Friday, October 21, 2011

U.S. troops and the LRA: What exactly IS "your typical advise and assist mission"?

As you've no doubt already heard, the president is sending approximately 100 U.S. military personnel to central Africa to aid partner security forces in the capture or killing of Joseph Kony, leader of the murderous Lord's Resistance Army. The public found out about this when President Obama informed Congressional leadership in a letter delivered last Friday, as he is statutorily required to do. A number of analysts and commentators have offered thoughts on the matter -- Crispin Burke has a brief but representative rundown on Wings Over Iraq -- but most have failed to provide the sort of context necessary to understand how a mission of this type is carried out. By extension, many people are drawing bad conclusions about what this development means for the U.S. in Africa and for our broader national security policy.

A number of my colleagues will be quick to remind you that I'm not an Africanist. (Less charitably, I "don't know shit" about Africa.) Keep this in mind, but remember that I'm interested in talking to you about U.S. military operations and doctrine -- not central African conflict ethnography. You should seek out area experts if you want to understand the LRA's history, organization, tactics, and so on, as they'll offer far more comprehensive and better-informed analyses than I possibly could. They can further explain how the group is a scourge on the continent, how Kony's elimination would produce cascading positive effects for regional security and stability; they can talk to you about what America's ultimate goals in the region ought to be, etc. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to tell you what American troops in central Africa are likely to be doing, how they're going to contribute to the accomplishment of the anti-LRA mission, and how all of this fits into the context of what we're training, equipping, and organizing our military to do, and what it all has to do with war powers. (Go read Carl Prine's interview with Michael Noonan on this subject, too, while I'm thinking about it.)

First things first: what is it that U.S. military personnel are meant to do here? According to the president, this "small number of combat equipped U.S. forces" will "provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield." But Barbara Starr told us yesterday that the African enterprise is "not your typical advise and assist mission"; how exactly the folks at CNN Security Clearance would define such a thing is left to our collective imagination, but perhaps her explanation can give us some clues.
President Obama’s decision to send 100 troops, mainly U.S. Special Forces, to Uganda to help hunt down leaders of the violent Lord’s Resistance Army is not meant to be a combat mission. But the troops will be well equipped if the need to fight arises, them CNN has learned.  The troops will have so-called “crew-served” weapons in the field.  These weapons, unlike a rifle or machine gun, requires more than one person to operate them, such as one person loading ammunition while the other person aims and fires.
The deployment of these particular combat weapons triggered the need for the Obama administration to publicly notify Congress of the operation under the War Powers Resolution, according to a Department of defense official.  That requirement demands that any time troops are put into a country “equipped for combat” Congress must be told to avoid any prospect of a secret war, the official explained.
Let's get the obvious objection out of the way: a machine gun is in fact the very most common and obvious example of a crew-served weapon (pdf). Such a basic error might call into question Starr's reliability and authority on the matters a "Pentagon correspondent" has responsibility for covering. But what about the meat of what I gather to be her argument -- that "deployment of these particular combat weapons" both triggered the WPA reporting requirement (an assertion she attributes to her source) and more generally indicates that the function these personnel will be performing is somehow atypical or rare? Well, both points are pretty plainly wrong.

The law (50 U.S.C. §1543) does require presidential notification when U.S. troops are sent to a foreign country "equipped for combat," as Starr notes. But the suggestion that crew-served weapons mark the threshold between being "equipped for combat" and everything else strikes me as wholly arbitrary. It's obviously a matter of interpretation, as the law doesn't specify the meaning of the term. But Starr and her helpfully explanatory official seem to have missed the much more important provision of the law: the section that explains the meaning of "introduction of United States Armed Forces" (50 U.S.C. §1547 (c)).
For purposes of this chapter, the term “introduction of United States Armed Forces” includes the assignment of members of such armed forces to command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged, or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged, in hostilities.
So let's get this straight: CNN Security Clearance wants you to know that this deployment is "not your typical advise and assist mission," apparently because it triggered the WPA reporting requirement. But that requirement applies to every instance in which U.S. forces partner with, augment, lead, or advise a foreign military force that's actually engaged in fighting.

There's no such thing as an "advise and assist mission" in U.S. military doctrine, but that's not to say that the term isn't used. When the American mission in Iraq ostensibly shifted from combat (Operation IRAQI FREEDOM) to transition (Operation NEW DAWN), all U.S. Army brigade combat teams in-country were redesignated as Advise and Assist Brigades. (In the several months preceding this change, several AABs had operated alongside Iraqi formations while BCTs continued to conduct independent combat and stability operations.) "Advise and assist" is also considered by the Army to be one of five component tasks of security force assistance, alongside Organize, Train, Equip, and Rebuild/Build. Here's how the SFA manual (FM 3-07.1 (pdf), paragraph 2-50) explains it:
Advise and assist is a SFA task in which U.S. personnel work with FSF [foreign security forces] to improve their capability and capacity. Advising establishes a personal and a professional relationship where trust and confidence define how well the advisor will be able to influence the foreign security force. Assisting is providing the required supporting or sustaining capabilities so FSF can meet objectives and the end state.
It might have been appropriate for Starr to argue that "this is not your typical training mission," or even to say "this is not your typical security force assistance mission." But this is precisely "your typical advise and assist mission." The distinction is a matter of more than just semantic interest, and to show you why, I'm going to talk for a little while about what's called foreign internal defense.

Look, I know people get bored by doctrine and taxonomy and all that. (Ok, well, people other than me, that is.) But that's where we need to start if this is going to make any sense, so let's look at how FID is defined by the U.S. military:
[T]he participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization, to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to their security.
To put it more simply, FID encompasses whole-of-government efforts undertaken to help another government deal with internal threats. The U.S. military's view of its role in those efforts is explained in doctrine (specifically JP 3-22 Foreign Internal Defense and FM 3-05.137 Army Special Operations Forces Foreign Internal Defense), which characterizes DoD activities as being of three types: indirect support, direct support (not involving combat operations), and combat operations.

Indirect support in FID is primarily focused on enabling the host/partner-nation government and security forces to accomplish their internal defense and development objectives independently; it's how the USG helps another government do what it needs to do without doing it for them. This category of activity includes the sale or transfer of military equipment, training of partner-nation units and individuals, personnel exchange programs, and combined exercises. Indirect support is going on every day and with a wide range of countries. Selling helicopters to Mexican federal police? Putting a Filipino special forces officer through the Maneuver Captain's Course? Transferring NVGs to Pakistan for their pilots to use in the frontier provinces? All FID indirect support.

Direct support (not involving combat operations) is where FID really starts to distinguish itself from security force assistance, security assistance, and security cooperation: it entails U.S. military forces providing direct assistance to the host nation's security forces or populace. This type of activity typically takes place during violent conflict, but that need not be the case. Direct support basically means U.S. forces providing, augmenting, or amplifying under-developed or nonexistent host-nation capabilities like intelligence collection, communications, logistics, psychological operations/military information support, and civil-military operations (provision of basic services to the civilian population). Training partner security forces can also be identified as direct support or indirect support depending on the urgency and immediacy of the effort. (U.S. personnel putting Afghan National Army troops through basic combat training prior to operational deployment constitutes direct support, while training an Egyptian mechanic on how to maintain his airplanes might be indirect support.) We're doing FID direct support in a few places right now, with the most obvious being Afghanistan and Iraq (though much of our activity there has transitioned into indirect support as Iraqi security forces have achieved autonomous capability). That thing counter-LRA Starr mentions in her blog from back in '08, the curiously-named Operation LIGHTNING THUNDER, when 17 U.S. advisors gave comms help and intelligence information to Ugandan forces going after Kony? That was direct support.

Combat operations are pretty much what they sound like: that's the part of FID where U.S. forces undertake combat operations in support of the host government's internal defense and development plan. This could mean U.S. combat formations are partnered with host nation forces or simply operating in an adjacent battlespace in support of that government's objectives. It also includes combat advising. Here's what the Army SOF FID manual says:
The primary role for U.S. military forces in tactical operations is to support, advise, and assist HN forces through logistics, intelligence or other support and means. This allows the HN force to concentrate on taking the offensive against hostile elements. If the level of lawlessness, subversion, or insurgency reaches a level that HN forces cannot conrol, U.S. forces may be required to engage the hostile elements. In this case, the objective of U.S. operations is to protect or stabilize the HN political, economic, and social institutions until the HN can assume these responsibilities.
The precise character of FID combat operations is determined not only by operational requirements but also by the type of formation or personnel participating in the mission. Individual embedded advisors or small advisor teams will obviously be unlikely to undertake offensive operations as a constituted whole simply because of a lack of combat power, while an Advise and Assist Brigade maintains the capacity and capability to perform full-spectrum operations and could independently find, fix, and finish the enemy's maneuver elements if required. As you may have worked out from the excerpt above, "combat operations" in this context include things that would be considered "combat support" in a U.S. operational context: enabling functions for maneuver formations engaging the enemy. The reason they constitute FID combat operations is that they expose U.S. troops in the field to hostile action. If you're trucking host nation troops up to the front or turning a wrench on a busted vehicle while taking mortar fire at a forward location, you're performing a direct support function, but the exposure to hostile fire qualifies this as FID combat operations.

Ok, good, so we're all sorted out on FID, right? Then let's get this straight: the USG is doing all three types of FID in central Africa. Indirect support in the form of materiel assistance was announced several months ago. We've done direct support (not involving combat operations) at various times over the last several years, including intel-sharing during LIGHTNING THUNDER. The (presumably) Special Forces soldiers going to central Africa will likely continue to perform similar direct support activities from rear areas while also in some instances engaging in combat operations by embedding with Ugandan, Congolese, South Sudanese, and/or Centrafricain military formations.

So what's new about all this? Nah, it's not about crew-served weapons. It's not about any imagined intent for SF ODAs to conduct direct-action missions against Kony and his "army." It's about the simple fact that the law requires Congressional notification in any instance when U.S. forces may be exposed to hostile fire, including those times when they're embedded or partnered with host nation forces. As I've said above: this is the very essence of an advise-and-assist mission. In point of fact, it's nigh-on impossible to perform the advise-and-assist task without the presidential decision required to permit FID combat operations, at least assuming the supported foreign force is actually engaged in a fight. (And if it's not, then the SFA task U.S. forces are performing in support of them is much more likely to be training or equipping than advising and assisting, which is a term which almost universally connotes combat action. I'm at pains to think of a single instance of what I could call an advise and assist mission that does not involve combat of some type.

American military personnel have provided support to foreign security forces through FID and SFA for decades, if not longer. They've done so in Russia during the post-revolutionary civil war, in Vietnam, across Latin America during the Cold War, in Colombia, the Philippines, Iraq, and Afghanistan in the modern day. In every instance in which they've been exposed to hostile fire, they've required a presidential determination to that effect (enabled by either a declaration of war, a WPA notification, or an executive order/presidential finding/PDD). This instance is perhaps noteworthy to the media and the public because President Obama has decided not to ignore what's required of him by law (including a declaration of "the constitutional and legislative authority under which such introduction [of U.S. forces] took place") and instead sought to legitimize the effort by expressly citing the Congress' very own appeal for action: the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 (pdf).

And that's the great irony of all this, really: the media, the public, and apparently the Congress have been so inured to the wholesale and systematic hostility of successive presidential administrations to the distribution of war powers in American law that it's more noteworthy when the president does things properly. This is precisely the sort of activity that it ought to be a presidential prerogative to undertake: FID is fundamentally a matter of foreign affairs, not war, and the Congress should be made aware and kept informed insofar as military activities pursuant to the effort may unintentionally entangle the U.S. in a foreign conflict.

I know, I know: I can't even defend the president on this issue without complaining obliquely about Libya or Afghanistan! And it wouldn't be my style to go to all this trouble talking about a troop deployment without talking about strategy, but I'll be brief (and I'll probably surprise you): I explained why I'm ok with the process of this decision, but I don't have a big problem with the substance of it, either. This sort of FID mission isn't going to cost a tremendous amount of money, and the risk to U.S. personnel is relatively low even if we make an uncharitable estimate of it. It's hard to say that we're risking even a temporary diminution of U.S. readiness or combat power simply because it's such a small number of troops. There is very little risk of unintended escalation (though we should always be wary), and if the president determines that escalation is desirable or necessary, it seems plain to me that he has set the rather unique precedent of needing to take such a decision before the Congress. This type of mission is exactly what SF were conceived, organized, and trained to do. Don't be fooled into thinking this is some kind of panacea, a universalizable model for all future American military action, the cornerstone around which we can base our future security policy. But it seems like a just, affordable, and doable thing that stops short of war, and in this case, I don't see anything particularly un-strategic about it.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, as usual. It's a sad commentary on the state of media when a long-running, widely-watched news channel like CNN requires a blogger's addendum for a viewer to be fully and accurately informed.

    As a sidenote, published 5PM on a Friday? What's the matter, didn't want anyone to read it?