Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our endless wars

Wow, the Pentagon has a brand-new, whiz-bang, cutting-edge idea! Let's forget all this counterinsurgency hoo-haw and go back to, well, something that sounds an awful lot like preparing to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Red Army pouring through the Fulda gap. Also known as, instead of screwing around trying to fight counterinsurgencies, let's go back to just planning to bomb the crap out of any country we think we need to attack this week. From Nancy Youssef, Pentagon rethinking value of major counterinsurgencies McClatchy Newspapers 05/12/10:

Counterinsurgency "is a good way to get out of a situation gone bad," but it's not the best way to use combat forces, said Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "I think everyone realizes counterinsurgency is a losing proposition for U.S. combat troops. I can't imagine anyone would opt for this option."

Many Pentagon strategists think that future counterinsurgencies should involve fewer American ground troops and more military trainers, special forces and airstrikes. Instead of "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," as former President George W. Bush once defined the Afghan and Iraq wars, the Pentagon thinks it must train local populations to fight local insurgents.

The military calls it "foreign internal defense," although some have a pithier name: counterinsurgency light. [my emphasis]
This is a complicated issue, because the arguments against current strategies can lead to new strategies that aren't so great, either.

As Youssef (one of the best foreign affairs reporters for a US news service) puts it:

... U.S. military strategists are quietly shifting gears, saying that large-scale counterinsurgency efforts cost too much and last too long.

... The biggest spur ... is a growing recognition that large-scale counterinsurgency battles have high casualty rates for troops and civilians, eat up equipment that must be replaced and rarely end in clear victory or defeat.
But this may be the key point of this new (?) direction: "The newer approach is on display in Yemen and Pakistan, countries in which the U.S. faces entrenched extremist organizations with ties to al Qaida."

US military involvement in both Pakistan and Yemen is highly questionable, to put it mildly. Both are the result of mission creep. The descriptions from the Pentagon-related sources in this article present those interventions as something almost easy and benign. In fact, ill-conceived small-scale interventions can lead to much bigger complications and much deeper involvement.

Reinforcing the impression of the Pentagon wanting to go back to preparing to fight the Red Army of the USSR that came to an end nearly two decades ago is this part of Youssef's article:

The shift to a lighter form of counterinsurgency also incorporates the Obama administration's national security view, which calls for getting troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. forces are set to begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is to be complete by the end of that year.

It also, military strategists said, allows the United States to prepare better for a future war that would be fought against another country, not against relatively amorphous terrorist groups.

U.S. officials acknowledge that since 9/11 there's been little training for the kind of coordinated land, sea and air battles that have characterized most of the United States' previous conflicts. While no one wants to predict where such a war might be fought, military strategists say that U.S. troops could be involved in battles between India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, and China and Taiwan. [my emphasis]
Here is where criticism of existing strategies gets very tricky. On the one hand, in the foreseeable future, its more likely that the US military will be required to fight counterinsurgencies rather than Gulf War I, which is the kind most of our generals would likely prefer to prepare for. On the other hand, the US needs an approach that puts reasonable limits on the length and intensity of US involvement in couterinsurgency kinds of situations. Open-ended counterinsurgency commitments, which is what we wound up with in Iraq and Afghanista, just don't make sense.

And it really is a fundamental problem that the US military is just too big. As long as the US is spending half or so of the military budgets of the world, as long as we maintain forces far in excess of those required to deal with any remotely likely conventional or nuclear military attacker, as long as we define the military's goal as being immediately prepared to fight and win wars anywhere in the world (or something similar), then we - "we" in this case meaning the military-industrial establishment - will find new dangers for which we must prepare and new crises that may call for US military intervention.

But short of breaking the basic Cold War habit, something neither the Democrats nor certainly the Republicans are ready to attempt, we could break the never-leave habit established by the Second World War and the Korean War, the latter probably being the more relevant example. The Pentagon is reluctant to completely disengage militarily from anyplace we have a war. The Iraq War and the Afghanistan War should have endings, endings that include US combat forces leaving completely, including mercenaries and combat forces rebranded as "trainers." So should our interventions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Youssef cites the article by Bush-Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "Helping Others Defend Themselves: The Future of U.S. Security Assistance" Foreign Affairs May/June 2010, as a broad statement of this new perspective.


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