It used to be, I think, that the vast majority of strategists and statesmen played chess, or in non-Western cultures some comparably complex game that required players to anticipate what their opponents might do in an extended sequence of moves. This was good training for the real world. If you read in the history of diplomacy, you can find many excellent examples of careful statecraft resembling what we may call sequence assessment. (A masterful and also quite brief description of the phenomenon, as seen by a social scientist, may be found in Erving Goffman’s little-known 1969 book Strategic Interaction.) One can also find examples of hotheads going off half cocked, usually to their and everyone else’s regret. Big mistakes make big news historically. But my sense is that responsible individuals, who made up the vast majority a century and two ago, generally understood the difficulty of their task, and worked at it in a fairly disciplined fashion.
Now consider some recent events in that light. For several years now the United States has been using Predator drones to attack terrorist and insurgency targets in several countries. We hear most about Pakistan, but we have also been doing this sort of thing in Yemen—especially recently—and elsewhere. From a strictly military point of view these strikes have been effective. As many observers have pointed out, however, their broader political impact over time is harder to measure, given the political blowback potential of such methods. And as some observers have warned, once this technology gets loose there is nothing to prevent very nasty folks, state and non-state actors alike, from attacking American and allied targets with armed drones. What goes around comes around, indeed.
The Predator issue is a subset of a larger concern about technology designed and produced by the United States and other advanced allied countries eventually trickling down, one way or another, into the inventories of other nations. The anti-access and area denial dilemma that has arisen in recent years, particularly with regard to the U.S. military being able to access bases in allied countries in Asia in a crisis, is the larger and more significant case in point. The general phenomenon describes a race in which we need to not only maintain a technological lead, but be able through that lead to defend against our own stuff one or two developmental generations removed in the hands of adversaries. This is not as easy as all that to do, especially when the challenge is taken to be an afterthought.
Note, too, that just last week the press carried stories about EU forces attacking Somali pirate bases with helicopters. The European troops never set foot on Somali soil, and apparently they did not kill anyone—just destroyed some boats used in the Somali piracy enterprise. I was surprised to read about this, for two reasons. The first reason is that it is a rare occasion when the Euroweenies manage to gird themselves up to do anything more than talk, unless we have first pounded on their heads and necks to rouse them into a kinetic mood. The second reason is that the operation struck me as dangerous. I hope that the European decision-makers who ordered this assault thought through what Somali pirates might do in response. They are not exactly helpless; they have a few options.
I am not squeamish about the use of military force when there is good reason for it, but I am leery of the way force has been used in recent times—not least in Afghanistan, and we’ll come back to that in a moment. But as to the piracy business, let me tell a brief story, if I may.
When I was ship-riding the U.S.S. Boxer last year, and the U.S.S. Farragut the year before that, the question of our ROEs (rules of engagement) in dealing with piracy came up in my conversations with several soldiers, sailors and marines. I was at first stunned, to be perfectly honest, with how restrictive our ROEs were.
One sailor, who of course I will not name, described having a Somali pirate square in his sights from the deck of an American DDG—and this was a pirate who had clearly been involved in a very recent assault on a ship—but was told not to shoot. The rule was that U.S. personnel could only shoot at pirates to defend themselves, which meant in practice if the pirate was aiming a weapon at them. If the pirate turned his body a few degrees away from an American target, even if he had been shooting at it just two minutes earlier, U.S. military personnel were not allowed to fire. Others in uniform nodded, and the general sense was that these restrictions were frustratingly unreasonable. Why send out anti-piracy patrols, they waxed rhetorical, without a set of engagement rules enabling the patrols to cause the pirates pain?
Well, that is what we want our warriors to say. But a talk with their superior officers, which apparently reflected the views of their civilian superiors, yielded another perspective. We could escalate the conflict with piracy, and we could win it at least temporarily if we wanted to, but at what price? The kind of piracy the Somalis were practicing amounted to an irritant, not a strategic threat. It’s cheaper to pay the tolls than to destroy the floating tollbooths. To try to extirpate the problem threatens to raise all kinds of political, legal and literal costs that might not be worth paying. Hence the limited rules of engagement.
So in that light I wonder if the West European decision-makers who ordered the attack on those boats took into consideration that to defer future assaults Somali pirates might decide to sink a few ships instead of merely hold them for ransom, and to kill several people instead of holding them all hostage. (Of course, Somali pirates did kill some Americans, and paid the price for doing so—but we’re still wondering if something we did catalyzed their behavior… it might have.) Perhaps they did think it through over in Brussels, and are ready for the next possible and likely sequence of moves. If so, good for them (and us). And perhaps not. We’re bound to find out sooner or later.
Which brings me back to Yemen. Just a few days ago a horrific bombing in the capital, Sanaa, killed ninety people and injured scores more. Most of the dead were Yemeni military personnel, and the target of the apparently al-Qaeda attack was clearly a military facility. Given the accelerated pace of attack against anti-regime forces in the country in recent weeks, the bombing was clearly a payback. And its message was clear: Stop shooting at us or we’ll blow you into clouds of pink meat.
(The Sanaa bombing was, by the way, not terrorism if by terrorism we stick to the proper definition: random attacks against civilians aimed at spreading fear and, yes, terror. Attacks against uniformed military personnel do not fit this definition. Such attacks are acts of insurgent warfare, not terrorism, even if they are perpetrated by people who also engage in terrorism. It is important to keep this distinction clearly in mind, lest we allow nefarious others to spin the meaning of the word for their own purposes. It is plainly not true that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but our conflation of acts of war with acts of terrorism makes that falsehood seem plausible. This is why the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor, and the October 1983 attacks on U.S. troops in Lebanon, were not and should never have been described as acts of terrorism. Alas, some of us lose our verbal composure when we get upset. You can lose a rook like that, or even your queen.)
To get back to Sanaa, it’s simply not a good idea to start a fight, or to deepen a fight, that you are not prepared to do what is necessary to win it. If our right hand, along with that of our Yemeni associates, is going to rev up attacks against jihadi militants there, our left hand needs to be raised in anticipatory defense against the likely-to-inevitable reaction. For that to happen we need our brain to be working. So you see the problem. Big organizations of all kinds sometimes have trouble engaging their brain to properly oversee distributed standard operating procedures.
In the Yemeni case we have every reason to believe that threats against us are brewing. We need to preempt them if we can. So I am not arguing for quiescence, and certainly I am not arguing for a 21st-century version of graduated response. If it were possible to pre-emptorily clobber the bad guys senseless and really finish the matter, great—I’d be first in line to say “let’s do it.” I doubt, however, that the strategic equivalent of a knockout punch exists in a situation where insurgency is so deeply embedded in social/tribal realities.
All I’m pointing out here is that we need to think through the various contingencies that may arise as a result of our actions before we undertake them. I am not entirely confident that we do this these days on both a regular and serious basis. Maybe we’re playing too little chess and too many video games where, when you get whacked, you just dial up another game and quickly put ignominy in the rear-view mirror.
Obviously, there are tough calls in this business. Most of the important ones are tough. And since it is never possible to know for sure what the unfurling future will bring, a very good case for letting the urgent drive out the eventual is not hard to make. That is why it is a completely false argument to say, for example, that U.S. support for Afghan mujaheddin against the Red Army in Afghanistan was a bad idea because it eventually created 9/11. It did no such thing in any way that any reasonable person could have anticipated in the early 1980s. Al-Qaeda did not exist when that decision was made, Osama bin-Laden did not base himself in Afghanistan until 1996, and anyway the frequent journalistic assertion (or assumption) that the mujaheddin then and the Taliban a la 2001 and now are one and the same is complete nonsense.
Still, the point remains: Don’t jump off the diving board until you’ve checked to make sure there’s water in the pool. And so let us continue, in closing for today, with a few words about contemporary Afghanistan.
This past weekend’s Chicago NATO Summit was all about agreeing on a plan to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan. That will start to happen, as best we can tell, by the summer of next year. In advance of the summit the United States signed a complex agreement with the government of Afghanistan that appears to keep us in close association for many years to come, but exactly what it says and means isn’t entirely clear. Nonetheless, the impression the Obama Administration wants to convey is that it is acting in a deliberate and responsible manner to end the war—or at least American participation in it—after accomplishing many, if admittedly not all, of our goals. No one can blame the Administration for wanting and trying to do this: If it preserves American reputational capital, it’s the right thing to do. I hope lots of people all over world swallow the hook, the line, the sinker, and for that matter the entire canoe.
But I don’t. One reason I don’t is that the entire enterprise of responsible U.S. and allied withdrawal depends on the fiction that the Afghan National Army and police are capable of defending the regime in Kabul from its enemies. (And it is a fiction—see the September/October 2011 TAI essay by Alim Remtullah if you really want to understand why.)
It seems to me that there are two kinds of people in our government and military who believe this fiction, or pretend to. The first kind are those whose jobs it is to make this work—mostly soldiers who have been trying their hardest to train Afghan soldiers and police over many years. What a lot of people who have never worked in government seem oblivious to is that when it is your job to make the policy work, it usually leaves scales on your eyes. You can be so deep in the details of your day-to-day responsibilities that you are unable to discern broader patterns, particularly negative ones.
I think the nation-building (really state-building, to be precise) mission in Afghanistan has been utopian lunacy from the start; it’s something we never should have started—never should have jumped off the diving board. It is impossible to create a modern functioning democracy, let alone a liberal one of Western-like provenance, in a place where there is not and never has been even a modern state. It’s foolish to have willed the end with no solid idea in mind of how to will the means. But my heart goes out to those who have tried to make this crazy policy work. That is what I meant a moment ago when I said that it pains me that our decision-makers sometimes fail to think through the consequences of what they set in motion, because it is the guys on the ground—the very best our country has to offer—who often end up paying the price.
The other kind of people who believe in the prowess of the ANA and the Afghan police are those for whom it is simply convenient to believe it, because it hopefully affords us that famed “decent interval” of Frank Snepp Vietnam fame. Last Saturday the New York Times carried a front-page feature on how Barack Obama’s view of Afghanistan allegedly changed over time from a war of necessity to something a whole lot less than that. It was a plausible tale except for just one thing: It never mentioned politics.
According to the article, written by the consummate pro David Sanger, Obama changed his mind when he realized how hard, how expensive and how long achieving the military’s goals would really be. All I can say is that if it took Barack Obama a year or more to realize this, then he is not nearly as smart as some people think he is—either that or he really wasn’t paying much attention to this “war of necessity” before his Inauguration Day.
I have a somewhat different interpretation of what has happened. I think Senator Barack Obama understood very well that to be elected President he had to pick a war to support. Democrats seen to be soft on national security don’t get elected; Obama knew that, just like everyone else (except, of course, those geniuses in the Democratic Party who nominated people like Michael Dukakis and John Kerry). Since Obama obviously could not pick Iraq, that left Afghanistan, which perforce became the war of necessity.
But when the military and its civilian adjuncts could not do the impossible there, and the war became both unpopular and a political liability, Obama turned on a dime to dissociate himself from his necessary war of choice. That, Mr. Sanger, is when he discovered what a tough deal Afghanistan really was—some coincidence, huh?
Frankly, I’m glad he did because, as I said, this was a fool’s errand to start with if ever there was one. And since Obama himself had changed the mission in 2009 to make the military’s task even more impossible (I realize that for anything to be “more impossible” is logically impossible—relax, it’s just a figure of speech….), it’s only right that he be the one to change course. But I don’t believe for a minute that the President’s behavior can be described strictly in the strategic tense; political calculation drips from every pore of this policy. Barack Obama may indeed be playing a kind of chess, but it’s a match that seems to me to have only a little to do with U.S. foreign policy and national security concerns.
The only problem with how Obama has played the game thus far is that he’s now ceded the initiative to a select group of top Taliban commanders. He has to hope that his decent interval lasts at least until early November. Since we’re not withdrawing beyond a point of no return until after the election, this hope can be backed by combat force if need be. But if the appearance of a responsible and orderly withdrawal is foiled by aggressive and successful Taliban tactics this summer and into the fall—or if the Karzai regime implodes for any number of imaginable reasons—then the President is going to have a real problem on his hands. With just a little luck, these guys could drain the pool while the Administration is in mid-swan dive.