Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 3

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

President Obama and the co-existence doctrine

This week, the world witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. If opinion polls and the views of the global media are accurate indicators, much of the world is happy to see President Obama installed in office, and equally pleased to see the back of former President George W. Bush.

The world's happiness at this change is presumably tied to an assumption that the United States will have a new foreign policy, one based on realism. In his inaugural address, Obama pledged to work with the world as he finds it. The new president said:

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Obama thus seems willing to accept the nation-state system as it is. This new attitude should be a relief to foreign governments, both authoritarian and democratic, many of which found the Bush approach to democracy promotion either destabilizing or illegitimate.

If the Obama administration is now supporting a new era of coexistence, it will please Col. David Maxwell of the U.S. Army, a career Special Forces officer and a contributor to Small Wars Journal. In his Proposal for a Unifying Strategic Doctrine for National Security, Colonel Maxwell proposes retiring the negative lexicon of the [global war on terror]/Long War and replacing it with a positive strategic doctrine he calls Co-existence. How does Colonel Maxwell define Co-existence?

A doctrine of Co-existence recognizes that each nation-state must be in charge of its own security and while friends, partners, or allies can provide external support, in the end a nation must assert its sovereignty and protect itself. The U.S. or another country cannot win a counter-insurgency fight in another nation's territory. It can only provide external support to that nation fighting against lawlessness, subversion, or insurgency. ... A doctrine of Co-existence recognizes that a nation's security can be protected by like-minded nations working together to protect the nation-state system and nations' sovereignty.

As the painful experiences of this decade have reminded us, the United States can succeed in irregular warfare only when it works through, by, and with indigenous forces, hopefully those of a legitimate government.

However, we are in an era when the power of nonstate actors is growing, and the authority of many nation-state governments is dwindling. This opens up opportunities for both nation-states and nonstate actors to game the nation-state system. For example, inside Pakistan, powerful nonstate actors function in parallel with the legitimate government, and very likely with the approval, support, and protection of certain factions within that government. The Iranian government has provided support for nonstate actors within the territory of other nation-states, a practice also followed by many other governments in many other places. Support of proxy nonstate actors is a long-standing method used by nation-states to achieve goals when other methods are unavailable or impractical. A policy of Co-existence with nation-states might leave open some gaps if some of those nation-states are bypassing the nation-state system to advance their own interests.

Withdrawing from Iraq: too slow or too fast?

On Wednesday, Obama met with his national security team to discuss how to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq. Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch argues that Obama should stick as closely as possible to his campaign pledge to remove all combat forces within 16 months. Why? Lynch reminds us that on July 31, Iraq will conduct a national referendum to approve or reject the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Lynch fears that if the United States drags its feet on troop withdrawals, the Iraqi electorate might reject the SOFA, resulting in a large setback for U.S. interests.

On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker warned that a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops runs some very serious risks. According to Crocker, if a rapid withdrawal results in a loss of confidence, Iraq's citizens might pull back, dig the trenches, build the berms, and get ready for what comes next. Crocker, a career Foreign Service officer, will retire in two weeks.

What are the military problems concerning withdrawal from Iraq? Col. Robert Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army officer and a contributor to Small Wars Journal, identifies two in his piece Transition in Iraq: Withdrawing the BCTs (brigade combat teams). The first problem, large, but straightforward, is recovering millions and millions of tons of U.S. equipment that the U.S. government does not want to leave behind with the Iraqis.

The second problem, more complex than the first, is to reorganize the U.S. command in Iraq from a traditional field combat command to an organization that focuses purely on support and advice to the Iraqi government and its security forces. The U.S. military has experience with both hauling tonnage and advising military counterparts. But the size of the task in Iraq, along with the time pressure the Obama administration might apply, may make the transition in Iraq especially challenging.

Was deterrence restored in Gaza?

The Israel Defense Forces have ceased fire in Gaza and withdrawn from the territory. Israel's policymakers will now have to evaluate what was achieved.

The cease-fire in Gaza occurred due to separate unilateral decisions by the Israeli government and Hamas's leadership. International brokers did not seem to play a part. Nor does it appear that international observers will arrive in Gaza to supervise a cease-fire or to monitor Hamas's possible reconstitution.

Similarly, Israel's offensive has apparently failed to halt smuggling into Gaza through the tunnel network extending into Egypt.

Hamas's leadership remains intact; Hamas retains the capability to reconstitute its military potential; and there are no international monitors to supervise a cease-fire. All that remains is an Israeli hope that the pain they have inflicted on Gaza will be sufficient to affect Hamas's future decisions.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 2 (Jan. 16, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 1
(Jan. 9, 2009)

Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 2

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

What's the plan for Afghanistan?

What is the incoming Obama administration's plan for Afghanistan? According to a story in this week's Washington Post, President-elect Barack Obama's national security team needs more time, until at least April, to come up with the parameters of a new strategy. Although lacking a plan, Obama still intends to sharply increase in 2009 the number of U.S. soldiers in the country, from about 32,000 today to more than 50,000 later this year.

As the Obama team attempts to achieve a consensus, both among its members and with the NATO allies also fighting this war, what will the additional U.S. troops do after they arrive? The Los Angeles Times reported on a debate between factions within the Pentagon on what the mission should be for these soldiers. One faction, representing counterinsurgency theorists, is recommending using the additional soldiers to protect as much of the Afghan population in urban areas as possible. The other faction recommends deploying the soldiers to rural areas near the Pakistani border to cut off infiltration from militant sanctuaries there.

The Small Wars Council had a gloomy view of the transition on Afghanistan policy. Participants stirred up memories of Lyndon Johnson's handling of Vietnam policy after the death of John F. Kennedy. And the debate over urban protection versus securing the Pakistani border brought to mind postwar analyses of the Soviet Army's failure in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Let's think through the plan first, and then reach for the toolbox

Don't let your tools, especially your fancy gadgets, determine your strategy, warns H.R. McMaster, a colonel in the U.S. Army (selected last year for promotion to brigadier general) and a top advisor to Gen. David Petraeus. In an essay in World Affairs Journal, Colonel McMaster explicitly bundles Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan into one package.

With all three conflicts, Colonel McMaster concludes that top U.S. decision-makers failed to account for the human element, including cultural, tribal, and political identities, in those conflict zones. Instead, American leaders adopted strategies driven by U.S. technological advantages (mostly air power), such as graduated pressure during the Vietnam War and rapid decisive operations during the early periods of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In all three cases, U.S. policymakers hoped that American technological advantages would influence the adversary's decision-making, resulting in a rapid and cheap success for U.S. policy.

A discussion of Colonel McMaster's essay at the Small Wars Council described how top American decision-makers in all three cases received warnings beforehand from cultural experts well versed in the human dimensions of the looming conflict zones, yet opted to downplay these warnings. The allure of an easy technological answer, Colonel McMaster argues, trumped the alarms sounded by the human element experts.

Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap of the U.S. Air Force asserts in an essay at Armed Forces Journal that manpower-intensive, large footprint campaigns such as those the United States fought in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are no longer politically acceptable to the U.S. electorate. Dunlap concludes that if it is no longer politically possible for the United States to deploy large numbers of general-purpose ground forces for counterinsurgency or stabilization missions, it is unwise for defense planners to remold their forces for these very scenarios.

When confronting irregular warfare challenges, if technological fixes are ineffective and manpower-intensive ground campaigns are politically infeasible, what remains in the Pentagon's toolbox? Critics of the technocentric approach to warfare, such as Colonel McMaster, blame defense planners of the 1980s and 1990s for leaving the U.S. military unprepared for the challenges of this decade. Are today's defense planners also leaving policymakers without effective options?

Obama's team moves into the Pentagon's policy shop

Michele Flournoy, co-founder and president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank, will be the next U.S. under secretary of defense for policy (Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks is a senior fellow at CNAS). Flournoy served in several high policy positions in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration and was a professor at the National Defense University. According to several news reports on the transition at the Pentagon, many of Flournoy's colleagues at CNAS will serve under her at the Pentagon or will move to the State Department.

One official who seems to be staying at his post, at least for now, is Michael Vickers, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities. Vickers is most famous for having organized weapons support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets while he was a CIA officer, as depicted in Charlie Wilson's War. Before that, Vickers was a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and a combat veteran of Central America and the Middle East.

Vickers came to the Pentagon after Robert Gates took over the department from Donald Rumsfeld. A Washington Post story from December 2007 described a very long list of duties Gates and Eric Edelman, the outgoing head of policy, have assigned to Vickers. Items on the list include planning and supervising the United States' global counterterrorism operations; various partnerships with foreign military forces; retooling U.S. conventional forces for low-intensity and counterterrorism operations; and modernization of U.S. nuclear forces.

With a new boss in Flournoy, will Vickers retain his long portfolio of duties? Will Flournoy keep Vickers, or does she have a replacement in mind? Or does Vickers have a special relationship with Secretary Gates?

In this era of persistent irregular conflict, Vickers's office is more important than ever -- we'll be watching closely to see what happens.

These are just the highlights from an average week at Small Wars Journal. Small Wars Journal collects the latest news, thinking, and discussion on the world's small wars. It is a forum for discussion and debate. We look forward to hearing from Foreign Policy's readers.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 1 (Jan. 9, 2009)