Small Wars

This Week at War: McChrystal Pulls Out His Old Iraq Playbook

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


When the counterinsurgent becomes the insurgent

Last week I wondered whether U.S. and Afghan forces would mount an organized campaign targeting the Taliban’s "shadow government" inside Afghanistan. According to a Dec. 16 Los Angeles Times article, the answer is "yes." The article reports that U.S. special operations teams conducted 90 direct action raids in Afghanistan in November compared to 20 raids in May. General Stanley McChrystal is clearly not waiting for 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers to arrive to begin the U.S. counterattack against the Taliban.

Before he was selected to command in Afghanistan, McChrystal spent many years commanding the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the U.S. military unit that specializes in the most challenging direct action raids. McChrystal personally directed JSOC operations in Iraq. While it remains a subject of debate, many credit McChrystal’s teams with a significant portion of the credit for the reduction of violence in Iraq.

It appears that McChrystal is directing a similar campaign in Afghanistan, at least while he waits for the reinforcements required to protect some of Afghanistan’s cities. According to the Times article, the Taliban’s mid-ranking leadership is the target of McChrystal’s raiders. The intent is to leave the bottom-rung Taliban foot soldiers leaderless and susceptible to offers of reintegration.

Many analysts have noted the irony of the U.S. government’s long involvement in Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Michael Vickers, then a young CIA operations officer, helped design and implement a classic unconventional warfare campaign, assisting indigenous Afghan forces to resist the Soviet army and overthrow the Moscow-backed government in Kabul. Today Vickers is assistant secretary of defense for special operation/low intensity conflict implementing a massive security assistance program to build up Afghanistan’s forces — the mirror image of his duties two decades ago.

The current situation actually requires more than just counterinsurgency and assistance for Afghanistan’s security forces. Today there are two governments in Afghanistan; the Karzai government, deemed to be the legitimate power, and the Taliban shadow government, deemed to be illegitimate. U.S. and Afghan forces must simultaneously conduct a security assistance effort supporting the Karzai government and an unconventional warfare campaign attacking the Taliban shadow government.

McChrystal seems to be kicking off his campaign with some plays out of the JSOC playbook he used in Iraq. But the game in Afghanistan will be tougher. The Taliban can always fall back on its sanctuary in Pakistan, and its top-ranking leaders in Quetta and North Waziristan remain untouchable. It also has a well-demonstrated ability to replace its losses, even in its leadership ranks. Vickers’s war in the 1980s and McChrystal’s battles on the streets of Iraq were not easy. But when compared to today’s multi-level war in Afghanistan, they seem simple.

Is it still worth selling weapons to Taiwan?

On Dec. 15 the New York Times reported that the U.S. government will proceed with a weapon sales deal to Taiwan. Neither government has yet disclosed which weapon systems will be in the transaction. Many of the systems in the deal are from a list approved in April 2001 but not delivered due to long-running political disputes inside Taiwan. Among the most contentious items is the Taiwan government’s request for 66 late-model F-16 fighter jets. In 2008 the U.S. government cancelled this request after the Chinese government strongly objected.

If the U.S. and Taiwanese governments are still working off a 2001 shopping list, they should rip up that list and rethink Taiwan’s defense requirements based on more current assessments. China’s surface-to-surface ballistic missile inventory has expanded dramatically this decade and has completely changed Taiwan’s defense calculus. Eight years ago Taiwan’s defense planners were contemplating a conventional force-on-force defense against a hypothetical Chinese attack. Today, China’s ability to use its superiority in missiles and air power to overwhelm Taiwan’s air force and air defenses means that Taiwan must fashion a new doctrine to avoid China’s advantages.

Earlier this year the RAND Corp. released a report on the Taiwan-China military balance, concluding that China’s missile forces would be able to close Taiwan’s air bases and cripple its air defense systems. Taiwan’s remaining air power would then be vulnerable to destruction before U.S. military forces could intervene in the conflict. In the RAND study, Taiwan’s ground and naval forces, devoid of air support, would then have to cope as best as they could with a possible Chinese amphibious assault on the island.

RAND’s research indicates two courses of action for Taiwan. The first course is a very expensive upgrade in its missile and air defense systems. Without such defenses, conventional aircraft such as the F-16 would not survive the opening of a conflict and would thus have little utility to Taiwan. The second course is for Taiwan to adopt a dispersed and relatively low-technology irregular warfare strategy to defend the island. With this course, F-16s would play no part. Whether Taiwanese society is ready for a "guerrilla" defense of the island remains open for debate.

Given the inexorable growth of Chinese military power directed at Taiwan and the growing importance of the U.S.-China relationship, shouldn’t the U.S. simply abandon arms sales to Taiwan? Taiwan unification is a supremely important issue to China and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are guaranteed to fracture the U.S.-China relationship. Shouldn’t United States policy put the priority on its relationship with Beijing?

The U.S.-China relationship has likely become the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and its importance will only grow in the years ahead. However, the United States maintains a strong interest in Taiwan’s defense. The establishment of Chinese air and naval bases on Taiwan — and the corresponding ability  to project military power deep into the western Pacific — would be a severe geostrategic setback for the U.S. and its allies in the region. China is very likely to establish this position eventually. But the U.S. should try to resist it for as long as possible. Thus arms sales to Taiwan — that avoid China’s strengths — should continue.

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