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.


Small Wars

This Week at War: Waiting for the Cyberbarbarians

If cyberwar is such a threat, why is the Pentagon doing so little to prepare for it?

Cyberwarfare unleashes confusion on Washington

Last month, while reviewing his career a few days before retirement, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen discussed what he sees are the two "existential" threats facing the United States. After nuclear weapons, Mullen listed cyberattacks, which, he said, "actually can bring us to our knees." During the Cold War, the United States developed an elaborate deterrence doctrine, backed up by an enormous investment in strategic nuclear weapons. Asked about similar preparation for the cyber threat, Mullen said, "We're a long way from that right now." This week, Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kelher, commander of Strategic Command, the command responsible for the Pentagon's cyber operations, said there still needs to be "a full conversation" about doctrine, rules of engagement, and legal issues regarding the Pentagon's responses to cyberattacks.

While policymakers in Washington converse, a new computer worm called Duqu arrived in Europe. Duqu, apparently a derivative of the Stuxnet worm that briefly crippled Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, has been quietly gathering intelligence data and documentation on certain industrial control systems. Stuxnet set back Iran's nuclear program by delivering false instructions to the industrial control system at Natanz. Duqu, termed "extremely sophisticated" by the computer security firm Symantec, seems to be performing reconnaissance for a future attack on a discrete industrial control system.

If, as Mullen asserted, a sophisticated cyber attack "can bring us to our knees," why does the U.S. government seem to have such difficulty formulating a doctrine to adequately address the threat? The Pentagon's official cyberstrategy, a brief and vague document unveiled in July, called for better cooperation and training, but apparently failed to give Kelher and his command the guidance and authorities he needed to establish a retaliatory doctrine and cyberwar rules of engagement.

Why is the Pentagon struggling to make progress on an issue that Mullen, Kelher, and others view with such gravity? The simplest explanation may be that the obstacles to establishing deterrence and rules of engagement in cyberspace are formidable and continue to resist policymakers' attempts at a solution.

For example, this week the New York Times revealed that, last March, Obama administration officials considered, then rejected, a proposal to use cyberweapons to attack Libya's air defense system at the beginning of NATO's air campaign. One reason for rejecting this course of action was that the cyber-reconnaissance necessary to prepare the way for the attack would have taken too long while a government armored column was approaching Benghazi; U.S. Navy Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles made much quicker work of Libya's air defense system.

But a more important argument against a cyberattack was the desire to avoid setting a precedent that other adversaries could later exploit against the United States. Similarly, the U.S. government considered hacking Osama bin Laden's bank accounts but refrained because officials feared that such an attack could cause investors to lose faith in the safeguards underpinning the global financial system. The common theme is that the United States, including its military forces, is among the heaviest users of computer networks and thus has the strongest incentive to avoid escalating combat in this domain.

Effective deterrence requires demonstrating a threatening capability that intimidates would-be adversaries. Nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s, not to mention the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, served this purpose for the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This week, Kelher hinted at his command's offensive cyberpower. But until demonstrated, it remains hypothetical and likely of little deterrent value, especially against anonymous non-state actors. And for the reasons stated above, such a demonstration seems unlikely.

The "full conversations" on doctrine and rules of engagement that Kelher are waiting for are not likely to occur any time soon. Wanting to avoid escalation in cyberspace, U.S. policymakers are forced into a reactive posture, war-gaming how they would respond to attacks and mitigate their consequences. The difficulty of the cyber issue is one more example of how irrelevant the lessons of the Cold War are to many current problems. Meanwhile Duqu is out there ... somewhere.

Rulers everywhere are studying Qaddafi's demise

Muammar al-Qaddafi's death marks the end of the first phase of Libya's revolution. The leaders of that revolution were united by the goal of toppling Qaddafi and his regime. With that task accomplished, it remains to be seen whether the task of bringing stable governance to Libya will also keep them united. Meanwhile, U.S. and European policymakers will make an assessment of what they learned from their intervention in Libya. But perhaps the most attentive students of Qaddafi's sudden demise will be other authoritarian rulers, who will want to avoid his bloody end.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit to Tripoli the day before Qaddafi was gunned down. Washington naturally wants to take advantage of the opportunity to establish positive relations with a country that was an international pariah during most of Qaddafi's time in power. Who and what the United States will ultimately be dealing with in Tripoli remains in flux; a senior U.S. government official traveling with Clinton noted that some of the militias that fought Qaddafi have not joined the transitional governing structure, such as it is.

Clinton was able to visit Libya's revolutionary leaders in a conquered Tripoli because of NATO's military assistance to the rebels. As I noted when Qaddafi's rule collapsed in August, the campaigns in Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011 show that it takes surprisingly little military power to overthrow brittle authoritarian regimes. In three of those cases, air power plus special forces support to local rebels were eventually decisive. The effectiveness of this military model creates a tempting tool for U.S. policymakers.

But these cases also display the now well-known long-term costs that follow the overthrow of fragile dictatorships. For Libya, it is still too early to determine whether the United States and Europe even achieved their original objectives. NATO's intervention in March was sparked by an urgent need to prevent a humanitarian disaster as Qaddafi's armored column approached Benghazi. That particular incident was prevented and Brother Leader was eventually toppled. But Libya's revolutionary leaders now need to avoid an outbreak of tribal and factional fighting to prevent a different, but equally worrisome, humanitarian crisis.

NATO has yet to see whether its campaign in Libya has helped or hurt its security interests. Libya's vast warehouses of weapons, most notably those holding stocks of man-portable surface-to-air missiles which could threaten airliners, have been thoroughly looted. The U.S. government has hired contractors to attempt to repair these breaches, but likely much too late.

The policy alternative would have been to do nothing for the rebels and watch as Qaddafi crushed the rebellion, a course the West seems resigned to in Syria. The Obama administration and European leaders took a gamble that has produced short-term humanitarian benefits and the chance of a new start in Libya. That is something. But it is still early in the game.

Finally, what will other authoritarian leaders learn from Qaddafi's downfall? They will be well-advised to cultivate their relationships with China and Russia, countries which can protect them with vetos at the U.N. Security Council. It was surprising that China and Russia did not veto the Security Council resolution that authorized the Libyan intervention. By contrast, China and Russia quickly shot down in the Security Council a recent attempt to condemn the crackdown in Syria. China similarly protected Sri Lanka from any international interference when it crushed its Tamil rebellion, with awful consequences to the civilian Tamil population.

As the fighters closed in on him, Qaddafi may have lamented his decision in 2003 to turn over his nuclear weapons program to the United States. His chemical weapons stockpile was no deterrent to NATO intervention. But nuclear weapon states like North Korea seem to have achieved a protected status.

U.S. policymakers will have to live with the possibility that intervention in Libya may have enhanced the utility of nuclear weapons and the diplomatic positions of China and Russia. The other side of the ledger is the realization of how frail many authoritarian regimes really are. And how the United States may have a workable military model to use against these regimes if required.

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