Author Archives: Dan Trombly

The Rippling Effects of Sinking Costs

Co-blogger Caitlin’s post on the problems and sunk costs about Afghanistan makes a very valuable point about the problematic reasoning of “seeing through” incredibly costly and struggling military commitments. Her last paragraph is worth quoting again for emphasis:

Taking more time, spending more money, risking more lives doesn’t undo what has already happened, doesn’t fix what has gone wrong, and doesn’t justify what we have spent in the past. We need to acknowledge and set aside these emotional drivers in our decision-making so that we can make policy decisions based on what choices give us the best chance of success in achieving our objectives. The psychological and emotional trap of money spent, time wasted, and – hardest of all – lives lost, can’t be permitted to dominate these decisions.

Nevertheless, American foreign and defense policy is replete with these sorts of decisions. Part of the reason this is so is obviously, as Caitlin argues, because there are significant emotional factors which discourage policymakers from making decisions to cut their losses.

Another issue, though, is that incentives to double down on sunk costs are built into discourses about the perception of U.S. power, and even a fair deal of U.S. strategy. Sunk cost reasoning, particularly about war duration, is built into the policy and geopolitical discourses of credibility and more lately, will power, that came to exert a significant influence on American foreign and defense policy and analysis and commentary surrounding it.

In the Cold War, the United States found itself, for the first time, with a relatively wide-ranging domestic and international mandate for taking on a global security role. The number of potential threat areas were vast and, in material terms, the efforts to secure and advance U.S. interests in each of them frequently infungible except at the strategic nuclear scale. The preferred option to simultaneously defend these interests from Communist perturbation was deterrence. In Germany, Korea, and many other theaters, deterrence relied on using so-called speedbumps which could not adequately defend a position but would presumably tie the U.S. into “doubling down” on losses or launching punitive strikes.

In Vietnam where nuclear deterrence had only limited utility to U.S. policy objectives, sunk costs proved especially difficult to avoid. Policymakers believed that failing to stay the course in Indochina would undermine the credibility of U.S. security commitments elsewhere and encourage Soviet provocations. The obsession with credibility has since morphed into a more ambiguous preoccupation with willpower, resolve, strength, and seriousness. Much as the credibility-concerned believed doubling down in one area was necessary to dissuade hostile encroachment and provocation most everywhere else, fears of American weakness, lack of resolve, or seriousness acquire a ripple-effect that endagers America or constitutes a choice in favor of decline with world-historical implications.

Doubtless, deterrence is not bankrupt as a concept, but letting highly perceptual factors such as willpower or credibility rule U.S. policies becomes more and more unsustainable. In a period of diminishing material capacity. In the political discourse surrounding arguments of willpower and deterrence, doubling down on sunk costs becomes necessary to convince actual and potential adversaries that the United States would not renege on its security commitments and hegemonic prerogatives.

However, the material realities of doubling down on sunk costs tend to undermine, rather than bolster U.S. credibility. Whatever fear was struck into the heart of American adversaries by the prosecution of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the strain these wars – actual and perceived – placed on the U.S. military have certainly done more to enhance actual and perceived U.S. decline than any failure to double down

Retrenchment very often works. Even if it forswears achieving the desired local outcomes, if it frees up resources necessary to achieve more important or realistic goals elsewhere, it is generally a worthwhile undertaking. This will not always be happily resolved by convincing allies to take on a larger burden or reductions in local hostile intent. Some objectives will still not be desirable to local allies, and some objections to U.S. interests will persist long after the U.S. leaves.

This is basically fine, though. There is no superpower or great power cartel which has the interest or capability to exploit peripheral retrenchment by the U.S. into advantage against it in more critical areas, as the Soviet Union plausibly could by encroaching on U.S. interests in some regions. In the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. very well could fail to achieve most or all of its core local objectives, but still be better off if doing so freed up resources to focus on more vital resources elsewhere, or mitigated the failure at a lower cost than sinking more costs into the country.

This is deeply unsettling both emotionally and for visions of U.S. power with American credibility and willpower as central components. The promise of credible U.S. power and universally-feared American strength provides a way for the U.S. to, in theory, put potential adversaries into awe and mitigate threats globally while simultaneously achieving local objectives. But as the material advantages enabling the U.S. to pile on sunk costs diminish, the price of the local objective quickly detracts, rather than enhances, American power.

The sunk costs fallacies which latch, remora-like, onto theories of deterrence and hegemonic stability, survive not just because of emotional appeal but because they appear to derive from the relatively successful historical record of the U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union. Yet the United States triumphed in the Cold War in spite of its occasional doubling down on sunk costs and unachievable objectives, and so the emotional glow of that victory, and the selective memory of its policies and strategies, outweigh the favorable geopolitical and economic trends which both significantly enabled America’s success and mitigated the costs of its failures.

Embracing retrenchment rather than doubling down on sunk costs is particularly vital, because as prevailing balance of power and economic trends attenuate the potential scope and scale of U.S. dominance, doubling down will have a greater relative impact on straining and degrading U.S. capabilities, and therefore accelerate the undermining of the U.S.’s overall position. A managed retrenchment that occurs earlier, while the strain is lower and the prevailing shift in power more gradual, on the other hand, opens more opportunities for recapitalization and managed realignment. Honestly assessing U.S. priorities and areas of interest, and discarding with the lesser and peripheral ones rather than trying to see them through at increasing cost will be emotionally painful and perhaps politically disconcerting, but a strong will directed towards accepting painful losses rather than denying them amidst mounting costs would better serve U.S. interests today.

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Weapons Still Don’t Make War

Colin S. Gray notably claimed that “weapons don’t make war.” Gray did not mean that no relationship existed between weapons, policy, and strategy, but that as instruments, weapons only have meaning in the context of policy and strategy. While this idea seems intuitive enough, it is easily muddled; particularly when weapons appear to provide technical solutions, policymakers and strategists may be tempted to abdicate their duties by substituting a weapon for a policy or strategy.

One significant part of the problem is that analysts and advocates alike can be tempted to impute weapons with certain political, strategic, and moral considerations that do not derive from some inherent aspect of the weapon itself. This problem is rampant in commentary on drones. Even in the most cogent critiques, analysts often imbue drones themselves, rather than they ways they are wielded, with a sinister quality that has little do with drones as drones, and more to do with drones as a stand-off strike platform being deployed in a targeted killing campaign.

Imbuing drones with strategic or political qualities they do not actually possess distorts discussion of the targeted killing campaign. Firstly, it feeds into a false narrative that targeted killing is easy and cheap, when in fact it involves massive amounts of hardware and personnel. Witness the casual calls by some commentators for the U.S. to simply put Assad on a drone “kill list,” as if Syria’s significant air defenses would not pose any problem for drones which have never had to brave the hostile firepower of a state-equipped military. Secondly, it needlessly injects irrational fears and erroneous thinking into all discussion of drones. Few Americans worry about the fact that military-grade assets such as helicopters and light aircraft have been frequent fixtures of American law enforcement, and even fewer think these would ever be deployed against Americans they way they are against enemies in a war zone. Yet such logical leaps pervade drone commentary, inserting a bizarre suspicion into the discussion of all unmanned systems, despite the fact that military operating concepts for unmanned systems treat them primarily as an additional, useful tool to fill already established operating parameters and military missions.

Murtaza Hussain’s recent article in Salon serves as a good example of this common sort of drone analysis. Hussain rightly recognizes that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) follow in the footsteps of millenia of human innovations in the quest to find a way to kill hostile humans more effectively with less harm to oneself, but still insists that drone warfare is “particularly insidious,” for three primary reasons.

First, Hussain argues, drones inherently undermine the Geneva Convention, specifically, Article 41 of Protocol I, which prohibits killing of those “hors de combat.” Since a potential drone target cannot surrender to an unmanned aerial system, there is no choice but to kill them.

Is this an inherent quality of a drone? There is no opportunity to surrender to a sniper whose location is unknown to his target, and who may not be in a position to take his target prisoner anyway. There is no opportunity to surrender to a mortar bombardment. There is certainly no opportunity to surrender to a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, or the precision-guided bomb of a B-2 stealth bomber. The inability to surrender to a drone is not a problem unique to drones, or even particularly insidious, but a context, in some cases, of the way we may choose to employ a stand-off weapon, and not one that is all that morally or legally questionable. –

Rule 47. Attacking persons who are recognized as hors de combat is prohibited. A person hors de combat is:

(a) anyone who is in the power of an adverse party;
(b) anyone who is defenceless because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness; or
(c) anyone who clearly expresses an intention to surrender;

provided he or she abstains from any hostile act and does not attempt to escape.

‘Hors de combat’ status is determined not by the type of weapon, but by the military circumstances. For example, in the controversy over an American attack helicopter killing Iraqis who appeared to be surrendering, it may not have been possible to establish clearly that they were. Throwing up one’s hands but then getting back in a vehicle and traveling is not surrender, since retreating or fleeing is distinct from surrender under international law. Virtually no signatory of the Geneva Convention believes there is an unmitigated legal obligation to accept surrender in circumstances where receiving surrender is militarily impossible or would impose significant risks to personnel granting quarter.

The issue with drone strikes is not that unmanned systems carry them out (any stand-off weapon would face this problem), but that, outside the use of drones as close air-support in Afghanistan, drones are being deployed with only minimal special operations and covert personnel on the ground. That is, it is the nature of the conflict–a series of covert, clandestine, and stand-off strikes outside the context of a major conventional ground deployment–that causes these issues. And, indeed, looking in the larger context of the targeted killing program and the types of organizations they target, the much bigger – and more blatant – issue is the relentless violation of Article 41, which prohibits combatants to engage in perfidy, and which contributes to the next problem Hussain outlines.

As Hussain correctly notes, much reporting about the drone program indicates that their massively increased precision compared to other weapons systems is not particularly useful if the U.S. fails to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants for want of adequate intelligence. The problem of which Hussain speaks is one of any force confronting an enemy which flirts with violations of international humanitarian and customary prohibitions against perfidy. This Any veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan could explain that identifying legitimate combatants and targets is difficult even with troops on the ground. The moral issue at stake here – killing a potential noncombatant because their behavior may indicate hostile attempts at perfidy – has very little to do with the platform itself. If anything, drone operations, which occur in concert with manned Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, prolonged surveillance, and ground-based covert or clandestine units, provide more opportunity for discrimination than simply lobbing TLAMs or JDAMs would (or conduct ascribed even to men with boots on the ground after curfew in purported “free fire zones” or “Indian Country” in Vietnam). It is not a problem with the so-called drone war, even less drones.

I say so-called drone war because that term fundamentally replaces context and analysis of the war with the weapon most publicly associated with it, significantly contributing to my issue with Hussain’s third point, which is that drones are insidious for enabling a “no cost” form of warfare. As one of this blog’s guest posters has pointed out for Foreign Policy, while drones may be cheaper than using other types of weapons for the same mission, that does not make the mission cheap. The argument that drones make war more likely, or let it persist for longer, does not hold up to any serious scrutiny.

The notion that somehow drones created low-risk, low-scrutiny warfare lacks historical or contemporary perspective. If there were no unmanned systems, casualties would still be low, and a massive targeted killing campaign could still be affordable, albeit with a slightly different execution. Open-ended authorizations of force for clandestine programs pre-date drones and do not require them. It’s not even as if drones allowed such secret wars to employ aircraft, either – the notion of a secret CIA air force precedes drones by decades.

That these campaigns are “low risk” has less to do with drones and more to do with the fact that the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are all basically acquiescent, tacitly or overtly, with Americans killing suspected terrorists or insurgents inside their borders, and that the targeted insurgents lack the military equipment or tactical acumen to inflict serious casualties on such a force. This targeted-killing program, employing a wide variety of air, land, and sea-based, manned and unmanned, overt and covert assets, is enabled by the unrelenting U.S. desire to kill terrorists and an open-ended legal authorization or acquiescence from Congress and the public. When Hussain argues:

Thus to a degree unprecedented in history the advent of drone warfare has given the government a free hand to wage wars without public constraint and with minimal oversight

he is doubly incorrect. The “nature” of the targeted killing program is inherent in the targeted killing, not drones or even “drone warfare,” since high-value targeted killing campaigns can take place with anything capable of lobbing a warhead to a forehead. And furthermore, the kind of conflicts we are seeing now are, by any empirical metric, not unprecedented in their lack of public oversight, their duration, or material constraints, regardless of platforms.

Another common fallacy of the sort of thinking that ascribes strategic or moral values to weapons or weapons systems is that of “lightly” or “defensively” arming foreign irregular groups, particularly in Syria. Critics who oppose arming Syria’s rebels rightly note that arms do not inherently constrain the purposes of human beings using them, and fear that adding more weapons to a major civil war could lead to post-conflict arms trafficking and their use in less-than-desirable activities, such as terrorist attacks, reprisal killings, continued internal violence, and attacks against the arming powers’ own interests.

The problem with linking arms provisions with defense of safe zones or protection of civilians is that there are no weapons systems that cannot be used to violate these intentions. Particularly with weapons that individuals or small groups can transport and operate on their own, speaking of an “offensive” or “defensive” weapon is foolish. A man-portable surface-to-air missile is defensive when it shoots down a helicopter strafing a rebel position, but it is offensive when its users encamp outside an airfield and use it to shoot down a landing transport or airliner.

The behavior of armed factions in Syria will be determined by their interests and the strategic context in which they seek to achieve them. Weapons are only part of that strategic context, and they are not a driving or controlling factor. For example, one justification analysts such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and others have long used for arming the Syrian rebels is that this would enable the creation of “safe zones,” but safe zones may not be the best military or political strategy for the rebels. If they believe taking those weapons and waging a continued guerrilla campaign that focuses on exhausting the regime as the goal, and considers the protection of civilians a secondary priority, then providing nominally “defensive” weaponry enables an offensive campaign.

When Slaughter and many others argue for providing “anti-tank, countersniper and portable antiaircraft weapons,” they are banking on several things. First, that whoever signs pledges to behave defensively actually means it and won’t manipulate foreign backers for their own interests. Second, that whoever signs the pledge has effective command and control down to the front lines where the weapons get used. Finally, that in the post-ceasefire or post-Assad stage, those weapons will not be used contrary to the desires of the rebels’ foreign patron. Characterizing the weapons as “defensive” or “light” does not eliminate any of these problems.

Consequently, arguments for arming the rebels often imbue the weapons with the intentions of the policy proponent. Take the following example. In this article, the author makes the case for providing RPG-7s and other light anti-armor weapons to the Syrian rebels, because they pose a low risk for post-conflict violence or a low degree of threat to the American counterpart to Syria’s tanks – the M1 Abrams. This is a perfect example of ascribing implicit political and strategic characteristics to a weapon rather than the context of its use: provide RPG-7s for destroying tanks, and dismiss it as a threat because post-conflict violence is less likely to involve tanks, and the weapon in question does not seem dangerous to American tanks.

It could not be more misleading. RPG-7s can do serious harm to virtually every other vehicle in the American land arsenal, and not only that, they have done serious harm to American aircraft, such as the Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu or, more recently, Extortion 17. RPG-7s have very short arming ranges, which make them particularly useful for urban combat, and they have more than enough firepower to destroy cars and armored personnel carriers, or to attack targets inside buildings. The number of terrorist attacks involving RPG-7s likely numbers in the tens of thousands. Simply because rebels received them to kill Syrian government tanks hardly means they cannot make use of them in a post-conflict environment. Nor, under the criteria of the safe zone advocates, would they necessarily make safe zones feasible. They hardly solve the issue of Syrian artillery, and anyone familiar with the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan can explain how RPGs, along with improvised explosive devices, mortars, snipers, and other weapons systems, can enable tactics to further a guerrilla movement or terrorism.

It is not only when discussing the arming of rebels that weapons are used as totems for broader discussions of policy.  In Libya, Syria, and many other conflicts, the use of air power is often seen as a signal that a government’s suppression of a rebellion is reaching some sort of policy-relevant turning point. Aerial defections receive nearly as much attention as political defections. But why should that be? Air power may be used for indiscriminate bombings, but few regimes rely on their air power for conducting such operations. Nor is the air force the critical element of regime military strength. Indeed it is their artillery, as Brett Friedman explains, that provides the backbone of their killing power in operations for reducing cities. Pro-regime paramilitaries operate without much in the way of heavy weapons, let alone airpower, yet we frequently hear – from the highest levels of government – that it is helicopters that will “escalate the conflict quite dramatically.” What does this actually mean?

The primary effect of helicopters appears to be psychological. The greatest amount of violence will come from more mundane weapons, and the story of Syrian air power is hardly the bellwether of the Syrian civil war. Overly focusing on Syrian air power not only distracts from the more important drivers and dynamics of conflict, it also distorts discussion of potential policy solutions.

Calls for “no fly zones” over Syria play into a problem that is at least relatively easy for Western powers to solve – taking the Syrian air force out of operation – but will likely not produce meaningful strategic or political results. If the object of an intervention in Syria is to prevent the government’s reduction of urban centers or end the violence, merely targeting Syrian air power is not a particularly effective way of doing so, since such actions would not immediately or effectively impede the action of the more critical Syrian ground forces. If a certain type of intervention is unlikely to be efficacious in actually achieving our overall aims in a conflict, that is important to know. Focusing on a weapon system rather than the strategic context and outcomes impedes that process significantly.

Gray’s statement holds true. Weapons still do not make war. They are wielded and directed by humans against those of an opposing force or forces, in the midst of a host of mitigating factors, to achieve strategic aims. When Gray made his argument, he was challenging the notion of “strategic weapons” – weapons which have much more credible claims to transformative power or unique political or strategic quality than any of those discussed here – but even they are ultimately still devices whose meaning for politics, policy, and strategy derives from that broader ensemble of factors. Understanding what weapons systems are capable of is absolutely important for determining what kinds of strategies and policies are feasible, but they must be viewed as instruments subordinate to established ends. While weapons may appear easier to grasp than the complexities of warfare and the even more multifaceted issue of war, they should not take a lead role in coloring our analysis of policy.

Posted in Military, Small Arms, Strategery | 1 Comment

The Quandaries of Anti-Interventionist Advocacy

For those seeking to limit the role of military interventions in American foreign policy, making arguments convincing for a policymaking audience has been a persistent difficulty. Despite the existence of a significant popular aversion to intervention, mobilizing members of the policymaking elite behind anti-interventionist policy choices has always been difficult, and anti-interventionist stances, at least in a crisis, are often only accepted with reluctance, particularly as a crisis drags on. My co-blogger Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recently wrote an excellent piece assessing some points important to those of the anti-interventonist persuasion.

Firstly, it is absolutely correct to note that the alternative options by anti-interventionists are often not very appealing. In many cases, the alternatives of using diplomacy, sanctions, or other measures to try to seek a non-military resolution or at least abatement of conflict are easy targets for criticism. Interventionists usually portray military action as a clear and straightforward resolution to the problem, with the best possible end-state emerging from the fog of war. On the other hand, policymakers cannot promise anywhere near as happy an ending to non-military actions, if only because the ugly reality of what limited American leverage can accomplish is visible every day, while the likely much worse result of a poor intervention strategy remains hypothetical.

Secondly, Gartenstein-Ross notes that anti-interventionists are often reluctant to explicitly outline what they expect to happen in the absence of military intervention. The difficulty of doing so is that it compounds on the problem outlined in the aforementioned point – it offers a vision that is not very competitive with the grand, if unjustifiably optimistic, notion of the end-state an intervention produces.

That said, there are voices opposed to military intervention in Syria which have identified alternative courses. Andrew Exum and the good folks at CNAS, for example, have argued for a genuine containment effort based on security cooperation with neighboring states to prevent actual spillover of the conflict. Other alternative suggested, such as political pressure on Russia to help negotiate a halt to violence, or a political transition that stops short of violent regime change, have run aground on the fact that many other regional and global powers have interests opposed to preferred U.S. outcomes in Syria, which can only be satiated through concessions that may often seem extremely unpalatable.

For example, at a time when the current administration is under considerable pressure from policymaking elites for making perceived concessions to Russia on issues such as missile defense and NATO expansion, the prospect of making the sort of actual concessions necessary to get a Russian concession on Syria might be similarly abhorrent to those inclined to intervention, particularly when this approach acknowledges the limited fruits such a concession would bear.

Similarly, a political transition is almost certainly likely to leave major swathes of the Syrian regime, including the security services which have so viciously butchered the opposition, in power. Even in cases where the military was extremely dependent on powers supporting regime change, such as in Egypt, it has been extremely difficult for Western states to dislodge the military from power. In Syria, where the U.S. has virtually no leverage over the security services, it is highly unlikely that military action can deliver the tabula rasa for democratic governance that interventionists often desire.

The most likely outcome in Syria, all other things remaining the same, is the reduction of the rebellion to an insurgency incapable of holding territory, if not their outright defeat, and the kind of terrible, violent reprisals by the government which follow in the wake of such failed insurgencies. However, there is the distinct possibility that regional actors will continue to funnel enough support to keep the rebellion alive, though without a major ground intervention the best they can likely hope for is a long-term attrition of the Assad regime and whatever states commit resources to backing it.

That means thousands, perhaps tens of thousands more dead. It means a continuing litany of horrors pouring out of Syria. It also means shame and embarrassment for whatever policymakers are foolish enough to promise a happy outcome to efforts to mitigate the Syrian conflict. But it is vital to remember that the strategic merit of intervention plans rise and fall not with the degree or pace of killing, but with the military feasibility of the opposition defeating the Syrian government. While the death toll of Syria has only risen, the military feasibility of the FSA defeating the Syrian government or holding territory against concerted offensives or sieges has not improved

In reality, there is no clear correlation between the degree of an atrocity and its impact on American vital interests. This is uncomfortable, but necessary, to fully state the anti-interventionist case. The Cambodian genocide and Rwandan genocide were two of some of the greatest atrocities in history, yet neither significantly reduced U.S. security or freedom of action despite their terrible consequences within their own regions. On the other hand, death tolls from tensions in the Gulf, or even the outright Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, were very low, but obviously came with much more important consequences for American interests. Even in Syria, America has virtually no vital interests in Syria itself, which means a strategy that simply insulates areas in which the U.S. does have serious concerns from the consequences of Syrian violence is likely a far better use of U.S. resources.

However, it is vital to note that in similar strategies of limited-liability civil war intervention, the odds are no better for prevention of a longer war and thus more casualties, more suffering, and more instability. Waging a war of attrition – and any strategy that relies on the guerrilla FSA defeating the conventionally superior Syrian military, even with the added factor of air support, is one of attrition – will mean tens of thousands, at least, of additional dead, and, barring the deployment of an unthinkable number of ground troops, the same sort of overflow of instability, influx of unsavory non-state actors, and other consequences bandied about as proof of the need for an intervention. The notion that intervention is inherently stabilizing not just false, but in fact antithetical to the very strategic logic of a limited intervention itself.

Even if intervention was quick and successful, overthrowing a brutal regime does not mean an end to brutality itself. There is no way to prevent the outbreak of insurgencies by groups which would oppose the new Syrian government, or to ensure that Syria retains a strong central government at all. Nor are there any mechanisms that would prevent foreign powers hostile to a new Syrian government from covertly backing opponents or exploiting new fissures in the political landscape. The anti-interventionist option of “do nothing” are ugly, but not much uglier than the “do something” options if one considers the consequences of a militarily-incoherent intervention, and perhaps even less ugly if one considers the potential consequences of an intervention – greater sectarianism, greater opportunities for jihadist groups to infiltrate into Syria, and counteractions by Syria’s foreign supporters against an intervening force.

Anti-interventionists must also note the difference between counteracting the objectives of a country with which the United States is hostile and advancing U.S. interests and goals. Simply because Iran supports the Assad regime does not mean that trying to overthrow the Assad regime makes for good Iran policy, nor does it mean a good Iran policy will necessarily beget a good Syria policy. Spending a Syria intervention’s likely billions on supporting the costly U.S. presence in the Gulf (where, unlike the Levant, Iranian action has a direct impact on vital U.S. interests), taking countermeasures against Iranian proxies in other geographic theaters, or by directly supporting U.S. allies. Similarly, a policy aimed at reducing Iranian freedom of action  by waging a proxy war against it in Syria would likely, as most proxy wars do, increase the devastating costs for the civilian population and delay or deny alternative possibilities for an abatement or settlement of the killing.

Now we arrive at the macro-scale foreign policy questions that Gartenstein-Ross mentions. I am currently on the fence about the value of a term like “grand strategy,” as extremely intelligent commentators such as Adam Elkus have masterfully dissected it in their prior work. But even though I might be wary to embrace a term such as “grand strategy” to describe it, I still agree that there are a number of interrelated economic, political, and geopolitical challenges which merit the prioritization of certain policy issues as prerequisites for guiding U.S. responses to crises such as Syria. These are interrelated, though, with certain conceptualizations of the international system which make it difficult even for policymakers that recognize the significant costs of intervention to commit to anti-interventionism with more confidence.

The mere acknowledgement that certain areas of the world, or certain types of foreign political behavior, do not matter very much for U.S. interests is fundamentally at odds with many basic assumptions and rhetorical frames for U.S. foreign and defense policy. Aaron Ellis, writing about Britain, has described the “internationalization of the national interest” as a barrier to clear thinking about where and why to intervene that Gartenstein-Ross desires. In an interconnected or globalized world, technology, communications and complexity makes a crisis anywhere a seemingly imperative interest. In such a context, it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish chaos or strife anywhere from a systemic threat to everywhere. As Halford Mackinder, a British geographer, put it in 1904:

Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.

Anti-interventionists have to explain that American national policy, though it may look at the world holistically, must distinguish between regional crises and global interests, particularly when deciding to undertake something as inherently costly and dangerous as military action. It is difficult to evangelize the anti-interventionist alternative when the importance of a crisis is continually inflated. Without recognition that Syrian violence – however horrific it gets – so long as its spillover is mitigated, is not in and of itself a threat to vital American interests, interventionists can easily conflate a preference (that Syria not brutally repress its citizens) with an actual interest. The current administration, by all too often invoking tropes of the new, globalized and internationalized national interest, has in many ways painted itself into a difficult corner by ceding the very debate to the interventionist camp about when and where U.S. major interests are at stake.

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Coups and the politics of security assistance

During the recent coup in Mali, the United States received some unfortunate news: Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the nominal leader of the rebellious faction of the country’s military, was trained in the United States under the auspices of the Department of State’s International Military Education and Training program. While military aid to the country – aimed primarily at countering al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – has been suspended, the presence of an American-trained officer in an American-supported military at the forefront of a coup d’etat is a troubling sign for a U.S. foreign policy which would rather pride itself on democratic 21st century statecraft rather than what seems like 20th century skullduggery.

As anachronistic and self-contradictory as the idea of a 21st century coup d’etat may seem to modern observers (although let’s not forget Honduras), it remains as an extreme expression of political engagement that lies beneath the surface even in nominally democratic, transparent societies. Moreover, understanding this political dynamic is crucial in an age when the United States increasingly seeks to leverage and enhance the combat power of its foreign partners.

The Abnormal Situation

Armed forces and security services are, in theory and often in practice, instruments of power. But they are also nodes of power all their own. Their actions can make or break political transitions. Like all bureaucracies, they exert a degree of independent influence and compete for resources and power within a larger political system. However, because they are armed and highly cohesive, they have a unique capability to coercively implement and resist political change. Indeed, militaries are fundamentally political institutions because they are organizations charged with carrying out the ugly side of political behavior.

In a rational-legalistic state, military power exists in the shadow of legislative and deliberative machinery that guides its loyal military force. But militaries often exist to neutralize political conflict within the domestic sphere and enforce the basic rules of the game that make civic engagement possible. Even René Schneider, the 1970 Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief remembered for his resistance to military interference in Chilean politics, recognized that the apolitical role of the military was a political decision in favor of the status quo thus ensuring a normal political process. But Schneider added a caveat: “the only limitation is in the case that the State stopped acting within their own legality. In that case the armed forces have a higher loyalty to the people and are free to decide an abnormal situation beyond the framework of the law.”

In Honduras, for example, the Constitution contained no impeachment process and explicitly stated that the military was responsible for the alternation of the presidency. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was critical to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, yet crafted a constitutional order in which the military retains an implicit veto on any changes to the parameters of Egypt’s burgeoning democratic political system. In both cases, the militaries in question had received large degrees of U.S. support.

The Articulation of Loathsome Interests

In Mali, U.S. support created more capable elements of the Malian military, but it was unable to alter the broader patronage system within Mali itself. Despite U.S. efforts, Toure’s considerations for his patronage network overall supported diverting resources away from the military. As Alex Thurston and other analysts have noted, this has had deleterious consequences for the military’s response to the Tuareg rebellion and the overall conditions of mid-ranking officers and soldiers in the field. The political cooption of high-ranking officers by the regime is an important strategy for regime stability, but if it occurs without buying off the parts of the military who ultimately provide the men on the scene with guns, it is an invitation for a junior officer coup, bringing about men with the notional ability to enforce their rule but limited capacity to enact it substantively. Political complexity does not imply nor require sophistication on the part of all the players involved, but when a shock to the system occurs, the modus vivendi that made loathsome interests mutually compatible can rapidly disappear.

Foreign support and the leverage it brings is inherently bounded in its capabilities to effect systemic political change. Arming and training a foreign military force might improve its capabilities on the battlefield and its organizational cohesion, but it only complicates and does not neutralize or affect  its status as a political actor. Rather than buying an effective civil-military system, foreign support tends to exacerbate existing political cleavages within the security sector rather than transcend them. As political scientists Jeffrey Herbst and William Reno have noted, African politics in particular provide strong case studies of how the traditional links between military and state strength can be perverted or severed. Militaries are only useful tools for state formation to the extent they require mass mobilization, resource extraction, and provide genuinely public goods. If they can gain their resources through domestic extortion, foreign institutional or political support, or otherwise avoid an inclusive economic relationship with local territory, they may not function as engines of stabilization.

For example, the Organization for African Unity’s commitment to de jure sovereignty has significantly reduced African regimes’ fears of external conquest, while vast flows of military and non-military foreign aid have reduced incentives to mobilize resources from the construction of strong extractive state institutions. Indeed, combined with pressure to encourage competitive politics, the development of strong state institutions is a particularly risky prospect, and many weak states have moved to develop “shadow states” and prevent the creation of institutions that might use their effective provision of public goods to challenge the authority of present regimes.

In other words, the strengthening of military institutions can undermine the deliberate strategies of weakening or decentralization of violent power. An under-resourced military reduces the potential that a military will  compete with the government as an independent power base and makes officers more dependent on a centralized patronage network. In some cases, enhancing military capabilities can gravely disrupt a regime’s intentional constraints on power. How foreign powers can effectively provide military aid  while simultaneously strengthening state institutions remains an open question. In pure proxy warfare, the goal of strengthening state institutions, encouraging political competition, and enabling the conditions for the provision of public goods are all basically irrelevant or secondary considerations. The goal was to check the power of rival forces, period. Now, however, the goal is to build state institutions, albeit from afar and with a limited footprint.

Defense Cooperation and Unintended Consequences

On the other hand, there are beneficial aspects of engaging with military forces without quashing their prior political roles within or outside of the state, provided expectations are properly limited. In countries with weak or volatile governing institutions, forging relationships with militaries and security services can provide a more enduring avenue of influence with greater longevity and institutional retention than other elements of the regime can provide. But relationships with foreign militaries must be built with awareness of their political incentives.

As the United States enlists foreign states in the suppression of terrorism and subversion, it must recognize the political dimension of those states’ militaries. In post-withdrawal Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki has already been able to manipulate the security institutions the U.S. left behind to create a highly personalized, coup-proofed force operating at his disposal. Meanwhile, in Yemen, U.S. trained counterterrorism forces have frequently been used in service of defending Saleh and his successor regime. American leverage is temporary, but the political institutions and capabilities that this supposedly leveraging cooperation creates will long outlast the U.S. policymakers’ and public’s attention spans.

The U.S. must acknowledge that foreign security forces do not necessarily represent popular or elite sovereignty, but rather constitute political actors in their own right. In many cases, their machinations carry weight in economic, political, and civil arenas U.S. citizens might not recognize as subject to military influence. Building a military is not simply a technocratic endeavor which teleologically results in a capable, apolitical force, but an intervention in a complex political process and the empowerment of political actors. Coups, as the extreme case of an enduring form of political-military behavior in domestic politics, should not be dismissed as anachronisms or relics from a bygone era. Instead, they are reminders that as the U.S. seeks to stand up partners, measured considerations of U.S. priorities and appreciation for the convoluted nature of deep politics remains as important as ever.

Posted in Civil-Military Relations | 1 Comment

From safe zones to where?

As the terrible violent suppression of the Syrian opposition continues, policymakers and commentators have scrambled to find some kind of solution. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former State Department Director of Policy Planning, has proposed peace” “no-kill zones in Syria” as a form of action more robust than diplomacy, but theoretically less provocative than an all-out war. Setting up “no kill zones” would involve the limited provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army, and training and intelligence from foreign special forces from Arab League states, Turkey, and perhaps Britain and France. Using aerial resupply from unmanned aircraft, foreign intelligence, and support from special forces, the FSA would expand the “no kill zones” until a truce could be made with the Syrian government. Supposedly, these interventions will be too limited to exacerbate retaliation by Syria or greater involvement by Assad’s allies.  However, Spencer Ackerman, firing back at his own blog, noted that Slaughter’s piece is a prolonged exercise in avoiding the implications of R2P as the rest of the world understands them, and in doing so creates a militarily incoherent monstrosity that can only achieve its goals save by luck:

Now, why do I say this is a broader problem with the Responsibility to Protect? Because it shows that the R2P is a military endeavor that still lacks actual, substantive objectives for militaries to achieve. If I am one of the Qatari SOF captains who has to aid the “no-kill zones,” I don’t know from Slaughter’s guidance how to design my operational campaign. I get that I have to help the Free Syrian Army clear out a “no-kill zone” of loyalist Syrian troops; I can presume that I must hold that zone. But what happens when I get mortar fire from the loyalists who’ve pulled back? Does protecting that zone mean I can push it outward? If it does, then I am escalating the objectives as Slaughter has described them; if it doesn’t, then I have failed to hold the no-kill zone.

Slaughter, in a comment responding to Ackerman’s charges, elucidated her argument further. She premised her argument on three assumptions: the inevitability of international action stronger than diplomacy to relieve Syria’s crisis, the possibility of an FSA that seeks only civilian protection without regime change, and the disloyalty and demoralization of the “vast majority” of Assad’s forces. She further argues that foreign special forces, drones, and arms will not constitute international forces or the instigation of a proxy war – and that the threat of revoking this aid will keep rebels satisfied with civilian protection rather than regime change or revenge killings. However, these deployments are still military intervention, and any such choice demands careful scrutiny of the plan at hand, no matter how morally reprehensible the foe may be or dire the situation may appear.

The Wishful Thinking of Safe Zones

To recap my post at the New Atlanticist, Syrian safe zones are useless unless there are forces capable of defending them from massed armored and artillery formations. So long as even a fraction of the Alawite career military forces remain loyal to Assad, he will have access to heavy weapons and be able to reduce population centers and encampments with relative ease. Anti-tank weapons and anti-air weapons will only blunt these attacks, they will not be repulsed without the ability to direct counter-fires en mass. Furthermore, the attacks and sieges will not be successfully broken without a ground force capable of defeating Syrian forces in a stand-up fight.

Anne-Marie Slaughter and other advocates of a safe zone have argued that a guerrilla and paramilitary force armed with small arms, crew served weapons, and anti-tank rockets and missiles could defend against massed formations without devolution into siege warfare by cutting off communications using intelligence, communications, and support from special forces advisers. Particularly against a lightly-armed foe Syrian heavy forces could easily make a mockery of no-kill zones by simply pressing ahead with attacks on cities and any FSA forces foolish enough to concentrate themselves in their defense.

Look at the past example of Sarajevo during the Balkan wars. The siege of Sarajevo was not lifted when NATO airstrikes began. In fact, despite attempted negotiations, the siege continued, and Bosnian Serb forces did not fully withdraw until relatively equally matched Croatian and Bosniak forces were able to launch a ground assault in the area. Similarly, the Srebrenica safe area failed despite international observers, local militias, and air support precisely because the forces on the ground were unable or unwilling to risk a fight against Serb forces. In the case of Syria, a Free Syrian Army of a strength matching that of, say, Croatia’s, is certainly not forthcoming – which means that any city which falls under assault will be incredibly difficult to retain or incorporate into a genuine safe zone. The vast majority of proactive FSA warfare has essentially been guerrilla operations, raiding and bleeding Syrian armed forces rather than clearing, let alone holding, territory outright (with a few temporary exceptions in small towns). The notion that with just some unmanned aircraft and foreign special forces they can somehow develop the cohesion necessary for a unified command and control system that can successfully implement a coherent operational plan  to actually assault Syrian forces at all points is wishful thinking. – Advocates of no-kill zones must acknowledge these shortcomings or advocate for more arms, more support, and more intervention to fill the gap between the opposition and they Syrian army.

A stalemate, as Adam Elkus ably explains in his recent post on Slaughter’s piece, is simply an intermediary step, and will not serve military or diplomatic interests – and probably not even humanitarian interests. Enforcing a stalemate would simply prolong the war, because even if Assad chose to cut a deal or flee the country, fearful Alawite military officers or ministers might choose to fight on. Few within the government will be gullible enough to think that the ultimate goal would not be regime change, it is simply not a plausible argument. Few believed it in Libya, and fewer still will believe it now. “Assad must go” is the default position of the governments that would be involved in the intervention, who on earth would really think the intervention they sponsor would be unrelated to this end?

There is an assumption of neutrality about the “no-kill zones” that bears no logical weight. The no-kill zones, whether Slaughter intends them to or not, exist to deny control of the population to the Syrian government. They would function as safe havens for opposition activity. Slaughter, in a follow up comment in Ackerman’s piece, insists, “R2P is not about winning, it’s about forcing a government to fight fair, which means it doesn’t shoot civilians as a strategy.” Yet establishing a no-kill zone where the FSA may operate, but not the Syrian government, is providing protection to a movement seeking the overthrow of the Syrian government. Separating this from support for regime change is a matter of semantics, not policy.

Dangerous Assumptions

Slaughter explains her argument for indefinite stalemate, and the political viability of enforcing it, starting with three assumptions:

1) That sooner or later something beyond diplomatic pressure will have to be done with regard to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria;

This is not true in practical terms. R2P is a system of ideals that can be adopted or ignored in accordance with state preference. R2P is a luxury or a preference rather than an imperative, outside actors cannot be forced to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. In fact, they might choose to intervene with goals indifferent or even antithetical to the humanitarian interests at play. No, if the diplomatic measures, as skillfully and clearly outlined by Marc Lynch, fail, then alternatives will basically be fighting a bloody war or proxy war under which humanitarian considerations will, for the most part, be undertaken by friction and the course of events, or the international community will have to live with Assad. Framing war as inevitable simply results in the narrow-minded and dangerous thinking that Diana outlined in her earlier post on how we think about waging war. Adopting that sort of mindset results in precisely the sorts of strategically illogical arguments that get intervening soldiers and civilians alike killed for minimal gains.

Slaughter tries to argue that the FSA can be restrained from undertaking offensive warfare (that is, warfare beyond the inherently offensive action of expanding the no-kill zones, although Slaughter does not portray it as such) by ascribing a solely humanitarian purpose to what is expressly an army seeking to liberate Syria, saying:

2) That the FSA started as a force dedicated to protecting peaceful protesters rather than attacking Assad and could be persuaded to return to that mission (although not if the decision is simply to arm them, as is happening now)

The goals of the FSA, insofar as we can derive the intentions of a disaggregated force from its leadership’s statements, are to bring about the destruction of the regime through attacks on military targets. See the statements of Colonel Riyad al-Assad, who argues the FSA must “work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity to bring this regime down” and that attacks would occur across the country, arguing, ”We will target them in all parts of the Syrian territories without exception.”  Offensive and defensive warfare are complementary, not contradictory – while a strategy can be weighted towards one or another, even a strategic defensive may require tactical offenses. A viable defense requires seizing key terrain features, population centers, counter-offensives, and the disruption of enemy logistics and lines of communication. Yet what expanding safe zones requires, and the FSA’s nation-wide guerrilla campaign acknowledges, the need for a strategic offensive, even if many of its components are tactical defenses. For the inherently offensive action of expanding safe zones, forward actions to disrupt or halt the advance of Syrian forces will prove necessary to secure the safe zones. Drawing an arbitrary line between offense and defense will only serve to confuse the issue, not restrain the Free Syrian Army. Even if some members of the FSA choose to forswear regime change and accept stalemate, some units will act offensively or new paramilitary groups might emerge to meet the aspirations of Syrian political leaders, people, and yes, the Sunni Arab states which are eager to see Assad gone. Already the Syrian National Council appears to be splintering, with 20 members forming the ”Syrian Patriotic Group,” a bloc avowedly in favor of the FSA. Fracturing among political groups might occur if the SNC acquiesces to Western pressure not to seek outright regime change through armed revolt.

Slaughter justifies the inadequate resource commitments of the no-kill zone plan by eschewing worst-case planning:

3) that the vast majority of Assad’s army will not in fact fight for him.

This is an example of the exact opposite kind of assumption to make when planning a military intervention. Even if the majority of Assad’s conscript forces defect or simply desert, that still leaves the best-trained and best-equipped professional formations relatively intact. The morale of these units is presumably more robust and the sectarian composition much more amenable to the regime’s interest. The more the FSA and associated movements look like a Sunni majoritarian force backed by co-sectarian partners in the Gulf, the more likely non-Sunni minorities will more fully throw in the lot with the regime. Furthermore, how many loyal, well-trained professional troops with heavy weapons does Syria need to put down a FSA that is basically limited to guerrilla attacks if they are willing to just blast the population into compliance? It may well not require a majority of the forces willing to fight, just enough cohesive and well-equipped ones which can overcome a much more nebulous force of guerrillas which is unable to coordinate attacks at an operational or strategic level.

Based on those three assumptions, I do think it is possible to use special forces, high-grade intelligence, modern communications, and a relatively limited number of specialized weapons to help the FSA establish and maintain these zones. Of course they could use those weapons any way they want, but see my second assumption. Further, if my third assumption is right then the zones will encourage more defections than attacks.

Such assumptions completely ignore the potential counter-actions of the enemy. If the number of weapons is limited, and indeed, even if they are widely distributed, it is highly unlikely that safe zones defended only by guerrillas that have proven manifestly incapable of protecting cities such as Homs from siege would trigger a collapse in Syrian, especially Alawite Syrian, military morale. In fact, the prospect of defections would likely spur more aggressive use of the military, as quickly and violently proving the safe zones unsafe would stymie defections and potentially draw the FSA into a defensive fight ripe for the sort of massacre Syrian forces have inflicted on cities and population centers before. Additionally, Syrian security services could take advantage of defectors by intentionally sending some as informants about FSA activity – something which has very likely already occurred, and is another potential source of distrust and division between FSA officers. Were the FSA to try and kill these informants within the no-kill zones, or militias were to conduct revenge killing, torture, or any of the other malign behavior all too common to civil wars, would we really imperil the vast majority of civilians within them by weakening the rebel groups? Or would supposedly fair, impartial, and humanitarian-minded outsiders need to take a bigger role?

Foreign Support: Mere Failure or Casus Belli?

Furthermore, it is utterly unconvincing that a “limited” shipment of “specialized” arms would smack any less of a proxy war from the Iranian or Russian perspective. Such arms shipments would almost certainly convince Iran and Russia to increase their support for the Syrian government and bring in “specialized” arms and advisers in return. Slaughter surprisingly argues that despite, in her original piece, for special forces from “Qatar, Turkey and possibly Britain and France,” and then Turkish and Arab League “remotely piloted helicopters, either for delivery of cargo and weapons — as America has used them in Afghanistan — or to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill zones,” as well as drones, because somehow drone strikes, unlike ground troops (which Slaughter is already advocating deploying in the form of special forces), will somehow not be perceived by Assad as an act of war or grounds for retaliation. Yet in her response to Ackerman, she claims she never mentions international forces. Domestic political audiences might swallow such semantic circumlocutions, but Assad and his allies will not.

Of course, special forces are hardly going to be able to provide FSA troops with the ability to isolate and defeat battalion-sized formations of Syrian troops – something that appears never to have happened, even during tactical withdrawals. Organizations such as MPRI did provide the Croatian forces with the ability to conduct complex operations such as Operation Storm in the Balkan Wars, but the Croat military was far more organized than the FSA and far more capable relative to its Serbian foes than the FSA is to Damascus’s troops.

Additionally, providing “high-grade intelligence” will require large amounts of manned and unmanned platforms, both at sea and in the air, in order to adequately support the SOF on the ground, and as Robert Caruso notes, this could balloon into a commitment of thousands of U.S. personnel.  As for the remotely-piloted helicopters and drones, without a much broader campaign of electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, and other combat operations involving jet aircraft, bombing, and manned platforms, it is highly unlikely drones and RPAs would be reliable conduits of supply for FSA guerrillas in the field. After all, even the USMC has only talked about flying K-MAX, the Afghan-tested resupply drone Slaughter references, at night because small arms fire - Taliban with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades – might fell it. How well will it do against crew-served anti-air guns, man-portable missiles, or SAM sites? Not well enough that I’d bet the combat viability of outnumbered, outgunned, and logistically and organizationally-impaired FSA troops on it.

Operation Viking Hammer, a 2003 assault by U.S, Special Forces embedded with Iraq’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is an instructive contrast to Slaughter’s happy vision. The assault’s success required, firstly, a massive over-match in manpower. Thousands of PUK troops attacked an Ansar al-Islam camp of just a few hundred men – roughly the size of a battalion. The PUK was an older, more cohesive organization with which the US CIA had prior ties. Furthermore, it occurred in the context of a logistical tail that involved huge numbers of C-130 cargo aircraft and the attack itself required air support from U.S. combat aircraft that drones are unlikely to match. To expect foreign special forces with intelligence, communication, and drone support to take on Syrian armored units is to demand a much tougher fight with far fewer necessary tools.

The Self-Defeating Humanitarian Stalemate

The very logic of the no-kill zones and the associated policies gives the FSA an incentive to launch offensives it is theoretically not allowed to conduct, and practically unlikely to succeed in – but the unacknowledged reliance of these zones on offensive success might give rebels a tool to escalate foreign involvement.

Merely establishing the safe zones for civilian protection would just be a stopgap measure, and it would likely undermine the prospects for a lasting truce. Instead, they would provide the impetus for further civil war. Some towns will be leveled or besieged to prevent the safe zone from reaching them. Truces will be attempted and then their limits tried.  The dynamics of internal warfare will continue.

When some of the safe zones are rolled back when FSA troops are unable to hold them – when special forces troops are killed in these events – will the international community strictly adhere to its policy of stalemate for the civilians sake, even as Syrian assaults render it a laughingstock? Or will safe zones provide a political platform or more arms, and more and deeper intervention? How will the international community respond when Bashar uses the extra time of stalemate to strengthen loyalist forces and draw more resources from Russia and Iran? How would it respond to the strengthening of more radical or militant secular and religious components of the FSA and armed resistance which aren’t content to seek a truce with their oppressor?

How will the rule against revenge killings be enforced? Slaughter claims that the curtailment of support will discourage revenge or extrajudicial killings, but this is utterly impractical. Gulf Cooperation Council and other Arab League states do not care about human rights, they care about deposing a pro-Iranian minority government and empowering a Sunni, anti-Iranian majority. Furthermore, the FSA does not necessarily trust all defectors, who were not the original participants in the armed resistance, since some of them are informants for the regime. Additionally, irregular groups might attack within these zones to disrupt FSA training. Assad’s local rivals will pump money and arms into the opposition regardless of their human rights record, because just like their complicity in the oppression of protests in Bahrain, Arab intervention in Syria has nothing to do with embracing R2P and everything to do with geopolitical interests.

Ultimately, the combination of vague and indefensible no-kill zones with supposedly limited arming of the mass of armed groups under the banner of the FSA- all done through allies and proxies with limited specialized capabilities and interests at variance with humanitarian protection and perhaps even American interests – will, at best, produce a stalemate that prolongs the Syrian civil war before what would likely be a violent conclusion or the centrifugal unraveling of its central authority. At worst, it will accelerate the incipient proxy war by provoking further Iranian and Russian support for Assad and Sunni support for their own favored militias and terrorists, or even provoke a further military intervention when failures force the U.S. to uphold its commitment to the failed plan by providing yet more resources to its original objectives, and likely supplementing them with more muscular and direct action. Military intervention must be based on the conditions on the ground, the capabilities and standing interests of the parties involved, and a viable end state to which the intervening parties can affix a strategy. Ignoring obvious truths – that foreign special forces are international forces, that foreign armament of rebels is proxy warfare, that regime change and power politics, not civilian protection, will guide armed rebel and intervening partner behavior alike – may provide for a satisfying narrative with which to assuage our rightfully anguished consciences, but it woefully fails policymakers’ responsibilities to their citizens and armed forces, nor, ultimately, will it provide the basis for adquately protecting civilians.

Posted in Syria, War | 2 Comments

Shadow wars and shoddy policy

As the government begins the painful process of paring down the bloated defense establishment, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its best known component, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), is likely to continue its rise in prominence – and in deployments. As with many of the transitions in U.S. defense policies, this has not come without controversy.

The rise of JSOC in the War on Terror has been due in large part to the military difficulties and political costs stemming from the use of large conventional formations. However, the rapid expansion of covert operations as conventional ground forces reduce their presence in budgets and battlefields alike, its activities in areas not officially declared war zones, and its seeming lack of Congressional accountability, have all raised significant consternation from foreign policy and defense commentators.

Marc Ambinder recently highlighted many of these concerns in his excellent recent work with D.B. Grady, The Command, and reiterated them in an interview with Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room. JSOC’s processes of review are internal to the organization, and Congress has little bearing on JSOC’s actions. Already commentators suspicious of American military power or foreign policy have decried the rise of JSOC for eroding Congressional checks on war-making power or for enabling America to embark on a path of perpetual conflict.

Inexplicably, some American commentators worry over the decline of Congressional authority over war-making power. However, this fear is both somewhat ahistorical and very optimistic in its assessment of Congress today. Congressional authority for war does not require a formal declaration of war, nor is the approval of Congress necessary for a state of war to exist. Congressional authority is merely required to initiate a state of war that was not already brought about by hostile action. So long as Congress continues to fund and approve the war, the war is essentially retroactively legalized by Congressional action.

Regardless of how legal JSOC’s activities are abroad though, relying on Congress to hold JSOC accountable assumes that Congress actually cares to do so. There is an unexamined belief about the pacific inclinations of legislative bodies that absolutely does not reflect modern realities. As should be obvious, the current Congress is not interested in restraining the war powers of the executive, nor is it interested in undermining JSOC.

And really, since when has Congress been a reliable dovish influence on American military power? Since never – Congress has been supported wide-ranging, undeclared wars since the beginning of American history. In the Quasi-War with France , Congress approved and funded an undeclared war across the world’s oceans against France – a geopolitically risky activity considering the relative power of France to the young United States. This war was not merely limited to commerce – it also involved naval landings against France’s ally Spain (specifically its colony in what is now the Dominican Republic), despite the United States not being at war with Spain .

Congress  has displayed no qualms about declaring offensive wars either – the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War, both officially declared wars, were also two of the most nakedly territorially aggrandizing wars in U.S. history. Members of Congress have even tried to push the executive into wars it did not desire, or forced it to take hawkish positions that it might have preferred to avoid. In American relations with China, for example, Congress has generally been the more belligerent of the branches, while the presidency has generally sought to preserve the diplomatic entente Nixon forged. Even before the existence of the People’s Republic of China, a strong China lobby enabled funding of the Republic of China’s war-making effort against Japan. During the Cold War that lobby continued to militate for action to defend the Republican Chinese government in Taiwan. Eisenhower and the military did not want to become engaged in a war to defend Taiwan during the Quemoy and Matsu crisis, which they thought would require using nuclear weapons against the Chinese mainland and compromise America’s other diplomatic prerogatives. Yet many of the so-called isolationists in Congress vigorously pushed the President towards a more confrontational stance. Even today, it is still Congress where the most ardent defenders of Taiwan push for legislation that may antagonize China – not the executive.

Regardless, the ugly truth about JSOC is that Congress will not hold it accountable not because it cannot, but because Congress has absolutely no incentive to do so. There is no reward to Congress in trying to hold JSOC accountable or reduce the role of special operations forces in U.S. policy. Congress has demonstrated its support for a wide-ranging war on terror through the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the subsequent National Defense Authorization Acts. Congress, not the executive, will not initiate massive cuts SOCOM even as other branches receive potentially deep reductions in funding.

JSOC, or at least the elements that the American public identifies with JSOC, are extremely popular. Are Americans worried about secret assassination campaigns? No – a significant majority of Americans support the use of drones in targeted killings, and most even support the use of drones against American members of terrorist organizations abroad.  And really, Americans identify JSOC with elite operators, not killer robots. Nobody doesn’t love a Navy SEAL, right? Congress, on the other hand, is less popular than the Internal Revenue Service. Act of Valor, starring active U.S. special operations forces, is set to be a blockbuster. Nobody would watch a movie billing active Congressmen as its main characters unless it was a remake of Home Alone with the legislators as the thieves. JSOC has produced some of the most public and stunning successes in the War on Terror – even if a few Members want to increase Congressional oversight, there is no political incentive for the majority to rein in JSOC.  Voters won’t reward Congress for meddling in JSOC’s business.

The desire to fight terrorism, combined with a dissatisfaction with the expensive and bloody military campaigns that began as a consequence, have enabled JSOC and the drone program to continue with so little accountability. JSOC has been tasked with leading the way in the new iteration of the Global War on Terror, and every request it sends for increased operating capabilities is a reflection of its attempt to enact popular policies that ideally lead to smaller footprints and more contained violence. Indeed, the wide-ranging Operational Preparation of the Environment actions JSOC undertakes are to avoid becoming embroiled in the larger, more serious conflicts that non-JSOC military-led counterterrorism campaigns might require. The desire not to be sent in blind or become embroiled in another Iraq or Afghanistan is one of the crucial factors behind JSOC’s global strategic moves.

Indeed, rather than militating for more war, a serious concern might be that JSOC would frustrate or resist the executive’s desires for another “big war.” General McChrystal, for example, has made critical remarks about the Iraq war’s effect on the overall war on terror and also negatively assessed American preparation and assessment of the environment in Afghanistan. If anything, JSOC could become an obstacle to wider military action. A powerful and more influential JSOC would be better able to resist executive desires for expanding U.S. military presence in some theaters beyond their preferred levels. This would be a civil-military problem in its own right, but it is not automatically safe to assume that JSOC wants to use its status to militate for high-tempo combat campaigns everywhere. Because JSOC is not a massed force, it indeed cannot take on the burden of conducting all-out wars.

Some commentators are concerned that an increased reliance on an elite force for waging covert or small wars necessarily means the US will lose its ability to conduct large, nation-building type wars. If that ability is lost, however, it’s not because of SOCOM – it’s because the military and policy establishment has largely rejected this approach to warfare. It is certainly true that SOCOM cannot do everything, but general purpose forces do not exist to make the costs of bad policies more politically bearable. Massive investments in nation-building capabilities and a large land-based force have led to the exhaustion of those forces – and have challenged the government’s ability to finance their operations. If SOCOM is expanding in operations, it is because the policies advocated by Boot and many others were tried on the battlefield and were found wanting.

The truth is that the biggest problems with SOCOM generally, JSOC in particular, and American foreign policy lie in exactly that – American foreign policy. Take, for example, Jeremy Scahill’s excellent new piece on Yemen, which describes a litany of failed counterterrorism efforts resulting in massive blowback in the country. Scahill essentially describes an incoherent strategy that used, but was not driven by, the tools at hand. American policymakers sought to kill terrorists until those aiding and abetting them decided instead to throw their lot in with an admittedly noxious government that we nevertheless chose to support because we depended on Saleh’s people for a permissive environment and targeting intelligence. Yet much of that intelligence was faulty or deliberately manipulated by the regime itself to support its own political needs. As a result, the capabilities the U.S. built up have been expended to defend the regime’s existence – not to fulfill U.S. counterterrorism priorities.

What might policymakers have done to prevent this? As in Pakistan, one uncomfortable answer is that building up a large human intelligence network independent of a potentially uncooperative host government, perhaps even using stay-behind networks of assets posing as civilian contractors, businessmen, or other ostensible non-combatants  or maybe arming militias answering primarily to the U.S. rather than the Yemeni government, could have provided more accurate intelligence and avoided the consequences inherent in supporting Saleh’s regime. Incidentally, such a task would have been the responsibility of JSOC and the CIA. The failures of Yemen are failures of policy, not of JSOC or drones.

One might even further note that a counterterrorism campaign in Yemen that relied on apprehending rather than killing  terrorists would have required JSOC’s capabilities to be used more aggressively in Yemen, or else let captured suspects rot in Saleh’s brutal prisons. A campaign of capturing terrorists and rendering them to the U.S. would have required far more direct action assets, forward operating locations, and airbases for local air support. Capturing Awlaki, for example, probably would have involved hundreds of soldiers, pilots, and support personnel deploy to Yemen, and likely would have resulted in either his death or those of American operators. Even less lethal counterterrorism campaigns could well entail the continuing expansion of JSOC or CIA covert forces.

No kind of capability is a magic bullet, and no combination of capabilities is a magic bullet either. SOCOM is an instrument of policy, and policy is, even in JSOC, still made by politicians and policymakers, not military officers. If they become proconsuls, it will be because of willful abdication by their civilian superiors, not praetorian machinations by those in uniform. Disentangling instruments from policies is a vital task if the United States is to correct course on the War on Terror. While not all tools are appropriate for all policies, pursuing a bad policy is going to result in undesirable outcomes. Accountability is worthless if those supposed to be designing policy cannot develop realistic standards or are not interested in developing any standards at all for anyone to be held accountable to.

Posted in Civil-Military Relations, Military | 1 Comment