Small Wars

This Week at War: Does the Pottery Barn Rule Still Apply?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.


Could "repetitive raiding" replace counterinsurgency?

After the last decade’s costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, future U.S. leaders will very likely wish to avoid another nation-building effort that requires the suppression of a stubborn insurgency.

But wishing rarely makes problems go away. There might, hypothetically, be another occasion when a "rogue" regime needs to be removed in the interests of either regional stability or basic human rights. Is there an alternative to post-removal counterinsurgency and nation-building? And what about Colin Powell‘s "Pottery Barn rule" — "you break it, you own it" — referring to the United States’ moral obligations to Iraq after the 2003 invasion?

Writing in Armed Forces Journal, Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, rejects the Pottery Barn rule and offers an alternative to counterinsurgency, namely "repetitive raiding." Finel explains his proposal this way:

[T]he vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.

As a consequence, I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy — which might loosely be termed "repetitive raiding" — could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America’s adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.

After explaining why the United States should fight on its own terms rather than those that favor the adversary, Finel then applies the economic concept of marginal benefit versus marginal cost to discuss the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Finel argues that in both cases, the United States achieved most of its war objectives very early on. Cumulative costs at those points in the campaigns were trivial compared with what they would eventually become. In both wars, the United States stayed on in an attempt to achieve the remaining war objectives, paying massive marginal costs for the last few marginal benefits.

It seems easy to dismiss Finel’s argument by noting the risks and costs the United States would have borne had it left Iraq and Afghanistan as broken and chaotic places. Finel explains how these risks and costs were minor, unlikely, or could have been mitigated without open-ended military occupations.  

But Finel is right to bring up the point about marginal benefits versus marginal costs. The United States will leave Iraq and Afghanistan at some point. When it does, there will still be some degree of trouble and uncertainty about the future in both places. Even then, no one will be able to say that all the broken dishes were repaired. Accepting that, Finel’s argument for "repetitive raiding" as an alternative to counterinsurgency may find some appeal.

A painful decade has improved civil-military relations

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced civil-military relations in the United States to grow up and leave behind a naive adolescence that prevailed at the start of the last decade. Before the wars began, the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, described in Eliot Cohen‘s book Supreme Command) still ruled. Under the "normal" theory, civilian leadership determines war policy and then leaves the generals and admirals alone to run the war. Thankfully those days are gone; hardly a month passes without the secretary of defense or some other senior figure heading out to the field, questioning not just generals, but also colonels and sergeants about their tactics. Likewise, soldiers now deeply immerse themselves in questions about the connections between policy objectives and military strategy, the evidence for which can be found every day at websites such as Small Wars Journal. By dropping the normal theory and letting policymakers and military officers into each other’s "lanes," the result has been a generally smarter use of military power.

Although U.S. civil-military relations are more mature, Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, thinks further improvement is needed. In an essay written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Owens argues that several persistent problems are inhibiting the country’s ability to formulate better strategy.

First, Owens thinks that residual traces of the normal theory live on, and not without good reason. The theory’s exclusion of the military leadership from policy formulation was designed to maintain civilian control over the military and keep the military out of politics. Likewise, military officers viewed the execution of war plans as closely resembling an engineering project, to be performed only by highly trained professionals — civilian amateurs should not meddle. But the theory created barriers between policy objectives and the military actions that should be designed to achieve those objectives.

Second, Owens asserts that the enduring culture of the normal theory has created organizational cultures in each of the military services that resist interference and calls for change from civilian political leaders. Yet when those civilian political leaders formulate a national security policy that requires military force, who will be held responsible for ensuring that the proper military tools are ready to implement the policy? If the "normal" theory walls off the institutional military from close political supervision, the country may find itself unprepared for new eras of conflict (as happened at the start of the last decade).

Finally, Owens blames the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 for further raising the wall between policy formulation and military strategy. The disastrous attempt in 1980 to rescue U.S. Embassy employees from Tehran and the 1983 invasion of Grenada revealed serious problems in interservice cooperation. The solution was Goldwater-Nichols, which reduced the authority of the Washington-based service chiefs and increased the power of regional field commanders, who are responsible for executing joint-service military operations. Many have applauded the act for improving interservice military efficiency. But Owens claims the price has been the creation of further distance between civilian policymakers and warfighters, resulting in a greater disconnection between policy objectives and military strategy.

The solution, according to Owens, is twofold. First, military leaders must reassert a voice in strategy and, presumably, engage their civilian masters on the integration of military actions with policy objectives. On the other side, civilian leaders should closely probe and supervise the services’ plans for force structure, acquisition programs, training, and doctrine to ensure that the services are creating military capabilities that will support national policies. On these measures, civil-military relations have improved. But it has taken a decade of painful wars to bring about this improvement.

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