Small Wars

This Week at War: Gates's Preemptive Damage Control

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

Gates tries to get a grip on McChrystal

After appointing Gen. Stanley McChrystal the new commander in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave him two months to write an analysis of the situation there in yet another review of U.S. strategy. But after rumors leaked out that McChrystal would ask for another increase in U.S. troops, it appears that Gates decided he would not wait for McChrystal's finished report. On Aug. 2, he summoned McChrystal and his deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, to a hastily arranged meeting in Belgium which also included Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis, McChrystal's direct boss Gen. David Petraeus, and under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy.

On Aug. 5, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell briefed reporters on the results of the unusual Sunday meeting. According to Morrell, Gates instructed McChrystal to consider a few additional, and unspecified, issues in his report. Gates also instructed McChrystal to take more time, likely postponing the delivery of the report into September.

Finally, Morrell explained that McChrystal's report will not include any discussion or request for additional "resources" (meaning U.S. troops and money) for Afghanistan. If McChrystal wants to make such a request, Morrell said, he will do so separately and at a later time.

What accounts for Gates's preemptive meeting with McChrystal? It is possible that Gates (or someone else in the administration) feared that McChrystal's report would take on a life of its own, perhaps compelling Gates and President Barack Obama into decisions they would prefer not to make. If true, the meeting in Belgium was an attempt to minimize the report's impact by redefining its purpose, reducing its prominence, and controlling the timing of its release. We will see in September whether Gates accomplished these goals.

Yet regardless of how he manages McChrystal, the general's implicit message will be the need for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, either in direct combat to suppress the Taliban or serving as trainers and advisors to an expanding Afghan army.

With  this year's doubling of the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan, Gates and his commanders expected more casualties, and indeed, July was the deadliest month of the war for the United States and 2009 will certainly be the deadliest year of the Afghan war. But Gates was also hoping for signs that the situation would visibly stabilize during 2010. A request by McChrystal for even more U.S. troops would mean a deeper U.S. commitment, not to mention even more combat deaths.

One can hardly blame Gates for intervening before the final report took on a life of its own. He's still hoping for a quiet landing. But McChrystal's report will very likely arrive with a loud bang.

Shrinking Arctic ice will stretch a shrinking U.S. Navy

Climate change and reduced sea ice cover may result in opening up the Arctic to vastly increased resource development and commercial traffic. These trends will inevitably spark international conflicts and create a need for more military forces to provide security and protect interests in the Arctic region. This is bad news for the U.S. Navy, already hard-pressed by shrinking fleets and rising challenges elsewhere.

Rear Adm. David Titley, the U.S. Navy's top oceanographer, was recently in Barrow, Alaska supervising a global warming research expedition. According to Titley, changes in Arctic sea ice cover will require a new assessment of the Navy's maritime strategy. Such an assessment will likely recommend changes to military infrastructure in the Arctic, military force structure deployed to the Arctic, and new capabilities to respond to a changing Arctic climate.

The June 2006 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings journal (registration required) contained an article by Lt. Magda Hanna that described the looming implications of Arctic climate change for resource development, commercial activity, and clashing national interests. Hanna discussed competing subsurface territorial claims, Arctic oil and natural gas potential, sovereignty disputes over Arctic shipping routes, China's interests in the Arctic; and U.S. Navy and Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic region. Her conclusion is that significant growth in Arctic commerce, opened up by reduced sea ice, will result in the need for a larger U.S. naval presence in the region.

This added requirement couldn't come at a more stressful time for the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy is down to 285 deployable battle force ships from nearly 600 during the 1980s. Although the U.S. Navy is without question far more powerful than any other navy and will be for many years, it also has global responsibilities, requiring patrolling in many corners of the oceans. Reduced sea ice in the Arctic will add more corners to patrol.

Meanwhile, Navy shipbuilders remain incapable of building new surface warships on time and on budget. In April, Gates terminated the Navy's next-generation destroyer program and delayed decisions about the next-generation cruiser and amphibious assault ships until after the next Quadrennial Defense Review arrives. Gates ordered an acceleration of Littoral Combat Ship purchases, but that program is plagued with severe cost overruns and contractor problems.

Thus, the Navy faces the prospect of an expanded list of tasks just when it is having the most difficulty getting enough ships to go out on patrol. There is a real risk that an adversary may be able to achieve local superiority over a Navy stretched by these new responsibilities. Climate change is forcing adaptation all around the world, not least inside the Pentagon.


Small Wars

This Week at War: Life After Insurgency

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

Planning for a post-insurgency Iraq

This week the relationship between the United States and Iraq underwent a significant but little noticed change. Until now, military cooperation between the two countries has focused exclusively on defending Iraq from internal threats. This week, the problem of Iraq's external defense came to the fore. With the counterinsurgency phase of the U.S.-Iraq relationship winding down over the next two years, the country's conventional warfare needs are taking on greater prominence.

It was Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who signalled this change in the relationship. At a July 23rd speech in Washington, Maliki opened the door to a U.S. military presence in Iraq after 2011, when, under current agreements, all U.S. forces are to be out of the country. "If Iraqi forces need more training and support, we will reexamine the agreement at that time, based on our own national needs," Maliki said.

Implied in this remark is continuing U.S. assistance for Iraq's army and police in their ongoing struggle against various insurgent groups. But Maliki has other more conventional military capabilities in mind as well. According to the New York Times, Iraq is seeking to acquire F-16 fighter-bomber aircraft in order to rebuild its jet fighter inventory, which currently stands at zero. The F-16 is a multi-role airplane, designed to attack both other aircraft and targets on the ground. Iraq currently has no indigenous capability of defending itself from air attack. According to Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Iraq has little chance of acquiring that capability by the end of 2011. The U.S. Air Force is sending an assessment team to help Iraq solve its air defense problem.

The future of the U.S.-Iraq security relationship has been a subject of recent focus by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. After speaking with Maliki on the subject at a meeting in Washington on July 23rd, Gates appeared in Baghdad five days later for another discussion with the prime minister. Gates made it clear that any request to modify the existing 2011 withdrawal agreement would have to come from the Iraqis first. Maliki's speech in Washington and his request for F-16s seem to meet Gates's requirement.

Does Iraq even face a conventional military threat? At the moment Iran seems plagued with deep internal political problems; the leadership there would seem hard pressed to organize offensive military action. Saudi Arabia's relationship with Iraq is chilly but non-threatening. With Saddam Hussein and Iraq's missile and WMD programs gone, Israel does not seem like a factor. And the United States has gone from being an archenemy to Iraq's best ally.

Yet this report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that Iraq has major military weaknesses compared to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraqi statesmen looking outward will recall bloody wars fought against foreign invaders who entered Iraq from every direction. No statesman in the region can have any confidence about which country will be up or down, friend or foe a few years from now.

Maliki and his successors will not want to depend on the United States for Iraq's defense. Nor will U.S. policymakers wish to volunteer for such a commitment. Iraqi statesmen will seek to refocus the military's attention from battling insurgents to defending Iraq's borders. That will involve a complicated procurement and military training program extending far beyond F-16 fighters. It will also involve a relationship with the U.S. military extending far beyond 2011.


Does Afghanistan need a Phoenix Program?

The Office of the Secretary of Defense hired the RAND Corporation to study the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program and recommend whether some of the program's controversial techniques might be useful in Afghanistan. RAND's researchers endorsed a Phoenix-like effort for Afghanistan and in the process, attempted to dispel some of the program's myths.

What was the Phoenix program? RAND's relatively brief report summarizes its history: In 1967 the U.S. military command and the CIA created a program -- later called Phoenix -- that began as an effort to improve intelligence-sharing among a long list of U.S. and South Vietnamese agencies.

Separately but at about the same time, the CIA acted to reassert its control over some South Vietnamese counterterrorism teams it had recruited. The CIA renamed these teams Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs), which later became part of the Phoenix intelligence-sharing program.  Former South Vietnamese soldiers, many seeking revenge against the communist Viet Cong, made up much of the PRU membership. The CIA paid and directed these teams back to their home provinces with the mission of infiltrating the Viet Cong's support infrastructure.

The authors believe it was the PRU portion of Phoenix that became the subject of enduring myths both good and bad. Opponents of Phoenix condemned the program as little more than an illegal assassination rampage which killed many innocent of any involvement with the Viet Cong. Proponents credited Phoenix with virtually eliminating the Viet Cong insurgency, leaving it up to the North Vietnamese army to conquer the south. The new study discounts both of these perspectives.

RAND does, however, record Phoenix as an overall success, both for its ability to gain detailed knowledge about the Viet Cong and its ability to disrupt that organization. The authors believe the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered because the U.S. has apparently failed to aggressively recruit motivated indigenous agents to infiltrate and break up insurgent organizations.

Why wouldn't the U.S. want to resurrect Phoenix? Infiltrating insurgent organizations would seem to be a basic counterinsurgency tactic. However, the report reminds us of one more thing: fairly or unfairly, Phoenix was very costly to the U.S. government's reputation. The ruthlessness displayed by some unit members resulted in propaganda opportunities for opponents of the U.S. effort in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was ultimately decided on the information battlefield. That will also be the case in Afghanistan.

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