This Week at War: The Biden Plan Returns

The United States reluctantly accepts coercion over counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.


Running out of time, Petraeus implements Biden's counterterrorism plan

Running out of time, Petraeus implements Biden’s counterterrorism plan

Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, discusses how, during the debate within U.S. President Barack Obama’s inner circle over the best military strategy for Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus was the main proponent of a classic "protect the people" counterinsurgency strategy. During the debates, Petraeus railed against Vice President Joe Biden’s proposal for a narrower "kinetic" counterterrorism approach that would focus on killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders with bombs, missiles, and special-operations raids. Obama eventually gave Petraeus’s plan the nod. Attempting to implement the soft touch recommended by counterinsurgency theory, former commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal severely limited the use of airstrikes and artillery and ordered U.S. ground units to disengage from firefights rather than risk firing into occupied buildings.

But that was then. Under pressure to show measureable results, Petraeus now seems to be warming up to Biden’s approach more than he is likely to admit. According to the New York Times, the past three months have witnessed a sharp acceleration of airstrikes and commando raids on Taliban leadership targets. From June through September, U.S. pilots dropped 2,100 bombs and missiles on Taliban targets, a 50 percent increase from a year ago. Officers attribute the increased rate of attacks on better target intelligence, provided by a greater number of drone surveillance aircraft. Between early July and early October, special-operations forces killed 300 midlevel Taliban commanders and 800 foot soldiers, and captured another 2,000. According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a recent internal study requested by Petraeus showed that 90 percent of the campaign’s operational success has come from just 5 percent of the forces, led by his command’s special-operations raiding teams.

With time running out until the December strategy review and July’s scheduled drawdown, Petraeus has cast away McChrystal’s soft touch. Furthermore, the counterinsurgency mantra of "clear-hold-build-transfer" no longer seems relevant given the time pressure to deliver credible progress. Petraeus’s strategy now appears to be pure coercion, directed at mid- and higher-level Taliban leaders. Perhaps Petraeus has removed the Counterinsurgency Field Manual from his nightstand, and replaced it with Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence, the Cold War-era primer on the utility of military coercion.

Petraeus’s tactical shift may be getting results. According to the New York Times, the general is in sending aircraft and clearing the roads to shuttle high-level Taliban leaders who are now seeking an audience with Afghan government representatives. The fear of a Hellfire missile, a laser-guided bomb, or the nighttime arrival of commandos seems the most logical explanation for the growing willingness of some Taliban commanders to talk. The metrics of counterinsurgency success — growing acceptance by the population of the legitimate government, improved policing, falling corruption, etc. — have not arrived and could not account for the changed calculations of these Taliban leaders.

The Afghan government and the Taliban are obviously a long way from a truce. The negotiating authority of the Taliban envoys is in question. And, according to the New York Times, the Taliban emissaries must remain anonymous, lest they be killed by the Pakistani intelligence service, which apparently has yet to sanction the idea of a settlement. In spite of these frailties, Petraeus seems eager to arrange these talks — they seem to be the best way of showing resultsbefore the December policy review.

Obama is no doubt equally eager for progress toward a truce, if only to get another chance at resetting his Afghanistan policy. If he gets that chance, it won’t be due to counterinsurgency theory but rather to tried-and-true coercion, enabled by a surprisingly small number of drone handlers, intelligence operators, and special-operations raiders. Could that make Joe Biden Obama’s best military advisor?

Britain chooses to become an American auxiliary

In a recent column, I discussed the choices the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in Britain faced as it completed a review of its defense planning. If the top priority for British leaders wereto retain the capacity for an independent foreign and defense policy, they would give top priority to nuclear deterrence and naval and air power. Ground forces would get the chop. If by contrast, British leaders were willing to defer to the foreign-policy leadership of the United States, the European Union, or some other larger alliance, Britain should then choose to structure its forces to be a good partner and cut military capabilities that its friends would provide instead.

The results of the government’s strategic review cum budget-slashing exercise are now in. The Strategic Defense and Security Review largely protects military capabilities most useful to allies like the United States, while taking large risks with the British military’s ability to operate alone.

The Defense Ministry will suffer an 8 percent cut in real terms over the next four years. Prime Minister David Cameron has chosen to largely protect the Army, Britain’s special-operations forces, and the country’s purchase of the U.S.-built Joint Strike Fighter. This outcome is no doubt highly pleasing to the Pentagon. Getting the axe will be Britain’s surface and amphibious naval forces, which will be hard-pressed to respond on short notice or again mount a significant independent expedition. Cameron also deferred a final decision on modernizing Britain’s nuclear deterrent until after the next general election; Cameron’s Liberal Democrat allies will thus get another chance to permanently kill this capability.

Cameron and his colleagues were constrained by three difficult factors. First was the government’s requirement to economize across entire budget, with defense slated to do its part. Second was Cameron’s pledge to sustain Britain’s contribution to the land war in Afghanistan until 2015. Third was the previous Labour government’s commitment to build two new large aircraft carriers, with much of their funding having already been spent. The annoying result for Cameron was that it would cost more to terminate the aircraft-carrier program than to complete the two ships. The funding absorbed by the carriers has effectively sunk much of the rest of the Navy and shot down many of Britain’s aircraft. The consequence of these three constraints is that more than a decade will elapse with numerous large gaps in British military capability which will include, embarrassingly, an aircraft carrier sailing with no aircraft.

The government’s analysis of future threats contributed to its decision to emphasize its ties and interoperability with the United States. It judged the top tier of risks to include mass-destruction terrorism, cyberthreats, natural disasters, and international crises where Britain would act within a coalition. The government threat assessment downgraded the risks ofconventional war, state-on-state conflict, and a replay of the 1982 Falklands campaign.

Mitigating the top-tier threats requires international intelligence cooperation, partnerships on cybersecurity, coordination with foreign partners on special-operations training and employment, and interoperability within multilateral military command structures such as NATO. It is thus no surprise that the defense review directs the British Army to reorganize its brigades to more similarly match their U.S. counterparts. Cameron also decided to scrap some battlefield intelligence capabilities (under the assumption the Americans will provide the data) while increasing funding for cybersecurity.

In spite of the relative chill of late between Washington and London, Cameron has decided to increase Britain’s dependence on the Pentagon. He’s counting on the relationship to never get too cold. Andon the Pentagon not doing any of its own depp bone-cutting

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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