Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 2

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

What’s the plan for Afghanistan?

What is the incoming Obama administration’s plan for Afghanistan? According to a story in this week’s Washington Post, President-elect Barack Obama’s national security team needs more time, until at least April, to come up with the parameters of a new strategy. Although lacking a plan, Obama still intends to sharply increase in 2009 the number of U.S. soldiers in the country, from about 32,000 today to more than 50,000 later this year.

As the Obama team attempts to achieve a consensus, both among its members and with the NATO allies also fighting this war, what will the additional U.S. troops do after they arrive? The Los Angeles Times reported on a debate between factions within the Pentagon on what the mission should be for these soldiers. One faction, representing counterinsurgency theorists, is recommending using the additional soldiers to protect as much of the Afghan population in urban areas as possible. The other faction recommends deploying the soldiers to rural areas near the Pakistani border to cut off infiltration from militant sanctuaries there.

The Small Wars Council had a gloomy view of the transition on Afghanistan policy. Participants stirred up memories of Lyndon Johnson’s handling of Vietnam policy after the death of John F. Kennedy. And the debate over urban protection versus securing the Pakistani border brought to mind postwar analyses of the Soviet Army’s failure in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Let’s think through the plan first, and then reach for the toolbox

Don’t let your tools, especially your fancy gadgets, determine your strategy, warns H.R. McMaster, a colonel in the U.S. Army (selected last year for promotion to brigadier general) and a top advisor to Gen. David Petraeus. In an essay in World Affairs Journal, Colonel McMaster explicitly bundles Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan into one package.

With all three conflicts, Colonel McMaster concludes that top U.S. decision-makers failed to account for the human element, including cultural, tribal, and political identities, in those conflict zones. Instead, American leaders adopted strategies driven by U.S. technological advantages (mostly air power), such as graduated pressure during the Vietnam War and rapid decisive operations during the early periods of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In all three cases, U.S. policymakers hoped that American technological advantages would influence the adversary’s decision-making, resulting in a rapid and cheap success for U.S. policy.

A discussion of Colonel McMaster’s essay at the Small Wars Council described how top American decision-makers in all three cases received warnings beforehand from cultural experts well versed in the human dimensions of the looming conflict zones, yet opted to downplay these warnings. The allure of an easy technological answer, Colonel McMaster argues, trumped the alarms sounded by the human element experts.

Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap of the U.S. Air Force asserts in an essay at Armed Forces Journal that manpower-intensive, large footprint campaigns such as those the United States fought in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are no longer politically acceptable to the U.S. electorate. Dunlap concludes that if it is no longer politically possible for the United States to deploy large numbers of general-purpose ground forces for counterinsurgency or stabilization missions, it is unwise for defense planners to remold their forces for these very scenarios.

When confronting irregular warfare challenges, if technological fixes are ineffective and manpower-intensive ground campaigns are politically infeasible, what remains in the Pentagon’s toolbox? Critics of the technocentric approach to warfare, such as Colonel McMaster, blame defense planners of the 1980s and 1990s for leaving the U.S. military unprepared for the challenges of this decade. Are today’s defense planners also leaving policymakers without effective options?

Obama’s team moves into the Pentagon’s policy shop

Michele Flournoy, co-founder and president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank, will be the next U.S. under secretary of defense for policy (Foreign Policy‘s Tom Ricks is a senior fellow at CNAS). Flournoy served in several high policy positions in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration and was a professor at the National Defense University. According to several news reports on the transition at the Pentagon, many of Flournoy’s colleagues at CNAS will serve under her at the Pentagon or will move to the State Department.

One official who seems to be staying at his post, at least for now, is Michael Vickers, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities. Vickers is most famous for having organized weapons support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets while he was a CIA officer, as depicted in Charlie Wilson’s War. Before that, Vickers was a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and a combat veteran of Central America and the Middle East.

Vickers came to the Pentagon after Robert Gates took over the department from Donald Rumsfeld. A Washington Post story from December 2007 described a very long list of duties Gates and Eric Edelman, the outgoing head of policy, have assigned to Vickers. Items on the list include planning and supervising the United States’ global counterterrorism operations; various partnerships with foreign military forces; retooling U.S. conventional forces for low-intensity and counterterrorism operations; and modernization of U.S. nuclear forces.

With a new boss in Flournoy, will Vickers retain his long portfolio of duties? Will Flournoy keep Vickers, or does she have a replacement in mind? Or does Vickers have a special relationship with Secretary Gates?

In this era of persistent irregular conflict, Vickers’s office is more important than ever — we’ll be watching closely to see what happens.

These are just the highlights from an average week at Small Wars Journal. Small Wars Journal collects the latest news, thinking, and discussion on the world’s small wars. It is a forum for discussion and debate. We look forward to hearing from Foreign Policy’s readers.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 1 (Jan. 9, 2009)

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