Small Wars

This Week at War: Is This the Week Mexico Lost the Drug War?

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

Is this what defeat looks like?

On March 13, in two separate but seemingly coordinated attacks, gunmen in Juárez, Mexico, killed two employees of the U.S. Consulate, along with the husband of one of the employees. They were gunned down in their cars while returning from a children's party. Although in recent years U.S. citizens and government employees have died in the crossfire of Mexico's drug wars, this deliberate attack on U.S. government employees in Mexico signals a further escalation in the conflict. FBI agents investigating the murders guessed that the murders were meant to "send a message" to both the Mexican and U.S. governments.

The vast majority of the killings in Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico are the result of gangs battling for control of drug distribution markets. But the escalatioán of Mexico's violence began in December 2006 when President Felipe Calderón decided to attack the drug cartels which in his view were challenging the state's authority. The government's offensive has resulted in a complex, multisided, and violent scramble for markets, coercive power, and political influence.

What message did the gunmen intend to send with the murder of the consulate workers? It is a message easily recognized by students of irregular warfare. Insurgents competing with the government for influence over the population have pain as one of the principal tools in their toolbox. Apply the pain in a terrifying manner against even the most imposing symbols of authority -- in this case the U.S. government -- and political results may follow.

In Juárez, this tactic might be working. Despite Calderón's addition of 10,000 federal troops, Juárez has already suffered 500 murders in 2010. According to articles in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, many residents of Juárez have had enough of Calderón's war on the cartels. The president arrived for his third visit in a month, promising a list of social programs in addition to the military campaign. But, according to the Los Angeles Times, Calderón was met with nervous and angry protesters, calling for a return to the more peaceful days before he became president.

Three years into Calderón's escalation, an increasing number of Mexicans may now conclude that the only path to greater peace may be accommodation with the cartels. With their ability to apply intense pain and also distribute their massive revenues within some of Mexico's neighborhoods, the cartels are in a good position to sway public opinion toward a truce. Calderón sought to establish the state's authority as supreme. Juárez could instead show him what defeat looks like.

Reining in rogues? Or stifling initiative?

Over the past week, the news from Afghanistan brought three stories with a common theme -- in each case, headquarters had to rein in rogue operators who were either exceeding their authority or were breaking the law. That's one view, but maybe not the correct one. Another perspective is less sympathetic: nervous "control freaks" at the top of the chain of command are punishing creative field officers for daring to take the initiative. If this view is more correct, it is a worrisome trend for the U.S. mission.

In the first story, the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported the anonymous grumblings of U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington who object to aspects of Marine Corps operations in Helmand province. According to Chandrasekaran, Marine commanders are not waiting for permission from higher headquarters to expand their territory and apply their own solutions to problems in their area of responsibility. The response from U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was to regard the Marines as a "42nd nation" in the coalition. A senior Obama administration official complained about the Marine Corps approach damaging "operational coherence."

Next was a report that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has seized direct command over all special operations forces in Afghanistan. This implies that units that worked for another command or were in direct support of local commanders no longer will be. According to the New York Times , McChrystal took this action in response to some recent direct action raids that went awry, resulting in the killing of Afghan civilians.

Finally, there is the murky case of Michael Furlong, a civilian employee of U.S. Strategic Command. Furlong stands accused of using funds within the Pentagon's anti-roadside-bomb program to establish an informal intelligence-gathering network in Afghanistan using civilian contractors. According to the Washington Post, the CIA and the special operations community complained about Furlong, whose activities are now under investigation.

Are these three cases examples of rogue operations that needed to be reined in? Or of nervous commanders and staff officers punishing subordinates for taking the initiative?

In isolation, each of these cases of greater central control may be justifiable. Freeing Kandahar from the Taliban may require more cooperation from the Marines. Special operations forces may make fewer errors if under McChrystal's command. And midlevel bureaucrats should not be able to exceed their authority and spend taxpayer money in violation of the law (if that is in fact what Furlong did).

However justifiable each of these cases may be, the resulting appearance in the field might be that initiative, creativity, and risk-taking doesn't pay -- it only results in disapproving scrutiny and possible punishment. Field Manual 3-24, the Pentagon's guide to counterinsurgency, states that "effective COIN operations are decentralized, and higher commanders owe it to their subordinates to push as many capabilities as possible down to their level. Mission command encourages the initiative of subordinates and facilitates the learning that must occur at every level." Is FM 3-24 now passé in Kabul and Washington?

McChrystal's staff (and the White House staff) does not have all the answers on how to prevail in Afghanistan. The answers are out in the field, to be discovered by the soldiers out there. That is something the top of the chain of command should ponder the next time it feels the urge to tighten its grip.

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

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