Small Wars

This Week at War: Gates Fishes for Friends in the Persian Gulf

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

A U.S.-Gulf alliance against Iran?

On Sept. 4, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates granted an interview to Al Jazeera. In the final segment of the interview Gates got a chance to deliver a message on Iran's nuclear program. He said:

I think there's a central question or a central point here to be made.  And it has to do with both our friends and allies in the region, our Arab friends and allies, as well as the Iranian nuclear program.  And that is, one of the pathways to getting the Iranians to change their approach, on the nuclear issue, is to persuade them that moving down that path will actually jeopardize their security, not enhance it.

And so the more that our Arab friends and allies can strengthen their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their cooperation both with each other and with us, I think, sends the signal to the Iranians that this path that they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.

And so that's one of the reasons why I think our relationship with these countries and our security cooperation with them is so important.

Gates realizes that there is a stalemate on the Iran nuclear problem, a stalemate that allows Iran to advance its nuclear program and eventually bring online whichever options it wishes to pursue. For a variety of reasons, U.S. and European policymakers have been unable to achieve sufficient leverage to change Iranian policies. Targeted economic and financial sanctions against Iranian leaders and organizations have been too tepid or leaky to be persuasive. The Russian and Chinese governments have thus far blocked more wide-ranging sanctions. Subtle threats of military force by Israel or the United States have lacked credibility. The United States and Europe have been unwilling to impose economic measures that would abruptly harm the Iranian people. And these policymakers have been deterred by fears of violent Iranian retaliation.

In his remarks to Al Jazeera, Gates fished in the Persian Gulf for the leverage over Iran the United States has thus far lacked. If U.S. or Israeli military options lack credibility, perhaps, Gates is hoping, the prospect of an increasingly capable Sunni-Arab military alliance might provide the leverage necessary to change Iranian behavior.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently published a report on the Iran versus Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) strategic balance. According to the report, GCC air power dominates Iran's defensive and offensive air combat capabilities. On paper, Saudi Arabia and the other mostly Sunni-Arab states in the Gulf could strip Iran of its air defenses and pummel Iran's military targets while defending against Iranian aerial counterattacks. According to CSIS, Iran's advantage in ballistic missiles would not be useful against GCC military targets but could terrorize population centers. Yet as the CSIS report itself explains, the Gulf states, even after decades of Western assistance, need to do much more work on military doctrine, training, supporting infrastructure, sustainment, and cooperation with each other before the GCC will be a persuasive military force.

Gates is hoping that Gulf-state unity and effective U.S. security assistance to the GCC will persuade Iran to change course. The U.S. has had some success this decade with security assistance -- training constabulary foot soldiers. The confrontation with Iran would occur, or at least begin, in the aerospace realm. U.S. security assistance needs to be successful there, too.

Karzai has some thinking to do

U.S. foreign-policy analysts are focused on what President Barack Obama intends to do about Afghanistan. But Obama isn't the only one with decisions to make. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan must also be pondering his options.

Whether it was his design or not, electoral fraud has marred the legitimacy of Karzai's likely reelection. This outcome is particularly regrettable since any other prospective winner would have been more destabilizing than Karzai. Having the support of many of Afghanistan's power brokers, Karzai was the most viable president. But the West will now have a hard time sustaining support for him.

Karzai is undoubtedly aware that political support for the Afghan effort is falling fast in Europe and the United States. A European call for an international conference on Afghanistan, to provide "new benchmarks and timelines," may be cover for a run to the exits.

The president must now prepare for what may come next. The West's presence in Afghanistan has been useful to Karzai. An enormous flow of money has benefitted many of his friends and perhaps Karzai personally. Western soldiers do much of the dirty work against his government's enemies. And the Western presence provides a foil for Karzai to demonstrate his nationalist credentials.

Karzai would surely miss much of what the United States and Europe are bringing to his country. Yet he must sense that their contribution no longer seems sustainable. Or at least he must begin planning for that possibility.

Should the West pull out, Karzai would need a new outside patron. Indian might be the most willing prospect. Instead of taking on the NATO mission to stabilize Afghanistan, India's more modest goal would be to provide a distraction to Pakistan and to prevent Pakistan from gaining too much influence over Afghanistan. India might be able to achieve these limited objectives by providing funding to Afghan factions aligned with its goals.

India would never replace the largesse the West has injected into Afghanistan. But for Afghans who don't feel very secure and who have lost faith in NATO's counterinsurgency tactics, a new non-Western patron might be a welcome change. A new patron might mean new rules for Karzai and the factions that support him, such as the Sri Lankan Rules that seem to have decisively ended a long insurgency.

Is it too soon for Karzai to contemplate such drastic changes? This week, U.S. and British officials again pledged their unwavering support for the Afghan mission. But with the Afghan election turning into a mess, events could change rapidly. It is not too soon for Karzai to plan ahead.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: McChrystal Plays Defense

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

Afghanistan and civil-military relations

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report on the situation in Afghanistan is likely to strain relations between the Obama administration and the uniformed military. The arrival of McChrystal's report in Washington is likely to spark its own low-level war of finger-pointing and blame-shifting between civilian policymakers in the White House and McChrystal's staff and defenders in the Pentagon. This strain in civil-military relations could last through the duration of the U.S. military's involvement in Afghanistan and beyond.

McChrystal's report is supposedly secret, but anonymous staffers have already revealed its themes to the Washington Post. The goal of these staffers is to protect McChrystal and the uniformed military against White House officials they likely don't trust. These staffers have evidently concluded that they need to leak first in order to establish their position and put White House staffers on the defensive.

The first task for McChrystal's report (and its leaking defenders) was to show how President Barack Obama's supposedly limited war aims actually result in broad, expensive, and open-ended goals for Afghanistan:

Although the assessment, which runs more than 20 pages, has not been released, officials familiar with the report have said it represents a hard look at the challenges involved in implementing Obama's strategy for Afghanistan. The administration has narrowly defined its goal as defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary, but that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population, establishing good governance and rebuilding the economy.

McChrystal's report has thus shifted responsibility over to the White House to either the rally the country and the Congress around a big nation-building campaign or to explicitly scale back the desired war aims.

Next, according to the Washington Post, McChrystal's report lists numerous obstacles that could prevent success, barriers that are outside of the U.S. military's control:

For instance, McChrystal thinks a greater push by civilian officials is vital to shore up local Afghan governments and to combat corruption, officials said. He is emphatic that the results of the recent Afghan presidential election be viewed as legitimate, but is also realistic in acknowledging that the goals of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the coalition are not always as closely aligned as they could be, they said.

Separately, officials said, McChrystal's assessment finds that U.S. and other NATO forces must adopt a less risk-averse culture, leaving bases and armored vehicles to pursue insurgents on foot in a way that minimizes Afghan civilian deaths.

In others words, McChrystal is saying, don't hold me responsible for success if Karzai's election is a fraud, civilian officials don't show up, or European soldiers are not allowed to patrol.

The report illustrates the basic struggle between civilian policymakers and military commanders. Each side looks to the other to solve its problems. The White House staff is hoping that McChrystal will deliver a clear, high-probability war-winning strategy, a strategy that would reduce Afghanistan as an issue of concern. McChrystal, like all field commanders, wants his political masters to give him a realistic and measurable objective, with the resources needed to accomplish it.

McChrystal's report implies a pessimistic outlook for U.S. success in Afghanistan. If he and his staff had an optimistic view about the Afghan challenge, there would have been no need to be so diligent about clarifying responsibility for what comes next. In the case of success, all would share the glory. McChrystal's report is a preemptive defense against blame and recrimination. That does not bode well for either the U.S. mission in Afghanistan or for civil-military relations.

Communication breakdown

In the latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen shouts down the concept of "strategic communications." Mullen implies that the concept of strategic communications is condescending. What really matters, he believes, are U.S. policies and how they are executed. Communicating the results of those policies is not the problem. Mullen says:

Our messages lack credibility because we haven't invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven't always delivered on promises ... That's the essence of good communication: having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves. We shouldn't care if people don't like us; that isn't the goal. The goal is credibility. And we earn that over time ... To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.

In his essay, Mullen mentioned happy moments for the United States's public image: the voyage of the Great White Fleet, the Marshall Plan, and disaster relief missions. If that was the only type of interaction the U.S. government had with the outside world, then Mullen makes a good, but trivial point -- the State Department would not need an under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government has not found a way to limit its interactions in the world to just economic reconstruction, disaster relief, and harmless publicity tours. Long before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States found it had to defend its interests, protect its citizens abroad, oppose revisionist powers, supports its friends, and occasionally attempt to prevent human suffering. Taking a side in a conflict means making an enemy out of someone. Mullen apparently believes that clever communications cannot compensate for "what our actions communicate." He is probably correct. But he never explains how the United States, a great power with global responsibilities, can avoid taking consequential actions in the first place, actions that will anger somebody somewhere.

Writing on, James Glassman, the last under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, agrees with Mullen on one thing -- the U.S. should stop bothering with whether various aggrieved people like the America. Instead, Glassman suggests, U.S. public-diplomacy efforts should encourage the citizens of countries to focus on their own bad guys instead of the U.S. For Glassman, it's OK if most Pakistanis hate the U.S. as long as even more of them hate the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Having experienced the harsh reality of being the U.S. government's public diplomat, Glassman's minimalist strategy may be the best he could salvage. Its success depends on having an enemy who is politically incompetent, out of touch with the populace, and incapable of adaptation. That is a good description of al Qaeda. But counting on such an adversary is not a formula for success.

The U.S. government continues to have trouble with strategic communications. Mullen and Glassman's essays show more ideas are needed.

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