Small Wars

This Week at War: The Middle East's Cold War Heats Up

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

Are Saudi Arabia and Iran at war in Yemen?

Has a proxy war broken out in Yemen? The Los Angeles Times has reported that 100 Shiite rebels are dead and 100,000 refugees are on the move in the Saada region of northwestern Yemen after the Sunni-dominated government attacked rebel positions with tanks, artillery, and air strikes. According to The Economist, the rebels retaliated with volleys of Katyusha rockets. The current round of fighting, now in its second week, is the sixth uprising in this area since 2004.

What raises the profile of this development are accusations of foreign intervention in the conflict. The Yemeni government has accused Iran of providing funding and weapons to the Shiite rebels. Iran's news media has in turn reported that Saudi Arabia's military forces have joined in the fighting. The Saudi government acknowledges consultations with Yemen but denies any direct participation by its forces.

Evidence of foreign intervention in the conflict is sparse. But Yemen's foreign minister was at least concerned enough to summon Iran's ambassador his office. Meanwhile the Saudi and Yemeni defense ministries have stepped up consultations. According to The Economist, Iran's Arabic language news service has been reporting the latest round of fighting, including Saudi Arabia's support of the Yemeni government.

Even if the actual foreign material support in Yemen's civil strife is minimal, the conflict is probably the newest front in a broadening proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon is one front. Iranian attempts to gain influence over Shiite populations in eastern Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf is another. Some factions in Iran may feel obligated to support what they believe are oppressed Shiite minorities around the mostly Sunni Middle East. In the case of the rebellion in Yemen, some nervous officials in Riyadh may see an Iranian plan to achieve control over the Red Sea shipping lane.

Now there is another dimension to Saudi-Iranian competition. Despite having the largest crude oil reserves on the planet, the Saudi government recently announced plans to build a nuclear power plant. Even though it will take many years for Saudi Arabia to build up the necessary proficiency in nuclear engineering, Saudi policymakers must view the establishment of nuclear expertise as an essential strategic hedge.

A nuclear arms race and proxy wars were two prominent features of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. We should not be surprised to see that pattern of behavior repeat itself with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Compared with Saudi Arabia, Iran has a large head start. The Saudis will have to rely on their friends for protection while they try to catch up.

The autumn of Afghan discontent

August has been as cruel to President Barack Obama's policy for Afghanistan as it has for his health-care reform plans. As autumn arrives, it is likely that an increasing number of Americans, most crucially members of Obama's Democratic base, will conclude that the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan is unrealistic and not worthy of increased support. This bad news for the administration will negate what could be one bit of hopeful news, the possibility that Afghanistan's presidential election will actually be accepted as legitimate.

The best outcome to the first round of Afghanistan's presidential vote is no outcome at all and a second-round runoff. Although it is too early to draw firm conclusions, it appears today that incumbent Hamid Karzai will not receive more than 50 percent of the votes. If this turns out to be the case, Afghan election officials will get "a mulligan," another chance in the run-off election to demonstrate that the election process is reasonably clean. Should Karzai win the first round in a landslide, his government would have about as much legitimacy as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in neighboring Iran. And should Karzai barely crawl over 50 percent, the accusations of fraud by opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah and others would sting. Thus, for the sake of legitimacy, a runoff vote is the best possible outcome.

And while Afghanistan's presidential election drags into October, this autumn will bring heightened debate about the wisdom of the U.S. military strategy. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report on the situation in Afghanistan, which Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has already described as "serious and deteriorating," is due in September. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already banned any mention of additional troops from McChrystal's report, such a requirement will be the obvious conclusion.

When Gates ordered McChrystal to prepare a detailed study of the Afghan situation, Gates was thinking like the former intelligence analyst he is. Perhaps he should have been thinking more like a litigator, whose first rule is "never ask a question you don't already know the answer to." Vice President Joe Biden, national security advisor James L. Jones, and Gates himself have opposed additional U.S. troop increases in Afghanistan. Resistance to Obama's Afghan policy among Democrats is increasing. The arrival of McChrystal's report will amplify Obama's political problems and force Gates and his colleagues to either defend or recant their positions.

Domestic political pressure has created an additional problem for the Afghan campaign. To gain short-term support for the current strategy, Gates and Mullen have agreed to a 12- to 18-month deadline to show results (in May, I discussed Gates' impatience for results). The Taliban, knowing this self-imposed deadline, can now conserve their forces and regulate the pace of their operations in order to deny the coalition the appearance of progress as the deadline approaches. Coalition and Afghan forces have been unable to seize the initiative over the Taliban because the Taliban have been able to avoid contact with coalition forces when they choose. In theory, a prolonged population-centered counterinsurgency campaign would erode this Taliban advantage. But U.S. officials have indicated that they lack the patience to execute this strategy.

After McChrystal's report arrives, Obama will have to either reject the judgment of his field commander (and assume full responsibility for the consequences) or go for another troop increase (which may not yield any military benefit) and risk further alienating his supporters.

There is another choice -- to change the goals of the mission in Afghanistan. Might Obama opt to climb down from his commitment to Afghanistan just months after unveiling his policy? Such a choice is hardly appealing, but may soon become the least worst option.


Small Wars

This Week at War: The Drones Take Over

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

Drones are taking over the U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force will reach a milestone this year: For the first time it will train more pilots for unmanned aircraft than for manned aircraft. A decade ago, unmanned aircraft were hardly known. Now they dominate the Air Force's pilot training system, and it is very unlikely this trend will ever reverse. In fact, it is not hard to imagine that within another decade unmanned aircraft operations will dominate day-to-day Air Force operations, force planning decisions, and budgets.


We can see how the Air Force's drones will soon crowd out manned aircraft inside its aircraft hangars. By 2013, software and communications improvements will allow the Air Force's unmanned-aircraft pilots to simultaneously fly three drones at one time, and four in an emergency. Another factor supporting the likely proliferation of drones such as the Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk is their low cost compared with new manned aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

According to the Government Accountability Office, $24.5 million will purchase a set of four MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drones plus a ground station and satellite relay. (See page 117 of this report.) The latest guess of the price for a single F-35 fighter-bomber is $100 million. (See page 93.) This gap in cost led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to demand the cancellation of the manned F-22 Raptor program in order to fund the purchase of more drones for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The F-35 and the Reaper obviously have different roles and are not direct substitutes for each other. Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, the officer in charge of the Air Force's unmanned-aircraft programs, admitted at a recent news conference that the Air Force's current unmanned systems might be vulnerable to air-defense threats, electronic attack, and satellite communication problems.

But at the same briefing, Deptula made it clear (see this presentation) that the Air Force expects unmanned systems to transform the service's doctrines, force structure, organization, and culture. Drones are taking over the Air Force -- this year's graduates from Air Force pilot training can explain that.

Maybe the state is the problem, not the solution

Next week, Afghans will head to the polls to elect a president. Quite a bit of international commentary has focused on the worthiness of current Afghan President Hamid Karzai, what Afghanistan would be like under opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah, and whether Ashraf Ghani, a U.S.-educated former World Bank official, has any chance of winning. (Click here for FP's election coverage.)

Although the election makes for a dramatic story, some analysts wonder whether the focus on who will be Afghanistan's next president is a distraction from the real key to the country's stability -- its tribes. While the U.S. government and the United Nations ponder how they will get along in the years ahead with Karzai, Abdullah, or Ghani and attempt to supervise the corrupt ministries in Kabul, Afghanistan's future, according to these analysts, will actually be decided by tribal leaders in the most remote corners of the country. Their advice is to spend less time on Kabul and more time understanding and supporting Afghanistan's tribes.

Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan at Rand, recently observed that Americans headed to Afghanistan seem to be studying the wrong history:

It is striking that most Americans who try to learn lessons from Afghanistan's recent history turn to the failed military exploits of the British or Soviet Union. ... Yet, outside of some anthropologists, few people have bothered to examine Afghanistan's stable periods. The lessons are revealing.

The Musahiban dynasty, which included Zahir Shah, Nadir Shah, and Daoud Khan ruled Afghanistan from 1929 to 1978. It was one of the most stable periods in modern Afghan history, partly because the Musahibans understood the importance of local power. Many U.S. policy makers have not grasped this reality, still clinging to the fantasy that stabilizing Afghanistan requires expanding the central government's writ to rural areas.

Jones condemns the U.S. focus on the Afghan Army and police over the tribes, which provided the best local security during the country's stable periods. Jones notes that while the United States expends precious resources building up Kabul, the Taliban are focusing their efforts on Afghanistan's local political structures, much to their advantage.

Dan Green, a former U.S. State Department advisor in Uruzgan province, echoes Jones' view in an essay republished at Small Wars Journal. Green recommends that coalition forces take the risk of spreading out and place small infantry units in Afghanistan's villages. Once there, they would help organize tribal lashgars, local self-defense militias. Coalition forces would also facilitate the integration of the lashgars into a province's defense plans and integrate tribal self-defense efforts with those of the Afghan Army.

Jones' and Green's essays relate to a broader theme I raised in my recent piece for The American, "Is Foggy Bottom Ready for Irregular Warfare?" I argued that the U.S. military, led by its middle-ranking leaders, has relearned the techniques of irregular warfare this decade. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world, U.S. soldiers have shown how to accomplish challenging tasks by establishing relationships with indigenous military forces and local leaders.

However, top-level U.S. statesmen continue to focus on the nation-state system. For them, a stability operation successfully concludes with the emergence of a virtuous nation-state with well-functioning institutions and counterparts familiar to those who work in the top reaches of the State Department, Pentagon, or White House.

For U.S. infantry captains and sergeants dealing with tribal leaders around the world, the nation-state "solution" might not only be irrelevant, but it could make it harder to achieve their goal of resolving conflicts. After all, it is rebellion against central authority that is frequently the cause of conflict in the first place.

U.S. soldiers have adapted to irregular warfare. U.S. statesmen, if fixated on the nation-state "solution" to conflicts, will demonstrate that they have not. These statesmen must first resolve the conflict they are having with their own soldiers.

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