Small Wars

This Week at War

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

Afghan troop request? Approved. Afghan strategy? Not pre-determined.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, to join the 38,000 U.S. troops already there. These reinforcements will deploy in Afghanistans south, where General David McKiernan of the U.S. Army, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, confessed that his forces have achieved only a stalemate.

In his statement on the Afghan deployment order, President Obama declared that [t]his troop increase does not pre-determine the outcome of the strategic review of U.S. policy for Afghanistan and the region. However, in the same statement, President Obama asserted that, [t]his increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.

Whatever the results of the strategic review, and whatever U.S. goals for the region turn out to be, President Obama and his staff have concluded that Afghanistan will get more U.S. ground combat forces. What also seems likely is that Iraq will get fewer -- according to the Pentagon, the Marine and Army brigades that are now headed to Afghanistan had been slated for duty this year in Iraq.

U.S. military logistical and operational planners are now reworking the global movements during 2009 of thousands of troops and hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment, supplies, airlift sorties, and shipping. But, be assured, that will not pre-determine the outcome of any U.S. strategy reviews.

Preparing for hybrid warfare

When those U.S. reinforcements arrive in southern Afghanistan, what can they expect? General James Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps is the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command and is the leader responsible for preparing and training U.S. military forces before they deploy to Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere overseas. General Mattis and his staff have the responsibility for anticipating the kind of environment U.S. forces will find themselves in and ensuring that they are properly trained for that environment.

What is General Mattiss guidance? One part comes from a document Joint Forces Command released in January, titled Capstone Concept for Joint Operations. What does this pamphlet have to do with southern Afghanistan?

Capstone Concept for Joint Operations requires U.S. military forces to master not only combat, but three additional activities: security (protecting the local population, a basic requirement of a counterinsurgency campaign); engagement (training and supporting indigenous military and security forces); and relief and reconstruction.

Capstone Concept for Joint Operations declares that these competency requirements are not just for elite special forces troops, but for all general-purpose U.S. military forces. In a recent edition of This Week at War, I noted the complaint of one U.S. Army captain currently serving in Iraq who observed that the recent Army school he attended did not prepare him to be the pentathlete duty in places like Iraq and Afghanistan now requires.

General Mattis believes life for U.S. military leaders will only get tougher. In a recent speech delivered at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Mattis noted that he and his staff are studying the Israeli-Hezbollah clash in the summer of 2006.

This conflict, Mattis explained, was a significant example of hybrid war. Hezbollah, a non-state actor, employed an eclectic and effective mix of high technology and rudimentary irregular warfare tactics. In addition to the now-expected irregular warfare tactics of hiding amongst a civilian population and employing roadside bombs, Hezbollah also employed late-generation guided anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, electronic and cyber warfare techniques, and a masterful information operations campaign designed to influence the international media.

Being a military pentathlete wont be enough, it seems. By Mattiss reckoning, in the very near future, U.S. military leaders must be accomplished decathletes if they are to prevail against savvy hybrid opponents.

Will the U.S. receive a nasty postcard from Mumbai?

Is urban terror, where swarms of suicidal attackers simultaneously assault several targets in the heart of a city, the grim face of the future? Last November, ten suicide raiders from the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group pinned down India security forces in Mumbai for days and killed 179 people. Last week, Taliban suicide attackers hit three government buildings in Kabul and killed at least 20.

Writing in last Saturdays New York Times, John Arquilla, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, predicted that, Yes, the swarm will be heading our way, too. Writing at Small Wars Journal, John P. Sullivan, a career police officer in Los Angeles and Adam Elkus, a research analyst, also believe the U.S. risks getting a postcard from Mumbai, when they wrote:

There are disturbing possibilities for paramilitary terrorist sieges in America. We are fixated on the possibility of weapons of mass destruction terrorism, but ignore the simpler methods of operational swarming and siege in major cities. While the success of the Mumbai terrorists came in large part from the tactical and operational inadequacy of Indian law enforcement response, it is easy to imagine a small group of terrorists creating multiple centers of disorder at the same time within a major American city in the same manner. An equally terrifying scenario is a Beslan-type siege in school centers with multiple active shooters. Paramilitary terrorists of this kind would aim for maximum violence, target hardening, and area denialcapabilities that many SWAT units would be hard-pressed to counter.

Forget about suitcase nukes, white powder in envelopes, or airplanes as missiles. A low-tech gun battle simultaneously played out in several cities would attract the kind of attention many terror groups crave. Sullivan and Elkus discuss another possibility where attackers target key urban infrastructure nodes, such as water pumping stations, telecom relays, or electrical sub-stations.

What can cities and their residents do to defend themselves? Arquilla recommends abandoning a centralized response he claims the U.S. government favors. Instead, he urges civil authorities and the police in U.S. states, cities, and towns to take responsibility for their own preparations.

More broadly, Sullivan and Elkus assert that it is up to the citizens themselves to stand up for their cities, not in an armed fashion, but in a moral sense, by taking responsibility for the citys culture and its public spaces: They contend that, [t]his is the ultimate form of resilient security infrastructure, as it draws its strength not from masses of barbed wire or bunkers but the energy and creativity of the people.

We can only hope that these theories are not tested any time soon.

Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 6

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

General Petraeus's shopping list for Afghanistan

Yesterday, Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Kabul from Pakistan to continue his listening tour in the region. Had Holbrooke arrived the day before, part of his listening tour in downtown Kabul would have included the sounds of exploding bombs and small arms gunfire, as Taliban suicide raiders simultaneously attacked the Justice and Education Ministry buildings, along with the directorate for prisons. At least 20 were killed and 57 wounded in the attacks.

Earlier in the week, General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command and Holbrooke's partner, spoke at the annual Munich Security Conference. He titled his speech, The Future of the Alliance and the Mission in Afghanistan. In his remarks to an audience heavy with ministers from the NATO alliance, General Petraeus did not elaborate on his speech's title; he never explicitly linked the outcome of the campaign in Afghanistan to the survival of NATO as a useful military organization. Perhaps on that score, nothing more needed saying.

General Petraeus did offer up a shopping list of what he believes the U.S., European, and Afghan government forces will need to conduct the counterinsurgency campaign he believes will be required to salvage the deteriorating situation. Here is what he asked for:

It is, of course not just additional combat forces that are required. ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] also needs more so-called enablers to support the effort in Afghanistan - more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms and the connectivity to exploit the capabilities they bring; more military police, engineers, and logistics elements; additional special operations forces and civil affairs units; more lift and attack helicopters and fixed wing aircraft; additional air medevac assets; increases in information operations capabilities; and so on. Also required are more Embedded Training Teams, Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams, and Police Mentoring Teams, all elements that are essential to building capable Afghan National Security Forces.

General Petraeus delivered his shopping request to the NATO ministers in the audience. But he no doubt intended his bosses, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama, to also receive this list and study it.

On Tuesday, in remarks to the Pentagon press corps, Secretary Gates said that President Obama would decide, probably in the course of the next few days, what additional U.S. forces he will send to Afghanistan this year. Secretary Gates also pointed out that President Obama will have to make his decision before the administration completes its formal review of Afghanistan policy, if those additional forces are to arrive in time to be of use this year.

The reality imposed by military logistics planning and by Afghanistan's weather seem to be trumping the Obama administration's deliberate planning process. General Petraeus has listed what he requires for a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. President Obama may have to commit to that campaign before he and his staff have had time to think through the issue.

You really have only one choice

One man who has thought through a strategy for Afghanistan is David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer, in 2007 a top counterinsurgency advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq, and a popular contributor to Small Wars Journal (I took note of Dr. Kilcullen in last week's post). On Feb. 5th, Kilcullen delivered testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what America's strategy should be for Afghanistan.

In his testimony, Kilcullen described Option A, a painful and expensive counterinsurgency and nation-building effort that would likely run for 10 to 15 years. Option B is a narrower strategy focused on counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda.

Kilcullen asserts that Option A, in spite of its costs, is the only plan that will work. He explains that the United States cannot sustain a plan that uses Afghan territory as a forward operating base for counterterrorism missions, while ignoring Afghanistan's development, governance, and welfare. Kilcullen reminded the committee that counterterrorism operations require useful intelligence to be successful. Without positive interaction with the local populace, Kilcullen argues, there will be little actionable intelligence. Therefore, according to Kilcullen, in order to prevent the eventual re-establishment of a terror sanctuary in Afghanistan, nothing less than a full-blown counterinsurgency and nation-building effort will do.

Readers of Kilcullen's testimony at Small Wars Journal had some strong reactions to his remarks, both in criticism and in defense.

Does technology make a difference in small wars?

Does any of the Pentagon's vast spending on technology have much relevance to the dusty, irregular wars America's infantrymen are now fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq? Secretary Gates himself has demanded that military technologies designed to prevail over the next peer competitor also be useful in small, irregular conflicts.

Big wars against peer threats call for military forces and weapons that can mobilize massive amounts of surveillance and firepower, usually for a limited period of time. Irregular conflict, by contrast, typically requires long periods of persistent surveillance, accompanied by modest amounts of firepower waiting for long periods to be called on short notice. Weapon systems and military organizations designed for one task may not be very effective at the other.

The U.S. Army's large and expensive Future Combat System (FCS) program was originally designed to provide the Pentagon with a capability to deploy heavy ground combat power over long distances on short notice. In this article at Small Wars Journal, Victor Rosello, a retired U.S. Army colonel, describes how some of the FCS program's technologies, especially its sensors and communications capabilities, have been adapted to be useful in small, irregular wars.

Similarly, the U.S. Navy is now finding that it has to change some of its techniques and weapons platforms in order to remain relevant. Writing at the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings (subscription required), Lieutenant Commander Kevin Volpe of the U.S. Navy discusses how the Navy needs to change the way it mans and operates its aircraft carriers if the Navy is to better support those infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 5 (Feb. 6, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 4
(Jan. 30, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 3 (Jan. 23, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 2 (Jan. 16, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 1
(Jan. 9, 2009)