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Not “Can We?” but “Should We?”: The Central Question of Strategy

January 14, 2012 Leave a comment

 

afghanistan

Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Often times the central question of strategy is not whether we are able to do something, i.e. Do we have the means to accomplish the ends, but whether we ought to do something.

Such is the argument made by C. Dale Walton of the University of Reading (UK) in Infinity Journal.  His thesis:  Even if we can succeed in Afghanistan, why should we?  Is is worth it?  Probably not.

One of the most insightful, straightforward articles I’ve come across.

The Futile Decade: The US Failure in Afghanistan and Its Lessons

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How Does Libya End?

March 21, 2011 3 comments

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“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Upon which kind of war are we embarking in Libya?  Have we answered Clausewitz’s question?  The answer would appear to be a resounding no.

Read more…

Strategic Thoughts Before Hiatus

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ll be off the net for a few days while I soak in some sun at an undisclosed, strategically insignificant location in the Caribbean.

Here are the strategic questions I’ll be pondering when not in a mai tai induced coma:

U.S. Grand Strategy.

  • After nearly almost a decade of “small wars,” the biggest question in U.S. grand strategy is not really whether we can, rather it is whether we shouldAfghanistan and Iraq have been long, bloody, and expensive.  Yet so far, there is relatively little to show in terms of strategic gains.  This should lead us to get beyond asking ourselves whether we can do small wars, guerilla wars, counter-insurgency, etc…  We have proven that with enough time, blood, and money we can do these operations.  We should now ask whether they are beneficial.  Are we getting enough back?

Safe Havens

  • Is territory, i.e. “safe havens,” really necessary for terrorism?  Is the primary battlefield cognitive?  Is this a war of ideas?  If so, what is the utility in trying to establish governance in ungoverned spaces which may serve as safe haven for terrorists.

More Safe Havens

  • Would it actually be better for terrorists to congregate in ungoverned spaces since airstrikes in those spaces would be less likely to arouse protests on the part of a sovereign state?

Reduced Budgets

  • How will the U.S. military, in what are sure to be leaner times ahead, balance the ends and ways of military strategy with reduced means?

The Next War

  • Does the U.S. military train for the next war to be a counter-insurgency type limited war?  Or, does it train toward a conventional war with a near peer?  Can it do both?  Is this choice a false dichotomy?

Middle East

  • What does the push for change in Egypt and the greater Middle East mean for the U.S.?  What if a country democratically elects a terrorist party/organization (ala Hamas)?  Do we REALLY support democracy?
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The (Not So) New Military-Industrial Complex

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Long-time defense reform advocate Franklin Spinney has authored a new article, “The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War” which examines the military-industrial complex in the context of the post-9/11 environment.  Here are the salient points:

  • Despite huge defense expenditures, we (Americans) don’t feel that much more safe.
  • Budgetary and debt pressures will soon bring the defense spending issue to a crisis point.
  • Our troops are stressed out by repeated deployments and our equipment is getting older rather than newer, even as we spend nearly three quarter of a trillion (with a T) on defense.
  • Continuous small wars serve the corporate strategies of defense contractors, who have failed to diversify following the Cold War.
  • Greater weapons system complexity is increasing rather than decreasing friction on the battlefield.
  • The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) process is broken.
    While Spinney does not make specific recommendations on a way forward vis a vis ends-ways-means, he does provide a good context for a wholesale strategic review of the defense budget.  His conclusions suggest that the U.S. should drop most of our complex weapons systems in favor of investments in our most important resource – people.

Sharks with Laser Beams, and Other Strategic Goals

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

David Ignatius writes in today’s Washington Times about the need to cut the defense budget (Ike was right: Defense spending must be cut).  Once again, a voice at large calling for defense cuts.  Once again, the call is utterly devoid of strategic thought.

Ignatius calls for the elimination of pork-barrel weapons programs.  A noble argument, however, which weapons are pork and which are vital to the national defense?

Ignatius’ argument is completely devoid of a strategic ends-ways-means analysis.  Without it, cutting weapons systems based on a perception of what constitutes pork is simply fumbling in the strategic darkness.

On a positive note, Ignatius makes an argument for lasers:Drevil million dollars.jpg

Lasers are only a few years away from being practical weapons, Pentagon officials say. Ground-based lasers could revolutionize air defense, and a new generation of solid-state lasers may be small enough for airborne platforms. “Directed-energy systems will be among the key ‘game-changing’ technology-enabled capabilities,” wrote Dahm.

Now, if we can get some sharks with some frickin’ laser beams in the procurement pipeline, we’d be well on our way to a 21st century military.

Afghanistan Strategic Review: “We Are Making Progress”…..toward?

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment

The strategic review of the Afghanistan war is in.  This time around the review attracted considerably fewer protests than the strategic review of the Iraq surge.  I could be coy and feign ignorance, or I could simply state the truth that many of those who protested GEN Petraeus at the Iraq review did so because they hated President George W. Bush.  Now that they have a President they like, they are far less inclined to protest.  In short, they are blazing hypocrites.  However, I digress.

A summary of the review can be found at the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/opinion/17fri1.html?src=twrhp.  Anderson Cooper also had a segment on the review last night, which featured a montage of President Obama’s remarks on Afghanistan:

As usual, the politicians and pundits alike are focusing on whether we are winning or not.  The larger and more important question is whether we need to win at all.  Going back to my previous post, it doesn’t do you a whole lot of good to “win” when you are bidding $5.50 for a one dollar bill.

In the President’s defense, he did address this question in his December 2009 speech at West Point where he announced the 30,000 troop surge.  “As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”  I’m heartened by the fact that he is using the proper test for not only escalating, but continuing the Afghanistan war at all.  What is less clear is if he was or is correct about our vital national interests in Afghanistan.  I’ve yet to hear this argument clearly articulated.  There is a direct relationship between our national interests and desired strategic end state, which also explains why officials have difficulty articulating end state as well.

Afghanistan: “A Paradox in Noncooperative Behavior and Escalation”???

December 7, 2010 1 comment

Recently, Army Colonel Robert M. Cassidy published an article on Small Wars Journal entitled A Precis on the Logic of the Afghan War.  Below is my response to the article, which can also be found in the comments section on SWJ.  Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Dollar Auction Game for more info.

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There is a game called “The Dollar Auction.” The rules are simple. The auctioneer puts $1 up for auction, beginning at 1 cent. He will sell to the highest bidder. The catch is that the second highest bidder must also pay his bid – and he doesn’t get anything.

Generally, the game proceeds along, and eventually someone bids $1, leaving someone else with a bid of 95 cents or something similar. Then the fun part starts. The second-highest bidder has an incentive to bid $1.01 because he will only be out 1 cent instead of 95 cents. The original bidder of $1 then has the same incentive to bid, say, $1.10.

The bids continue well beyond $1. Eventually, the game becomes more about winning than profit. Dollar bills have gone for $3-$5 dollars, and sometimes $20. The bidding often becomes heated and emotional.

We’ve been in Afghanistan a while now. COL Cassidy sounds like he is bidding $3 for a $1 bill rather than articulating a viable way ahead for Afghanistan.

A comprehensive COIN strategy in Afghanistan with the aim of transforming that country into a working, non-terrorist democracy is certainly the best outcome we could want. Given enough time, money, and blood, we might be able to achieve it.

The problem is that this strategy will take so long and be so expensive that it won’t be worth the effort. Sure, we’ll end up with a buck, but how much will we have paid for it?

A limited counter-terrorism strategy is certainly not capable of producing the same results as a COIN strategy. However, it is much more efficient. While we may get, say, 75% of the effectiveness, we get it at 10% of the cost. We get more bang for the buck.

The 800lb gorilla in the room is the defense budget. It will shrink, and soon. While COIN is the most effective strategy, it is also the most manpower intensive, ergo, the most expensive. COL Cassidy does not mention this fact.

It is time we opted for a more efficient strategy. While not as effective, a limited counter-terrorism strategy is more sustainable in the long run.