Small Wars

This Week at War: Rules of the Game

What message were U.S. officials trying to send by releasing the results of a CentCom Iran war game?

On March 19, the New York Times described a classified U.S. Central Command war game conducted this month that simulated the outcome of an Israeli attack on Iran. According to U.S. officials who discussed the results with the newspaper, the game "forecasts that the [Israeli] strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead." Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of Central Command, found the outcome "particularly troubling" because an Israeli first strike would have "dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there."

The article, with its discussion of "dire consequences," is one more indication of the gap between the Israeli government's calculations concerning Iran and those of the U.S. government. Why that analytical gap exists should be of interest to policymakers.   The military's conclusion that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region could suffer hundreds of deaths following an Israeli strike could be an indication that U.S. commanders and policymakers have not adequately prepared for such a scenario. But perhaps most important, we should examine what goals U.S. officials had in mind when they leaked the results of the supposedly secret war game to the New York Times.

According to the article, the two-week Central Command war game, called Internal Look, was specifically designed to test internal military communications and coordination among battle staffs in the Pentagon, Central Command headquarters in Tampa, and field units in the Persian Gulf. According to the scenario, Iran would conclude that the United States was an Israeli partner and therefore U.S. military forces in the Gulf were complicit in the Israeli first strike. The simulation had Iranian anti-ship missiles strike a U.S. warship killing hundreds of sailors. The United States then retaliated with its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

This simulation appears to differ sharply from Israeli expectations. According to Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting at Bloomberg, Israeli officials believe Iran will not target U.S. ships or facilities in the region because it would hardly be in Iran's interest to bring Central Command's military power into the conflict (a point I made in a recent column). Indeed, according to Goldberg, Israeli policymakers believe that if Israel's strikes are limited to a handful of nuclear targets away from urban areas, Iran might actually downplay the severity or cover up the damage, as Syria did after the 2007 Israeli strike on its nuclear reactor.

Since Internal Look was designed to give U.S. military global command and control systems a workout, it would not help commanders achieve that objective if the scenario didn't escalate up to high-intensity combat action. Requiring the scenario to do that is completely different than having the war game objectively conclude that such escalation is the most likely outcome -- a conclusion Israeli planners presumably don't share. If Internal Look really did make an unbiased and informed prediction of Iranian behavior, it is easy to understand why Mattis is troubled. But if the exercise had to manufacture that Iranian response in order to achieve other exercise goals, it is less easy to understand his anxiety. In any case, he and his staff should consider why their assumptions -- which seem to require irrational Iranian behavior -- differ from Israeli assumptions.

Mattis's long experience as a combat commander may have taught him to err on the side of pessimism when formulating military plans. In this case, that pessimism would imply having U.S. forces in the Gulf assume Iranian missiles will soon be on their way following an Israeli first strike. If that is the case, have U.S. commanders done all they can to prepare their forces for Iranian action? And have U.S. policymakers done all they could to deter Iran's decision-makers from striking in the first place?

On March 16, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, briefed defense reporters on what the Navy is doing to increase its readiness in the Persian Gulf. Greenert is sending additional minesweeping and patrol craft to the Gulf and will add more short-range defensive weapons to Navy vessels operating there, in response to Iranian small boat "swarming" tactics. Greenert expects most of these capabilities to be in place "within a year." This seems a bit tardy, given Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's forecast of an Israeli strike in "April, May or June," and a major Pentagon war game from 2002 that showed the effectiveness of the Iranian small boat swarming threat.

U.S. leaders could likewise do more to deter Iran's decision-makers in an effort to avert the dire Internal Look scenario. In a recent discussion of possible Iranian behavior, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that a U.S. conflict with Iran could occur not because of Iranian irrationality but more from "gross misjudgment." Dempsey pointed to the disastrous assessments made by an otherwise rational Saddam Hussein, who serially misjudged U.S. will and intentions. U.S. officials could help Iran's decision-makers avoid similar mistakes by rapidly reinforcing U.S. air and naval forces in the region, conducting useful and visible training exercises once the reinforcements have arrived, and by clearly stating to Iran's leaders the consequences of Iranian action against U.S. forces and interests. In January, Panetta expressed confidence in the level of U.S. military forces already present in the region. But if, as Dempsey believes, Iran's leaders are rational, yet Mattis's planners still believe Iran will attack U.S. forces, either Panetta is wrong, U.S. leaders haven't been clear with Iran, or both. And that says nothing good about U.S. preparations regarding Iran.

Finally, why did U.S. officials leak the results of Internal Look to the New York Times? If it's a memo aimed at Israeli policymakers to complain about their saber-rattling, the message is unlikely to get through. U.S. and Israeli officials at all levels have thoroughly discussed the Iran issue and have clearly formulated different assumptions. Repeating the message will hardly help at this point. U.S. military officials may have leaked the story in order to make the case for a military build-up in the region. But they would only need to make such a case in the New York Times if the White House had for some reason refused such a request.

Finally, Mattis and others may have revealed the war game's pessimistic conclusions in order to prepare the U.S. public for the increasing likelihood of another war and for the casualties that could result. If that is the case, political leaders should have an honest and open discussion with the public, instead of sending a murky message through anonymous leaks to the New York Times.

EBRAHIM NOUROZI/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Losing Faith

Will massacres like the one this week in Afghanistan be more frequent as the Pentagon's budget cuts make for a more stressed and strained military?

Policymakers in Washington may be as tense as the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan as they await the reaction to a nighttime shooting rampage on March 11 in Panjwai, near Kandahar, that left 16 Afghan civilians dead. The alleged shooter, a 38-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant with three previous tours of duty in Iraq, has been flown to Kuwait, presumably to await a court martial.

This shocking crime follows last month's accidental burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, an incident that resulted in nearly two weeks of riots and the murder of six U.S. trainers at the hands of their Afghan students. That followed the release of a video showing a group of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses.

In 1999, Gen. Charles Krulak, then Marine Corps commandant, coined the term "strategic corporal." Krulak was referring to modern conflict in a media age, where much responsibility is heaped on young and relatively inexperienced troops, who make decisions with far-reaching strategic consequences. In a 2007 monograph, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap catalogued controversies like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and civilian deaths in Haditha that plagued the U.S. counterinsurgency mission in Iraq. Dunlap asserted that such incidents are inevitable when U.S. ground forces are on prolonged expeditions, a contention that has similarly played out in Afghanistan.

U.S. policymakers will now assess whether the Panjwai rampage will have any impact on their long-established timetable to gradually shift responsibility for security to the Afghan government over the next two years. Pentagon officials will wonder whether the recent incidents are a leading indicator of wider morale and discipline problems within the Army. Finally, strategists will ponder whether the massacre is one more example of the kinds of unavoidable strategic disasters that are bound to occur doing prolonged stabilization campaigns, and that thus call into the question the very future of such missions.

The so-far subdued reaction to the murders by the Afghan population is a stark contrast from the prolonged rioting that occurred after last month's Quran-burning incident. To the extent that this contrast is a surprise, it only illustrates the vast cultural divide between Afghanistan and the United States and may explain why the U.S. strategy to stabilize the country has been so troubled.

But even if most Afghans are showing a muted response, President Hamid Karzai apparently is not. In a meeting in Kabul on March 14 with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Karzai demanded that NATO troops immediately pull out of rural areas, leaving local Afghan forces to protect villages in the countryside. He also demanded that NATO turn over security responsibility to Afghan forces in 2013, a year earlier than currently planned.

Karzai used the Panjwai killings as an opportunity to make his demands to Panetta. But even without such a pretext, Karzai may have presented the same request. The Panjwai murders are just the latest in a long string of similar grievances Karzai has expressed to U.S. officials. For years, Karzai has complained about NATO's use of air power, U.S. Special Operations nighttime raids against Taliban suspects, and U.S. efforts to build up local security forces that bypass Karzai's central government in Kabul. In this sense, the Panjwai killings by themselves are of minor strategic importance. They are a marginal subtraction from the already poor relationship between the U.S. and Afghan governments.

Is the rampage a leading indicator of morale and discipline problems inside the Army? Retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a Vietnam combat veteran and a former commandant of the Army War College, argues in a Washington Post op-ed that U.S. ground forces have been understaffed and overused during the past decade. While not excusing the staff sergeant's alleged rampage, Scales asserts that the last decade's wars have fallen too heavily on the shoulders of a relatively few career infantrymen in the Army and Marine Corps, many of whom are now "emotionally exhausted and drained." If stress caused the staff sergeant to snap, Scales believes he can trace that stress back to a political decision to keep the Army smaller than it needs to be.

Michael Yon, a war correspondent and former Army Green Beret, believes the Army in Afghanistan faces a "discipline collapse," an unwelcome observation that last August prompted the Army to remove Yon from an embedded reporting assignment. According to Yon, many soldiers in Afghanistan have lost confidence in the military's strategy. With Afghan soldiers occasionally turning their guns on their allies, Yon has predicted a violent lack of restraint from a few now-cynical U.S. troops.

Scales's recommendation is to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps in order to increase the time infantrymen have between deployments. This notion goes exactly counter to the Obama administration's latest defense budget, which will cut the Army and Marine Corps by about 82,000 troops over the next five years. The Obama administration's answer to Scales is that it ended the war in Iraq and is pulling out of Afghanistan as fast as it prudently can. Returning the troops to their U.S. bases should be the best solution to combat stress.

Obama's new defense guidance specifically states that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations (italics in original)." That may be a relief to both Scales's overstressed infantrymen and Yon's soldier-cynics who have seemingly lost confidence in the counterinsurgency strategy passed down from their leaders.

However, as the ink dries on the defense budget, the situation in Syria continues to spiral out of control. In extremis, the need to secure Syria's large stockpiles of chemical munitions may provide yet another stressful and prolonged mission for U.S. ground forces. Nathan Freier, a retired Army officer and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warns that large-scale disorder, most often caused by state collapse, will continue to cause unavoidable challenges to U.S. interests that will require significant U.S. ground forces to fix. Obama's defense policy specifically assumes away such scenarios.

The Obama administration and air power advocates may point to last year's operation in Libya as an alternative and less risky approach to the potential problems Freier describes. The United States and its allies provided the air power while indigenous rebels, aided by special forces and clandestine service officers, provided the ground forces. This combination was apparently enough to secure Libya's chemical weapons and man-portable surface-to-air missiles, while avoiding the "strategic corporal" risk that attaches itself to any large and prolonged U.S. ground force deployment.

Pentagon strategists must plan for cases -- like Syria -- that will be more difficult than Libya was. That will mean accepting the likelihood of another large-scale ground mission. And with such a mission comes the unwelcome probability of "strategic corporal" moments that could put the mission at risk. With incidents like Abu Ghraib, the Quran burnings, and Panjwai in mind, planners will look for ways to either avoid or minimize the odds. But as long as humans and weapons are mixed together, the odds will always be there.

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