Small Wars

This Week at War: Playing Sanctions Chicken

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

Do we have the guts to enforce the new Iran sanctions?

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama succeeded in pushing another Iran sanctions resolution through the U.N. Security Council. That resolution gives countries the right (but not the obligation) to inspect ships suspected of carrying military and nuclear items the Security Council has banned from Iran. On July 1, Obama signed into law H.R. 2194, a statute that will allow the president to impose sanctions on people or companies anywhere in the world who deal with Iran's petroleum exploration and refining businesses. H.R. 2194 was a very popular bill; it passed 408-8 in the House and 99-0 in the Senate.

Obama now has all the sanction authority he could have hoped for. But now that he has these powers, will he have the will to use them? Employing the new sanctions will require Obama and the United States to experience some unpleasant side effects. The next phase of the tussle with Iran could involve a global game of chicken, and it's not clear who will blink first.

On July 6, the Washington Post ran a story about Iran's preparations for a naval clash in response to the shi- inspection provision of the Security Council resolution. The article discussed Iran's "asymmetric" tactics against the U.S. 5th Fleet which could involve anti-ship missile attacks supplemented with suicide speedboat and aircraft attacks on U.S. warships near Iran. U.S. commanders, informed by war-games and training exercises, claim to be ready for these tactics.

A naval clash would seem to play to the U.S. military's strong suit. An Iranian attack would allow U.S. air and naval power to punish a broad range of Iranian military targets. The United States would seem to possess "escalation dominance" in this scenario.

But Iran's strategy would be primarily political, not military. Even one minor hit on a U.S. warship, one photograph of gray smoke coming from a U.S. hull, would exceed expectations and would be an Iranian moral victory. More importantly, Iran would hope to turn its losses into a propaganda victory -- an example of the U.S. bully beating up a small country. From an economic perspective, the Obama team would likely ponder the implications for the global economy of a naval battle in the Strait of Hormuz. For all these reasons, it might be in Iran's interest to arrange a provocation over the ship-inspection provision, engage the United States in a game of chicken, and see whether or not the Security Council resolution will have any meaning.

Iran is not the only one that can play chicken over this issue. China's oil companies will soon be the dominant foreign player in Iran's energy sector. H.R. 2194's sanctions will place these Chinese companies, and many other Chinese companies dealing with Iran, in Obama's gun sights. Will he be willing to pull the trigger and risk a possible trade war with China, thus imperiling his goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years? Or will Obama use the bill's opt-out provisions, which the president noted in his signing statement, and render the statute something of a dead letter?

Sanctioning Iran is not free; it will require taking risks and possibly incurring economic and even military losses. Iran, and perhaps China, might soon test Obama's appetite for further escalation.

Is Afghan development assistance making the problem worse?

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, David Kilcullen, a close advis0r to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, predicted that the newly installed Afghanistan commander would focus "on [Afghan] government accountability, government reform [and] government human rights abuses." Kilcullen added, "Now the [NATO] strategy says the aim is to extend the reach of the Afghan government.... Thank God we haven't been very successful.... We would have extended the reach of a government people don't like." Indeed, a new survey of Afghans found that 28 percent of households, overwhelmingly in rural areas, had to pay bribes, mostly to police, and judges, or for other routine government services. Although far from popular, the Taliban are able to hang on because enough of the population views them as an antidote to a hopelessly corrupt government.

A long feature story in the New York Times this week described how al Qaeda is expanding its presence in rural Yemen. Powered by popular contempt for a corrupt Yemeni government, the piece speculated that Yemen's ungoverned tribal areas could soon equal or surpass the Pashtun Afghan-Pakistan tribal areas as al Qaeda's preferred haven.

The 9/11 attacks traced their origins back to an irresponsibly governed Afghanistan. More recent terrorist attempts on the U.S. homeland have been traced back to the ungoverned parts of Yemen. Is there anything the U.S. government can do to mitigate the terrorist threats lurking in the world's ungoverned territories?

A 2007 study by the Rand Corp. analyzed the terrorist threat from ungoverned territories and produced recommendations for how the U.S. government should respond. The report studied ungoverned spaces on four continents, including the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa.

After cataloging and analyzing risk factors from all the case studies, the authors discussed recommendations for a U.S. government response. The recommendations sound strikingly similar to those the U.S. government is currently employing in Afghanistan: strengthen governance, extend the reach of government, emphasize security assistance, invest in infrastructure, improve agency cooperation, deny terrorists local sources of income, and so on. In other words, nation-building, with more effort and resources on the ungoverned spaces.

The report gave passing attention to the possibility that U.S. development assistance might make the problem of corruption inside an ungoverned society worse. Were this to occur, it would boost the popularity of insurgent groups, including those who harbor anti-American terrorist organizations.

U.S. policymakers should be open to the possibility that the more development aid the United States pushes into Afghanistan, the more corrupt the government in Kabul becomes and the more the Taliban gain. In an even more cruel irony, adding more roads, airports, telecommunications capacity, and banking services to a partially ungoverned Afghanistan increases the usefulness of the country to transnational terrorist organizations, when compared with much more primitive backwaters such as Somalia.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, it is charitable to conclude that Rand's recommendations have yet to be proved. They might even be making the situation there worse. If so, unsettling conclusions follow. At a minimum, what to do about ungoverned territories remains an open question.

AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Pentagon's Own Private Welfare State

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

The Pentagon's entitlement spending problem

A recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) explained the dismal trends that are bogging down the Pentagon's budget. Over the past decade, the budget, after subtracting out inflation, has almost doubled. Yet during that time, the number of aircraft and warships has declined and those that remain have gotten older. Funding has expanded at Reagan-like levels. But compared to the Reagan years, there has been relatively little modernization resulting from all of that spending.

The operational costs of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a large part of the problem. According to the CSBA, 20 percent of defense spending (including supplemental budgets) between 2001 and 2010 went to operational costs of those two wars. But the remaining 80 percent of the spending doesn't seem to have produced much new capability.

The rapid escalation in the cost of new weapons -- partly caused by frustrating mismanagement in research and procurement practices -- has resulted in a bleak return on investment for taxpayers. In 1985, during the peak of the Reagan defense buildup, the Pentagon bought 338 new tactical fighter aircraft and 23 new warships, among other items. In 2008, procurement spending was 33 percent higher after adjusting for inflation, yet the department could afford only 56 new airplanes and 7 new warships. One wonders whether the increases in weapons quality have been worth the inflation in unit costs.

But it is the Department's personnel costs that will pose the biggest headache in the future. Just like entitlement spending in the domestic budget, salaries, health care, and family services benefits granted today compound into the future and are politically impossible to retract. In order to reduce stress on ground troops making repeated deployments to the war zones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expanded Army and Marine Corps headcounts by 92,100 immediately after taking office in late 2006. Meanwhile, Congress has consistently upped the ante on the Pentagon's salary requests. Just like everywhere else in the economy, the Pentagon's health care bill has run wild, tripling the rate of inflation in the rest of the economy since 2001 -- it now consumes nearly a tenth of the Pentagon's base budget. And in order to retain experienced personnel constantly separated from their families, Congress has expanded a variety of family benefits.

The result has been a growth in inflation-adjusted personnel costs from $73,300 per head in 2000 to $126,800 in the 2011 budget. When it comes time for Congress to roll back defense spending, this compensation will be untouchable. Training, maintenance, and equipment modernization will suffer the cuts.

Gates has rightly made the preservation of the all-volunteer force his top budget priority. Military success depends first and always on the quality of the soldiers in an army. That requires competitive compensation.

But just like any other enterprise struggling under financial pressure, the military will soon have to examine whether there are new paradigms that might allow one soldier to make the same contribution to security that ten or a hundred previously did. This does not imply a naïve technological fix or a pricey substitution of capital for labor. The answer may be in who the military recruits into its ranks, what they are trained to do, and how they are organized and led when deployed. Perhaps the looming budget crunch will result in long-overdue innovations that were never contemplated when times were flush.

The U.S. is a spectator at Afghanistan's end game

The Obama administration's proposed July 2011 deadline to begin a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan dominated the Senate Armed Services Committee's hearing this week to confirm Gen. David Petraeus as the new commander in Afghanistan. Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, explained to the New York Times, "We want the Afghans to understand that we're going to be expecting more out of them, so to the extent that it conveys a sense of urgency, that's an important message." To some extent, the White House's incentives are working; Afghan President Hamid Karzai is already delivering much more than before. But what he is delivering is far different from what Rhodes and his colleagues had in mind. 

The Afghanistan end game may be arriving much sooner than expected. Negotiations between Karzai, Pakistani military and intelligence officials, and Taliban leaders seem to be advancing. And in spite of the surge of troops to Afghanistan, the United States may end up being a spectator as Karzai and his interlocutors work out their own truce.

Karzai realized long before Gen. Stanley McChrystal's defenestration that he had to develop alternatives to Washington's plans. He undoubtedly also concluded that Pakistan, with the sanctuary and support it provides to the Afghan Taliban and its control over supply routes (for all sides) into the theater, has vastly more authority over any outcome than the United States. As a corollary, Karzai has likely concluded that U.S. military operations in Helmand and Kandahar provinces are irrelevant to the calculations of Pakistani officials and Taliban leaders. Finally, Karzai would seem to have little confidence that Afghanistan's own security forces will be useful any time soon. All reasons for Karzai to ignore the U.S. playbook and make his own deal. Thus his decision to engage Pakistani officials to broker talks, first with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and now with the Haqqani network.

What is Pakistan's interest in brokering a truce right now? Its long term goal is to minimize India's influence in Afghanistan. A settlement that ends with Islamabad's Afghan proxies intact and inside the Afghan government will help further that goal. But why cooperate with Karzai now? Although Pakistan seeks a different end state than the United States, it has no interest in seeing the Americans lose the war. Pakistani leaders do not want to see a bitter United States pack up and leave as it did after its defeat in Vietnam. That would leave Pakistan cut off from U.S. aid and left to fend off India by itself. Thus there is an incentive to broker a deal that will appear to be a U.S. success and that will help officials in Washington save face.

U.S. leaders seem to be resisting a deal that leaves top-level Taliban leaders in the game. They fear that this will look more like surrender than success. What these officials need to realize is that their minimal bargaining leverage over Pakistan is likely to be even more minimal next year after the surge has run its course.

U.S. officials might not like what Pakistani and Afghan leaders are discussing with the Taliban, but after considering the alternatives, they might conclude it's the best deal going.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images