Small Wars

This Week at War: The Domino Theory Returns

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

Why is the United States fighting a war in Afghanistan? According to the Obama administration's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the goal of the campaign is to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens." But according to Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a new member of the Defense Policy Board, the more important reason to is to prevent the Taliban from taking over Pakistan. Does this 21st century version of the domino theory make any more sense than its 1960s incarnation?

Writing in The American Interest, Biddle asserted:

If the Taliban regained control of the Afghan state, their ability to use the state's resources to destabilize the secular government in Pakistan would increase the risk of state collapse there. Analysts have made much of the threat that Pakistani Taliban base camps pose to the stability of the government in Kabul, but the danger works both ways: Instability in Afghanistan also poses a serious threat to the secular civilian government in Pakistan. This is the single greatest U.S. interest in Afghanistan: to prevent it from aggravating Pakistan's internal problems and magnifying the danger of an al-Qaeda nuclear-armed sanctuary there.

Inside this otherwise excellent essay, Biddle seems to have forgotten the 1990s. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban controlled virtually all of Afghanistan and did so with the support of the Pakistani government. During this time, Pakistan suffered its usual episodes of political infighting, high-level corruption, and another military coup. But even with an aggressive theocracy right next door, the takeover of Islamabad by Islamic radicals was never a threat.

Contrary to Biddle's assertion, it seems equally reasonable to argue that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan provided a relief valve of sorts for Islamist pressure that might have otherwise formed inside Pakistan during the 1990s. And although the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban are two distinct movements, the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan may be inciting and pressurizing Taliban activity inside Pakistan. Contrary to what Biddle argues, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan may be increasing rather than decreasing the risk to Pakistan.

Pakistan's powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence seems to see it this way. The ISI recently invited reporters from the New York Times to its offices for a two-hour briefing. During the briefing, ISI officials objected to the U.S. Marine Corps offensive in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. They feared that the offensive would push Taliban fighters into Pakistan's Baluchistan area, destabilizing it.

This is not an argument to abandon NATO's effort in Afghanistan. In spite of the slim odds, it may be worth fighting for the stable self-governance for Afghanistan. As Biddle himself notes, Pakistan may collapse for any number of reasons, regardless of what actions the United States takes in the region. A long-term military presence in Afghanistan may be necessary in order to monitor the region and contain terrorist personnel and assets.

As Biddle points out, the Barack Obama's administration will have a hard enough time maintaining public support for the Afghan campaign. Best to leave the domino theory out of it.

Thank you, Rafael Correa

Last year, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador refused to renew a lease that permitted the U.S. military to operate up to eight surveillance aircraft from an Ecuadorian airbase. Correa's decision forced the U.S. government to scramble for a new base in the region. The result is an agreement with Colombia that will greatly improve the U.S. military's position in the region. The agreement will also boost Colombia's leverage and strategic position. If Correa thought he was punishing the United States by ejecting it, his decision has backfired.

From Ecuador's Manta airport, U.S. aircraft patrolled the Pacific Ocean side of Latin America mainly to track smuggling activity. Under the basing agreement with Colombia, U.S. intelligence-gathering aircraft are expected to obtain access to three of the Colombian military's air bases. From these bases, U.S. long-range surveillance aircraft will have access to the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean. In addition, the Colombians are expected to agree to more frequent visits by U.S. Navy warships to ports on both its Pacific and Caribbean coasts, presumably to step up naval cooperation between the two countries.

In  exchange, Colombia will likely receive preferential access to U.S. military technology. Colombia also gains greater leverage to lobby the Obama administration to support the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, not previously a priority for the White House. Perhaps most important for Colombia, it will lock in a long-term strategic relationship with the United States. As a presidential candidate, Obama appeared unlikely to show the affection that it enjoyed from President George W. Bush. But Correa's decision to throw the U.S. out of Ecuador has compelled the Obama team to extend the U.S.-Colombia security relationship far beyond what was achieved during the Bush years.

From their new home in Colombia, U.S. surveillance aircraft will continue long-standing counter-narcotics patrolling. But the new location is also centrally located to enable electronic monitoring of military and political developments in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Recent political trends in those countries may be more troubling to Colombia than they are to the United States. But the new basing deal greatly improves the ability of both countries to respond to whatever might develop in the region.


Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 25

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

Why the Taliban are watching the British polls

July has been a bloody month for British forces in Afghanistan, and policymakers in London are now feeling the consequences. Fifteen British soldiers died, including eight within one 24-hour period. British deaths in Afghanistan, 184 since 2001, now exceed their toll from Iraq. According to the Washington Post, the departure of soldiers' coffins from an air base near London previously went unnoticed. Now hundreds, sometimes thousands of people line the streets in the small town of Wootton Bassett to observe the processions.

Although 4,000 U.S. Marines entered the Taliban's heartland in southern Helmand province at the beginning of this month, the Taliban seem to be largely bypassing the Americans to focus on the British contingent in the center and north of the province. This should not be a surprise. Public dissatisfaction with the war is growing in Britain and Prime Minister Gordon Brown's unpopular Labour government is facing a general election by June 2010. Taliban strategists likely believe they have a chance to drive the British from the field.

If media hits in the British press concerning the situation in Afghanistan are a "metric of success" for Taliban strategists, they should feel pleased that the battle is going their way. On July 12, Small Wars Journal rounded 18 news, video, and opinion pieces on Afghanistan, all published in the British press within a two-day period.

The issue for the Labour Party is whether it is going to defend a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stabilization campaign in Afghanistan during the general election campaign. The opposition Conservative Party's tactic is to harshly criticize the government's competency and its "too lofty" mission objectives. Labour will have to either argue for the status quo or agree to downgrade the mission in Afghanistan and cut back the British Army's actions against the Taliban.

The Taliban are likely thinking about Canada's experience in Kandahar province. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, inherited the Afghan war from the previous Liberal Party government. As the war grew more unpopular and the 2008 general election loomed, Harper was unwilling to argue for an open-ended military commitment. The Liberals were similarly unwilling to defend their decision to commit Canada to the war in 2001. Prior to the October 2008 general election, the two parties agreed on a common policy to end Canada's military mission in Afghanistan by 2011. This decision succeeded in eliminating the war as a campaign issue, but it also supported the Taliban's war objectives.

Will Gordon Brown and his Conservative opponent David Cameron be similarly tempted by the "Canada option"? Should Taliban pressure on British soldiers remain, Brown would surely want his Afghan problem to go away. Cameron might also have no interest in defending the war in a general election and may feel he enjoys a sufficient advantage on other issues.

I am not questioning the bravery or skill of Britain's and Canada's soldiers. For almost eight years, they have sustained grievous casualties and still go out on patrol. Nor is this a criticism of politicians or voters who in the end will respond to the circumstances they face.

Rather, it is a description of the difficulties modern democracies face in fighting painful irregular wars. It is also an illustration of why these democracies need some new doctrines for irregular warfare -- the Taliban are showing how to blow up the current ones.

Adaptation means learning how to learn

In the latest edition of Armed Forces Journal, Frank Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, discusses four schools of thought for organizing U.S. military ground forces. Pentagon planners will have to make decisions about weapons purchases, basing, training programs, and doctrine based on the kind of world they anticipate. Implied is the assumption that it would require a long time and much expense for ground forces to adapt to a situation planners did not anticipate. But is this assumption correct?

Hoffman describes the four schools of thought:

  • Counterinsurgents, who emphasize the high likelihood and rising salience of irregular adversaries
  • Traditionalists, who place their focus on states presenting conventional threats.
  • Utility Infielders, who balance risk by striving to create forces agile enough to cover the full spectrum of conflict.
  • Division of Labor, who balance risk differently by specializing forces to cover different missions to enhance readiness.

Pentagon planners will likely focus on the third and fourth options as the two alternatives that most minimize risk. But the two options attempt to cover the full range of threats in two different ways. The Utility Infielder option takes a "jack of all trades, master of none" approach, the risk being that partially-prepared U.S. ground forces might fare badly against a competent adversary. The Division of Labor option creates a few military units specialized for each point on the spectrum of conflict, but risks having those few specialists overwhelmed and abandoned by colleagues thoroughly trained for unneeded tasks.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, discussed the solution at Small Wars Journal. In his essay, "Training Full Spectrum -- Less is More," Chiarelli affirms that there is not enough time for a ground combat unit to fully prepare for every possible contingency. Since forecasts about the future operating environment will almost surely be wrong, U.S. ground forces will have to adapt.

Chiarelli observed during his career that adaptation is rapid for soldiers and units that have learned how to learn. The best way to do that, Chiarelli discovered, is to learn to do a few things to a very high standard, rather than many things to a mediocre standard. Chiarelli concludes that in the process of learning to do a few things very well, people and organizations acquire processes and habits that allow them to acquire new skills at a rapid rate.

Chiarelli's conclusion would point to the Division of Labor option. Yet the Army and Marine Corps have been reluctant to create truly specialized units within their general-purpose forces; this has been deemed operationally risky and bad for institutional culture. The default option remains the Utility Infielder approach.

Few question the need for rapidly adaptable forces. But what if the method for achieving adaptability overturns the services' long-standing cultures and traditions? That will be a test of the leadership's adaptability.