Small Wars

This Week at War: Rumsfeld’s Revenge

Robert Gates was certainly more popular, but his predecessor was far more influential.

Rumsfeld wins the doctrine war

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's retirement last week was accompanied by warm praise for his leadership style, his political acumen, and his judgment on critical policy issues. Gates left office widely regarded as one of the most effective defense secretaries since the office was created in 1947. This repute is in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who left the Pentagon in 2006 under a cloud of scorn from Capitol Hill, the media, and inside the department he ran. Indeed, Gates was brought in specifically to reverse many of Rumsfeld's policies, which many believed were causing the United States to lose the war in Iraq. Gates restored collegial harmony and got the Pentagon through a dark period.

But Gates's departure, the wide-ranging overhaul of Barack Obama's national security team, and, most importantly, the president's decision to withdraw 33,000 soldiers from Afghanistan by next summer shows that the "Rumsfeld Doctrine" is now the accepted standard operating procedure for current and future policymakers. In the end, Rumsfeld won the Doctrine War.

During the first Bush term, and even before the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld struggled with the Pentagon, and especially the Army, to create faster, lighter, more flexible, and more expeditionary military forces. Planning for the Iraq campaign in 2002 exposed the rift between Rumsfeld and Army planners, who preferred to replicate the slow massive buildup of armored divisions that had crushed the Iraqi army in the Desert Storm campaign in 1991. Buoyed by the success a handful of intelligence operators, special operations soldiers, and precision air power achieved in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld forced Central Command planners to rip up their Desert Storm-inspired war plan and opt instead for a much smaller force that would be supported by precision firepower and special operations forces.

Even as the Iraqi insurgency negated the campaign's initial success, Rumsfeld persisted in institutionalizing the "faster, lighter" expeditionary doctrine. In 2003, Rumsfeld brought Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who had spent most of his career in special operations, out of retirement to be Army chief of staff. Charged with implementing Rumsfeld's vision, Schoomaker's most notable innovation was the Army's conversion from the large division as the basic deploying unit to the smaller and easier-to-deploy brigade. As the insurgency worsened in Iraq, Rumsfeld resisted pressure to build up a larger and heavier U.S. ground commitment. He also resisted pressure to add to the Army and Marine Corps headcounts to relieve the strain on deploying soldiers, preferring that Pentagon funding remain committed to research and equipment modernization rather than be diverted to personnel accounts. The Iraq campaign had become a distraction to Rumsfeld's transformation agenda and, in his view, feeding more resources into it would only create Iraqi dependency.

Immediately upon entering office, Gates directed the Pentagon to focus on the present crisis in Iraq rather than Rumsfeld's goals of transformation for the future. Reversing long-held Rumsfeld positions, Gates ordered increases in headcounts for the Army and Marine Corps and implemented the troop surge and a protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

But the setback for the Rumsfeld Doctrine was only temporary. Obama now seems to agree with Rumsfeld that the long U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in an unhealthy dependency by the hosts -- Obama's speeches on Iraq and Afghanistan have always included his insistence that these countries take responsibility for their security within explicit deadlines.

Rumsfeld's and Schoomaker's redesign of the Army into a lighter, more mobile, and more expeditionary force seems permanent. Gone is the Cold War and Desert Storm concept of the long buildup of armor as prelude to a massive decisive battle. Instead, globally mobile brigade combat teams will provide deterrence, respond to crises, and sustain expeditionary campaigns. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current Army chief of staff (and soon to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) recently described a sustainable brigade rotation system, an expeditionary adaptation that the Navy and Marine Corps have employed for decades. In addition, both the Army and Marine Corps have drawn up plans to shrink their headcounts back near the Rumsfeld-era levels. Rumsfeld's concerns about personnel costs sapping modernization are now coming to pass.

There now seems to be a near-consensus inside Washington that the large open-ended ground campaigns that Rumsfeld resisted are no longer sustainable. The former defense secretary's preference for special operations forces, air power, networked intelligence, and indigenous allies is now back in vogue. Even Gen. David Petraeus, who burnished his reputation by reversing Rumsfeld's policies in Iraq, will now implement Rumsfeld's doctrine in eastern Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the U.S. will counter the deteriorating situation there not by shifting in conventional ground troops for pacification, but with "more special forces, intelligence, surveillance, air power ... [and] substantially more Afghan boots on the ground."

Gates no doubt deserves the praise he has received. He came to the Pentagon during a dark moment and restored respect for the Pentagon's civilian leadership. If the battle is over management style, Gates wins in a knockout. But events, combined with experience gained through trial-and-error, have given the ultimate victory to Rumsfeld's military doctrine.

Taiwan needs missile engineers, not more F-16s

According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is receiving pressure from some members of Congress to sell more arms to Taiwan, a subject the White House undoubtedly prefers would disappear. In play are proposals to either upgrade Taiwan's current fleet of aging F-16 fighters or replace them new models fresh from Lockheed Martin's assembly line in Texas. The Washington Post reports that Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) is holding up a confirmation vote for deputy secretary of state nominee William Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirms that the administration will grant Taiwan improved F-16s. Forty-seven senators signed a letter urging Obama to grant the request.

Cornyn and his colleagues intervened because the administration has already preemptively rejected the F-16 request. Last month, Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington was preparing a formal request for the F-16 upgrade but was discreetly informed by the White House not to bother. Meanwhile, the clock ticks down for Taiwan's elderly jets, 70 percent of which will likely be retired over the next decade. And with no more orders from the U.S. Air Force and few prospects for additional foreign sales, the F-16 assembly line in Texas could close in 2013.

The Obama administration's January 2010 package for Taiwan, which consisted of exclusively defensive equipment, blew up the Pentagon's relationship with Beijing for over a year. An F-16 deal would undoubtedly be even more explosive.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have demurred on Taiwan's F-16 request and for good reason. As the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power explains, China's ballistic and cruise missile force, which the report terms "most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world," is more than capable of crushing Taiwan's airfields, rendering Taiwan's fixed-wing air power nearly useless. Anticipating this, Taiwan has plans to fly its fighters from highways. But this is no way to generate enough sorties to confront a high-intensity attack from China; fighter aircraft need maintenance, fuel, ordnance, and much other support, all of which are efficiently located at modern airbases, not by the side of a highway.

What Taiwan needs instead is to mimic mainland China's missile program. Mobile launchers, which unlike airfields could evade detection and targeting, could support both battlefield and strategic missiles that could hold targets on the mainland at risk. Such a program could do a better job of restoring a military balance across the Taiwan Strait than would fixed-wing aircraft operating from vulnerable bases.

Taiwan has, in fact, long been pursuing a variety of indigenous missile types. However, the engineers have yet to get all of the bugs out -- a test last week of a new supersonic anti-ship cruise missile failed to find its target. This followed two more failed tests earlier this year of other missile designs.

The jockeying over the F-16 sale is about more than practical military utility. It also involves issues of symbolism and attempts to preserve the defense industrial base inside the United States. But Taiwan's struggle to adapt to the immense missile threat from the mainland -- over a thousand ballistic missiles are now aimed at Taiwan and a hundred more are added every year -- also applies to U.S. military strategy in the region. United States military plans can no more rely on fixed bases and concentrated surface naval forces than Taiwan can. In the meantime, Taiwan could use some missile engineers instead of more F-16s.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Bremer Test

Iraqi reconstruction as a cautionary tale for Libya.

Testing the ‘Bremer Hypothesis' in post-Qaddafi Libya

This week Andrew Mitchell, Britain's secretary of state for international development, briefed reporters on emerging contingency plans for a post-Muammar al-Qaddafi Libya. Mitchell is supervising a British-led international team that prepared a 50-page outline for how to stabilize Libya after the hoped-for collapse of Qaddafi's regime. Notably, the report recommends retaining much of the existing pro-Qaddafi army and police forces in Tripoli and elsewhere in western Libya. This recommendation is an attempt to learn from what many believe was a disastrous decision in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But for Libya to actually benefit from this seemingly straight-forward lesson from Iraq will require many sketchy presumptions to come true.

In his memoir of his time as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer attempted to defend his decision to disband the Iraqi army, a verdict he rendered almost immediately upon first landing in Baghdad. According to Bremer, the army had already disbanded itself after the U.S. capture of Baghdad, when the vast majority of largely Shiite conscripts had deserted and gone home. Second, Bremer was highly concerned that the officer corps, which he presumed was stocked with pro-Saddam loyalists, would be a threat to the post-Saddam future he and the Iraqis he was working with hoped to build.

The Sunni establishment sacked by Bremen later constituted a major portion of the Iraqi insurgency. We will never know whether the Sunni officers may have become insurgents anyway had Bremer retained them instead. If a large-scale purge of the officer corps was inevitable, the least-risky decision may have been to do the purge up front rather than waiting for insurgent officers to infiltrate themselves inside the army and government. Needless to say, Bremer's decision remains highly controversial to this day.

The "Bremer Hypothesis" may get another test in Libya, as Mitchell seems determined to learn from the presumed error. Mitchell and his colleagues are assuming -- or at least hoping -- that army and police officials in Tripoli and elsewhere in pro-Qaddafi western Libya will readily agree to fall in with the post-Qaddafi political order, which we can assume will be dominated by the anti-Qaddafi National Transitional Council now in Benghazi. Mitchell's recommendation also seems to assume that the anti-Qaddafi leaders in Benghazi have come to the same conclusion about Bremer's decision as most policy analysts in the West and will agree to share military and police power with their former enemies in Tripoli. Whether that assumption will remain valid during a post-Qaddafi transition (or if it is even valid now) remains in question.

Of course, the biggest motivation behind placing a risky bet on Qaddafi's officers is the paramount necessity to avoid a Western-led military stabilization campaign in Libya. Once NATO "boots on the ground" for any purpose have been ruled out, there is no other choice but to rely on Libyan security forces, regardless of their recent loyalties. With the rebels yet to establish anything remotely resembling an organized security force, that leaves whatever remains of what Qaddafi build up over the past four decades as the only choice.

Add up the passions of a civil war, tribal frictions, hatred of an authoritarian regime and its enforcers, and inevitable post-conflict insecurity and there is a lot that can go wrong with Mitchell's plan. The United Nations is looking into sending a small force of unarmed monitors to observe a hoped-for post-Qaddafi ceasefire and perhaps later send in a presumably non-Western peacekeeping force. We can only hope that such a force will fare better than earlier hapless U.N. peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mitchell's attention to the details of how to stabilize post-Qaddafi Libya is a welcome initiative and one that should have been thought through before NATO leaders committed themselves to the war. As is habitually the case, Mitchell is determined to refight the last battle, even if its lessons might not transfer well. Should NATO and Libya's rebels succeed in ousting Qaddafi, we can hope that Libya fares better than post-Saddam Iraq. But simply doing the opposite of what Bremer did is no guarantee of success.

RAND has good news for Obama - Afghanistan could be much worse

In a column last January, I discussed a report from the RAND Corp. analyzing the factors that determined success or failure in counterinsurgency campaigns. RAND's researchers studied 30 counterinsurgency operations that began and ended between 1978 and 2008. These cases occurred on six continents across a variety of cultures and terrain. RAND uncovered "good" and "bad" counterinsurgency practices that were excellent predictors of success or failure against insurgent movements. My January column concluded with a grim prognosis for Afghanistan, based on RAND's findings.

Earlier this year, RAND itself examined the current outlook for Afghanistan using the model it developed and released its conclusions this week. According to this evaluation, the current campaign in Afghanistan ekes out a barely positive score, a result below the lowest-scoring counterinsurgent "win" in the 30 cases it studied.

For its analysis, RAND recruited a variety of experts and Afghanistan veterans to assess the current campaign. The researchers asked the experts to answer yes or no to 51 questions that, when added together, would reveal whether the specific "good" and "bad" counterinsurgency practices were present or absent in Afghanistan. The experts were questioned individually by e-mail and were unknown to each other. Those whose answers were in the minority were asked to explain their reasoning, which was then shared with the others. After the dissents were shared, the experts were asked to answer the questions again. This process was repeated one more time, with the final answers compiled as the expert assessment of the campaign.

The experts agreed that the Afghan campaign has failed to establish some critical conditions which the prior research found important for counterinsurgency success. Although the experts believed that the coalition scored well on developing good intelligence, avoiding excessive use of force, and attempting to establish good relations with the population, these positive attributes of coalition behavior were offset by failings in the Afghan government, over which coalition officials seem to have little control. The Afghan government received low marks for achieving legitimacy, demonstrating competency, and providing services better than the insurgent's "shadow government." It also doesn't help that the coalition forces are increasingly viewed as occupiers and that the coalition's interests seem to diverge from those of the Afghan government.

Most critical of all for RAND was the inability of the coalition and the Afghan government to disrupt the Taliban's access to tangible support. The experts believe the campaign has had little effect on the Taliban's ability to recruit fighters and financing, develop its own intelligence, or replenish its material resources. In RAND's study of 30 insurgencies since 1978, success or failure at cutting off this tangible support to the insurgents was the single best predictor of the campaign's overall success.

As I discussed last week, President Obama's decision to reduce the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will reduce the coalition's dependence on supply lines running through Pakistan. This in turn will increase U.S. leverage over Pakistan and could remove a barrier to taking effective measures against Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

Will Obama actually shift fire eventually onto the Pakistan sanctuaries? There is no question that the U.S. relationship with Islamabad has sunk and with it, the patience of U.S. officials (Pakistan just kicked out the CIA drone operation it previous hosted). According to RAND, there is little prospect for permanent progress against the Taliban without pressure on its sanctuaries, including those inside Pakistan. Whether Obama wants to fight that war remains to be seen.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images