01 November 2010

Strategy: Easier said than done

Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and strategy
Recently, the Pentagon has begun to question the value of counterinsurgency doctrine, expressing a sort of "sticker shock" at the costs--financial, political, and human--of two extensive campaigns; neither of which, try as we might, have any guarantee of success.

While no one denies that there are significant drawbacks in fighting counterinsurgency, some military officials, such as former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, actually claimed that the US military needed to ditch counterinsurgency in favor of conventional warfighting skills.  In a chilling echo of the post-Vietnam era, Korb stated, in an interview, "We aren't going to be doing counterinsurgency again.  We're not that good at it".

In a recent debate on the Small Wars Journal message board, I sounded off with the usual COINdinista mantra that the US doesn't necessarily get to pick the wars it fights in.

I was met with a retort from noted COINtra Colonel Gian Gentile, who replied:
Yes we do and it is called good strategy.
The stock statement though from Counterinsurgency experts is just like yours, that we don’t get to chose the wars we fight. In a narrow tactical sense for the American military that is correct. We go and do what we are told to.
But the military also has a hand in the formulation of strategy along with policy makers and it is in that realm where we do have a choice about the wars that we will fight. To suggest otherwise is to reach the heights of a-strategic thinking.
Remember what Sun Tzu said: no state ever benefited from a long war and that "speed was the essence of war."
Well, yes.

And no.

On one hand, it's tempting to think that we can craft a foreign policy which allows us to only fight the wars that we want to fight.  Unfortunately, such attempts tend to lead to a formulaic, scenario-driven approach to war planning, and tend to not take into account the inevitable effects of "Black Swan"-like events:  scenarios few could ever predict.  Moreover, attempts to craft strategy tend to overlook the fact that all but the most totalitarian of nations must appease factions and opposing parties within their own domestic political arena, making the implementation of effective strategy subject--in part--to political whim.

One expert in the field of strategy is Dr. Patrick Porter, author of Military Orientalism:  Eastern War through Western Eyes.  Dr. Porter was kind enough to post some intriguing lecture notes regarding grand strategy on his website, The Offshore Balancer.  (By the way, check out his interview at the BBC)

As Dr. Porter mentions in his lecture notes, strategy must have a degree of flexibility built into it--the world is chaotic and unpredictable, and efforts to codify strategy into some over-arching "plan" never seem to fully reflect the future.  These two elements--an unpredictable future and the difficulty of implementing strategy in a turbulent domestic arena--came into play during the Falkland Islands War of 1982.

During the Cold War, Britain's Ministry of Defence attempted to structure its navy along the typical "GIUK" defense scenario, in which Britain would augment the US Navy as a submarine-hunting force.  But had the MoD actually succeeded in their plans, Britain may very well have lost in the South Atlantic.  The GIUK scenario assumed land-based air support, negating the need for aircraft carriers; American AWACS support, eliminating the need for AEW assets; no need for an amphibious invasion, nearly resulting in the disbanding of the Royal Marines; and most importantly, it assumed that the Soviets would be Britain's adversary, meaning that the enemy would not employ deadly, sea-skimming Exocet missiles.

That last false assumption would prove fatal.

Fortunately, cooler heads seem to have prevailed.  Britain was able to field two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and Invincible, though they only carried a total of twenty Sea Harriers between them.  Without these ships, the Falklands Expedition would likely not have occurred.

There has also been debate about the strategic necessity of the war.  President Ronald Reagan was puzzled at both parties, poised to duke it out over "those ice-covered islands", as he referred to them.  Indeed, Argentinian writer Jose Louis Borges referred to the conflict as "two bald men fighting over a comb".

In retrospect, the debate over the islands might have been resolved by diplomatic means.  After the initial Argentine invasion, both the United Nations and the Organization of American States attempted to mediate the conflict, both ruling in favor of Britain.  Even the United States attempted to mediate the dispute, volunteering to administer the territory while the islanders voted for self-determination.

But this fails to take into account the nature of domestic politics.  After the initial seizure of the Falkland Islands and the dispatching of the Royal Navy, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could hardly back down and settle the issue diplometically.  Likewise, the Argentine junta--a cumbersome decision-making institution as it was--needed the invasion to score a military victory to bolster its prestige to the public.  Moreover, backing down in the face of the oncoming British invasion would simply make them look weak.  That's hardly in a dictator's short-term political interest.  

Thus, in democracies, behavior perceived as "weak" by a domestic audience can sometimes lead to political death in a metaphorical sense, whereas in dictatorships or oligarchies, it can lead to death in a very real sense.

If there's one thing that's for certain, it's that we don't know what the future will hold.  It's reckless to stake national interests and structure forces simply for the conflicts we want to fight.  Counterinsurgency is one "tool" in our national "tool kit", and while it shouldn't be our only tool, it's foolhardy to throw it away carelessly.

Especially with a narco-insurgency brewing just south of the border.

Addendum:  Porter makes mention to Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, the noted British strategist whom he does, admittedly, often criticize.  However, Liddell-Hart's formulation of grand strategy is worth noting, and it contains an interesting twist on Sun Tzu's famous platitude about speedy victory.  Since a swift, decisive victory in a total, political sense is not always possible--the globalized world is a little different than the warring states period of 5th Century BCE China--we must make sure that protracted war meets an appropriate cost/benefit ratio.


Anonymous said...

My first thought on reading the opening line of this was, "Here we go talking about COIN again, when in fact the war we're in is a civil war - and we just chose a side to support." This is 100% true in Afghanistan, and was only slightly less true in Iraq. The American War of Independence was an insurgency, the Phillipines was an insurgency, Vietnam was an insurgency masquerading as an inter-national conflict (and vice versa). etc., etc.

My second thought was that I like the nod to Liddell-Hart at the end - the German General Staff listened very closely to what he had to say, and developed the unbeatable military doctrine of Blitzkrieg. But as their experience in the west, and our's in Iraq, so clearly shows - a war-winning military strategy is nothing without a peace-winning political strategy to hold on to victory.

This necessary duality seems to be the thing that we constantly fail to "get".


J. said...

"...making the implementation of effective strategy subject--in part--to political whim."

Hi, this is von Clauswitz, just calling to say "YES that is the point of war, after all." It's hard to point to a single war in which the United States has been involved where it wasn't a conscious decision to fight based on politics. The Civil War didn't have to be fought, the North could have easily said, hey, go have a nice day, we'll just outpace you in terms of literature, industry, and wealth until you collapse. The US didn't have to enter World War I, and didn't have to go to Europe first in World War II. We could have let China/North Korea take the peninsula without seriously impacting US strategic interests.

And let's not even get into wars of choice 1990-present. I'm not saying that I disagree with these decisions, but it's inane to say that they were not wars of choice based on political "whims."

Yes, it's not wise to "throw away" the COIN tool, but it's idiotic to not assess its many, many shortcomings, not the least of all is the time and cost associated with the exercise. 10 years, a thousand dead, and are those strategic goals met?

Anonymous said...

I very much like your article and concur with the major thrust.

However, I beg to differ on two points.

Firstly, the Falklands (and let's not forget South Georgia also) allow the sovereign state rights over a large swathe of the antarctic continent and South Atlantic seabed. Although there is a moratorium on development of the continent, its potential natural resources are a huge strategic asset, as is the Atlantic seabed (which is undergoing exploratory oil drilling currently).

Secondly, you say, "Even the United States attempted to mediate the dispute, volunteering to administer the territory while the islanders voted for self-determination." Would the U.S. accede in a similar situation? Say, to the U.K. or U.N. administering Alaska upon a Russian invasion of U.S. soil? I think to assume the example is different is to miss read the situation completely.

zenpundit said...

"Remember what Sun Tzu said: no state ever benefited from a long war and that "speed was the essence of war."

That's not how it should be transliterated, at least according to some experts. It should be more like "long campaign" as in keeping an army in the field until it is exhausted or destroyed.

GrEaT sAtAn'S gIrLfRiEnD said...

Political whims may be a suspect meme. Consider:

Great Satan long tried almost everything else. Accepting dictators ala Realpolitik on their own terms did not bring stability, yet did deliver constant war, oil embargoes and terrorism from the White Album era onward. Replying to two decades of terrorist attacks, from the Iranian hostage taking in 1979 to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, with indictments and a few cruise missiles only emboldened creepy creeps, nonstate acter outers and rogue regimes. Staging coups or propping up authoritarians in Iran or the Gulf simply radicalized the Middle East.

In truth, doing COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq was not our first, but last choice. It was not a good option, only a bad one when the other alternatives had proven far worse.

What Great Satan is trying to do in the Middle East is costly, easily made fun of and unappreciated. But constitutional government is one course that might someday free Middle Easterners from kidnappings, suicide bombers, corrupt royalty and dictators in Raybans.

That's in our nat'l interest and theirs alike.

Rex Brynen said...

"In truth, doing COIN in Afghanistan and Iraq was not our first, but last choice. It was not a good option, only a bad one when the other alternatives had proven far worse. "

GSG: While one can make that argument in the Afghan case--the Taliban having previously resisted pressure to rein in AQ--it certainly doesn't apply to the war-of-choice that was/is Iraq. There, intervention had very little to do with terrorism, and everything to do with poorly conceived geostrategic ambitions that sought a domino-style transformation of the regional environment through Iraqi regime change.

While too little grand strategy can be a problem, Iraq suggests that too much grand strategy is too--especially if "grand strategy" becomes "grandiose strategy" with an attendant lack of appreciation for the practical limits of power and consequent strategic overreach.

Starbuck said...

This is why I get upset when people talk about a COIN "strategy". COIN was a tactical response to strategic ineptitude.

GrEaT sAtAn'S gIrLfRiEnD said...

Rex - Iraq as a war of choice?
Actually the Manchester Ricin Bust of January 2003 may indicate it was a war of no choice. Remember how Great Britain needed a 2nd Reso to go off? Not after Manchester! Great Britain couldnt wait to go to war. Perhaps one of Iraq's 18 suitcases of ricin made it to England?

We may not see much significance in the fact that the regime-shaking, pro-democracy Green Movement developed after Great Satan estab'ed “outposts” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet Supreme Leader and the Revo Guards dang sure do.