Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 8

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

Mexico's troubles: a crime problem or a war?

Some critics of the Bush administration maintained that the proper solution to terrorism was law enforcement, characterized by investigations, arrests, and prosecutions rather than wide-ranging military operations. Observers of the rapid acceleration in violence in Mexico will now get another chance to ponder this question.

There is no doubt that the violent chaos generated by Mexico's drug cartels has spilled over into the United States. On Feb. 25, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed Operation Xcellerator, a 21-month multiagency investigation that has targeted the Sinaloa cartel's operations inside the United States. Holder stated that this operation has resulted in the arrest of 755 people in the United States, the seizure of thousands of pounds of illegal drugs, and the confiscation of scores of vehicles and weapons.

The U.S. Department of State has its view of Mexico's problems: On Feb 20, it issued a travel alert to U.S. citizens, warning them about small-unit combat, large firefights, and public shootouts during daylight hours in Mexican cities along the U.S. border. According to the State Department, since January 2008 there have been 1,800 killings in Jurez, a border city with a population of 1.6 million.

Does Mexico have a really bad crime problem? Or is Mexico at war with itself and at risk of sudden societal collapse? To answer this question, we should look not just at quantitative measures of the violence (as grim as they are), but also qualitative factors.

War is a political process. The U.S. Defense Department defines irregular warfare as, a violent struggle among stateand non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. Has Mexico's drug violence transformed from solely criminal activity into a violent political struggle for legitimacy and influence? (Christian Brose, my colleague at Foreign Policy, recently pondered this question.)

Mexican President Felipe Caldern has accelerated the state's actions against the drug cartels. According to a Feb. 21 Wall Street Journal article, there were nearly 10 times as many clashes between the Mexican Army and the drug cartels during the first three years of Caldern's term as there were during the six years of his predecessor, Vicente Fox.

Caldern has chosen to send in the Army, rather than carry on with a live-and-let-live approach. He must have made this decision to defend against encroachment from the cartels on the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force. By his actions, Caldern views the struggle against the cartels as a violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.

Do the cartels' leaders also see things this way? According to the Wall Street Journal article, the cartels have organized street protests in Monterrey against the Mexican Army's intervention in the drug war. And in January, the Washington Post reported on the intimidation inflicted on a local television news office in Monterrey -- by both sides in the conflict. This indicates that both sides see information operations directed at the relevant populations and aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of the population as important pieces of each side's strategies.

Thus, Mexico's struggle against the drug cartels seems more like a counterinsurgency campaign than a fight against crime. According to the Wall Street Journal, the cartels control 200 counties in Mexico, including much of the U.S. border; generate more than $10 billion in annual revenue; and can muster thousands of gunmen, including defectors from Mexico's Army Special Forces. With much of the police suborned, Caldern has now deployed the Army, exposing its soldiers to the same corruption. The outcome of this campaign remains unknown, as are its consequences for the United States.

The U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide -- a cookbook for conquest?

This week, the U.S. State Department released the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide. The guide is the product of nine U.S. government agencies, with special thanks on the acknowledgments page given to Small Wars Journal contributor David Kilcullen. Quoting from the preface: This Guide, the first of its kind in almost half a century, distills the best of contemporary thought, historical knowledge, and hard-won practice. It is the best kind of doctrinal work: intellectually rigorous, yet practical.

But practical for what purpose? The guide appears to be a cookbook for organizing a counterinsurgency campaign. There are chapters on counterinsurgency (COIN) theories and principles; COIN strategy; actors in a COIN campaign; and COIN assessment and planning. After gaining practical experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government has now distilled the lessons of those efforts. The guide seems to lay out the practical steps for what to do after the U.S. military has removed a regime from power and replaced it with a new regime friendly to U.S. interests. Does this make the guide a cookbook for conquest?

Not so fast. In the first chapter, the guide warns that COIN

is an extremely difficult undertaking, is often highly controversial politically, involves a series of ambiguous events that are extremely difficult to interpret, and often requires vastly more resources and time than initially anticipated. In particular, governments that embark upon COIN campaigns often severely underestimate the requirement for a very long-duration, relatively high-cost commitment (in terms of financial cost, political capital, military resources and human life). [emphasis in original]

More such warnings are scattered through the document. Given Kilcullen's special contribution to its preparation, these warnings should not come as a surprise. In 2002, Kilcullen made similar warnings about the impending U.S. intervention in Iraq, warnings which later proved accurate.

In the preface, Eliot Cohen, then counselor of the State Department asserts, Whether the United States should engage in any particular counterinsurgency is a matter of political choice, but that it will engage in such conflicts during the decades to come is a near certainty.

The U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide accepts that premise, but not too eagerly.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 7 (Feb. 20, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 6 (Feb. 13, 2009)
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)

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.