Small Wars

This Week at War: The Battle of the Beltway

Petraeus opens up a second front -- taking on his critics in Washington.

Petraeus fights on a second front -- inside the Beltway

The Taliban are not the only insurgents Gen. David Petraeus must battle. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan is fighting on a second front inside the Washington Beltway, battling anonymous policymakers who seem to be waging an insurgency against his preferred war strategy. The "key terrain" of this battle is the mind of President Barack Obama. The president's looming decisions on who will fill numerous key vacancies inside the Pentagon will play a major part in who wins the war over Afghanistan policy.

The latest exchange of fire occurred in late October when Petraeus declared that an operation to clear Taliban insurgents from key strongholds west of Kandahar was proceeding "more rapidly than was anticipated." A few days after his Kandahar briefing, anonymous Pentagon snipers fired back at Petraeus's rosy assessment, concluding that "[t]he insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience" and that inside the White House there is "uncertainty and skepticism" over the general's account of the operation. For Petraeus, it is apparently easier to chase the Taliban from Kandahar province than it is to suppress resistance in Washington.

But Petraeus has been gaining ground as well. While in Australia, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that come next autumn, the Taliban may be in for a rude surprise when they find "American forces are still there, and still coming after them." Even more importantly, a story this week from McClatchy revealed that the Obama administration has a new message about its timeline for Afghanistan. The administration's new spin is that U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan through 2014, downplaying the previous emphasis on the July 2011 start time for withdrawals.

Although Petraeus should take comfort from this change in the White House message, the upcoming NATO summit in Portugal also likely played a role in the new spin. By emphasizing its troop commitment to Afghanistan through 2014, the U.S. delegation to the summit hopes to bolster its case for other NATO countries to re-up their participation in that same tour of duty.

After his long deliberation in 2009 over what to do about Afghanistan, Obama largely granted the Afghan Surge Faction (Gates, Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen) what it wanted. But he also made clear his resistance to a long-term commitment: "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

Is he now abandoning that resistance? We don't know. But we will know much more in the months ahead, when Obama announces who will replace Gates and Mullen, along with his picks for the next Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chairman and Army chief of staff.

"Personnel is policy," goes the Washington dictum. Obama found himself unable to reject the Afghanistan policy advice he received from Gates and Mullen, holdovers from George W. Bush's administration. In 2011 he will have his own choices for those billets. Who he picks for the Pentagon's top jobs will say a lot about how Obama intends to deal with Afghanistan during the remainder of his term -- and whether Petraeus or his critics will win the Battle of the Beltway.

United States teaches Mexico counterinsurgency -- quietly

In September, after agreeing with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Mexico faces an insurgency from its drug cartels, I wondered whether the U.S. government would be able to apply what it has recently learned about insurgencies to prevent the one in Mexico from getting further out of control. According to the Washington Post, the United States now has a quiet but expanding relationship with Mexico's military. U.S. soldiers are sharing their counterinsurgency experience with their Mexican counterparts. The Pentagon's security force assistance mission to Mexico might be its most delicate, and the one with the greatest payoff for success and the greatest consequences for failure.

With its local police forces thoroughly corrupted by drug money and its federal police either similarly suborned or stretched too thin, Mexico has resorted to using its military forces to attack the cartels. Mexico's marines have been especially effective, having killed several top drug-cartel leaders this year. Their latest success was the Nov. 5 killing of Antonio Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cárdenas Guillén, a leader in the Gulf Cartel, along with three of his lieutenants. Two marines and a soldier died in the six-hour shootout in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. Analysts now expect violent clashes in several border towns between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas group (established by defectors from Mexican special forces) for control of drug-traffic routes into the United States.

According to the Post, intelligence collection and analysis is a significant part of the training U.S. instructors provide to their Mexican military counterparts. During the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military units, with the assistance of police advisors and network-mapping software, developed the ability to uncover insurgent cells and networks from data collected from patrols, radio intercepts, interrogations, informants, etc. The experience U.S. commanders and intelligence analysts obtained in these operations should transfer directly to the counter-cartel campaign waged by the Mexican military.

Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., commander of U.S. Northern Command, which includes Mexico in its area of operations, called the partnership against the cartels his "number one priority." But in response to historical Mexican sensitivities about U.S. interference, Winnefeld and his command have had very little to say about their military assistance relationship with Mexico. In September, U.S. Army Special Operations Command had assigned just 21 Special Forces soldiers (soldiers who specialize in foreign security force training) to Northern Command. Although U.S. and Mexican soldiers travel across the border for training, both sides are placing a high priority on low visibility.

Mexico's drug cartels have brought headless corpses, the signature of their internecine wars, to the United States. But the portion of the war inside Mexico is reserved for Mexico's Army and marines. The U.S. security force assistance mission to Mexico is small and quiet. With Mexico's cartels now operating across the United States, it may be the most consequential such mission in the Pentagon's portfolio. Both sides apparently believe that the quieter that mission remains the more effective it will be. But the growing brutality of the war may not cooperate with those plans.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: Is There an Afghanistan Caucus?

The midterms were a signal that time may be running out for the Obama team's war plans.

The midterm election may make the Afghan war an orphan

In sharp contrast to 2006 and 2008, when weariness over the Iraq war boosted the fortunes of Democrats, national security issues played virtually no role in the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. This year, with economic and financial problems paramount, the long war in Afghanistan received nary a mention during the campaign. Adding to the silence over the war is the perception that there exist few substantial differences on Afghan policy; Republican leaders generally endorse President Barack Obama's "surge" strategy and will watch from the sidelines as Obama ponders his withdrawal options next year.

The conventional wisdom is that even if a more left-wing Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill grumbles at Obama's Afghan policy, Republicans will provide the administration with the support it needs. This view also holds that the Pentagon will largely get what it wants. Although some new libertarian-leaning Republicans might be mild Pentagon skeptics, the arrival of the new, mostly pro-defense Republican delegation in Washington, combined with the generally bipartisan workings of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, should mean that the Pentagon's programs and Obama's strategy for Afghanistan are safe.

Are there any reasons to question this conventional wisdom? Might defense spending come under the knife in spite of the Republican wave? And might Obama be left alone to deal with Afghanistan, without political cover on either flank?

New Republican members will soon receive a test on how serious they are about actually cutting spending. Their election platform pledges to cut $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending during their first year in office. The new majority in the House of Representatives can, in theory, approve such cuts. But getting the Democrat-controlled Senate to agree is another question. If Republicans are actually serious about negotiating a compromise on spending, Senate Democrats are likely to ask for some meaningful contribution from the Pentagon in exchange for deep cuts to domestic programs.

Where in the Pentagon's budget could appropriators find immediate and meaningful cuts? Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already attempted to get ahead of this process by proposing cuts to his department's overhead. But he wants any such savings reinvested in weapons purchases, meaning no net reduction of the Pentagon's budget.

Under this scenario, congressional policymakers may for the first time have to reckon with the financial costs of the Afghan campaign. Just as the newly-elected congressmen and senators were celebrating their victories, Chinese warships, aircraft, and marines were conducting a large live-fire exercise in the increasingly disputed South China Sea. This exercise occurred while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the region, just prior to the president's own arrival in Asia.

Very few policymakers from either party will be willing to cut U.S. air and naval spending in the face of China's military buildup, particularly with policymakers already struggling with perceptions among Asian allies that U.S. military power in East Asia is waning. But due to the ongoing commitment in Afghanistan, Congress can't cut ground forces either. To the extent that Congress is serious about making a deal on spending cuts and that a political deal will require cuts in both domestic and Pentagon programs, the tradeoff between Afghan war costs and security and alliance relationships in places like East Asia will become increasingly apparent.

In the near-term, the conventional wisdom will be correct: Political gridlock will reinforce the status quo. For now, the new Congress will fully support Pentagon funding, both for Afghanistan and for modernization. As a corollary, little but token domestic spending cuts are likely.

But as the pressure to cut spending clashes with the need to bolster confidence in the U.S. commitment to Asia, the Afghan war may become an orphan. If Democrats push for disengagement (an inclination Obama already shares), it should be no surprise to see few Republicans complain. Least of all those Republicans hoping for Obama's job in 2012.

Are amphibious assaults obsolete?

Last May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged Navy and Marine Corps leaders to defend the relevancy of amphibious operations against modern, well-armed opponents. Gates urged, "[W]e have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again -- especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore."

Recalling the corpse-strewn beaches from the movie Saving Private Ryan, one may wonder why sensible military leaders would spend any time and resources preparing for an opposed beach landing against modern firepower. And if the amphibious assault is obsolete, does the United States even need a 200,000-strong Marine Corps anymore?

Writing in the latest edition of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work and Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, attempt to answer Gates's question, arguing that the Navy and Marine Corps are adapting their amphibious tactics to modern "hybrid" opponents who will be armed with the latest guided weapons, yet will also hide amongst indigenous urban populations.

Gates noted that advanced, anti-ship, guided-missile systems -- "anti-access/area denial" systems -- may push U.S. naval forces so far away from an objective that organizing a sea-borne assault would become impractical. Work and Hoffman discuss the temptation among some U.S. military planners to respond to enemy defense systems with long-range aircraft and missiles that would avoid having to directly confront these defenses. The problem with this approach they assert is diplomatic -- important allies may live on the wrong side of the anti-access line. To cede this geography to an adversary would imply writing off important relationships, with damaging consequences for U.S. diplomacy.

Next, Work and Hoffman note that amphibious assault capability is an integral part of overall naval and air power. The ability to land ground forces from the sea complicates adversary planning and improves the effectiveness of other U.S. naval and air forces.

So how do Work and Hoffman propose executing amphibious operations against "hybrid" irregular fighters armed with sophisticated guided missiles and who hide in complex urban terrain? First, they assert that such an operation won't in any way resemble Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. A long period of "shaping" would occur first, marked by reconnaissance and electronic and physical attacks on an adversary's command system, supply system, and missiles. When the main Marine force did come ashore, it would land away from the enemy forces. The Marines would use dispersion, or "distributed operations," to reduce their exposure. Finally, the fact that the Marine Corps operates from a mobile sea base further reduces their vulnerability to ground-based enemy action.

Work and Hoffman admit that they don't have all of the answers to the most sophisticated challenges. But they do make the case that, in order to reassure allies in many regions, the United States will need to retain a convincing ability to support and reinforce those allies with a full range of military options, even under challenging circumstances. In this sense, the Marine Corps makes U.S. diplomacy easier.

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