Small Wars

This Week at War: Company Men

Do CIA directors make good defense secretaries?

Do CIA directors make better defense secretaries?

In a sweeping but long-anticipated reorganization of his national security team, President Barack Obama has nominated Leon Panetta, his CIA director, to be the next secretary of Defense. When confirmed, Panetta will replace Robert Gates. According to the New York Times, Gates -- himself a former director of Central Intelligence -- has been voicing his support in calls to leaders on Capitol Hill in recent days, saying he recommended Panetta as his replacement six months ago. The Times also noted that of all of the candidates to replace Gates "it was Leon the whole time." Is there something about CIA directors that makes them especially qualified to be defense secretaries?

Many analysts have focused on Panetta's past as chairman of the House Budget Committee and his time as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. With Obama having tasked the Pentagon and other security agencies to come up with an additional $400 billion in savings over the next 12 years, Panetta's experience with the federal budget could be a critical skill in the period ahead.

A defense secretary serves not only the president, but his other "customer," the Congress. Panetta's longevity inside Washington's circles nearly matches Gates's. His past experience as a congressman and his recent experience at CIA will ensure smooth relations on Capitol Hill and there should be virtually no opposition to his nomination to the Pentagon.

But it's likely that these were not the most critical reasons why he became the easy first choice for the Pentagon. In pushing for Panetta, Gates is undoubtedly counting on his old institution, the CIA, to have thoroughly prepared its current director in two crucial ways.

First, the Pentagon is a massive organization, requiring great management experience from its leader to be effective. The CIA is also a large organization, which Panetta has led for over two years without incident. Having been through the same progression, Gates must feel comfortable with Panetta's management ability.

But for Obama and Gates, the most critical preparation Panetta has received is his acquired knowledge about the external security challenges the United States will face in the years ahead. The CIA's paramilitary activities in Afghanistan, its relations with Pakistan's intelligence service, and the CIA drone program over North Waziristan have undoubtedly consumed much of Panetta's time. But his briefing books have also included the growth of China's missile and naval forces, the development of Iran's nuclear and missile forces, the growing role of militarized drug cartels in Latin America, and many other threats.

The defense secretary's most important job is to make sure that the country's military forces are prepared for future challenges. The first step in achieving that mission is to understand what those will be. The CIA has its version of what those challenges are, which are now inside Panetta's head. Gates seems comfortable with that.

Does Panetta have a grand strategy?

At an April 21 press conference at the Pentagon, Gates attempted to establish the ground rules for the latest review of defense spending. Responding to Obama's call to find an additional $400 billion of savings from security spending over the next 12 years, Gates insisted that this latest budget exercise result in a presentation of risks and consequences to Obama. Gates explained:

So what I hope to do is frame this in a way that says, if you want to cut this number of dollars, here are the consequences for force structure. Here are your choices in terms of capabilities that will be reduced or investments that are not made. And here are the consequences of this.

This is about -- this needs to be a process that is driven by the analysis, and where it is about risk management with respect to future national security threats and challenges, as well as missions that our elected officials decide we should not have to perform or shouldn't -- can't perform anymore because we don't have the resources.

I want to frame those choices, because the easy thing for everybody is to just do a broad percentage cut, because then there are no evident consequences. And what I want to do is frame this in a way the consequences and the risks are identified so people can make well- thought-out decisions."

Gates is hoping that Obama's call for cuts turns into a serious debate about U.S. grand strategy. Formulating such a strategy implies defining objectives, assessing available resources, setting priorities, and accepting the risks and consequences for those objectives. Although a seemingly logical process, recent presidents have shied away from performing such an exercise and for good reasons. Gates, the most experienced hand in Washington, knows this. But with his departure from the Pentagon now set for June 30, Gates won't be around to guide the strategy project he believes is so important. That task will fall to his presumed successor, Leon Panetta, whose views on grand strategy still remain a mystery.

Hasn't the Obama administration, like its predecessors, already produced some elegant grand strategy documents? Last year, the administration published its National Security Strategy. The Pentagon produced its own Quadrennial Defense Review. These documents richly describe ambitions and aspirations. But they are nearly silent about the limitations under which U.S. policymakers must increasingly function. And this means that these documents avoid the hard-headed analysis decision-makers under constraints must face, namely setting priorities, taking risks, accepting consequences, and ultimately cutting adrift goals -- and partners -- that cannot be supported.

If Obama and his Office of Management and Budget are serious about additional defense cuts, Gates wants the risks and consequences out in the open. Setting priorities and accepting limits means announcing that some allies and friends still merit protection while others don't. Previous presidents have never been explicit about such line-drawing, a crucial result of grand strategy formulation; to do so would undermine the clout of U.S. diplomacy. More broadly, openly declaring explicit limits on security missions the United States will and will not perform would imply forfeiting influence over events in some areas, something U.S. policymakers since World War II have consistently declined to do. They have concluded that the best way to maximize diplomatic influence and maneuvering room is to be vague and leave the impression that all goals and all friends matter equally.

But as the Pentagon's dollars grow short, such a strategy will increasingly rely on bluff. When the interagency process, for logical reasons, resists making strategic choices, Gates's nightmare -- equal budget cuts across the existing force, leaving all capabilities hollowed out -- will be the default option.

Gates believes that a substantive national debate on strategy, risk, and consequences will educate the public and, he hopes, minimize the chop the Pentagon will receive. He is now counting on his hand-picked successor Panetta, a CIA director fully briefed on the world's security challenges, to wisely manage this latest security review. But where Panetta stands on grand strategy remains to be seen.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Billions for Libya?

Is NATO willing to pay what it will cost to take out Qaddafi?

The cost of getting serious in Libya

A pattern has emerged in the Libyan conflict. Every setback to the rebels' prospects has resulted in an escalation of military activity by NATO. The alliance's initial intervention five weeks ago began when a powerful pro-Qaddafi armored column approached Benghazi, the rebel capital. This week, nasty house-to-house fighting in Misrata compelled Britain, France, and Italy to each send about ten military advisors to Benghazi. President Barack Obama did his part this week when he dispatched two Predator drones to Libya's skies. The NATO advisors sent to Benghazi are the vanguard of what is likely to be many more Western "boots on the ground" in Libya.

It is now clear that the Western policymakers who opted for intervention in Libya underestimated the resilience and adaptability of Qaddafi's military forces. These Western leaders -- perhaps led astray by the apparent ease with which air power alone compelled Serb leaders in Belgrade to abandon Kosovo in 1999 -- similarly overestimated what air power could accomplish against Qaddafi. The result is, at best, a military stalemate, assuming Misrata can hold out.

Libya's rebels, now openly supported by NATO, are far from accomplishing the de facto objective of the campaign, the removal of the Qaddafi family from Libya. The rebels and Western leaders had hoped that Qaddafi would quickly flee or be overthrown by a palace coup or an uprising in Tripoli. These may yet occur. But hoping for them is not a strategy.  If anything, a month of combat has toughened Qaddafi's troops and his remaining inner circle. With Western prestige now heavily committed, what will it actually take to get rid of Qaddafi?

Assuming that Western leaders have ruled out a ground invasion of Libya, the only other course of action around which NATO can build a campaign plan is to prepare the rebel forces in Benghazi for the long march down the coast road to Tripoli. Such a course of action will provide NATO with an organizing concept and give the alliance the initiative. Anything less is just hoping for the best.

However, this course will be long, expensive, and difficult. Having found themselves stalemated, NATO leaders must now face up to the costs required to achieve their objectives. The Libya operation is yet another unpleasant reminder of the unpredictability of war. Even after it is over, we may not know the cost of the campaign. But to formulate a very rough estimate of the cost of success, accurate only to the orders of magnitude involved, we can look to the training and advisory effort in Afghanistan for guidance.

The Pentagon has requested $12.8 billion in fiscal year 2012 to train and equip Afghan security forces, which include roughly 152,000 soldiers in the Afghan army. NATO countries have been called on to provide 1,495 trainers and 205 20-member embedded training teams to the Afghan army. Add to this other advisers, the Afghan army's own trainers plus others supporting the training establishment. We can thus assume that at least 10,000 soldiers are training and advising the Afghan army.

How large a rebel army will it take to smash through all of the Qaddafi-held cities between Benghazi and Tripoli? Planners should assume significant resistance, requiring a rebel force equipped with armored vehicles, artillery, and trained infantry. Planners should assume casualties from urban combat and significant logistics and maintenance expenses. Pro-Qaddafi areas in the rear of the advance on Tripoli will need to be garrisoned, which will add to the required forces.

A cost estimate that includes a conservative margin of safety might be one-tenth of the train-and-advise effort in Afghanistan: a 15,000-soldier rebel force, 1,000 foreign trainers and advisers, at a cost of $1 billion per year.

Assuring Qaddafi's removal will require a large rebel armored force, supported by NATO air power, to assault through all of the coastal urban areas between Ajdabiya, the current front line, and Qaddafi's base in Tripoli. Western policymakers need to reckon with the cost such a military campaign will inflict on Libya's cities and civilians. NATO's intervention began as a mission to protect Libya's civilians from Qaddafi. It would be a tragedy if resolving the conflict required equal or greater privation. A month ago, policymakers could hardly imagine such a scenario. Now they will have to.

Mexico's drug cartels try to control the message -- and spark a media insurgency

On April 16, Mexican marines captured Omar Martin Estrada, the suspected leader of the Tamaulipas branch of the notorious Zeta drug cartel. The previous week, authorities in the province began excavating a mass grave that contained at least 145 bodies that Zetas under Estrada's command are suspected of having murdered. Adding to that total, the bodies of another 72 Central and South American migrants were found last year in the same area and are also thought to have been murdered by the Zetas.

The magnitude of the Zetas' alleged crimes ensured media coverage. But beneath the ghastly headlines, the cartels are waging increasingly sophisticated operations directed at Mexico's media. By coercing and manipulating Mexico's newspapers and television stations, the cartels aim to portray their activities in the best possible light, damage the reputations of their rivals, delegitimize the government's responses, and ultimately gain the support of the population. In a study written for Small Wars Journal, John Sullivan, an officer in the Los Angeles Sherriff's Department and a researcher on crime and terrorism issues, describes the cartels' efforts at media coercion. Sullivan notes that although the cartels have achieved some recent success at controlling how Mexico's media reports on the drug war, they have also sparked a media insurgency within their own ranks.

Sullivan asserts that the cartels are pursuing active strategies to coerce and manipulate the media with the goal of shaping public perceptions about the drug war. Sullivan's paper assembles some data to defend his conclusions. He notes that over the past four years, over 30 journalists have been murdered or disappeared, with dozens more beaten or forced into exile. Press offices have frequently been attacked with rifle fire and grenades. The NGOs Freedom House and Reporters Sans Frontiéres have both reported a deterioration in press freedom in Mexico since the beginning of the drug war in 2006.

Sullivan's report cited research conducted by a Mexican journalism think tank that showed that cartel intimidation of journalists seems to be working. The think tank's study of 11 regional newspapers revealed evidence of self-censorship regarding cartel violence. During the first six months of 2010, about 90 percent of execution-style murders went unmentioned by these papers, with the level of reporting close to zero in areas controlled by the Zeta and Gulf cartels, among the most violent in Mexico. Tamaulipas's mass graves were revealed later and would seem to be a notable exception.

The cartels know where to find Mexico's mainstream media offices and the reporters and managers who work. But in a development that mimics the characteristics of modern insurgencies, anonymous, self-organized, and distributed forms of alternative media are forming inside Mexico. Anonymous residents of Mexico's cities and towns, armed with video cameras, cell phones, and social media connections, are attempting to fill the information gap increasingly left behind by the suppressed mainstream media. This "insurgent media" is unorganized, may at this point lack credibility, and could be vulnerable to cartel penetration. But its anonymous and distributed nature may give it a better chance than mainstream outlets of avoiding cartel intimidation.

I have previously asserted that Mexico's drug cartels are increasingly becoming political insurgents as they compete with the government for legitimacy among the populace. Sullivan's description of the cartels' efforts to control Mexico's media is another indicator of the increasingly political nature of the conflict. But in an interesting twist, Mexico's cartel-insurgents have sparked a media-insurgency which is now resisting the cartels, one more mutation of warfare in the 21st century.