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

Small Wars

This Week at War: Does the Pottery Barn Rule Still Apply?

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

Could "repetitive raiding" replace counterinsurgency?

After the last decade's costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, future U.S. leaders will very likely wish to avoid another nation-building effort that requires the suppression of a stubborn insurgency.

But wishing rarely makes problems go away. There might, hypothetically, be another occasion when a "rogue" regime needs to be removed in the interests of either regional stability or basic human rights. Is there an alternative to post-removal counterinsurgency and nation-building? And what about Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" -- "you break it, you own it" -- referring to the United States' moral obligations to Iraq after the 2003 invasion?

Writing in Armed Forces Journal, Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, rejects the Pottery Barn rule and offers an alternative to counterinsurgency, namely "repetitive raiding." Finel explains his proposal this way:

[T]he vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.

As a consequence, I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy -- which might loosely be termed "repetitive raiding" -- could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America's adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.

After explaining why the United States should fight on its own terms rather than those that favor the adversary, Finel then applies the economic concept of marginal benefit versus marginal cost to discuss the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Finel argues that in both cases, the United States achieved most of its war objectives very early on. Cumulative costs at those points in the campaigns were trivial compared with what they would eventually become. In both wars, the United States stayed on in an attempt to achieve the remaining war objectives, paying massive marginal costs for the last few marginal benefits.

It seems easy to dismiss Finel's argument by noting the risks and costs the United States would have borne had it left Iraq and Afghanistan as broken and chaotic places. Finel explains how these risks and costs were minor, unlikely, or could have been mitigated without open-ended military occupations.  

But Finel is right to bring up the point about marginal benefits versus marginal costs. The United States will leave Iraq and Afghanistan at some point. When it does, there will still be some degree of trouble and uncertainty about the future in both places. Even then, no one will be able to say that all the broken dishes were repaired. Accepting that, Finel's argument for "repetitive raiding" as an alternative to counterinsurgency may find some appeal.

A painful decade has improved civil-military relations

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced civil-military relations in the United States to grow up and leave behind a naive adolescence that prevailed at the start of the last decade. Before the wars began, the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, described in Eliot Cohen's book Supreme Command) still ruled. Under the "normal" theory, civilian leadership determines war policy and then leaves the generals and admirals alone to run the war. Thankfully those days are gone; hardly a month passes without the secretary of defense or some other senior figure heading out to the field, questioning not just generals, but also colonels and sergeants about their tactics. Likewise, soldiers now deeply immerse themselves in questions about the connections between policy objectives and military strategy, the evidence for which can be found every day at websites such as Small Wars Journal. By dropping the normal theory and letting policymakers and military officers into each other's "lanes," the result has been a generally smarter use of military power.

Although U.S. civil-military relations are more mature, Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, thinks further improvement is needed. In an essay written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Owens argues that several persistent problems are inhibiting the country's ability to formulate better strategy.

First, Owens thinks that residual traces of the normal theory live on, and not without good reason. The theory's exclusion of the military leadership from policy formulation was designed to maintain civilian control over the military and keep the military out of politics. Likewise, military officers viewed the execution of war plans as closely resembling an engineering project, to be performed only by highly trained professionals -- civilian amateurs should not meddle. But the theory created barriers between policy objectives and the military actions that should be designed to achieve those objectives.

Second, Owens asserts that the enduring culture of the normal theory has created organizational cultures in each of the military services that resist interference and calls for change from civilian political leaders. Yet when those civilian political leaders formulate a national security policy that requires military force, who will be held responsible for ensuring that the proper military tools are ready to implement the policy? If the "normal" theory walls off the institutional military from close political supervision, the country may find itself unprepared for new eras of conflict (as happened at the start of the last decade).

Finally, Owens blames the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 for further raising the wall between policy formulation and military strategy. The disastrous attempt in 1980 to rescue U.S. Embassy employees from Tehran and the 1983 invasion of Grenada revealed serious problems in interservice cooperation. The solution was Goldwater-Nichols, which reduced the authority of the Washington-based service chiefs and increased the power of regional field commanders, who are responsible for executing joint-service military operations. Many have applauded the act for improving interservice military efficiency. But Owens claims the price has been the creation of further distance between civilian policymakers and warfighters, resulting in a greater disconnection between policy objectives and military strategy.

The solution, according to Owens, is twofold. First, military leaders must reassert a voice in strategy and, presumably, engage their civilian masters on the integration of military actions with policy objectives. On the other side, civilian leaders should closely probe and supervise the services' plans for force structure, acquisition programs, training, and doctrine to ensure that the services are creating military capabilities that will support national policies. On these measures, civil-military relations have improved. But it has taken a decade of painful wars to bring about this improvement.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images