Small Wars

This Week at War: The Upside of the Proxy War in Yemen

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

The Saudi-Iranian proxy war escalates: good news for the U.S.

A sectarian rebellion in northern Yemen has now become an open contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence over Yemen and the Gulf of Aden region. This week the Saudis brought their air and naval power to bear against Yemen's Houthi rebels -- Shiite insurgents very likely supported by Iran - after a Houthi incursion into Saudi territory. Iran responded by warning Saudi Arabia to stay out of the conflict. What remains to be seen is whether this conflict will create and harden a Sunni-Arab alliance that might someday effectively contain Iran.

According to the New York Times, the Houthis captured a strategic mountain near the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border and clashed with a Saudi border patrol on Nov. 3. The Saudi response was a sustained air and artillery campaign against Houthi positions inside Yemen. On Nov 10 Saudi naval forces began a blockade of Yemen's coast in order to cut the Houthis off from resupply.

The Saudi and Yemeni governments believe that Iran is supplying the rebels with weapons, though Tehran denies it.

Why has Saudi Arabia felt the need to overtly intervene in what was previously an internal Yemeni dispute? According to the United Nations, the latest flare-up in the Houthi insurrection has created 175,000 refugees. Breaking the insurgency might curtail the refugee crisis and prevent it from spilling over into Saudi Arabia.

At the geostrategic level, Saudi leaders might fear the creation of a pro-Iranian Shiite enclave adjacent to the Red Sea shipping lane, similar to what Iran has achieved with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. From the Saudi perspective, it would be best to strangle that possibility immediately.

Other players are taking note of the escalation in the Houthi conflict and making their own arrangements. On Nov. 11 Yemen disclosed that it had signed a military cooperation deal with the United States; the terms of the deal were not disclosed. Separately, the growing friction between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab states in the Gulf region on the other seems to be good news for arms exporters. According to Bloomberg News, major U.S. and European defense contractors expect $40 billion in sales over the next five years to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to upgrade aircraft, missile, and naval systems.

U.S. officials should be pleased by this reaction. Any real challenge Iranian ambitions will require Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to balance Iranian power. Accomplishing that will require more resolve and teamwork than the Sunni Arab states have demonstrated so far. If the proxy war generated by the Houthi rebellion achieves this response from the gulf countries, it would greatly serve U.S. interests in the region.

Sri Lanka's civil war is not really over

When does a war really end? Last May, the Sri Lankan army overran the last holdout of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the insurgent group that for 26 years had battled for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka's north. The final, bloody battle seemed decisive - the Tigers' founder Vellupillai Prabhakaran, his son, and many other top leaders of the LTTE were killed. The Tigers' sanctuary was vanquished. The army herded the LTTE's remaining foot-soldiers, along with the population that supported them, into razor-wire encampments.

Six months later, the guarded refugee camps remain. Might the embryo of a new Tamil insurgency be growing inside the camps? On the one hand, Sri Lanka's leaders likely understand that the longer the refugee situation remains unresolved, the higher the probability rises for another Tamil insurgency. On the other hand, after experiencing a long, bitter, and extremely violent civil war, these leaders are in no mind to gamble with their recent victory.

In The Utility of Force, his brilliant analysis of modern war, Rupert Smith asserted that today's conflicts, especially the ethnic variety, are never actually resolved. The best a policymaker can hope for, wrote Smith, is to contain over time their intensity and consequences. This is exactly the situation Sri Lanka now faces.

Sri Lanka's leaders are apparently hoping to prove Smith wrong. According to a recent Washington Post story, the government is using its lock-down of the Tamils to sift through the population of military-aged males in search of suspected Tiger sympathizers. By separating possible insurgent organizers from the rest of the Tamil population, the government hopes to permanently end Tamil resistance.

The Sri Lankan government may need to hurry up its search for potential troublemakers. It faces the possibility of a United Nations war crimes investigation and is under increasing pressure from the European Union and the United States to explain its resettlement policies.

Sri Lanka's leaders are likely counting on diplomatic contact with the West, combined with some well-publicized initial resettlement efforts, to remove the internment camp story from the news. This would provide the Sri Lanka security services with more time to track down and isolate potential insurgents who might be lurking in the camps.

Will Sri Lanka's government show how to permanently resolve a stubborn ethnic conflict? As Smith explained, modern history provides no good examples. We should bet that the Sri Lankan Way will be no different.

AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Why Don't Stryker Brigades Work in Afghanistan?

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

Was it a mistake to send a Stryker brigade to Afghanistan?

On July 5, the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade arrived in Kandahar province for a year-long tour of duty. The brigade was equipped with 350 Stryker combat vehicles, an eight-wheeled armored infantry carrier that has proven successful in Iraq and is popular with soldiers. It was the first time the Army had deployed Strykers to Afghanistan, but the country has proven unforgiving to the brigade. Thus far they have lost 21 of their Strykers to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), at a cost of two dozen killed and more than 70 wounded. On Oct. 27, seven soldiers died during the bombing of a single Stryker vehicle.

Why are Strykers seemingly more vulnerable to improvised explosive attack in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq? Iraq has a much more developed road network than Afghanistan. A denser road network provided U.S. mission planners with more routes to choose from, complicating the enemy's roadside bombing effort. In Afghanistan by contrast, U.S. forces may be lucky to have one usable road to get from an assembly area to an objective. The standard counter-IED strategy is to constantly observe such roads for insurgent bomb-planting activity. Fewer roads would mean less for the Americans to observe, in theory making it easier to find the insurgent bomb-planters. But the level of surveillance assets in the 5th Brigade's area might not be at the same density that U.S. units have enjoyed lately in Iraq. In fact, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, the brigade commander, has called for more surveillance help.

The best solution to the problem of IEDs is to infiltrate, attack, and destroy the insurgent organizations that plant them. While that effort progresses, coalition forces can reduce the IED threat by 1) staying off the roads and 2) dispersing by putting fewer troops in a greater number of vehicles. Obvious solutions, but often impractical to implement.

Given Afghanistan's vast distances and low population density, movement by vehicles is essential. Helicopters bypass the roads but are expensive, few in number, and have their own risks. Off-road movement by heavy vehicles laden with troops and supplies in impractical. A new all-terrain mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (M-ATV) may be promising for Afghanistan. An M-ATV carries five soldiers compared with the Stryker's 13 and may have better off-road capability. Compared to the Stryker, M-ATV would disperse soldiers in more vehicles and avoid some of the risks of being on Afghanistan's roads. 

Watching for bomb-planters, avoiding unwatched roads, using helicopters, dispersing into more vehicles, and taking alternate routes across the country will all help with the IED problem. But the real solution lies with offensive action against the IED networks. This will require aggressive patrolling, raiding, and the interrogation of captured suspects, actions that hopefully are not yet out of fashion.

U.S. troop morale may be slipping in Afghanistan

Is the morale of U.S. combat units in Afghanistan beginning to slip? Are U.S. troops in the field, restrained by risk-averse bosses in Kabul and Washington, increasingly just going through the motions, hoping to finish up their tours in one piece? A new report from Bing West hints at this disturbing conclusion.

West was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer in Vietnam, severd as an assistant secretary of defense, and has written three books on the current war in Iraq. His latest report for Small Wars Journal is based on three trips he made to Afghanistan this year.

West describes U.S. conventional combat units as risk averse, passive, and not respected by the Taliban:

Our SOF [special operating forces] has high morale due to a focused kinetic mission and the warrior's satisfaction in kinetics well applied. A war in which SOF, aviation and Taliban-initiated actions result in most of the enemy losses is of concern. Although his leaders are routinely eliminated by SOF, the enemy does not perceive that he confronts a superior, implacable adversary when he encounters our conventional units. We should change that.

Our SOF is enemy-focused, while our conventional forces are population-focused. Many coalition battalions have red areas [Taliban-controlled zones] where they rarely venture.... In sum, a balance must be maintained between population-centric COIN and blows aimed against Taliban cohesiveness. This is beginning to slip in our conventional units.... Well-founded doubt about Afghan national cohesiveness and self-reliance pervades all ranks in our military. Gone is the post-9/11 zeal. There is no widely-shared view of victory or definition of what winning means. To the troops, framework ops [routine patrols and meetings with locals] are a job to be done, while getting home in one piece.

The result, West explains, is that Afghan civilians are cooperating with the Taliban rather than the coalition:

It is not self-evident how winning the hearts of village elders or linking villages to Kabul wins the war. Our Soldiers believe that Afghans accept what we give them without reciprocating by turning against the Taliban. The elders don't raise militias or recruits for the army, or drive out the Taliban.... The theory of counterinsurgency is that villagers, once given security and services, will inform on the insurgents. In reality, the Pashtun Taliban aren't oppressing the villagers, and the coalition doesn't have the troops to provide security in many areas. So villagers hedge their bets -- accepting projects from the coalition while keeping their mouths shut as the Taliban move about in small gangs.

West concludes, "An acceptably governed Afghan state can emerge, provided we continue the fight for years." But he also observes that U.S. troops in the field respond to the cues they get from their top-level leaders. If these leaders don't commit to a decisive result, don't trust the judgment of their subordinates, and cut off the troops' access to air and artillery support, the troops will respond with passivity and cynicism. These are attitudes the military cannot afford in Afghanistan.