Small Wars

This Week at War: The Biden Plan Returns

The United States reluctantly accepts coercion over counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Running out of time, Petraeus implements Biden's counterterrorism plan

Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, discusses how, during the debate within U.S. President Barack Obama's inner circle over the best military strategy for Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus was the main proponent of a classic "protect the people" counterinsurgency strategy. During the debates, Petraeus railed against Vice President Joe Biden's proposal for a narrower "kinetic" counterterrorism approach that would focus on killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders with bombs, missiles, and special-operations raids. Obama eventually gave Petraeus's plan the nod. Attempting to implement the soft touch recommended by counterinsurgency theory, former commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal severely limited the use of airstrikes and artillery and ordered U.S. ground units to disengage from firefights rather than risk firing into occupied buildings.

But that was then. Under pressure to show measureable results, Petraeus now seems to be warming up to Biden's approach more than he is likely to admit. According to the New York Times, the past three months have witnessed a sharp acceleration of airstrikes and commando raids on Taliban leadership targets. From June through September, U.S. pilots dropped 2,100 bombs and missiles on Taliban targets, a 50 percent increase from a year ago. Officers attribute the increased rate of attacks on better target intelligence, provided by a greater number of drone surveillance aircraft. Between early July and early October, special-operations forces killed 300 midlevel Taliban commanders and 800 foot soldiers, and captured another 2,000. According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a recent internal study requested by Petraeus showed that 90 percent of the campaign's operational success has come from just 5 percent of the forces, led by his command's special-operations raiding teams.

With time running out until the December strategy review and July's scheduled drawdown, Petraeus has cast away McChrystal's soft touch. Furthermore, the counterinsurgency mantra of "clear-hold-build-transfer" no longer seems relevant given the time pressure to deliver credible progress. Petraeus's strategy now appears to be pure coercion, directed at mid- and higher-level Taliban leaders. Perhaps Petraeus has removed the Counterinsurgency Field Manual from his nightstand, and replaced it with Thomas Schelling's Arms and Influence, the Cold War-era primer on the utility of military coercion.

Petraeus's tactical shift may be getting results. According to the New York Times, the general is in sending aircraft and clearing the roads to shuttle high-level Taliban leaders who are now seeking an audience with Afghan government representatives. The fear of a Hellfire missile, a laser-guided bomb, or the nighttime arrival of commandos seems the most logical explanation for the growing willingness of some Taliban commanders to talk. The metrics of counterinsurgency success -- growing acceptance by the population of the legitimate government, improved policing, falling corruption, etc. -- have not arrived and could not account for the changed calculations of these Taliban leaders.

The Afghan government and the Taliban are obviously a long way from a truce. The negotiating authority of the Taliban envoys is in question. And, according to the New York Times, the Taliban emissaries must remain anonymous, lest they be killed by the Pakistani intelligence service, which apparently has yet to sanction the idea of a settlement. In spite of these frailties, Petraeus seems eager to arrange these talks -- they seem to be the best way of showing resultsbefore the December policy review.

Obama is no doubt equally eager for progress toward a truce, if only to get another chance at resetting his Afghanistan policy. If he gets that chance, it won't be due to counterinsurgency theory but rather to tried-and-true coercion, enabled by a surprisingly small number of drone handlers, intelligence operators, and special-operations raiders. Could that make Joe Biden Obama's best military advisor?

Britain chooses to become an American auxiliary

In a recent column, I discussed the choices the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in Britain faced as it completed a review of its defense planning. If the top priority for British leaders wereto retain the capacity for an independent foreign and defense policy, they would give top priority to nuclear deterrence and naval and air power. Ground forces would get the chop. If by contrast, British leaders were willing to defer to the foreign-policy leadership of the United States, the European Union, or some other larger alliance, Britain should then choose to structure its forces to be a good partner and cut military capabilities that its friends would provide instead.

The results of the government's strategic review cum budget-slashing exercise are now in. The Strategic Defense and Security Review largely protects military capabilities most useful to allies like the United States, while taking large risks with the British military's ability to operate alone.

The Defense Ministry will suffer an 8 percent cut in real terms over the next four years. Prime Minister David Cameron has chosen to largely protect the Army, Britain's special-operations forces, and the country's purchase of the U.S.-built Joint Strike Fighter. This outcome is no doubt highly pleasing to the Pentagon. Getting the axe will be Britain's surface and amphibious naval forces, which will be hard-pressed to respond on short notice or again mount a significant independent expedition. Cameron also deferred a final decision on modernizing Britain's nuclear deterrent until after the next general election; Cameron's Liberal Democrat allies will thus get another chance to permanently kill this capability.

Cameron and his colleagues were constrained by three difficult factors. First was the government's requirement to economize across entire budget, with defense slated to do its part. Second was Cameron's pledge to sustain Britain's contribution to the land war in Afghanistan until 2015. Third was the previous Labour government's commitment to build two new large aircraft carriers, with much of their funding having already been spent. The annoying result for Cameron was that it would cost more to terminate the aircraft-carrier program than to complete the two ships. The funding absorbed by the carriers has effectively sunk much of the rest of the Navy and shot down many of Britain's aircraft. The consequence of these three constraints is that more than a decade will elapse with numerous large gaps in British military capability which will include, embarrassingly, an aircraft carrier sailing with no aircraft.

The government's analysis of future threats contributed to its decision to emphasize its ties and interoperability with the United States. It judged the top tier of risks to include mass-destruction terrorism, cyberthreats, natural disasters, and international crises where Britain would act within a coalition. The government threat assessment downgraded the risks ofconventional war, state-on-state conflict, and a replay of the 1982 Falklands campaign.

Mitigating the top-tier threats requires international intelligence cooperation, partnerships on cybersecurity, coordination with foreign partners on special-operations training and employment, and interoperability within multilateral military command structures such as NATO. It is thus no surprise that the defense review directs the British Army to reorganize its brigades to more similarly match their U.S. counterparts. Cameron also decided to scrap some battlefield intelligence capabilities (under the assumption the Americans will provide the data) while increasing funding for cybersecurity.

In spite of the relative chill of late between Washington and London, Cameron has decided to increase Britain's dependence on the Pentagon. He's counting on the relationship to never get too cold. Andon the Pentagon not doing any of its own depp bone-cutting


Small Wars

This Week at War: China Backs Down for Now

U.S.-China ties seemed to be on the mend at this week's ASEAN summit.

Did Gates get China to back away from the South China Sea?

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates's appearance at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers meeting in Hanoi this week seemed to produce some welcome diplomatic developments. During a meeting with Gen. Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defense minister, Gates was invited to make an official visit to China. Gates had pleaded with his Chinese counterparts to reopen military-to-military contacts, which were cut off last winter after the U.S. government announced new arms sales to Taiwan. A second development, much welcomed by both U.S. officials and ASEAN leaders, was the absence of any renewed territorial claims by China over the South China Sea. Indeed, Liang explained that China's military modernization "is not aimed to challenge or threaten anyone." He did not repeat a recent Chinese claim that its possession of the South China Sea constituted a "core interest." China's demand earlier this year to change the South China Sea from a maritime "commons" to Chinese territory would have forced much of East Asia's commercial shipping to travel through Chinese territory, a demand that alarmed both the United States and countries in the region.

Just a few years ago, ASEAN leaders took pride in the fact that the United States was excluded from their club. But with the rapid buildup of Chinese naval and air power in the area, U.S. policymakers like Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are now warmly welcomed at the group's meetings. Clinton's appearance in July at an earlier ASEAN meeting in Hanoi began the pushback against China's claim to the South China Sea. Gates's follow-up this week may have delivered the desired effect.

An unexpectedly strong backlash in the region may have prompted the Chinese to retreat. Chinese leaders may have been surprised by the resistance of ASEAN's leaders and the sharp response in Tokyo over the recent Chinese fishing boat incident in the Senkaku Islands. Chinese leaders have likely concluded that a tactical retreat is wiser than risking stiffening resistance in the region. China took steps to patch up its relationship with Japan; after Japan released the Chinese fishing boat captain, China released four Japanese workers it had seized. China also unfroze diplomatic contact when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to meet on Oct. 4 with Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Brussels.

The Clinton and Gates visits to Hanoi undoubtedly bolstered the confidence of those in the region who were willing to push back against Beijing. But just as Liang attempted to persuade his audience that they should not fear China's intentions, Gates also tried to persuade China's leaders that they should not fear the current Pax Americana in the western Pacific. In his remarks to the ASEAN forum, Gates declared, "The United States has always exercised our rights and supported the rights of others to transit through, and operate in, international waters. This will not change." Thus, Gates assured the Chinese, your maritime commerce is safe with us.

But how likely are China's leaders to be reassured? Three decades of rapid Chinese economic growth is evidence that Pax Americana in the western Pacific has worked for China. But the rapid buildup of Chinese naval and air power, with intentions to project military power beyond Taiwan and deep into the Pacific, is evidence that Chinese policymakers are not satisfied with the U.S. Navy taking responsibility for securing their critical shipping lanes.

Gates hopes that more frequent contacts between U.S. and Chinese military leaders will dilute mutual suspicions. Although such efforts cannot hurt, U.S. policymakers should not expect such contacts by themselves to bring an end to China's naval buildup or the challenge that buildup presents to U.S. alliances and diplomatic efforts in the region. The task for Gates and his successors is to establish a long-term defense program that will continue to reassure U.S. allies and the ASEAN leaders with whom Clinton and Gates have recently had such good results. Leaders in the region will be watching the Pentagon's commitment to its Pacific Fleet and how that commitment rates compared to the expense of the war in Afghanistan.

Can the Pentagon innovate like its small rivals?

Is the "Western way of war," characterized by large national militaries equipped with expensive high-tech weapons, now obsolete? Ten years ago this week, suicide bombers in Yemen's Aden harbor fooled USS Cole's high-tech defenses. The 9/11 attackers bypassed all of the North American Aerospace Defense Command's meticulous preparations for defending U.S. airspace. The Fort Hood shooting and the attempted terrorist attacks over Detroit, and in Times Square all show globally connected conspirators evading traditional Western concepts of military and border defenses.

Are we now witnessing a new "revolution in military affairs" that threatens to scrap the Western way of war, and in the process make redundant the trillions of dollars the United States and other countries have invested in defense? Writing in Small Wars Journal, Maj. Tripp McCullar, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer currently assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency, argues that the revolution in information technology will asymmetrically benefit small and weak nation-states and nonstate actors, allowing them to challenge the traditional military dominance of large powers.

McCullar asserts that the spread of information technology will empower previously weak actors with several critical means to outmaneuver large established rivals. The information revolution is already spreading mass-destruction weapons technology, which formerly was a monopoly held by the large powers. Second, McCullar observes that mass-destruction weapons in the hands of formerly small weak groups will make the traditional Western way of war, with massed armies and fleets, obsolete. Third, the information revolution allows small groups to mobilize support anywhere and especially "behind the lines" of traditional Western defenses. Finally, this ability to use social information technology for mobilization and organization trumps the West's traditional military advantages in strategic mobility and logistics.

Large traditional powers such as the U.S. military have the same or greater access to information technology as their small weak rivals. McCullar's thesis relies on an assumption that small adversaries have a greater ability and incentives to innovate using information technology than do supposedly large ponderous behemoths like the U.S. Department of Defense. The small actor's advantage in rapid innovation is the subject of The Diffusion of Military Power by Michael Horowitz, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Horowitz argues that financial capacity and "organizational capital" (a military institution's ability to flexibly adopt disruptive innovations) determine how particular military innovations spread to other military organizations. For example, aircraft carriers are both very expensive and culturally disruptive to established navies and therefore have been adopted by very few.

Most dreaded by traditional Western powers like the United States are those military innovations that require little financial capacity but high "organizational capital." Drawing from research on organizational adaptation and innovation, Horowitz argues that large old organizations have developed entrenched interests that resist disruptive innovations. Small new groups by contrast can more rapidly adopt such advances. Horowitz cites the diffusion of suicide terrorism as an example of a military innovation requiring low financial capacity and high organizational flexibility. Operating within Horowitz's framework, McCullar might foresee small adaptive groups using information technology to diffuse mass-destruction weapons to mobilized networks before traditional authorities can respond.

All is not lost for large established organizations like the U.S. military. Its level of organizational capital depends on the extent to which its culture promotes experimentation, responds to feedback from the field, encourages the mavericks in its ranks, and is willing to support innovative ideas that might ultimately fail. In the world McCullar and Horowitz describe, the U.S. military needs to constantly improve on these measures if it is to remain relevant.

Carolyn Kaster/AFP/Getty Images