Small Wars

This Week at War: Waiting for the First Punch

Why the U.S. won't pre-emptively attack Iran.

Why Washington is destined to take the first punch

Residents of Washington, D.C., may have been both disturbed and relieved to hear that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officers this week skillfully foiled an alleged plot by Iran's Quds Force to blow up the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States while he dined in a local restaurant. Investigators were no doubt assisted by the plot's seeming ineptitude, which involved a used-car salesman from Texas and a paid informant in Mexico who posed as a drug gang member. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up the conclusions many had reached about the bizarre story: "The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder for hire to kill the Saudi ambassador? Nobody could make that up, right?"

Even so, the U.S. Justice Department did charge Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Quds Force, with a long list of conspiracy offenses and thus connected the Iranian government to the plot. Even though this particular bombing attempt seems amateurish, it should be little comfort that elements of the Iranian intelligence service now seem to have Washington in their cross hairs. Indeed, this week U.S. soldiers in Iraq were targets of the Quds Force; according to the New York Times, on Oct. 12 militants trained by the Quds Force wounded three U.S. troops in a rocket attack in southern Iraq. U.S. policymakers will now be under pressure to find ways to actively prevent or deter future attacks. However, a variety of barriers will prevent the Obama administration from taking any strong action against Iran, at least until a major attack actually succeeds. Washington will thus have to brace for the big first punch.

After the United States levied unilateral sanctions on four Quds Force officials this week, U.S. diplomats fanned out across the world to rally international support for deepening the sanctions against Iran. However, according to the New York Times, the ham-fisted nature of the plot is undercutting the U.S. plea for cooperation. In this case, the Quds Force may ironically be receiving protection from the incompetence it allegedly exhibited in this case -- the plot's seeming implausibility is causing the diplomats' pleas to fall on deaf ears. In addition, memories of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 apparently continue to weigh on the international audience that U.S. diplomats are struggling to persuade. Without an attack having actually occurred, with the plot seemingly out of character for the elite Quds Force, and with U.S. intelligence claims now suspect, U.S. diplomats seem unlikely to get cooperation on additional sanctions that would alter the behavior of Iranian policymakers.

What about military retaliation, such as a night of airstrikes against Quds Force targets inside Iran? The purpose would be to correct the impression seemingly held by policymakers in Iran that they don't risk consequences from a bomb attack on Washington. If, on the other hand, the Washington plot was engineered by midlevel "rogues" in the Quds Force, military retaliation would be a signal to top-level Iranian officials that they will be held responsible for their subordinates' actions. My FP colleague Will Inboden noted that in 1993 President Bill Clinton ordered the destruction of Iraq's intelligence headquarters after a failed attempt to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush. The message this time would be that Quds Force operations are no longer risk-free.

However, the Obama administration, with undoubtedly much support from the Pentagon brass, is in no mood right now to start another shooting war. Airstrikes on Quds Force targets would appear to the rest of the world as a severe overreaction to an inept bomb plot, with the aforementioned international skepticism of U.S. intelligence only adding to the doubt. Diplomatically, the United States would be on its back foot from the start. Air strikes were likely never a serious consideration inside the White House.

Pentagon planners will resist having to execute an air operation while they are in the midst of the final withdrawal from Iraq and attempting to manage a fragile situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also know that a U.S. strike would not be the last move -- Iran's response to the attack would likely affect Saudi Arabia, Israel, Afghanistan, and others. If such an action has to occur, Pentagon planners likely prefer it to happen some other time and under more favorable logistical and diplomatic circumstances.

Deterrence doesn't seem to be working against Iran. Either Iran's top leaders don't fear U.S. retaliation, or they aren't in control of their subordinates -- neither explanation bodes well for deterrence theory. If the U.S. government hopes to dissuade a future Quds Force operation against Washington or some other important target, it will have to make some demonstration that will impress Iranian decision-makers. Until that happens, Washingtonians will have to brace and hope for the best.

Think you don't need boots on the ground? Think again.

In last week's column I discussed how corporate downsizing is coming to the Pentagon, with the Army and Marine Corps, the most labor-intensive of the services, likely to get the most cuts. But before Pentagon budget planners sharpen their red pencils, they will want to read "U.S. Ground Force Capabilities Through 2020," a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Lead author Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at CSIS and a retired Army officer, led a large team that prepared a detailed analysis of what U.S. ground forces should be ready for during the remainder of this decade. Freier's report bucks today's conventional wisdom in many ways. His report doesn't recommend how big the Army and Marine Corps should be. But Freier does assert that the Pentagon might be overpreparing its ground forces for some scenarios while leaving other contingencies exposed.

Freier and his team gathered two panels of experts to discuss the future "demand" and "supply" of U.S. and allied ground-combat power. Freier's panels began by describing the various missions ground forces could be called up for and assigning probabilities to those missions. High-probability missions included humanitarian assistance operations, training foreign security forces, short-term raids against threats, and long-term special-operations-led counterterrorism campaigns. Freier's experts judged large opposed stabilization campaigns, such as those waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, or a major combat campaign such as the 1991 Gulf War, as much less likely.

Freier's team then assessed what the troop demands of each case were likely to be, how long each scenario was likely to last (ranging from a few hours for a raid to years for a stabilization mission), and how much strategic warning planners would likely get for each type of crisis. After taking into account scenario probability, size, duration, and warning time, the study team then compared the likely demands for ground forces to the Pentagon's current plans for ground forces over the rest of the decade.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, Freier concluded that the Pentagon may be putting too many resources and training time into preparing for future stabilization and foreign security force assistance operations. By contrast, Pentagon planners may be underestimating the need for rapid response to regional crises, the need for offensive "forcible entry" capability, and the need for armored forces able to maneuver against prepared enemy positions. Freier noted that after planned cutbacks, while U.S. allies will retain some stabilization and foreign assistance capabilities, only the United States will have useful amounts of the high-intensity ground-combat capabilities that he judges the Pentagon is underestimating.

Freier's report makes its recommendation on the capabilities and operational tasks U.S. forces should be able to perform. His report says much less on how large U.S. ground forces should be at the end of the decade. He acknowledges that air and naval challenges in Asia are real and that "large numbers of heavy ground forces are clearly unrealistic in the current context."

Ground force totals are undoubtedly headed much lower. Freier and his team only ask that planners take a hard look at what those soldiers should be ready for. According to Freier, the current conventional wisdom they are preparing for may be dangerously wrong.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: Corporate Downsizing Comes to the Pentagon

The White House falls in love with drones, and out of love with COIN -- and that's just the beginning.

Corporate downsizing comes to the Pentagon

Last weekend, Scott Shane and Thom Shanker of the New York Times revealed just how much the White House has fallen in love with its fleet of Predator drones. "Disillusioned by huge costs and uncertain outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has decisively embraced the drone, along with small-scale lightning raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in May, as the future of the fight against terrorist networks," the article explains.

The drones and special operations raiders seem able to go anywhere and produce clean and spectacular results. Meanwhile, costly counterinsurgency (COIN) patrolling in Iraq arguably ruined George W. Bush's presidency and few of this year's crop of Republican presidential candidates seems eager to defend the COIN mission in Afghanistan or criticize Obama's decision to get out by 2014. For a Washington policymaker, the choice seems clear: machines are good, boots-on-the-ground are bad.

But this is only one reason why the logic of downsizing -- so effectively and ruthlessly used by corporate managers in the private sector to boost efficiency -- will soon be coming to the Pentagon. Just like General Motors and many other previously labor-intensive businesses, the Pentagon has a labor cost problem. And just like Corporate America, the solution to the Pentagon's labor cost problem will be the substitution of new weapons for soldiers, in an attempt to get more national security output per troop. The Army and the Marine Corps, the most labor intensive of the services, should brace for the bad news to come.

Recent defense think-tank reports explain how large the Pentagon's personnel costs have become and, if unaddressed, what a barrier they will be to the Pentagon's ability to adapt in the period ahead. According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), the Pentagon's personnel costs (military and civilian and including fringe benefits) are now 45 percent of the department's "base" (non war-related) spending. With defense spending now scheduled to drop, perhaps dramatically, over the next decade, policymakers will have to take an ax to this 45 percent of the budget if there is to be a reasonable amount of funding remaining for equipment modernization and realistic military training.

The CSBA report also notes an impending explosion in the cost of veteran benefits, even as the number of living veterans is due to decline sharply over the next decade, Recently expanded educational, medical, and disability benefits are ballooning the VA's budget. Pentagon budget planners just received an order from the White House to transfer an additional $25 billion over the next ten years to the Veterans Administration in order to protect VA medical funding from cuts, one more consequence of personnel costs.

A report on Pentagon budget options released this week from the Center for a New American Security discussed how the United States might attempt to fulfill its traditional global security strategy under four increasingly onerous funding scenarios. All of the options presented relied heavily on manpower cuts to ground forces, reductions in the Pentagon's civilian workforce, and other cuts in support services. The report noted the huge savings the department could capture through reforms to retiree pensions and health care spending -- another parallel with General Motors and other old, struggling labor-intensive industries.

Even if the Pentagon didn't have a labor cost problem, policymakers would be loath to engage in more labor-intensive and costly ground campaigns. Military and industry leaders who can present seemingly attractive alternatives such as drones, special forces raids, and related procurement programs stand to be rewarded by Washington. Policymakers will view soon-to-be redundant ground forces as the logical targets for savings. Whether this turns out well remains to be seen. But for now, it is the budgetary path of least resistance.

The soldiers and civilians in the budget crosshairs will rightfully resent the unjust reward they will soon receive for their service. Their feelings will match those of their predecessors elsewhere in the private sector who received similar rough treatment. But just like Corporate America, the Pentagon is under great pressure to step up its productivity. And just like everywhere else, that will mean a boost to plans that replace soldiers with machines.

Mexico battles cartels -- and rumors of paramilitaries -- in Veracruz

This week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Mexican government is sending the army and federal police to stamp out an outbreak of cartel-on-cartel violence in the coastal state of Veracruz. In addition to suppressing the violence, the government seems equally eager to smother the perception that Mexico's drug war, which has killed 40,000 people over the past five years, may now be entering a new phase marked by paramilitary vigilantism.

On Sept. 20, 35 dead bodies, most linked to the militarized and very violent Zeta drug cartel, were dumped on a road near Veracruz's port. A new group, the "Zeta Killers," released a video in which the hooded speakers promised more attacks on the Zeta organization. In announcing the security operation in Veracruz, Interior Secretary Jose Francisco Blake Mora declared, "Those who seek justice by their own hand, or invade the state in its intransferable duties, become delinquents, and the government will apply to them the full force of the law."

It is too soon to know whether paramilitary vigilantism, which plagued Colombia during the 1990s, has arrived in Mexico. More likely, the Zeta Killer group is an affiliate of one of the Zeta's rivals along the Gulf of Mexico coast, such as the Sinaloa or Gulf cartels. The Zeta Killer video, with its effort to explain why the group is purportedly on the side of the people, is in keeping with the attention the cartels now give to media and message control. The Zetas' method of message control comes with its own brutality: in Nuevo Laredo, an editor at a local newspaper who used social networking sites to report on cartel crimes was found decapitated, accompanied by a note left by the Zetas.

With the Mexican government seemingly helpless to stem the violence, it would not be a surprise to find a noticeable increase in vigilantism. However, this is not the case. According to George Grayson, a professor and Mexico expert at William and Mary, scattered incidents of vigilantism in Mexico are not correlated with either the recent jump in Mexico's violence or with the focal points of the cartel wars. Such acts of vigilantism that do occur seem to crop up sporadically in mostly rural areas and in response to lawlessness unrelated to the drug trade.

Today's Mexico is still far from Colombia in the 1990s. But the Colombian story provides the indicators that analysts can look for to gauge whether Mexico might enter its own period of paramilitary vigilantism. As I discussed in a recent column, President Felipe Calderon's war against the cartels was sparked by what he viewed as a national security imperative, namely preventing any of the drug cartels from threatening the authority of the state. In the late 1980s, Colombia faced this menace, with Medellin drug leader Pablo Escobar the most notable threat. Colombia's security forces were too weak and corrupt to bring down Escobar by themselves. In what became an essentially unrestricted military campaign, Colombia's policymakers subcontracted the dirty work of destroying Escobar's organization to a paramilitary organization, with the state very likely supplying this group with the intelligence it needed to complete the task, which it did in an efficient manner.

Are the Zeta or Sinaloa cartels as menacing to the Mexican state as Escobar was to Colombia? And will the Mexican government have to clandestinely associate with groups like the Zeta Killers to preserve its authority? This week, Mexican officials attempted to squash such perceptions. But should there be more body-dumps, accompanied by more videos produced by hooded "friends of the people," the comparisons to Colombia's dark days will only multiply.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images