Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Next you're gonna tell me the Pakistanis aren't planning to use those F-16s for COIN

Spencer Ackerman reports that he's shocked, SHOCKED to find that the Saudis are using military materiel provided by U.S. -- ostensibly for counterterrorism purposes -- to wage war against Shi'ite rebels on the Yemeni border. Similarly surprising is the U.S. ambassador's assessment that the Saudi campaign "was poorly planned and executed" and "embarrassingly long," despite a "massively disproportionate" array of forces and equipment. But wait -- there's more! In a startling turn of events that could never have been predicted, the Yemenis are also taking advantage of U.S. assistance to prosecute a CREB campaign (the French term -- contre-rebellion, usually translated as counterinsurgency so as to avoid doctrinal confusion -- seems more appropriate here, not to mention having that je ne sais quoi...) against the same Houthis rebels the Saudis are using our shit to kill. Foreign Policy's Ellen Knickmeyer reports that Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh assured Dave Petraeus that U.S.-provided helos wouldn't be used against the Houthis just months before insisting to John Brennan that "the Houthis are your enemies too" -- all while preparing to send his U.S. trained "counterterrorist" commandos to quell the northern insurgency. Oh, and just in case you forgot: we're about to ship $1.2 billion in hardware and training to Yemen... better to fight al-Qaeda with.

How 'bout the Saudis? Well, they're fighting the hell out of terrorists... or at least the guys that are terrorizing their border with Yemen. The USG seems to have pretty well given up the ghost on this one; here's Spencer again:
“Based on these assurances, the [U.S.] ambassador [in Riyadh] has approved… the provision of [U.S. government] imagery of the Yemeni border area to the Saudi Government,” the February cable reads. Although the war on the Houthis was petering out, the imagery could enhance “Saudi capabilities against Al-Qaeda activities in this area.”
This would be hilarious if it weren't so sad. If I had more technical ability, I'd do one of those hilarious parodies of "Downfall" in which Hitler's disappointed words at the close of the scene were captioned with "...well, maybe the Saudis will use that IMINT against al-Qaeda."

What's the moral of the story? Despite the U.S. military's persistent use of the term "capability" as a synonym for a weapon system -- a semantic manifestation of wishful thinking wherein the provision of a piece of gear is the same as transfer of the tactical and operational competencies that equipment is meant to enable -- we all need to come to grips with the fact that absent the elaboration of very specific consequences for "bad behavior," partner nations are going to use the stuff we sell or give them for "counterterrorism operations" to do pretty much whatever the hell they want. There's two ways to handle this: 1) we can just figure out a way to have less heartburn about this disappointing reality, recognizing that some sovereign states are going to get theirs so long as we're asking them to take care of some housekeeping on our behalf, or 2) we can find a different way to execute a worldwide counterterrorism campaign than rushing materiel and training to every third-world backwater where al-Qaeda pops its collective head up, imagining as we do that the knock-on negative effects of this decision can't possibly outweigh whatever near-term operational and PR benefits we might gain.  Right now we're basically taking Option 1, which would be fine with me if it actually made for effective counterterrorism. But... well... you know (pdf), it's, uh... it's not (pdf). I'm sure it'll be better next time. Or we could be a little more patient, a little more comprehensive, a little less direct, and do a little more of Option 2. Just sayin'.


  1. Our institutions have learned nothing from 9-11.

    We are recreating many mini-versions of our unhealthy client-protector relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

    At least that allows our political class ample time to travel abroad, preen with foreign leaders and pose with American troops - all for "back home" photo ops, and throw hard earned American cash into the wind....

    It's enough to make a gal cynical.

  2. How does the "Phillipines" option work in Afghanistan, where there isn't a functioning army to work with? We are in the process of building it, but reports don't look very promising to date.

    Because of the logistics tie-in to Pakistan, we will have to go lean there eventually, too. We cannot allow the heavy logistics "tail", or whatever its called, to call all of the shots.

    How do you go lean in Afghanistan?

  3. Last one for now:

    The main counterterrorism options in Afpak include using info from the ISI?

    That's our main problem there, isn't it? We don't have the same sort of partners in Afpak that we do in Indonesia or the Phillipines.

    Seriously on my question of lean logistics: as problematic as the CARS and Russian routes are, perhaps we've reached the point where we have to seriously consider how we can function without the Khyber Pass.

    I'm serious about this point. Joshua Foust at Registan makes the point that it is impossible, but I think that's only true if we have a heavy foot print.

    The problem set is irritatingly self-defeating.

  4. Madhu -- Just quickly as I'm on blackberry:

    I confused things with the examples at the end, but I'm really not talking about AF here. Ship has sailed on that one.

    And as far as wasting our money goes: Saudis pay cash, so it's wasting THEIR money.

  5. Oops, you're right. I got confused at the end (it's me, not you) and your point about it being their money is exactly right. Thanks.