Small Wars

This Week at War: The Milosevic Option

Why NATO may soon break out the Kosovo playbook in Libya.

NATO wants to get ‘more aggressive' against Qaddafi. But how exactly?

Over the past two week, the rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi have achieved some modest gains. Rebels in the western city of Misrata have apparently halted Qaddafi's artillery bombardment of the city center. More cracks may have developed inside the leader's inner circle. But some NATO military leaders, concerned that the overall military stalemate remains in place, are looking for ways to be "more aggressive" with the air power at their disposal. The task for NATO policymakers is to figure how to bomb Qaddafi and his forces more aggressively without taking more risks with the civilian population NATO explicitly pledged to protect.

According to the BBC, the rebel militia in Misrata has pushed back government forces a few kilometers in several directions. The bombardment of the port area and downtown has ceased as the modest rebel advance was enough to push pro-Qaddafi artillery and rocket launchers out of range. NATO airstrikes against eight Qaddafi warships -- some of which had mined Misrata's port -- will also provide some relief to the population. As welcome as these developments are for the residents of the city, this local tactical success does not seem to have affected the larger strategic stalemate throughout Libya. The eastern frontline south of Benghazi remains roughly unchanged and Qaddafi's forces remain in control of Tripoli and most of the western half of the country.

With rebel ground formations static and incapable of offensive maneuver, the NATO air campaign appears increasingly focused on attacks against government command-and-control and leadership targets. Foremost among these are repeated nighttime strikes against Qaddafi's sprawling compound in Tripoli. It is hard to imagine the military utility of these return visits to Qaddafi's compound -- Qaddafi himself long since decamped to residential areas or other obvious "no go" areas for NATO bombing. Subordinate commanders who might have once used the compound also must have long since established alternate command sites.

NATO's bombardment strategy is now likely more focused on applying political and psychological coercion against the regime rather than inflicting battlefield damage against military forces. Repeated attacks against the compound are designed to erode Qaddafi's prestige. NATO strikes on the compound and other possible leadership locations may also be aimed at frightening Qaddafi's inner circle. This intimidation, combined with legal carrots and sticks now offered by the International Criminal Court, are intended to induce more defections from those around Qaddafi. This strategy may have notched a success; Libya's oil minister has gone missing and may have defected.

But it may not be working fast enough for some NATO leaders. Gen. David Richards, Britain's top military commander, called for expanding the list of acceptable targets. Richards wants to add "infrastructure" targets to NATO's lists. Traditionally, attacks on classic infrastructure targets such as bridges, roads, power plants, and telecommunication systems are designed to isolate an adversary's ground forces, making them more vulnerable to defeat on the battlefield. But attacks on such targets are simultaneously devastating to the civilian population, which is why they have been avoided thus far in the Libyan campaign.

Richards may be hoping to reprise the strategy used effectively against Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. As I discussed in an earlier column, NATO faced a similar stalemate during its bombing campaign against Serbia. It then expanded its attacks against Milosevic's lieutenants and the economic assets inside Serbia valued by those lieutenants. This change in tactics created enough pressure inside the ruling inner circle to force Milosevic to succumb. Richards' definition of "infrastructure" may have these regime leadership assets in mind.

Libya's rebels and NATO should be mildly encouraged by the perceptible erosion suffered by Qaddafi over the past two weeks. But it hasn't been enough to break the stalemate. NATO may now be willing to double down on the coercive air campaign it is aiming at Qaddafi. Whether it can do that without increasing the suffering of the broader population is another question.

How to get policymakers to understand tradeoffs -- and then remember them later

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn went to the Intrepid Museum in New York City on May 11 to discuss how he and his colleagues are preparing for the coming lean years at the Pentagon. Lynn described what he and his staff have learned from the five previous episodes of defense drawdowns that have occurred since World War II. Lynn declared the previous drawdowns failures that left future policymakers unprepared for the security challenges they eventually faced. Lynn and his colleagues hope to do better this time.

Echoing comments Defense Secretary Robert Gates made this week, Lynn made clear that President Barack Obama's call for an additional $400 billion in security cuts over the next decade will create risks for future policymakers by limiting the military options available to them. In order to meet Obama's defense cut number, policymakers today will have to choose between acquiring certain future capabilities (such as new systems designed to address emerging threats) or having the capacities  (enough soldiers and equipment) needed to accomplish some security objectives around the world. Lynn, Gates, and, presumably, Leon Panetta -- Gates successor -- hope to make sure that Obama and other top officials understand these trade-offs and consequences.

In his speech, Lynn discussed the importance of maintaining a substantial research and development program during the drawdown. He noted how policymakers during the 1970s drawdown maintained research into stealth technology, an investment that continues to pay off today. For the future, Lynn wants to continue research bets on long range strike systems, unmanned aircraft, and cyber capabilities.  The purchase of these capabilities will presumably come out of the hide of forgone capacities - such as fewer ground combat brigades or legacy warships and aircraft.

It is here that top policymakers will have to make agonizing choices that risk possibly dramatic future consequences. Peer competitors like China will soon possess military research and technical capabilities that will nearly match those of the United States. Given the rapid advance of technology, it will be far too risky to forgo the development of leading capabilities such as those listed by Lynn. The long lead times required for fielding leading-edge systems will likely make it impossible to fill in a vulnerable technology gap during an emerging crisis.

But the price of paying for capability insurance may mean that top policymakers may not have the soldiers, warships, and airplanes to respond to politically urgent developments. For example, Harvard professor Sarah Sewall and retired general Anthony Zinni recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the Pentagon and military commanders to prepare plans for stopping mass atrocities anywhere in the world. Their piece appeared just a few weeks after Obama, European leaders, and others intervened in Libya for exactly this purpose. Beyond Libya, the world affords many more opportunities for similar humanitarian interventions by military forces. But a very real consequence of the tighter budget cap on the Pentagon may be to cause Obama or a future president to have to explain why he can only watch while some humanitarian disaster takes place because military capacities have already been committed elsewhere. Indeed, a lack of available military capacity in the Western powers leading the campaign against Qaddafi partly explains why the coalition is unable to resolve the Libyan conflict.

Sewall and Zinni explained that one reason for preparing such military plans is to inform policymakers of the implications of intervention before they make any commitments. Lynn, Gates, and Panetta have a similar goal in mind for the new defense review. What remains to be seen is whether down the road the policymakers who ordered defense savings will remember the constraints they previously created.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Send in the Lawyers?

Why the president's legal advisors are in no hurry to justify the bin Laden raid. 

The SEALs did their job. Will the lawyers now do theirs?

Osama bin Laden's fourth son Omar along with some of his brothers have called for an international investigation into the killing of their father. A statement written by the sons and published in the New York Times calls for President Barack Obama to cooperate with their demand for a U.N.  inquiry into the question of "why our father was not arrested and tried but summarily executed without a court of law." Should there be no response within 30 days, the sons have pledged to assemble a "panel of eminent British and international lawyers" to pursue legal action against the U.S. government and its officials.

U.S. government officials have been brief in their legal defense of the raid. Attorney General Eric Holder laconically stated that the raid by Navy SEALs against bin Laden was "conducted in a way that was consistent with our law, with our values ... It's lawful to target an enemy commander in the field."

Bin Laden's sons as well as other analysts outside the United States view the raid in the context of the procedures of criminal law. By contrast, Holder and most observers inside the United States view the raid as a military mission with bin Laden just another combatant. Enemy military personnel are not subject to the rights due a suspect under criminal procedure but rather are at risk of ambush and sudden lethal attack without warning. In the military context, it doesn't matter if the combatant is not holding a weapon, is not in a military uniform, or is in an "unthreatening" posture (such as asleep). The only circumstances under which military forces are required to "give quarter" is after an enemy combatant has completed a surrender or is too wounded to resist, something very unlikely to have occurred in the bin Laden compound given the aggressive rules of engagement issued to the assault team. Bin Laden's sons reject this interpretation, viewing bin Laden as a criminal suspect deserving the rights of legal process.

Having won the kinetic battle at bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, will the United States now lose in the court of world public opinion? Some legal scholars are wondering why U.S. officials have not offered up a thorough legal defense of the bin Laden raid. In March 2010, Harold Koh, legal adviser to the State Department and previously dean of the Yale Law School, delivered such a defense for the U.S. policy of using drones to kill enemy combatants without warning or legal process. But Koh has been silent so far on the bin Laden raid.

The U.S. view is that the 9/11 attacks sparked an "armed conflict" between the United States and al Qaeda, a legal status that both the Congress and the United Nations quickly affirmed. The "armed conflict" status has allowed the United States to use its military power and the international laws of war to permit such techniques as lethal drone attacks and commando raids against combatants -- legally delivered without warning or legal process.

All modern conflicts involve irregular non-state actors as combatants. These combatants and their fellow travelers seek to emphasize their status as civilians when useful, both for defense against modern military technology and in an attempt to take advantage of legal rights. Conversely, the United States government will seek, when necessary, to achieve an international recognition of armed conflict status against its irregular adversaries in order to take advantage of the military and legal advantages it gains from such a status. The government's challenge will be justifying the particular circumstances that warrant unsheathing the government's armed conflict powers against specific adversaries.

For example, the U.S. government fights Latin American drug cartels on the basis of criminal law not armed conflict, even though the cartels are wealthier, larger, and better organized than al Qaeda and have penetrated deeper into U.S. society. Although the cartels are doing a better job than al Qaeda at suborning U.S. border security, no cartel leader has looked into a video camera and declared war on the United States or killed thousands of Americans in a single dramatic attack. U.S. officials seem to have concluded that it would be too much of a political stretch to use Hellfire missiles rather than law enforcement cooperation against the cartels.

With the United Nations and the Congress having ratified an armed conflict status against al Qaeda, the legal defense of the bin Laden raid seems air tight. This explains Koh's silence and Holder's terse answers. The justification for armed conflict status against other irregular adversaries will not likely measure up to the easy standard set by al Qaeda. By remaining vague or even silent, U.S. officials are hoping to leave their future options open.

Security partnerships are frustrating, but necessary

The successful raid on bin Laden's compound on May 2 contrasted sharply with the messy and ultimately failed hunt for the terror leader that occurred in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains in late 2001. Accounts of the 2001 operation, written by those who led that pursuit, such as Gary Berntsen's Jawbreaker and Dalton Fury's Kill bin Laden, make plain the stark difference between the failure in 2001 and the stunning success in 2011.

In 2001, senior U.S. policymakers insisted that local Afghan militias play a leading role in the final capture of bin Laden and his entourage. These policymakers thought that enlisting the support of local forces would increase the chance of success, bolster the legitimacy of the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda, and create more favorable political conditions inside Afghanistan after the campaign had achieved its goal. These policymakers also assumed that the Afghans would be highly motivated to get bin Laden.

Regrettably, that assumption was wrong. U.S. ground commanders reported crippling foot-dragging by the Afghan militias in the Tora Bora area. They requested quick U.S. reinforcements -- a Ranger battalion or Marines -- to interdict escape routes into Pakistan and launch a ground assault on the al Qaeda redoubt that was under heavy U.S. bombardment. The requests were denied, the Afghan militias refused to move forward, and bin Laden, assisted by local friends, escaped.

When the United States got another chance 10 years later, there was no attempt to share the glory with any local partners -- and no risks taken with operational security. The results spoke for themselves; apparently, if the U.S. government wants a job like killing bin Laden done properly, it has to do it all by itself.

Self-reliance may be fine for discrete actions like the bin Laden raid. But when it comes to chores like global security and conflict prevention, partnerships are mandatory. The Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) recognized this and elevated building the security capacity of partner states into a major defense priority. In order to improve security force assistance, the QDR calls for reform of the Pentagon and State Department security assistance programs, better language and cultural training for U.S. soldiers, and an increased use of general purpose military forces for partner training.

The goal of security force assistance is to improve indigenous security institutions so that violent non-state actors such as al Qaeda will have fewer sanctuaries. In the past decade, U.S. assistance programs have made significant improvements in places such as Colombia, the Philippines, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. At a huge cost, Iraq's security forces seem capable of enforcing a tolerable level of internal security. By contrast, the U.S. programs for Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan have far to go and other places like Somalia remain ignored and ungoverned.

Most recent defense reform proposals, made in the context of cutting government spending, call for sharp reductions in the forward basing of U.S. forces. In addition to boosting the credibility of security alliances, forward basing facilitates better and more efficient training of partner security forces. Those advocating a much smaller global footprint for the U.S. military must reckon with a more limited and inefficient security force assistance program, meaning poorer indigenous security forces and more ungoverned spaces.

Some may view that outcome as an acceptable consequence of lower defense spending. As noted above, the recent record of security force assistance has been spotty with the concept yet to be definitively proved. After all, the ten-year hunt for bin Laden showed that the U.S. military does best when it does the job itself. But the decade has also showed that large U.S. military expeditions are incredibly expensive. Perhaps preventive maintenance, achieved through forward engagement and security force assistance, may be the cheapest way to go. Policymakers will have to decide whether they want to pay a little now or risk having to pay a lot more later.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images