More after the jump.
As alluded to in the title of the article, COL MacGregor advocates refusing battle as a grand strategy, pointing to the troubles that our military has had in the past few years in closing the deal; accomplishing the foreign policy goals of the civilian government. For this the Colonel blames the previous administration and the strategy itself, calling upon the current administration to set a new course of conflict avoidance that sounds so wonderful and peaceful that it's almost too utopian to resist. It makes one want to plant daisies and wear woven hemp sandals. It is also filled with flawed analogies, and the basic premise is in reality a call to the Obama administration to adopt Weinberger/Powell Doctrine as national policy. There are, as always, the simple questions. Which end of this dog wags the other? Does the military try to tell the civilian masters when it is appropriate to use military force? Who decides when to refuse battle? Is the answer to always refuse battle, no matter what the cost?
The Bush legacy in foreign and defense policy presents Obama with a stark choice: Will we continue to pursue global hegemony with the use of military power to control and shape development inside other societies? Or will we use our military power to maintain our market-oriented English-speaking republic, a republic that upholds the rule of law, respects the cultures and traditions of people different from ourselves, and trades freely with all nations, but protects its sovereignty, its commerce, its vital strategic interests and its citizens? This essay argues for the latter approach; a strategy of conflict avoidance designed to make the U.S. more secure without making the rest of the world less so.
In historically demonstrating his argument, COL MacGregor uses two inherently flawed analogies. In the first he likens our situation to that of General Lee when he found himself decisively engaged at Gettysburg. His argument is that Lee should have refused battle. Okay, tactically that would probably been a good thing for Lee to do. Question: How does this relate to modern man as we know him today? Answer: It does not. Lee was engaged in a war. If he refused battle that day, it would have been to accept it on ground of his own choosing or at least much more advantageous to him. Lee had invaded the North and was seeking to sever Washington from the nation that it was the capitol of; a thrust at the heart of the Union. He was seeking battle. While the Colonel makes a good point that Lee accepted battle at a poor time, how this relates to our current situation is not so clear.
His second analogy relates our current situation to the quandary the British found themselves in at the advent of WW-I. He argues that the British should have refused battle on the ground in Europe, being safe upon their island homeland from the end results of any terrestrial battles and possessing a mighty navy. This, he argues, would have maintained the standards of living of the British citizen and avoided the dissolution of the British Empire. Again, this analogy is miserably flawed and simplistic. It also fails to answer the question of what would have been Britain's future across the English Channel from a Europe learning to speak German. It also fails to recognize that while WW-I may have contributed to the end of the British Empire, there were many other factors that doomed imperialism in the 20th Century and that the avoidance of British entry into WW-I would not likely have staved them off as well.
It may have had an entirely ugly outcome for the British, and ourselves, but we shall never know, because there is no historical model, nor can anyone accurately predict what the world would look like now if the Germans had taken an abandoned France, Belgium and Holland and established a German Empire that spanned Europe in 1916. There is little doubt in my mind that Germany would have overwhelmed a solitary France, as even with massive British help all the two could manage together was a fragile stalemate on the Western Front.
Regardless, I found the analogy to be ridiculous. COL MacGregor also assumes that the British did not fully realize their predicament and had they had the sense of asking just one more question, they would have refused to participate and therefore would have salvaged not only their empire, but the riches of the Commonwealth. Oh, wait, they never would have needed a Commonwealth, as they would still be a global empire. Poppycock.
Britain fought a war that cost the British people their national power, their standard of living, and, in less than 20 years, their empire. Had anyone in London’s leadership stopped to seriously examine what outcome (end-state) it was they wanted to achieve with military power (purpose) and what military capabilities (method) were at their disposal to do so, it is doubtful they would have reached the decisions they did.
That is because, assuming Colonel MacGregor is calling this one correctly, the entire British cabinet was full of idiots. Had they seen how ludicrously simple it was to make that easy decision, they would clearly have agreed with the Colonel and saved their empire. For the lack of such pragmatic genius in that chamber, the empire was lost.
What the article boils down to is a massive excuse for the difficulty that the United States Military in general, and the Officer Corps in particular has had in taking responsibility for doing their jobs, which is to accomplish the goals set for them by their civilian masters, with the overwhelming support of the population, and to properly advise that leadership as to what the needs of the mission would be and the military doctrine necessary to accomplish it. The article is put forth as some kind of educational tool for the Obama administration to learn that either the military itself should be the determiner of when and where to use military force or that President Obama should learn how to determine where and when a short, sharp, decisive action can accomplish the foreign policy objectives of the United States. All other confrontations are to be assiduously avoided, and that should be the stated policy of the United States.
The lesson is a straightforward one: When national military strategy fails to answer the questions of purpose, method and end-state, military power becomes an engine of destruction not just for its intended enemies, but for its supporting society and economy, too. Regardless of how great or how small the military commitment, if the price of victory is potentially excessive, then the use of force should be avoided. After all, the object in conflict and crisis is the same as in wrestling: to throw the opponent by weakening his foothold and upsetting his balance without risking self-exhaustion.
In other words, "Dear Mr. President, please use military force only when it is easy and clearly defined. Please do not give us any hard jobs. You may never be sure when the leadership of your Armed Forces may not have the mental flexibility to learn how to accomplish your task, and so we will fail while blaming you for not using us properly. In fact, Sir, please don't use us unless our shores are directly threatened with an invasion by a classic nation-state peer competitor. For everything else, please threaten our enemies with assured nuclear destruction (or some other form of undefined "attack") and leave us to our peacetime garrisons, where we can tout our superiority without ever having to prove it. Thank you, your officers."
Once again, the specter of Vietnam is raised.
The Johnson administration’s decision to intervene with large-scale conventional forces in Vietnam rested on this delusion. Even worse, President Lyndon Johnson subscribed to the idea that whatever military action the American government initiated, it was inherently justified on moral grounds, even if, as in the case of Vietnam, the military action turned out badly for the U.S. Tragically, Johnson’s wish-based ideology made retreat from inflexible and irrational policy pronouncements impossible when they no longer made sense.
Later he adds this.
American military interventions have routinely violated this line of reasoning. In Vietnam, American military assistance failed for many reasons, chiefly because the Saigon government was thoroughly corrupt and indifferent to the security of its own people. All the military might at America’s disposal, whether the North Vietnamese military enjoyed sanctuaries in neighboring states or not, was never enough to rescue the incompetent South Vietnamese government from its eventual conquest by North Vietnamese communists.
Any time from here on out that a military officer raises the specter of Vietnam, he should be summarily slapped and given a timeout on a chair in the corner. I've got news for the Colonel; the military lost Vietnam as surely as the President or the American people did. It wasn't the Soldier's fault; he fought well and hard. It was the leadership's fault, because they never did learn how to fight a counterinsurgency, just as they are resisting it today. Vietnam failed because our military and our civilian leadership cannot wrap their minds around the concept that firepower is not the answer, and that propping up a corrupt regime without working to make it responsible and accountable to its own people will never work.
Oddly enough, the British brought Malaya out of a similar morass. The only ones who are bigger screw-ups against insurgents than us are the Russians. In several books, the United States in Vietnam is used as an example of how not to do counterinsurgency.
We are making similar mistakes now. The Officer Corps must take responsibility for not predicting that toppling the government in Iraq would result in anarchy and a power vacuum that would naturally end in civil war and insurgency. Our Officer Corps and our State Department must take responsibility for not projecting the power forward with the proper training to fill that vacuum instead of showing off our conventional prowess in the ultimate manifestation of the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine, trying to keep it short and sharp, which fails to take into account such events. Instead they advocate choosing to "refuse battle," which is a wonderful idea until your president tells you to go and do a job. Our Officer Corps and our State Department must take responsibility for not understanding that one cannot just have an election and the most popular former warlord will somehow become a master administrator, flawlessly organizing a government devoid of the traditional graft and corruption that results from tossing a bunch of former mountain fighters into cabinet-level posts in a country bereft of any real infrastructure or institutional memory of good governance. Our Officer Corps must take responsibility for a culture which has failed to properly train Soldiers and leaders in counterinsurgency doctrine and the tactical practice of the types of actions on the ground that will have a positive effect on what COL MacGregor describes as an impossible situation. GEN Petraeus proved in Iraq that COL MacGregor is full of beans. MacGregor ignores this completely and resorts to Vietnam, the ultimate example of the obstinate refusal of American officers to adapt and learn; their continual attempts to apply conventional firepower without attempting to establish unconventional superiority. COL MacGregor functions from a position that these situations are impossible to resolve and therefore inappropriate as national objectives.
The fact is that COL MacGregor has no idea of whether or not the United States Military can accomplish the national objectives using the proper doctrine. MacGregor can cite examples from two past centuries as if they did not leave gaping holes in the analogy and sound quite learned, but that does not make them germane, nor does the underlying premise, making excuses, make them any more useful. In the meantime, adequately executed and adaptive counterinsurgency in Iraq has resulted in the possibility of a stable self-governing post-Saddam Iraq. Go figure. MacGregor does take a spirited poke at Petreaus's success later, though.
Today, America’s economic woes along with the larger world’s unrelenting drive for prosperity creates the need for new choices in national military strategy. The most important choice Obama must make is to reject future, unnecessary, large-scale, overt military interventions in favor of conflict avoidance; a strategy of refusing battle that advances democratic principles through shared prosperity — not unwanted military occupation.
Here is where COL MacGregor seems to recognize the influence of globalization, and he begins to speak of respecting other cultures like some kind of zen master.
As a declaratory goal of U.S. military strategy, conflict avoidance is not merely a restatement of deterrence or a new affirmation of collective security. It is a policy stance that stems from a decent regard for the interests of others, regardless of how strange and obtuse these interests may seem to Americans. It is an explicit recognition by Washington that no one in Asia, Africa, the Middle East or Latin America wants American troops to police and govern their country, even if American troops are more capable, more honest and provide better security than their own soldiers and police. The question for Americans is how to translate the goal of conflict avoidance into operational strategy: What will the U.S. do if it is not compelled to fight?
Conflict avoidance would appear to require action on several levels. First, conflict avoidance requires that America continue to maintain the military power to make a direct assault on U.S. and allied security interests unthinkable and then pursue peaceful relations with the peoples of the world, so the danger of war involving the world’s great military powers is reduced and contained.
What of terrorism? Still avoiding the subject of non-state actors, The Colonel speaks to terrorism.
This strategy does not change America’s policy stance on Islamist terrorism. The exportation of Islamist terrorism against the U.S. and its allies must remain a permanent red line in U.S. national military strategy. Governments that knowingly harbor terrorist groups must reckon with the very high probability that they will be subject to attack. However, long-term, large-scale American military occupations, even to ostensibly train indigenous forces to be mirror images of ourselves, are unwise and should be avoided.
So the solution is merely to attack your enemies, but more in a punitive expedition; or perhaps without any expedition.
America already has a surplus of military power for this stated purpose. American nuclear power is overwhelming, and any state or subnational group that contemplates the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. or its allies understands that nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in general have “return addresses” on them with ominous consequences for the user. American conventional military power is no less impressive when it is employed within an integrated, joint framework that exploits capabilities across service lines.
Oops, there it is. The "N" word. This is going to be as succinct as possible; to this writer, any national policy objective that includes the use of nuclear weapons is either a failed policy or a policy of failure. I've got another "N" word for the Colonel; NO. Weapons of mass destruction, on 9/11, included airliners. If someone tries to tell me that four rounds fired that resulted in over 3,000 casualties were not weapons of mass destruction, I'm going to stop listening because that individual is obviously cracked. So the response to that would have been to nuke Afghanistan.
No. Pretty simple; no. I'm sorry, Colonel, you're going to have to figure out how to do your job in unconventional war. I'm sorry that nuclear weapons are but two things; a deterrent to nuclear attack and a final suicidal vengeance weapon if the first goal fails. Conventional superiority? Sorry that it's not the Fulda Gap. Guess what? The Fulda Gap never happened. I'm sorry that it's not Desert Storm, but that didn't solve all of our problems, either. If men who held the rank of Colonel and above had figured out what would have been needed to do the job right from the start, it's very very possible that Iraq never would have become what it was, and that Afghanistan wouldn't be struggling now. This proposed policy is simplistic, overly reliant on overwhelming firepower, and maintains a dreamily wistful vision of classic military asskicking blended with a flower-petal dispensing foreign policy which would somehow placate the world and make it magically safer.
Second, conflict avoidance balances the need to make the U.S. secure against the danger of making the rest of the world less so. Instead of defining events around the world as tests of American military strength and national resolve, and rather than dissipating American military resources in remote places to pass these alleged tests, the U.S. should define its role in the world without feeling compelled to demonstrate its military power. Otherwise, the U.S. runs the risk that other states, not the U.S., will dictate America’s strategic agenda.
That sounds great, but as many times as I read it, the more it just doesn't say anything. It sounds like what my son's mother tried to tell him about dealing with a bully at school, which eventually had my son feeling personally powerless and trapped. When I gave him permission to stand up for himself, he did and, without having to actually perform violence, the bullying stopped and my son's "definition of his role in the world" took on a decidedly positive tone. The fact of the matter is that we are the biggest kid on the block, and as such we will be poked, taunted, and prodded from time to time. Because of our conventional superiority, that goading will most often take the form of sneaky, terrorist activity because nobody in their right mind is going to challenge us with a direct conventional threat. It's not other states that are going to set our strategic agenda, it's more likely to be non-state actors with capabilities to strike that used to be the exclusive domain of states capable of power projection. Huge hole in the analysis.
Third, when the U.S. confronts crises and conflicts, American armed forces should be committed on terms that favor the U.S. where the use of military power can achieve tangible strategic gains for the nation. As Churchill argued in 1909: “It would be very foolish to lose England in safeguarding Egypt. If we win the big battle in the decisive theater, we can put everything else straight afterwards. If we lose it, there will not be any afterwards.”
Well, it seems that the empire was threatened prior to WW-I. Yes, it would be nice if everything were clearly cut-and-dry. I would like to hear what a tangible strategic gain would be for this nation. Land? Natural resources? Would ensuring security be a tangible goal? Would it be appropriate for the civilian government to decide what a strategic goal for the United States would be? As the Colonel would argue otherwise, our sitting government in 2001 decided that there was a strategic goal in Afghanistan and in 2003 it decided that there was a strategic goal in Iraq. I really didn't think that the objectives set were all that ambiguous. I do think that they were not expeditiously achieved by those given the missions. They achieved, in each case, half of the mission, failing the rest.
America’s decision to garrison Iraq after its initial goals of removing Saddam and eliminating WMD were achieved added little, if anything, of strategic value to American security, but the presence of so many conventional American forces did present America’s enemies in the Muslim world with an opportunity they would have otherwise missed: the chance to directly attack U.S. forces, damage American military prestige and exhaust American economic resources while strengthening their own. By the beginning of 2008, the most serious unanticipated outcome of this exposure was a monthly bill of $12 billion to maintain U.S. forces in support of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that was and is effectively tied to Iran.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has become a co-belligerent for the various factions and peoples — Kurds, Turks, Iranians, Saudi, Sunni or Shiite Arabs — struggling for power inside Iraq. These realities explain why the Bush administration was reluctant to remove large numbers of troops from Iraq. The current status quo is not merely fragile, it will not survive the withdrawal of U.S. military power.
He's right, you know. We should have turned around and left right after toppling Hussein. That would have been best. I'm sure it would have worked out much better. I'm sure that between the Iranians and al Qaeda making a power grab closer to their homeland, Iraq would have quickly stabilized.
No, the current status quo will not survive the abrupt withdrawal of military power. Here's a bell-ringer; what damaged American military prestige was sending conventional forces into a situation that was conventional for one month, followed by unconventional/asymmetric for years, and we never trained them for the unconventional. They developed coping mechanisms, and we helped them with that, but we to this day do not train our young Soldiers and leaders in COIN. That is a failure on the part of senior military leadership, not the civilian government that gave those officers their orders.
Arguing about the objectives that the civilian administration set is useless. Those objectives were set, and the Officer Corps went to work; planning, recommending, publishing orders and making coordination. The military leadership failed to possess a doctrine, and they failed to train for the contingency of having to deal with the end result of decapitating two nations. Now, one can argue ad-nauseum against those goals, but those are just excuses for not seeing it coming and pretending that the Weinberger or Powell doctrines would somehow save the military from another asymmetric challenge, having determined in their warrior hearts that they would never again have another Vietnam. It wasn't the President that harmed American military prestige; it was our military leaders. The results are manifest. It's not the job of senior officers to determine national military policy. It's their job to execute it. You don't choose the mission; the civilian government does. It's the military's job to get the job done, not tell the civilian government later that it's all their fault.
Although that tactic did work after losing Vietnam. What the hell... let's try it again!
In consideration of what to do next about Afghanistan’s rapidly deteriorating situation, current discussions in Washington are dominated by people who advocate increasing force levels and plunging these forces into Pakistan’s tribal areas. Yet a more sober analysis suggests the real problem with Afghanistan resides in Kabul, another corrupt and ineffective government unworthy of American military support.
"Unworthy of American military support?" Another slapping, another timeout. That "real problem" residing in Kabul didn't even exist when we went in there. We helped them set that up. We screwed that up just as surely as they did, and we helped to topple the Taliban regime for our purposes, not theirs, overwhelmingly supported by the American people. How arrogant to determine that they are unworthy of our support. Again, it's an excuse. It has been written many times on this page that the military isn't the best instrument for many of the tasks of nation-building, but this could have been done a ton better. It took us five years after entering Afghanistan to publish counterinsurgency doctrine, and over two years after that doctrine was published, there are still COIN horror stories being written in Afghanistan by field grade officers who should be experts in it and junior leaders who are completely untrained in the doctrine. In the meantime, we have senior leaders publishing essays in a magazine designed for our Generals and Admirals excusing such failures with trite advice for our civilian government about what they must do to prevent such challenges in the future? In what parallel universe does this make sense?
The key questions missing from discussions in Washington about Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001 include: Where is the legitimate government that asked for help from the U.S. in defeating the internal armed challenge to the government’s monopoly of control over the means of violence and political power? Legitimacy is not exclusively a function of elections. Legitimacy is also defined by a government’s competence to win and hold power in ways that benefit American and allied interests.
What part of we did it for our purposes, not theirs is unclear? There have been dissident groups inside and outside of Afghanistan asking for help for over a decade. Did we do this for them? Not just no but hell no. We did it for us. We did it because we were mad, and we did it because the longer we let the Taliban provide a happy home for al Qaeda, the less secure we were. We did it because a non-state actor capable of global power projection knocked down two of the largest structures in the world in the middle of one of our largest cities and punched a hole in the Pentagon, something that no state actor had ever been able to do, no matter how much they had wished they could. Conventional power projection in the form of 63 cruise missiles had done nothing more than anger al Qaeda and inspire them to show us what a cruise missile could really do. Our civilian government, overwhelmingly supported by the American people, decided that regime change was the order of the day. Everything past that has been a series of poor executions, not on the part of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, but of leaders who have not mastered the art that is their profession, because this particular application doesn't suit them.
Treating conflict avoidance as a declared strategic goal should give pause to those in Washington who think counterinsurgency is something American military forces should seek to conduct. For outside powers intervening in other peoples’ countries as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, so-called counterinsurgency has not been the success story presented to the American people. Making cash payments to buy cooperation from insurgent groups to conceal a failed policy of occupation is a temporary expedient to reduce U.S. casualties, not a permanent solution for stability.
American military forces do not seek to conduct counterinsurgency. As a matter of fact, we've got tons of military officers who absolutely want nothing to do with it. We still don't train properly for it, certainly not down to the Soldier-level, and we are still rank amateurs at its performance. On top of that, we've got senior officers writing about why we should never have done it in the first place. That's what I call a recipe for success. As Andrew Exum of Abu Muquwama has pointed out, no one who really understands COIN is an advocate of seeking opportunities to use it. The problem is that we are currently in a position where we need to do it, because the alternative sucks, and we are too busy making excuses for ourselves to do the job that has been handed us by our civilian government.
The choices the new president makes among various military missions will ultimately decide what national military strategy America’s military executes. Of the many missions he must consider, open-ended missions to install democracy at gunpoint inside failed or backward societies along with unrealistic security guarantees to states and peoples of marginal strategic interest to the U.S. are missions America’s military establishment cannot and should not be asked to perform.
Cannot. Well, it appears that question's been decided. This would be when it needs to be pointed out that the military establishment has not been asked to perform anything; it has been ordered to.
This essay is a shortsighted pseudo-intellectual protest against the responsibility of our leadership to figure it out and accomplish the foreign policy objectives of our nation. That includes training for the doctrine that is the only doctrine that makes sense when you are embroiled in a fight against an insurgency, which would be counterinsurgency, and getting the damned job done. The Colonel laments that his big three conditions on the use of military power, purpose, method and end-state, have been missing from the current conflicts. It is submitted that the military was in fact given these conditions, and has continuously failed to achieve them, causing the end-state to constantly have to be reevaluated, making it seem as if there were in fact no strategic goal expressed from the start. Even in Iraq, the goal of establishing a new government and leaving it in control of the country was pretty clear. The same goes for Afghanistan. Purpose and end state were there; method is up to the military leadership, and of all the big three, that has been the one most lacking. Like a child faced with a daunting task, we keep hearing, "Why? Why? Why?
What senior officers of the United States Military need to be encouraging our civilian leadership to do is to do their part in the counterinsurgency, to pony up the civilian development and governmental mentoring to assist in ridding the Afghan Government of corruption and get an actual economy started there. Instead, the premier journal of the American Flag Officer, Armed Forces Journal, publishes this attempted explanation of what the military is really for, giving excuses and setting forth the caveats of the "new military deal."