The South Asia Channel

Small wars, big prices

Insurgency and counterinsurgency have become topics of great debate recently. The end of our adventure in Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, and the hovering budget axe have created a perfect storm in the defense establishment as competing worldviews, ideologies, and interests jostle for position in the post-Global War on Terror years. The debate over counterinsurgency ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Insurgency and counterinsurgency have become topics of great debate recently. The end of our adventure in Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, and the hovering budget axe have created a perfect storm in the defense establishment as competing worldviews, ideologies, and interests jostle for position in the post-Global War on Terror years. The debate over counterinsurgency has become particularly heated, as various parties not only conduct a postmortem on the tactics and operational art of recent conflicts, but also seek to find closure (and perhaps fault for mistakes made and incredible losses of life and treasure over the last decade). The wounds, real and recent, inject vitriol to the debate.

More importantly, however, the tactical focus of the debate mirrors the incredible myopia of our conduct of these wars. The most astute participants in these debates understand that our errors start and end at the strategic level, but this is often lost in the fray. What are not discussed sufficiently, if at all, are the bureaucratic and political determinants of strategy and policy failure and success. Before arguing about counterinsurgency as a tactic or a strategy, we must first acknowledge a key point: America did not enter any of these wars (going back to Vietnam) as a counterinsurgent or a nation-builder. America entered these wars with ill-defined strategic goals, the result of lowest common denominator bureaucratic negotiations. These goals were not sufficiently thought out, clearly stated, or properly subscribed to by the government writ large, resulting in nearly immediate drift. This fact should point us toward the true roots of the problem.

When it comes to small wars, American national security decision-making institutions predispose the nation to failure. America tends to involve itself in conflicts with insufficient resources and ill-defined aims, expand its commitments based on continually changing policies, and run out of public support before these adventures have run their course. This familiar trajectory has played out most prominently, and tragically in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  But the model applies to many smaller interventions, such as those in Somalia in the 1990s and Lebanon in the 1980s, as well. This tragic arc results in large part from the interaction between the messy reality of bureaucratic and domestic political wrangling. And while the military professes detachment from politics, military leaders are charged with advocating policy in their role as military advisors to civilian leaders and public figures in an age of immediate, global media coverage. Thus, military plans are created without considering the political realities that will shape their implementation and are doomed to failure once churned through the sausage machine that is government. 

Adding to the confusion is that the barrier to entry in these "small wars" is relatively low.  Combat power stands ready in the form of an unparalleled, standing volunteer military with nearly instant global reach. As long as no significant reserve call-up or economic mobilization is needed, the commander-in-chief is relatively unhindered in committing this force to combat.  Despite the War Powers Act of 1973, the constitutional validity of which no President has ever acknowledged, Presidents have been relatively unhindered in initiating hostilities. At the same time, the widely accepted "end of history" worldview of policy elites of all stripes (here I refer not only to Fukuyama’s work, but the much broader legacy reaching back to Hegel, Kant, and even St. Augustine) gives American policy a liberal interventionist bent. This narrative suggests that sovereignty can (and in some cases must) be abrogated in order to set states on the road to liberal democracy and thus a peaceful "end of history." While America’s professional volunteer military is removed from politics, its narratives as a "Global Force for Good" and the nation’s "Force in Readiness," for example, predispose leaders to liberal interventionist impulses. In any case, when policy-makers ask military advisors what can be done to deal with a given problem, these action-oriented people are loath to say there are no good military options.

Thus, for all the stock elites put in the democratic peace theory, the United States enters small wars by fiat, sidestepping the democratic peace theory’s prediction that democracies will eschew war to solve their problems. The President is torn between the dictates of national security, the cautions of domestic politics, and the often expansive outlooks of policy advisors.  The imperative to "do something" is often strong, but so is the imperative to retain freedom of action by keeping the opening gambit low. While the military has an incentive to reduce operational risk by opening as decisively as possible (think "shock and awe"), military leaders are often quite optimistic about their ability to use technology and tactics, especially overwhelming air and missile capabilities, to offset the risk presented by low force levels. Faced with these competing imperatives, the negotiations of the President, the military, Congress, and the other elements of the national security decision-making apparatus result in a lowest common denominator solution.  Despite these constraints, once we cross the Rubicon, decision-makers’ mindsets make a switch to a more aggressive, optimistic, and risk-accepting mode: if we are going to implement the plan, we must implement it aggressively and we will prevail.  This implemental mindset results in accepting minimalist options with optimistic assumptions. 

The effect of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 on the diversity of military advice plays into these negotiations, as well. In making the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the singular voice of military advice to the President, the act made dissent far more difficult. While the legislation specifies that service chiefs may register dissenting opinions, the reality of bureaucratic politics is such that dissent may be unwelcome, especially as people switch into an implemental mindset. Additionally, the act removes the chairman and the Joint Chiefs from the operational chain of command, which runs from the President, through the Secretary of Defense, to the combatant commander. These issues played out in the run-up to war in Iraq in 2003. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Central Command Commander General Tommy Franks were happy with a transformational, light-footprint invasion of Iraq. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Meyers, an Air Force officer, agreed with the "shock and awe" campaign design and its transformational light footprint. Only Gen Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the Army, publically disagreed during Congressional testimony, suggesting that a much larger footprint of several hundred thousand troops was required to deal with the aftermath of regime decapitation.  Shinseki’s testimony was disavowed by the administration and he soon retired, but subsequent events would suggest that more attention should have been paid to this dissenting view.

Bureaucratic and political factors are driven well into the background when the gravity of the situation and the dictates of core national interest illuminate the way ahead. For example, the attack on Pearl Harbor turned skepticism about U.S. involvement in the Second World War into virtually universal agreement on decisive commitment and, ultimately, unconditional victory. In more peripheral cases, such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other small wars, bureaucratic and political factors are far more likely to be dominant.

What is more, the general public is less informed and aware of the issues surrounding these small wars, leading to passivity. These factors predispose a low level of commitment sold to the public by understating the likely costs and overstating the prospects for success. In small wars, the press transmits this overselling to foreign audiences, severely impairing the messaging required to "win hearts and minds." Almost inevitably, escalation is soon required. The state sheepishly returns to the populace again and again to explain the new way ahead and to ask for more time, more resources, and more patience. This sales method ensures that policies change frequently and desperately, with each shift in course seemingly based on a previous failure. McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, said as much of perceptions of Vietnam policy. There should be little wonder in the fact that the populace begins to lose patience and register its discontent. This, after all, is what the democratic peace theory is all about. Democratic nations are not fond of protracted wars they can avoid.

Once the public begins to wake to the level of commitment being made without their informed consent (it is important here to note that this is not only due to the manipulations of the political class, but to the apathy of a public not invested materially or personally in the wars America has fought recently), the clamor for accountability and withdrawal is inevitable. This adds to the disparate forces pulling policy in different directions and is the root of the now-familiar strategic drift.  While the tactical, cultural, and historical circumstances of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are quite different, the policy muddle has been quite consistent.

The problem is that even if consensus could be reached regarding how to conduct small wars, these steps would likely not be faithfully implemented. The mistakes we make in these wars, after all, are not for a lack of knowledge, but an inability to produce coherent and logical strategy and policy due to the inherent defects and conflicts in our national security decision-making bureaucracy. In an ideal world, we would be able to use diplomatic and military instruments to predictably manage complex human interactions. Even with perfect institutions and unitary, enlightened decision-making, this would be a questionable prospect at best. Given the inherent tensions built into America’s institutions, the ability to successfully wage small wars of peripheral interest is nil. It took months, if not years, for these institutions to admit that America was even facing an insurgency in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, much less begin to implement a strategy designed to counter the roots of these insurgencies.

Given this analysis, the most logical way to deal with this conundrum is to raise the bar for entry into conflict. If American leadership is forced to make a more honest accounting of the costs, it will enter fewer conflicts. While perceptions of natural interest can be manipulated, those conflicts entered after truly counting the costs are likelier to be of greater interest to the nation, and the nation will, in theory, provide something much closer to the ways and means required to meet the desired ends.

As George Kennan wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1985, "A first step along the path of morality would be the frank recognition of the immense gap between what we dream of doing and what we really have to offer, and a resolve, conceived in all humility, to take ourselves under control and to establish a better relationship between our undertakings and our real capabilities."

Politicians and the American public are today far more acutely sensitive to budgetary issues than they were a decade ago, which may make them more cautious about the propensity of mission creep in the future. However, while this mindset may circumscribe the ways and means, the ends sought are, if anything, more expansive than ever before. The liberal ideals of the postwar order, the quest for the end of history in a utopia of democratic peace, and the imperative of human rights and dignity have policymakers turning more frequently to military force to remake societies and politics. This abrogation of sovereignty in the pursuit of universal ideals harks back to the pre-Westphalian wars of religion, which explains some of the fervor behind conflict today. Strategic thinkers both inside and outside the military must give more consideration to the constraints laid out here, rather than assuming or wishing away their crippling effects. This is not an invitation for the military to become involved in politics, but only to understand and account for how politics will affect their freedom of action. Ignoring these effects is like ignoring the terrain or weather, marching thousands of miles into a barren plain while ignoring the reality that winter is soon to come.

Peter J. Munson is a Marine officer, Editor of Small Wars Journal, and the author of Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

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