Small Wars

This Week at War: Mowing the Grass

Kenya and Turkey struggle to control the chaos next door.

Turkey and Kenya ‘mow the grass.' But the grass will grow back

The past two weeks have witnessed two little-covered but significant cross-border military incursions. On Oct. 20, Turkey sent its army into Kurdish Iraq to hunt its longtime nemesis, the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK. The Kenyan army entered southern Somalia on Oct. 16 in an attempt to hunt down al-Shabaab militants, blamed by the government for kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers inside Kenya. These incursions join a long tradition of raids into ungoverned spaces. However, this lineage offers up few examples of lasting success against troublesome militants.

The Turkish army sent 22 battalions, numbering about 10,000 men and supported by fighter aircraft and helicopters, to attack five PKK sites inside Iraq. This large raid, for which the Turkish army had clearly spent much time preparing, occurred just one day after coordinated PKK attacks inside Turkey killed 26 soldiers and police. Since July, an additional 27 Turkish soldiers had been killed in various PKK attacks and ambushes, incidents which no doubt instigated the army's preparation for the Oct. 20 invasion.

Turkish raids against PKK bases inside Iraq have been going on for years and the latest offensive will almost certainly not be the last. The best hope for a lasting solution will be a common strategy worked between the Turkish government and Iraqi Kurdish authorities. According to the New York Times, the two governments are cooperating on the PKK problem. But this cooperation is also not new and has yet to fix the problem. With the United States soon to remove all of its troops from Iraq, including those that are policing the Kurdish-Arab fault line inside Iraq, no one is expecting the Kurdish regional government to put much effort into the PKK problem.

Since September, militants from Somalia have kidnapped five European tourists and aid workers, dealing a severe blow to Kenya's critical tourist industry. Starting a border war might not seem the best way to restore positive press coverage. But Kenyan policymakers likely concluded that simply letting the situation drift was not an answer either.

On Oct. 16, the Kenyan government ordered two army battalions, with armored vehicles and air support, into Somalia. After over a week of maneuvering in southern Somalia, on Oct. 28 Kenyan troops finally had a significant clash with al-Shabaab militants, whom Kenyan authorities blamed for the kidnappings inside Kenya (an accusation al-Shabaab denied). This week, France said it would support the Kenyan incursion with air transport of military equipment to the Somali border.

According to the BBC, Somalis along the border welcomed the arrival of the Kenyan army and the dispersal of the al-Shabaab militants previously lurking there. If true, this presents the possibility that the troops might be able to stand up pro-Kenyan Somali militias that could prevent the reinfiltration of the al-Shabaab into the border area after Kenyan forces return home.

Unfortunately for Kenya, foreign intervention in Somalia has a very poor record, as U.S. veterans of the "Black Hawk Down" incident from 1993 recall all too well. Then, a U.N. humanitarian relief mission, organized with the best of intentions, was drawn into Somali factional fighting, ending in a debacle. More recently, Ethiopia's invasion and occupation of Mogadishu in Dec. 2006 ended two years later with a retreat home after accomplishing almost nothing.

Turkey, Kenya, and other countries bordering ungoverned spaces will have to contemplate how to provide security over the long haul. The establishment of security zones on the other side of a border may seem appealing. But no one will want to replicate Israel's experience in southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. During that time, the Israeli army patrolled a security zone and recruited local militias. The result was an enervating guerilla war and the metastasizing of Hezbollah, which grew into a state-within-a-state.

As with Turkey and the PKK, Kenya likely faces a future of periodic clashes with al-Shabaab. They will "mow the grass," which has a nasty habit of growing back. Not much of a solution, especially for policymakers under pressure to "do something."

Can the Pentagon break its reliance on faulty forecasts?

This week, the congressional "supercommittee," charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction before Thanksgiving, showed some signs of life, when its members resumed bickering in public over their competing plans. As a result, budget planners at the Pentagon are still wondering how much money they will have to work with over the next decade, one more reminder of how precarious their forecasts are.

Richard Danzig, Secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration and now chairman of the board of the Center for a New American Security, discusses in his new report, Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security, why the Defense Department spends so much effort on predictions, why such effort is misguided, and what defense planners should do to better prepare for a future they have no chance of accurately describing in advance. As a former senior leader inside the Pentagon, Danzig has much insight into why the defense bureaucracy has become so seduced by inevitably unreliable forecasting. He also has a few good suggestions for improvement. Regrettably, Danzig's reforms come at a price that will be increasingly difficult for the Pentagon to pay.

Danzig's first five propositions explain why humans in general, and the Pentagon in particular, are so attached to forecasting. Forming predictions is a natural response to uncertainty. Human behavior depends on implicit predictions to cope with everyday life. Danzig notes that huge bureaucracies like the Department of Defense rely on inherently biased predictions to reinforce and defend their well-chartered courses. All large organizations have a tendency to protect their established assets and positions. It should come as no surprise that their predictions will support the status quo -- and that such predictions thus have a high probability of eventually being wrong.

Danzig's five solutions focus mainly on reforming the Pentagon's weapons procurement process. According to Danzig, the weapon acquisition process should make decisions much faster, before technological advancement makes such decisions obsolete.

More controversially, he recommends that weapons be designed to be adaptable to multiple functions but also be designed to have shorter service lives. Here Danzig contrasts the limited adaptability, and thus utility, of the F-22 air superiority fighter, which does only one job, with the B-52 bomber, which the Air Force has been able to adapt to a wide variety of missions over the decades.

However, Danzig's own examples don't do a good job supporting his propositions. Rather than having a short service life, the B-52 will serve for at least seven decades -- the Air Force has found ways to regularly upgrade the basic platform to keep it relevant. Danzig calls for adaptable systems capable of multiple functions. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be the ultimate adaptable system, replacing a long list of legacy aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many foreign militaries. Yet it has turned out to be the most costly and troubled acquisition program in the Pentagon's history and not an experience the Congress or any acquisition official would care to repeat. The most adaptable and flexible systems have been the "big boxes" like (as Danzig notes) the B-52 bomber, the Navy's aircraft carriers (especially the Marine Corps' helicopter carriers), and its huge ballistic missile submarines, four of which it successfully retrofitted for cruise missiles and special operations. But the "big boxes" are also the most expensive weapons and usually the toughest sells on Capitol Hill.

Danzig saves his best proposition -- nurture diversity and create competition within the department -- for last. As I have discussed in past columns, the best way to cope with inevitable strategic surprise is to maintain a broad portfolio of military capabilities, to support bureaucratic competition, and to reward leaders for risk taking, creativity, and experimentation. This will require spending on what will appear to be redundant capabilities (for example, an Army and a Marine Corps), on military capabilities that will likely never be used, and on training and personnel assignments that appear to be superfluous to the main mission.

Mitigating the risk of surprise and responding to it after it has occurred is mostly an intellectual problem. Danzig's last proposition is addressed at human capital, the improvement of which is neither cheap nor easy. But developing adaptable people and organizations will be cheaper than relying on inevitably faulty predictions.



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