Small Wars

This Week at War

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

April 24, 2009
Attacks begin on the Afghan war consensus

On April 21, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander in both Afghanistan and Iraq, spoke at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Petraeus used his speech to explain the differences between the two countries, differences that call for unique strategies for each.

It will be very difficult, and you won't see the dramatic turnaround that we have seen in Iraq, Petraeus warned. But he asserted that there is a nearly universal understanding of why the United States is fighting in Afghanistan. After all, he said, There is absolutely no debate about the fact that that is where the 9/11 attacks came from.

Writing at Small Wars Journal, Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, accepts neither the consensus about the worthiness of the war in Afghanistan nor the logic inferred by Petraeus. In his essay, Finel argues that keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan does nothing to prevent another 9/11-type attack on the United States -- the 9/11 attack was simple to plan, inexpensive to fund, and required no sanctuary in Afghanistan to organize. Thus, counterterrorism is not a logical justification for the war in Afghanistan. Finel sums up his conclusions with this passage:

[W]e need to acknowledge that there is virtually no compelling evidence that military occupation of Afghanistan provides any significant protection against terrorist plots, even those arising from Afghanistan itself.

Regime change and military occupation can control the development of conventional military capabilities and of WMD programs that require a large physical plant to implement (notably nuclear programs). However, these sorts of interventions have minimal counterterrorism benefits because terrorist attacks rarely require state-level support to be effective.

What remains to be seen is whether the argument put forth by Finel will become more popular if the escalation in U.S. casualties predicted by Petraeus occurs this summer.

Heretofore, Afghanistan has been this decade's good war. If that is so, is it because of the reasoning put forth above by Petraeus? Or because the Bush administration kept the effort small? Or because the Iraq war quickly claimed the bad war title for itself?

What the Obama administration needs to wonder is whether its wind-down of the U.S. effort in Iraq will open up a vacancy in the bad war position. If there will be such a vacancy, there are those who would like the Afghan campaign to fill it.

Do Defense and State need a marriage counselor?

Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), widely deployed now in both Afghanistan and Iraq, are a key device for improving local governance, institutions, physical infrastructure, and economic development. As such, they are an important part of the U.S. exit strategy from these conflicts. But if the PRTs are to deliver stable governance, economic growth, and a U.S. exit from Iraq and Afghanistan, the PRTs have to first sort out some internal culture conflicts of their own.

Colonel Michael F. Scotto and Jason Alexander, both members of the Salah ad Din PRT in Iraq, wrote an essay for Small Wars Journal directed toward young military officers headed for Iraq or Afghanistan who will come into contact with PRTs and their operations. The purpose of their essay is to acquaint these young military officers with what they should expect when they encounter the civilian staff from a wide range of agencies who work, sometimes for years, at the PRTs.

Scotto and Alexander discuss the sources of cultural conflict between U.S. soldiers in the field and U.S. civilians who work at the PRTs. Military training results in soldiers oriented toward short-term event-driven results (take and hold Hill X by 0900 hours tomorrow), while civilian employees from State, Agriculture, or the Centers for Disease Control focus on building relationships and establishing long-term sustainable processes. Mutual incomprehension over methods can result, say the authors.

Confusing lines of authority also create friction. PRTs are elements of the State Department and report up to the U.S. ambassador. However, the PRTs depend almost entirely on military support to execute their operations. This may make some in the military feel as if they are mere servants of the civilians in the PRT, a feeling that detracts from the military's other missions in the area. In addition, some in the military may be put off by the local Iraqi or Afghan's greater willingness to work with civilians rather than soldiers. Scotto and Alexander warn that these facts of life may come as an unpleasant surprise for a young U.S. military officer headed for his first encounters with a PRT.

News this week may bring a solution of sorts for this culture clash. After years of attempting to mobilize for deployment, it appears as if many U.S. civilian agencies are still unable to find employees willing or able to deploy for the coming surge to Afghanistan. Instead, the Pentagon will mobilize hundreds of military reservists, whose civilian careers will bring the expertise required. Although brought on to active military duty, the State Department will ask the reservists mobilized to fill the civilian positions in Afghanistan to not wear their military uniforms.

Having soldiers on both sides of the military-civilian divide may finally fix this culture clash.

Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 13

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

April 17, 2009

Fighting terrorism with psychotherapy

Who's best at dealing with a terrorist, a Delta Force marksman or a therapist? Are terrorists motivated by political anger, religious fervor, or mundane psychological insecurities? If people join terrorist groups due to psychological frailty, might an army of counselors do more good than an army of soldiers?

Writing at Small Wars Journal, Lawrence E. Cline, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School, discusses Saudi Arabia's program for reforming imprisoned jihadists.

Beginning in 2004, Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry began a program that attempts to rehabilitate prison inmates convicted of involvement in jihadi extremism. Included in the program have been some Saudi citizens repatriated from Guantnamo Bay.

The program begins with psychological evaluations by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other social scientists. Those deemed suitable for the program then receive extensive counseling from religious clerics. According to Cline, these clerics have a mission of reeducating the inmates on the meaning of jihad with the goal that after release from prison the inmates will no longer be a threat to Saudi Arabia or other Muslims.

Has the Saudi reeducation program worked? According to studies reviewed by Cline, results have been mixed. One study cited only 35 recidivists out of 1,400 participating and released inmates, a 2.5 percent recidivism rate. On the other hand, the Saudi Interior Ministry released a list of 85 wanted alleged terrorists, 11 of whom were from Guantnamo and had gone through the program.

In spite of that embarrassing setback, Cline asserts that the Saudi program's recidivism rate is far lower than that achieved by prison systems in most countries. Self-selection explains much of this apparent success; those deemed incorrigible never enter the program, while many other terrorist inmates refuse on their own to participate. Graduates who end up members of terrorist cells in Yemen or elsewhere outside Saudi Arabia are not listed as failures.

What has the Saudi government learned about its terrorist inmates? For many, perhaps most, politics or religion were not the reasons for joining the jihadi cause. Rather:

Terrorist movements seem to provide a sense of adventure, excitement, vision, purpose, camaraderie, and involvement with them has an allure that can be difficult to resist. But the ideology is usually something you acquire once you're involved.

Other reasons Saudi authorities discovered included a poor understanding of Islam, weak family backgrounds, difficulty dealing with authority, and personal crises, such as a recent jilting by a girlfriend.

Every culture has to deal with young men who respond badly to these pressures; each deals with the consequences in its own way.

At its most successful, Saudi Arabia's counseling program will not rehabilitate the most fanatical of its terrorist inmates. But if Saudi society can address the psychological factors that create terrorist recruits, it might be able to dry up a bit the terrorist recruiting pipeline.

Who should pay for Somalia's pirates?

For the past eight years, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have been forced to adjust to asymmetrical warfare, where the enemy isn't the one they planned for and fights in a way that neutralizes the U.S. military's advantages. Now it's the U.S. Navy's turn to fight an asymmetrical conflict, this time against Somalia's pirates.

The recent drama involving the Maersk Alabama ended badly for the pirates, three of whom were shot dead by U.S. Navy snipers. Somalia's pirates were unfazed by this minor setback and seized several more merchant ships the following day.

The Obama administration faces pressure to solve the piracy problem. Those applying the pressure can point to basic policy guidance of the U.S. Navy which lists preserving freedom of the seas and facilitating and defending peaceful commerce as key strategic objectives. When they wrote this, Navy officials may have had visions of enemy submarines and guided missile cruisers rather than Somali teenagers in motorboats.

Of course, the U.S. Navy is no stranger to piracy. Two hundred years ago, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps responded to the Barbary corsairs by burning the pirates' boats and ports, marching on the pirates' cities, and dethroning uncooperative pashas.

Just as in Thomas Jefferson's day, resolving the piracy problem off Somalia might require these same measures. But for now, no U.S. policymaker who remembers the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu in 1993 wants to volunteer for another such tour of duty in Somalia. In addition, the Shabab group, suspected of being an al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, would use a noisy, high-visibility intervention in Somalia as an opportunity to mobilize support for its cause.

Can the U.S. Navy use its surveillance abilities and firepower to attack the pirates' boats? The Navy's problems with this approach parallel the problems U.S. soldiers and marines have faced fighting asymmetric adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pirates' boats blend in with those of common fishermen. The international media audience will view preemptive attacks on Somali boats and crews as the U.S. Navy murdering innocent fishermen.

Officials in the U.S. Defense Department were probably happy to see the State Department lead the U.S. government's response this week to the Somali piracy problem. On April 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton read a statement that discussed the government's position. Notably, she asserted, [B]ecause it is clear that defending against piracy must be the joint responsibility of governments and the shipping industry, I have directed our team to work with shippers and the insurance industry to address gaps in their self-defense measures.

In other words, shippers, shipping companies, and the maritime insurance business should no longer expect a free ride from the U.S. Navy. The police cannot be everywhere. Across the world, people have adjusted to that by hiring doormen, night watchmen, and security guards; carrying pepper spray; or keeping a pistol in the nightstand. It seems as if Clinton is calling on the shipping industry to similarly adjust.