders are full of it for self-serving reasons, that our strategic assumptions are wrong, and that the best thing to do now would be to scale back the mission radically and pursue the narrow American national interest in tamping down the international terrorist component over there.

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The Deepest Cuts

I wrote not too long ago about how ridiculous it is Obama has essentially quadrupled deficit spending, and created an astronomically expensive new entitlement, while demanding deep cuts from the military.  This is undobutedly the fruit of his early 1980s, Nuclear Freeze, anti-military worldview.

I personally think the Pentagon could save a lot of money by scaling back America’s commitments around the globe quite radically, adjusting its retirement system, and changing its procurement process.  But the bigger solution must come from narrowing the mission:  we should retain power projection ability, but one focused on territorial defense, as opposed to defending amorphous “interests.”  With a few exceptions–sea lanes, nuclear proliferation, terrorist training camps–we can mostly ignore the globe’s parochial hotspots, which have little to do with us and the outcome of which will barely affect us.  It seems to me the US gets relatively little in the way of return from having forces in places like Germany, Guam or South Korea.  Let’s keep a few logistics bases, a decent number of carriers and prepositioned gear, and mostly let the world go to hell.

That said, we still need functional aircraft, tanks, or our great wealth will make us the subject to bullying and shakedowns by more militarily powerful countries.  It turns out our planes are getting very old (see below)

And yet we’ve largely scuttled the F-22, the F-35 strike fighter is on the chopping block, and the Marines this week lost their Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The latter is a particularly bad cut–unless some off-the-shelf choice is quickly chosen to replace it–as the current amphibious vehicle is super-old, slow, poorly armored, and cannot realistically last another 20 or 30 years.  Of course, the EFV’s development was super-expensive, problem-plagued, and typical (I’m sad to say) of major USMC weapons-development programs, such as the costly Osprey.


The Legacy Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle Destroyed in Iraq

You have to know a wee bit about military gear (and how old much of it is) to know what replacements are reasonable and what are not.  You also have to have a strategic vision not to allow the Pentagon to metastasize into developing capability for fighting ten wars, simultaneously, all with gold-plated leadership, retirements, and contractors.  Obama seems to have neither the necessary knowledge, nor vision, to intelligently tackle Pentagon reform, and Gates appears to be simply following the boss’s latest 90 degree turn. Both are seeking to cut crucial programs, while continuing the role of the US as global cop.

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That’s what they used to say about World War I:  you had armies of lions led by donkies.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s clear that the grand strategy–democratic nation-building in the Muslim world–will do little to make us safer from terrorism and requires an impossible tutelage of proud, xenophobic Muslims by secularized America and its military. 

Nearly ten years into Afghanistan, the place is what it has always been:  dangerous, anti-American, Muslim, and primitive.  Iraq is little better.  Yet conservatives remain optimistic, bragging even about the Iraq “victory.”  At the same time, the military plods onward, in spite of the strategic lunacy of our civilian leaders’ vision.  I confess, I was once more optimistic about the possible outcome.  Events have chastened me.  I have returned to my natural isolationism (coupled with a Jacksonian bias to the occasional, brutal retaliatory raid).  Ten years after these campaigns have begun, it’s clear that they are doing more harm than good, at least for our country and its security.

Lawrence Auster observed an important aspect of why this farce continues in a comment on the increasing focus of training Americans to build rapport with locals:

In Afghanistan and Iraq, as in Vietnam and Korea before them, the politicians assign the military a fundamentally impossible mission to accomplish. The military is told that they cannot defeat the enemy decisively, but must concede to the enemy an inviolable strategic sanctuary from which the enemy controls the tempo of combat. Moreover, the politicians place absurd restrictions on how the military must conduct operations even in the non-sanctuary areas where it is allowed to fight. Rather than resign or resist, the top brass accepts a strategy and operational restrictions that guarantee failure. This leaves the mid-level officers in the unenviable position of executing the impossible strategy under the ridiculous restrictions. Coming from a “can do” culture, the mid-level officers come up with incredibly involved and expensive multi-step plans to carry out the impossible mission. Mid-level officers who try to do the impossible are decorated and promoted; they know that if they salute, make no waves, and do their time overseas, their careers will stay on track. The few officers who realize they are executing a strategy that guarantees defeat either resign in disgust or are forced out. It is simply not in the Army’s institutional interest to lift its eyes above the level of the “intermediate steps” to the strategic level–among other things, this would bring about a profound crisis in civil-military relations, as the Army would have to refuse or resist political instructions that made no sense. As a result, the Army as an institution prospers even as it is defeated and even as the nation wastes vast amounts of money and lives trying to do the impossible.

Of course, mid-level officers are not supposed to conduct grand strategy; it’s healthy that they are subordinate to civilian leaders and also healthy and admirable that they are optimistic.  But there comes a time when some push-back is called for.  If a mission is unworkable, impossible, and will simply get soldiers and men needlessly killed, then it’s time to say something, whether in professional journals, in briefings to civilian leaders, or otherwise.  If nothing else, there is a time to say ” yes we can patrol here and there, meet with this or that village, and the like, but we do not have enough men to defeat the enemy, guaranty local security, and, further, we cannot and will not win hearts and minds, because our very presence in an Islamic land is repulsive to the people. And finally, none of these things will do anything identifiable to defeat al Qaeda or make America safer.” 

One unfortunate consequence of the incresaing “professionalism” of the modern military is its leaders’ absolute financial dependence on the government and, by necessity, prevailing political winds.  The old aristocratic volunteer officer might have been more inclined to speak out, whether against a losing campaing in Afghanistan or a meddlesome requirement to integrate women into his unit, not least because he could fall back on an inheritance and family wealth.  The modern major and lieutenant colonel is on the brink of a comfortable pension and is likely from a middle class background; to speak out to forcefully against the crazy directives coming from on high would result in penury, if not worse.  We sometimes wonder why Soviet engineers and soldiers and bureaucrats participated in their insane system year after year, in spite of the obvious lies, half-truths, destruction, and missed projections made by central planners.  There, as increasingly is the case in America, the state was everything.  In the Soviet Union, the withholding of a job, a pension, a license, a prescription, an apartment, or a degree was incalculaby destructive of the individual.   And there, as increasingly is the case in America, there were almost no resources outside the state, including private wealth, to fall back upon if one had earned the disfavor of the state.

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Ralph Peters had an excellent editorial on Afghanistan this week that I think lays out the problem with Obama’s half-surge:

Initially, Afghanistan wasn’t a war of choice. We had to dislodge and decimate al-Qaeda, while punishing the Taliban and strengthening friendlier forces in the country. Our great mistake was to stay on in an attempt to build a modernized rule-of-law state in a feudal realm with no common identity.

We needed to smash our enemies and leave. Had it proved necessary, we could have returned later for another punitive mission. Instead, we fell into the great American fallacy of believing ourselves responsible for helping those who’ve harmed us. This practice was already fodder for mockery 50 years ago, when the novella and film The Mouse That Roared postulated that the best way for a poor country to get rich was to declare war on America then surrender.

Even if we achieved the impossible dream of creating a functioning, unified state in Afghanistan, it would have little effect on the layered crises in the Muslim world. Backward and isolated, Afghanistan is sui generis (only example of its kind). Political polarization in the U.S. precludes an honest assessment, but Iraq’s the prize from which positive change might flow, while Afghanistan could never inspire neighbors who despise its backwardness.

This sounds right to me and accords with my own counsel in favor of a punitive raid concept of operations and my criticism of the facile distinctions made between Iraq and Afghanistan by Obama and other Democrats seeking to appear hawkish but also sensible and nuanced.

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Israel’s incursion into Gaza has the air of Kabuki Theater. We’ve all been here before. We’ve seen the Israeli armored vehicles sprouting menacing antennae and deadly antipersonnel weapons, the peacocking Hamas fighters and their impotent Qassam rockets, the dead Palestinian children and, in this case, the occasional dead Israeli civilian. The usual arguments have reared their heads about the need for diplomacy, restraint, proportionality, American “engagement”, European condemnation, the pressing need for a final settlement, and the like. None of these factors appear likely to change soon. The timing likely does have something to do with changes in the American political scene. The Bush administration has followed their habit of doing nothing diplomatically or publicly to embarrass their Israeli client. Why ask for permission when you know it’s forthcoming no matter what?  But even this factor likely will not change much under Obama.

The more interesting issue from my vantage point are Israeli tactics and strategy.

The Hezbollah War of two years ago had a superficially similar cause, effect, and strategy. There, in response to the capture of Israeli soldiers and continued rocket attacks–in other words, relatively serious nuisance-type threats that are far from “existential”–Israel launched a full scale war against southern Lebanon and various Hezbollah sanctuaries. Israeli followed the strategy of what may be called a deliberately disproportionate response–a strategy advocated by William Lind in response to the 9/11 attacks. However, when it was over, the final outcome was indeterminate. Israel got bogged down in the well-defended traps set by Hezbollah. Casualties quickly became an Israeli domestic concern.  The vaunted IDF proved less capable and aggressive than expected.

The operation had all the features of a hammer and anvil assault without the anvil, and the Hezbollah terrorists mostly disappeared north, disguised as civilians or otherwise. Hezbollah lived to fight another day, and when it was all over, their domestic power had increased.  Surviving the Israeli onslaught became translated as a victory in the Arab world. Normally this is a bit comic, as in the Egyptian reading of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But, frankly, since Israel aimed to cut the Gordian Knot of Hezbollah terrorism in 2006, their survival rightly was also seen as a victory in Israel’s own eyes.

So what is different about the current attack on Hamas? Here too an ongoing problem exists from the standpoint of Israeli security: the continuing annoyance of rocket attacks from a neighboring state that enjoys diplomatic support on account of the tragic case of the Palestinian people, but that is governed (when it is governed) by the most extreme of extremist groups dedicated to perpetual war against Israel. Israel’s construction of the security fence, withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, and policy of embargo suggests that Israel’s strategy to date has been to weaken Hamas’ appeal among Palestinians, while also giving Israel space within which to defend itself and also to prepare a withering assault.

At the level of grand strategy, it appears the Israeli goal is limited, merely to weaken Hamas further, reduce their prestige in the eyes of Palestinians, and tidy up the situation as best as possible before the incoming Obama administration. To the extent this is about hearts and minds, the Israelis are focusing on the minds of the Gaza Palestinians by showing the futility of the current campaign of resistance. Israel rightly recognizes that big picture political goods like creating the Palestinian Authority and supporting democratic elections  and more mundane ones like humanitarian assistance won’t change the fundamental nationalist feeling of the Palestinians, but enough blown up houses, bridges, police stations, roadways, powerplants, and people might. There has been much analysis about the “Fourth Generation” aspects of this conflict, but it appears far more like the older 19th Century “punitive raid”:  a functioning state has engaged a disorderly, ungoverned province on its border, in effect collectively punishing it to create conditions for pacification.

Are the tactics up to the job? Will the usual restraints on democratic nations’ military campaigns assert themselves? This remains to be seen. It’s not clear why this ground attack will work out better than the Lebanese adventure two years ago.  That said, there are some important differences that are worth mentioning, not least the small size of Gaza and the anvil in the form of the Mediterranean Sea.  The value of these factors remains to be seen.  It is possible, as in South Lebanon, that Hamas leaders will effectively hide underground where they are the de facto government and enjoy strong popular support, especially now as the “solidarity of the trenches” asserts itself. Other than further enraging Palestinians and other enemies of Israel and killing a few Hamas leaders, it’s not so clear that the outcome will matter in any long-term sense, particularly as the size, scope, and timeline of this invasion will almost certainly not be enough to crush Hamas in Gaza.

The use of ground forces suggests superficially that a more surgical approach is being embraced that cannot be obtained through bombing alone. After all, Israel could undoubtedly flatten Gaza based on every guess, hunch, and tip of a terrorist apparatus in Gaza if it so chose. But, like America, Israel’s commitment to “purity of arms” is often counterbalanced by its strong domestic concern for avoiding Israel casualties, and the latter goal usually asserts itself when a choice must be made between the two. There are probably more prosaic reasons for the ground invasion. The use of ground forces suggests that the Israeli military leadership has concluded some intelligence can only be gathered locally and that the costs of addressing targets solely from the air is not worth the diplomatic (and sometimes domestic) backlash. There is likely also a strategic advantage to the ground invasion: the use of tanks, APCs, and infantry (especially in the wake of their apparent misuse in Lebanon) tells Hamas and the Gaza Palestinians that Israel means business in unmistakable terms.

The grand strategy of patient attrition by the Palestinian resistance depends upon a view of the Israelis as typical westerners: decadent, impatient, likely to weary of the “colonial” struggle in Palestine, cowardly, etc. Israeli actions that contrast their own physical courage and competence with the nowhere-to-be-seen Hamas leadership may have some impact on the Palestinians, reminding them that these ineffectual rocket attacks on southern Israeli settlements are boomerang assaults that do far more harm to Palestinians. It’s noteworthy that for all the criticism of the Lebanon Campaign of 2006, things have basically quieted down there after the ceasefire.

If Hamas’ hands are tied by its own military weakness, Israel’s are tied too by its small size, the diplomatic criticism of European nations upon whom it depends for trade, and the voice of the Israeli left that will not countenance the ethnic cleansing tactics employed in 1948 and 1967. From the standpoint of Israeli security, a punitive raid is probably the wrong tool for the job, if that job is defined as ending Palestinian national aspirations and their resort to terrorist and rocket assaults. So, as in Lebanon in 2006, it remains to be seen which of the dual effects of this operation–killing some members of Hamas and reducing their prestige but also enraging numerous Palestinians and their supporters–is the more dominant outcome. In any case, this is one battle in a long war that will likely last much longer. The dominant strategic factors have not changed and will not change from this operation, unless Israel is willing to re-occupy Gaza for an extended period of time with the sole goal of rooting our the entire Hamas infrastructure. There is little reason to think that the Olmeri government and the Israeli people are willing to do so over a more-or-less containable threat of rocket attacks from Gaza.  So, even though this hammer has an anvil (unlike in Lebanon), it will not be wielded forcefully enough or for long enough to do the trick.

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Bush adopted his “compassionate conservative” agenda on the theory that the harsh rhetoric and self-consciously anti-government conservatism of Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was unpopular and unlikely to win. There may be some truth to this. But, at the same time, Bush downplayed conservative positions on everything from abortion to affirmative action. He instead emphasized his support for No Child Left Behind, help for those suffering with AIDS in Africa, and an aggressively pursued, but ultimately liberal, neo-Wilsonian agenda of democratizing the Middle East.

Elections are funny inasmuch as we don’t know whether people voted for or against someone for any particular view or position they held. Each candidate always advances a grab bag of positions ranging, which many voters do not fully understand and upon which much of the campaign machinery is designed to put a positive spin. But if anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives can succeed in such liberal states as California, does this not suggest that the libertarians have it all wrong and the social piece of the traditional conservative coalition is not only popular but the most likely wedge with which to pry away socially conservative democratic voters. Instead in the 90s and now again, many of the professional pundits such as David Frum counsel that conservatism must abandon many of its “red meat” issues while also failing to fulfil its traditional role as the “tough medicine” slowing down or stopping profligate new entitlements. Instead of elections being referenda on gun control and gay marriage, we’ll instead have dueling neologisms such as “Compassionate Conservatism” and “Change We Can Believe In.” I doubt we’ll win any of those battles, not least because some of us at least don’t want to see the welfare state expand, nor do we have much use for “compassionate” conservatism other than as the punch-line for a joke.

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