Tag: Iraq

Playing to Our Strengths—and Why COIN Doesn’t

A recent editorial in the Boston Globe noted with some glee that the Obama administration strategy document released last week included the “acknowledgement that America’s brief and unhappy foray into counterinsurgency operations has come to an end.” The Globe editorialists conclude “Given the checkered history of counterinsurgency, and its cost in lives and money, its demise is hardly unwelcome. Even better to read of it in the very document that hopes to guide how the United States conducts wars the next time around.”

As a COIN skeptic from well before the publication of FM 3-24 (when COIN was called nation-building), I am inclined to claim some vindication. Often with Justin Logan in the lead, I have probably written more about this subject than any other (including here and here). More broadly, Cato has been a hospitable venue for skeptical views of nation-building as a cure for terrorism, including these two fine papers that explained why we didn’t need to repair/reconstruct weak or failing states in order to defeat al Qaeda, and this paper by Jeffrey Record on why COIN/nation-building was inconsistent with America’s strategic culture, and therefore likely to fail.

But I expect that some COIN advocates will push back, and a few quite vociferously. Some might admit that, yes, Afghanistan has been an unholy mess, but we need to give it more time. The public has soured on the war there, and is now turning against the dominant strategy, COIN, but those attitudes, they will say, could be turned around with concerted presidential leadership. And then they will launch into their full-throated defense of COIN, which might go something like this:

COIN is still useful in particular situations, especially when the operations are in support of a credible local partner, when we are able and willing to apply the necessary resources to have a reasonable chance of success, and when we are prepared to remain for the long haul. And once we have committed to the COIN mission, we must ensure that we execute the mission properly, as spelled out in FM 3-24, which means that the troops must accept greater risk in order to minimize civilian casualties.

My response, and I think that of other COIN skeptics, is that those key ingredients are almost never in place, hence COIN almost never works.

  • If there was “a credible local partner” there likely wouldn’t be an insurgency in the first place. Insurgencies come about and grow in strength because the government they are rising up against is not serving the best interests of some segment of the population.
  • Applying “necessary resources” means, in practice, a massive number of foreign troops and vast sums of money, far more even than most COIN advocates admit in public. They are especially loathe to do so when those resources are desperately needed at home. (Equally troubling is the application of a massive, costly, long-term effort in one place when those same resources could be applied in pursuit of different – or even the same – national security priorities elsewhere.)
  • Remaining in country “for the long haul” means decades, not years, another bridge too far for most Americans. We are not inclined to lord over others for decades or longer as past empires did.
  • Executing COIN tactics “properly” means limiting the use of force such that you only kill the bad guys but never kill the good guys, or the indifferent neutrals. One unfortunate accident, involving the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders (who the insurgents will very cynically shield behind) can undermine weeks or months of effort in building trust. We are foreigners in their country, and the locals will be disinclined to give us the benefit of the doubt, or to trust in our good intentions. Though I admire and respect the professionalism and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, I don’t think it realistic to expect them to be perfect.

Afghanistan, by itself, does not prove that COIN can’t work. COIN might be the appropriate strategy in other cases or other places. But a football analogy is relevant here. Think of the upcoming AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. A team with two-time MVP Tom Brady at quarterback doesn’t choose to pound the ball into the teeth of a run-stopping defense like Baltimore’s, especially when New England’s running backs are pretty average by NFL standards. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ Ray Rice is one of the premier backs in the league, so we can expect the Ravens to favor the ground game, run time off the clock, and keep Brady on the sidelines. In other words, each team will likely play to its strengths.

COIN skeptics said that Team USA should do the same. Although the COIN advocates claimed that there was no viable alternative, there was more than one way to win the game in Afghanistan, and we should play to our strengths. Our political culture and available resources, combined with the facts on the ground, advise us to avoid open-ended nation-building missions, generally, not just in Afghanistan. That means an air game (including air power from the sea), not a ground game.

I am pleased that the administration’s strategy seems to reflect these lessons. We’ll see, perhaps as early as next week, if their budget does as well.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Iran’s Bluster and Weakness

Iran this week punctuated 10 days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts, and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.

The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined its ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms.

Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:

Iran … lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi’a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi’a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.

Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treat it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash President Obama for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to “contain” it, as if that required great effort.

Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping, and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.

The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble.  Although it’s not clear that an oil price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.

Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, Iran would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.

The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of Iran credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of its wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based air power along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million people already deters our invasion.

The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.

Cross-posted from the the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Iraq War: 20 Years, Not 9

Here are two newspaper accounts about the conclusion of the Iraq war:

The New York Times  “Almost nine years after the first American tanks began massing on the Iraq border, the Pentagon declared an official end to its mission here, closing a troubled conflict that helped reshape American politics and left a bitter legacy of anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.”

The Washington Post:  “Nearly nine years after American troops stormed across the Iraq border in a blaze of shock and awe, U.S. officials quietly ended the bloody and bitterly divisive conflict here Thursday, but the debate over whether it was worth the cost in money and lives is yet unanswered.”

There is a problem with those accounts.  The United States has been at war in Iraq for twenty years, not nine!  George Orwell warned us not to confuse war with peace, but we are clearly falling into that trap.  More here.

Obama’s Win-Win on Iraq

The end of the Iraq war is a rare win-win situation for President Obama. So far, he has played his hand skillfully. And it is a fair bet that he will continue to do so. Indeed, it might be one of the only policy areas that won’t cost him votes come next year.

This week’s events surrounding the end of the nearly nine-years long U.S. military mission in Mesopotamia reveal Obama’s acumen and good fortune. On Monday, Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Makiki punctuated the fact that the U.S. mission was finally ending. Today, the president will travel to Fort Bragg to thank the troops for their service in a war that he opposed at the outset.

There is irony in this, but one that Americans have managed for many years: unlike Vietnam, the American people have learned to love the troops while still hating the war. We don’t blame the military for the fact that the war has turned out to be a bloody, costly quagmire. And with good reason: the military didn’t claim that it would be easy or cheap. The soldiers knew better. With few exceptions, the cheerleaders for the war had no first-hand experience in warfare.

President Obama will likely emerge unscathed even if the worst-case scenarios transpire in Iraq. Unlike his worn-out claim that he inherited most of the country’s economic problems, “the other guy did it” excuse rings true when it comes to Iraq. The dwindling but vocal few who call for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq indefinitely cannot fairly accuse President Obama of implementing a reckless policy driven by the political calendar. He merely executed the plan according to the timeline developed by his predecessor.

Obama was not in a strong position to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement, given the Iraqi people’s overwhelming opposition to a continued U.S. presence in their country. But it wasn’t in his interest to do so. The American people want this war to end, and he wins credit, fairly or not, for following through on his promise to end it. And if Iraq descends into chaos, and civil war, or if Iran somehow manages to consolidate power over its restive neighbor, Obama can claim, justifiably, that these things wouldn’t have happened had people listened to him in 2002. But he doesn’t have to say it. Others will say it for him. Nearly every news story reporting on this week’s events have reminded viewers, listeners, and readers that the president opposed this war. That one fact translates to a relatively favorable perception of the president’s handling of foreign policy, generally.

Indeed, the president likely wins whenever the subject of Iraq arises. Excepting Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, the other GOP contenders are unable or unwilling to speak to the nearly two-thirds of Americans who believe the war to have been a mistake. Most of the president’s Republican challengers are reluctant to cross the neoconservative cheerleaders for the war who, inexplicably, still have great sway over aspiring chief executives. On the crucial question, “Was the war worth it?” Iraq war true believers expect a simple, one word answer: yes. They will not tolerate any apostasy, even though, for most Americans, the answer is a resounding no.

Any of his Republican challengers who cannot give that same answer can only hope that they won’t be asked the question. The more they say about Iraq, the less credible they become. And Barack Obama doesn’t have to say a thing.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Ignore the Hawks on Iran, Too

This week, experts at the (neo)conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report on how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran.

The authors argue that because of the “rising consensus” that a preemptive attack is unappealing, and that sanctions likely will fail, they recommend “a coherent Iran containment policy.” That approach entails, among other things, that America “work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.” Leaving aside the fact that Washington has already once “physically transformed the Tehran regime” – when alongside the British it overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and restored the Shah – there is a broader problem that comes with listening to proponents of the calamitous decision to invade Iraq.

Take, for instance, report co-author Danielle Pletka, who years ago decreed “Saddam’s entire Ba’athist government must be replaced.” Little surprise that someone who promoted a war based on a web of misleading information is now peddling the notion that Iran is less than a year from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

More credible voices suggest otherwise. The nonprofit Arms Control Association (ACA) observed that the most-recent IAEA report suggests “[I]t remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable.” Iran was engaged in nuclear weapons development activities until it stopped in 2003, and as Cato’s Justin Logan observes, the IAEA’s own report shows there is no definitive evidence of Iran’s diversion of fissile material.

When Pletka was called out for her “less than a year” prediction, she turned up her nose and snapped:

Quibblers will suggest that there are important “ifs” in both these assessments. And yes, the key “if” is “if” Iran decides to build a bomb. So, I suppose when I said “less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon,” I should have added, “if they want one.” But… isn’t that the point? Do we want to leave this decision up to Khamenei?

Confronted with ambiguous information, and forced to infer intentions, hawks evince the very same arrogance and overconfidence that helped open the door for Iranian influence in the region in the first place by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime (Pletka advocated repeatedly for this leading up to the 2003 invasion). Pletka and others who years ago had the gall to argue that Iraq “will end when it ends” are today worthy of being ignored on Iran.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

GOP National Security and Foreign Policy Debate: What to Ask the Candidates

The economy is likely to dominate next year’s presidential race, so it is surprising that Republicans would choose to conduct two debates focused on foreign policy in the span of 10 days. The first, co-hosted by CBS News and National Journal, was held last Saturday evening. (CBS apparently thought most people had better things to do; they preempted the final 30 minutes with an NCIS rerun.) CNN, no doubt, hopes that the sequel, to be held Tuesday, November 22, will draw a wider audience.

I wonder if the RNC hopes that it doesn’t. In fact, there are many reasons why GOP leaders would want to get the whole subject of foreign policy and national security out of the way well before next year. Let Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum wax poetic about the wisdom of waterboarding, and let them do it after television viewers have stopped watching. Better to save the talk of joblessness and massive federal debt for the main event with President Obama, when tens of millions of Americans, including many independents and undecided voters, might actually rely on the debates to inform their choices. (Unlikely, I know, but hope springs eternal.)

Foreign policy blunders have cost the GOP votes in three of the last four elections. (It was a non-factor in 2010.) Once trusted by the electorate as the voice of prudence and reason when it came to diplomacy and the use of force, the Republican brand has been sullied by the war in Iraq and the quagmire in Afghanistan.

One might think that the party has learned its lessons, and that those aspiring to carry the GOP banner into next year’s elections would be determined to draw distinctions between themselves and the recent past.

Judging from last Saturday’s debate, they haven’t. The answers provided by the presumptive front-runner, Mitt Romney, and his leading challengers, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, reveal a reflexive commitment to the status quo and an unwillingness to revisit the rationales for war with Iraq or for nation-building in Afghanistan. They hinted at expanding the U.S. military’s roles and missions to include possible conflict with Iran. They continued to speak of a “war on terror.” And they struggled to draw distinctions between themselves and President Obama, at times criticizing him for doing too little, other times for doing too much.

In advance of last week’s debate, several bloggers suggested some questions. Some of these made it to prime time. However, two big sets of questions—one pertaining to the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, the other related to the costs of our foreign policies—remain unexplored. I hope that the questioners in next week’s debate, or perhaps the other candidates, would try to get some answers. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@capreble) for a conversation during the debate. Justin Logan will also be live-blogging the event over at RealClearWorld.

In the meantime, here are some questions I would like answered:

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nation-Building: Knowing what you know now, was it a mistake for the United States to have invaded Iraq in March 2003? Did any of you speak out against the war before it started? If you did not, but now have doubts, why should Americans trust you to exercise good judgment as president if you failed to do so when in a position of power and influence in late 2002 and early 2003?

Did President Bush make a mistake when he negotiated an agreement with the Iraqis to remove all forces by the end of 2011? Do you believe that U.S. troops should have remained in Iraq even if the Iraqi government refused to extend them conventional legal protections that we enjoy in other countries, including the right to be tried in U.S. courts?

What lessons have you taken away from the war, and how would they inform your conduct of foreign policy as president?

We now have nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and we will spend at least $110 billion on activities there this year. Is that too much or too little? What criteria do you use for assessing the costs and benefits of military operations there, as opposed to the range of other counterterrorism missions being conducted elsewhere around the world?

Should we be planning to conduct many more Iraq- and Afghanistan-style missions, with a decade or more of 100,000+ U.S. troops on the ground, at a cost of $100+ billion a year? Or would you employ the U.S. military in a different way, relying less on ground troops, the Army and Marine Corps, but perhaps bringing power from the sea and air when required?

Military Spending: What we spend on our military is the primary measure of the costs of our foreign policy. With respect to military spending, the Pentagon’s base budget—excluding the costs of the wars—has grown by over $1 trillion since 9/11. This year, in 2011, U.S. taxpayers will spend more on national security (in real, inflation-adjusted dollars) than at any time since the end of World War II. Is this too much? How much is enough?

By some estimates, Governor Romney’s fiscal plan would add $2 trillion in military spending over the next decade. Do the other candidates agree that we should increase military spending by that amount, or should we be spending even more? Or less?

If you agree that we should spend more, what additional responsibilities should the U.S. military take on? If you think we should spend less, what missions can we afford to shift to others? Should the U.S. military be responsible for defending other countries that could defend themselves? Should Americans be willing to spend five or 10 times as much on the military as do people in other wealthy countries?

The United States has formal security relationships with dozens of countries around the world. Many of these date back to the Cold War. Have these become, as Hillary Clinton says, embedded in our DNA? Would you be willing to revisit any of these alliances?

 Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Tehran v. Riyadh

The alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, has served to underscore that Washington and Riyadh view Tehran as a common enemy. This plot has already heightened both parties’ persisting anxieties over Iran, but the U.S.-Saudi partnership has often tended to reinforce, rather than diminish, each side’s most hawkish tendencies.

After the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran developed far greater influence among its allies and co-religionists in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and the Gulf States. Demonstrating the fear that Iran’s expanded Shia influence has inspired among Saudi leaders, in February 2007 Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal encouraged the United States to strengthen its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, telling a U.S. diplomat that the Saudis would supply the logic for America’s deployment if Washington supplied the pressure.

Of course it is the Kingdom that is alarmed by the possibility of an Iranian SCUD missile attack on Saudi oil facilities; it is the Kingdom that is petrified by the possibility of Iran’s nuclear program posing a threat to the House of Saud’s regional prestige; and it is the Kingdom that has claimed that Shia-Persian Iran has been stage-managing the massive, popular uprisings sweeping the region in order to undermine Sunni Arab regimes. If the United States moves to increase the scope of its political, economic, and military sticks against Iran, it will only serve to invite further Iranian and Saudi intrigues. It may also encourage Iran and other states like it to seek a nuclear deterrent. Responding swiftly to this alleged plot, as some political pundits have encouraged, will further entangle the United States in an intra-Islamic, Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian rivalry divorced from America’s vital interests.

As an aside, to shed some new light on the scorn currently being heaped on Iran’s odious regime, let us remember that it is America’s strategic ally—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—that remains one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. And as much as folks are fulminating over Tehran’s support for terrorism, in reality it is donors in Saudi Arabia who constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide.

Cross-posed from the National Interest.