Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Arming Libyan rebels: it's not only a singularly awful idea, but it won't work

According to the president, the U.S. wants regime change in Libya. Also according to the president, the U.S. is not willing to use military force to effect that end (especially not ground troops). As such, the American military machine is left to enforcing a no-fly zone and "protecting civilians" -- i.e. vaporizing any regime formations that fail to meet an unstated and apparently arbitrary standard for establishing their lack of threat to rebel-held cities or the civilian population. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are a great many calls to send arms to the Libyan insurgents as a means to achieve our broader goals: that is, to facilitate the defeat of the Qaddafi regime.

By now you will no doubt have been exposed to some of the many, many good arguments against this policy course. I'm not going to exhaustively and categorically recount them all, but I want to take just a minute to go over some of the basics.

[I've been typing bits of this all day, and just within the last hour, Reuters is reporting that the president "has signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. support for rebel forces seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi." Supposing the decision's now been taken, these issues are even more worthy of thoughtful consideration.]

First off, we don't have a damn clue who the opposition is. Sure, we've met with a few "ministers" in the anti-Qaddafi movement, mostly western-educated English speakers and former regime loyalists. But we don't understand the fundamental character of the rebel organization, the relationship between the various "transitional" or opposition political arrangements (some of which we're only just becoming acquainted with), or whether a command-and-control relationship between those groups and the armed men engaging regime forces on the ground even exists in any meaningful sense. Who the hell are we planning to arm? We're not even sure who speaks for the resistance movement, never mind who will fight for it. Divisions in the opposition mean that we can't be sure by whom and to what end the weapons will be used.

Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker has spent some time with the rebels. Here's an extended clip from his essential piece "Who are the rebels?":
Significant questions remain about the leaders of the rebellion: who they are, what their political ideas are, and what they would do if Qaddafi fell. At the courthouse on Benghazi’s battered seafront promenade, the de-facto seat of the Libyan revolution, a group of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals have appointed one another to a hodgepodge of “leadership councils.” There is a Benghazi city council, and a Provisional National Council, headed by a bland but apparently honest former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who spends his time in Bayda, a hundred and twenty-five miles away. Other cities have councils of their own. The members are intellectuals, former dissidents, and businesspeople, many of them from old families that were prominent before Qaddafi came to power. What they are not is organized. No one can explain how the Benghazi council works with the National Council. Last week, another shadow government, the Crisis Management Council, was announced in Benghazi; it was unclear how its leader, a former government planning expert named Mahmoud Jibril [who Secretary Clinton met with yesterday in London], would coördinate with Jalil, or whether he had supplanted him. 
It gets more confusing: there are two competing military chiefs. One is General Abdel Fateh Younis, who was Qaddafi’s interior minister and the commander of the Libyan special forces until he “defected” to the rebel side. Younis has been publicly absent, and he is distrusted by the shabab and by many council members. The other chief, Colonel Khalifa Heftir, is a hero of Libya’s war with Chad, in the nineteen-eighties; he later turned against Qaddafi and, until recently, was in exile in the U.S. [And by "in exile in the U.S.," we mean he's been living in the DC suburbs for the last two decades.] Unlike Younis, he elicits widespread admiration in Benghazi, but he, too, has kept out of sight, evidently at a secret Army camp where he is preparing élite troops for battle.
You may be negotiating with the western-educated English speakers, but they aren't going to be the ones handling anti-tank weapons. What do those guys want? Because once they've got the guns, good ol' Colon Heftir and General Younis may not be the only ones making decisions.

In case that's not enough, it seems pretty clear that whichever faction ends up with our support, it won't be even remotely capable of employing sophisticated weapons in an effective manner. Put simply, the Libyan opposition is not a viable military force. It's a rabble, a gang. It's a loosely-confederated group of people who are pissed-off enough at Qaddafi to take up arms (however briefly and ineffectively) in the name of his ouster. It's a non-state (sub-state) group. Damned near everything about the established methods by which we provide training and equipment to foreign partners is geared toward supporting states and institutions. Aside from covert methods (which it now seems we're gearing up to employ) and direct assistance from Special Forces, we don't even have a legal means to transfer weapons to an insurgent group operating on the territory of an embargoed country. The standard mechanism through which military materiel is provided to foreign parties by the U.S. government is foreign military sales (FMS), a process in which the USG procures and delivers hardware to the foreign customer under the terms of a signed contract. Who's the empowered official for a gang?

This seemingly mundane technical detail has broader, more serious implications: we have leverage over other states. We have mechanisms to ensure U.S.-provided gear isn't misused or transferred to other parties without our approval. We can take punitive action against states that don't honor their commitments as a recipient of American security assistance, and that threat almost certainly has a deterrent effect. Most foreign parties purchase U.S. gear to establish a relationship, not simply to buy military capability, and so they're loath to suffer the consequences of bad faith. Such commitments almost certainly would not hold with a non-state group, particularly one we can't seem to precisely identify or describe.

On top of all that: Guns aren't a policy. Guns are just guns. What that means is that once they're out there, you can't readjust. You can't recalibrate. You can't ask for all your weapons to be returned so that they can be redistributed to the faction that's better aligned with your strategic intent. You can only hope what you've done ends up accomplishing what you want. And I'll be the one millionth guy to say it: hope is not a plan.

We need to recognize that this lack of clarity and precision means we'll be backing a side in what might evolve from a bipolar anti-authoritarian resistance into a complex, multipolar civil war... and it's not even clear we get to pick our own horse. Like it or not, the provision of weapons means taking a side. The guy carrying a U.S.-provided weapon is now "U.S.-backed," whether you know one damn thing about what he wants or what he's doing. We've been through this in Central and South America, and we've reaped the whirlwind in Afghanistan. Somebody's going to end up with the guns. We don't get to decide how they use them. We don't even have enough information to guess at what they'll do if and when Qaddafi is deposed. (There's also the whole possible-ties-to-extremism thing that I'm not going to go into in depth here, but which we ought to keep in mind.) Arming insurgents is a fire-and-forget policy... one that can come back to bite you in the ass.

And finally, small arms almost certainly aren't the answer. Small arms are for personal protection and pot-shooting, not the destruction or defeat of professional mechanized armies. There are likely hundreds of thousands of battle rifles, pistols, grenades, and RPGs in Libya right now. Sending a few thousand more into the country isn't going to enable the conquest of Tripoli by a shitty non-army. As Nathan Freier alludes to in the Times piece cited at the top of this entry, "anti-armor weapons and rifles would allow the rebels only to consolidate their gains and hold the territory they have." Hell, arms of any kind probably aren't the answer. Command and control, communications, leadership, and unity of effort are all much more significant roadblocks to rebel success than simple firepower or a lack of weapons.

What would the rebels need to do the job themselves? Well, they're in the process of getting their asses kicked by Qaddafi's guys, and that's while operating in circumstances that permit NATO forces to engage any regime elements that seem to be "moving forward." So they need strike aviation. They need supporting fires, meaning mortars at the very least and probably heavy artillery. They need mobility and communications and some kind of basic ability to execute combined arms maneuver. They need stuff you can't unpack from a crate on the Benghazi docks. They need capabilities, not just weapons.

Whatever collection of disgruntled Libyans makes up whatever we're calling "the rebels" or "the opposition" -- "They range from street toughs to university students (many in computer science, engineering, or medicine), and have been joined by unemployed hipsters and middle-aged mechanics, merchants, and storekeepers," says Anderson -- the force as presently constituted is simply not capable of defeating regime forces. This isn't an equipment problem. Let's be clear about what this is: we're not just talking about augmenting the capabilities of a standing military force -- we're talking about creating an alternate Libyan army. We have some limited experience standing up military forces from scratch, but next to none organizing, training, and equipping forces to successfully wage an insurgency, or even a mostly-conventional civil war. And let's also be clear about the fact that the creation of such an institution out of whole cloth is a lot bigger than simply providing equipment: it means working to develop doctrine, organizational structure, to recruit, to train, to sustain the force, to establish methods of employment... it means building a proxy army.

When you run the cost-benefit on all that, it almost certainly makes sense for the needed capabilities to be provided directly by coalition forces rather than spending months or perhaps years and hundreds of millions to billions of dollars trying to create them in a rump Libyan force. Which brings us to what ought to be the bottom line, from the perspective of U.S. strategy: arming rebels is not the most effective solution to regime-change problem. If we want to enable the opposition to seize control of the country and we don't want to commit ground troops, why don't we simply pledge to use air and naval strike to target every single positively identified piece of regime military materiel or maneuver formation (though that might not even work)? Maybe this stretches the UN mandate a little bit, but a covert campaign to supply insurgents with weapons seems to brush uncomfortably up against the arms embargo. So now we're back where we started: U.S. airpower and "enablers" facilitating an offensive campaign by the rebels, something we've pledged isn't going to happen. Hell, let's just plow a bunch of time and money into creating a never-ending cascade of unintended consequences instead. It seems certain to end well.

I hear a lot of proponents for U.S. action saying things like "you have to consider the opportunity costs of inaction!" and "it's not like doing nothing is value neutral!" And that's fair enough. But to be frank, we ought to be biased towards inaction for the simple reason that it preserves our freedom of action later. Give guns to one party to a fight and you've made your bed. Horrifying as it may be to imagine "waiting it out" and bearing witness to a campaign of brutal repression, there are times when we may have to accept that uncertainty has the potential to be more dangerous than a return to the status quo. In such circumstances, it's hard for me not to conclude that errors of commission are much more painful and lingering than those of omission.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

There is no new thing under the sun

Over the last decade or so, a number of DoD and national strategic documents have asserted the unprecedented security challenges of a world wracked by potentially destabilizing trends: globalization, urbanization, rapid demographic change, and so on. The language of last year's National Security Strategy (pdf) will no doubt be familiar to you:
The convergence of wealth and living standards among developed and emerging economies holds out the promise of more balanced global growth, but dramatic inequality persists within and among nations. Profound cultural and demographic tensions, rising demand for resources, and rapid urbanization could reshape single countries and entire regions. As the world grows more interconnected, more individuals are gaining awareness of their universal rights and have the capacity to pursue them. Democracies that respect the rights of their people remain successful states and America’s most steadfast allies. Yet the advance of democracy and human rights has stalled in many parts of the world.
Such features of the global strategic environment have been noted by military leaders, as well. Here's a portion of what GEN George Casey, soon-to-retire Chief of Staff of the Army, wrote in October 2009's Army Magazine, to describe what he calls the "era of persistent conflict":
Globalization can spread prosperity by accelerating the transfer of trade, technology and ideas, but it can also propagate destabilizing influences. While globalization has brought prosperity to people around the world, its benefits are unequally distributed, creating “have” and “have not” conditions that can spawn conflict.
Now check out this passage from another (less recent) assessment of the strategic environment:
Social patterns and institutions in most underdeveloped nations are extremely malleable. They are often a legacy of shapeless, frequently illogical political units which are derived, in part, from a colonial past. The disturbance of man’s mind and environment caused by the last World War  still lingers on in the Cold War. Concurrently a concept is spreading that society is manipulable. These characteristics act to diminish respect for public order, and encourage initiatives which easily cross the line into disorder and violence.
Intensifying and exaggerating these factors, and sweeping on with a momentum of its own, a social and economic revolution of great force has been spreading throughout much of the world. Purposefully or otherwise societies are gearing themselves to higher levels of economic and social activity. The necessary substructures inevitably cut into traditions and habits fostered by rural isolation. Rural people crowd into the strange environment of cities that lack for them a satisfactory pattern of living. Social action, like land reform, manifestly alters accustomed social and often political relationships. These are but examples of the manifold ways in which the revolution of modernization can disturb, uproot, and daze a traditional society. While the institutions required for modernization are in process of being created, this revolution contributes to arousing pressures, anxieties, and hopes which seem to justify violent action.
Looks familiar, I'd imagine, but I'm guessing you've never seen it before. Maybe I'm late to the game on this one -- and you should probably take away my COINdinista card for this -- but I'd never seen it before, either. The blacked-out sections above read "the last World War" and "in the Cold War." The passage is from the U.S. Overseas Internal Defense Policy (pdf), approved by President Kennedy in 1962 and promulgated via National Security Action Memorandum No. 182. The OIDP represented America's first run at national counterinsurgency policy, and served as the foundation for what would eventually develop into DoD's joint doctrine on foreign internal defense (pdf).

The worry in 1962, of course, was that weakened "transitional" societies would be vulnerable to communist subversion and insurgency. Today, our concern over weak and failing states stems from the threat of ungoverned spaces, violent extremism, destabilizing refugee flows and other humanitarian disasters, and so on.

A great irony of the present moment is the way that we've rhetorically (and in at least one case, materially)supported movements that seek to destabilize at least marginally capable state governments at a time when the very core of our foreign and security policy is reorienting in a Nixonian direction -- "the foreign policy equivalent of outsourcing," Peter Beinart once quipped. More to the point: we've spent the last ten years or so behaving in ways that suggested to the rest of the world that with the limited exception of certain well-known and agreed-upon poleis non gratae (the Irans and North Koreas of the world), handling your own anti-violent-extremist business was basically the way to satisfy America. (Viz. esp. Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, etc.) Perhaps the best example of this is the case of Libya: the rapprochement with Tripoli since 2003 need not be recounted here (see this CRS report (pdf) if you're interested), but it's worth noting.

Also worth noting is this section of the same 1962 COIN policy document excerpted above:
The U.S. does not wish to assume a stance against revolution, per se, as an historical means of change. The right of peoples to change their governments, economic systems and social structures by revolution is recognized in international law. Moreover, the use of force to overthrow certain types of government is not always contrary to U.S. interests. A change brought about through force by noncommunist elements may be preferable to prolonged deterioration of governmental effectiveness or to a continuation of a situation where increasing discontent and repression interact, thus building toward a more dangerous climax. Each case of latent, incipient, or active noncommunist insurgency must therefore be examined on its merits in the light of U.S. interests.
I suppose President Obama and other advocates of the Libyan intervention would feel similarly about anti-authoritarian movements in the Middle East, however hostile to al-Qaeda their despotic targets may be. Qaddafi surely banked on American restraint when hinting at the specter of terrorism; he obviously miscalculated. But it may be worth asking ourselves, after the expensive intervention that has resulted from this miscalculation, whether it's America's responsibility to more clearly enunciate just exacly how "each case of latent, incipient, or active" anti-authoritarian agitation will be evaluated.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Shameless begging, or: Twitterfighting ain't about who's smarter (UPDATED)

UPDATE: Vanquished. Quandoque bonus dormitat homerus. I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country -- Victory or Death, etc.

Look, I know I said she's really smart. (I know I said she's smarter than you, in fact. And smarter than me.) But twitterfighting ain't about smarts. It's about doggedness. It's about volume. It's about shouting the other guy/gal down, and making sure that your inferior intelligence is drowned out by a wall of nearly-nonsensical words. And when it comes to twitterfighting, @allthingsct -- aka Australian (!) counterterrorism expert Leah Farrall -- well, she can't hold a candle to me.

The tournament of the millennium has been going on for two rounds now, with nary a peep from me. I didn't know when the brackets went up. I didn't gripe when I was a 6 seed. I didn't ask for your votes when I was matched up against global media sensations and darlings of the south Asian twitterverse. And I vanquished opponents with over 15,000 combined followers. Little ol' pseudonymous me.

But now there's a different challenge: Farrall. She's serious. She plays for keeps. She's done with her dissertation, so she's probably got a lot of time to engage with her followers and stamp out idiocy in the twitterverse. She's probably got a lot of time for twitterfighting.

So where is she? Your guess is as good as mine. You know what's important in twitterfighting, just like in global hegemony and military preeminence? Persistent presence. That's what you get from the only legitimately pseudonymous twitterer left in the twitterfightclub bracket. Don't disappoint, followers and readers. Cast a vote for freedom, not for the Taliban's pen-pal. Go Gulliver.

P.S. Leah is awesome, and everything above is a joke. But still: vote for me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New to the blogosphere: Carl Prine

Well, he's not exactly "new to the blogosphere": he's been haunting the comments section at SWJ, Abu Muqawama, and here (though not for a while, and often under a pseudonym -- or what he likes to call an "avatar"). Carl's now running the blog Line of Departure at, taking over for Jamie McIntyre.
My day job makes me an investigative reporter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. There, I cover war, terrorism, football and all sorts of other things. Most people who watch TV remember me from CBS 60 Minutes or the PBS series on chemical terrorism, but mostly my gig involves finding really smart people, asking them to say interesting things, and then figuring out how this democracy will talk about it all. 
So that’s what we’re going to do here, too. We’re going to talk about battle and reporting and find smart people to interview and then we’re going to converse about like adults because these are serious topics and we’re a nation at war. 
I’m going to be intentionally provocative at times. I’ll tell crass jokes. I warn you that I’ll be combative and pointlessly obstinate but often enough vaguely sane. 
I'm sure it'll be a sight to see, so add him to your blogroll.

Ends, ways, and means in Libya (UPDATED)

The U.S. is currently at war in Libya, this time (as nearly always) at the head of an international coalition. In closing his remarks on the passage of UNSCR 1973 last Friday, which authorizes UN member states "to take all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya," President Obama assured the nation that "our goal is focused, our cause is just, and our coalition is strong." Rest assured: at least one of these things is true.

There's been a great deal of justifiable hand-wringing over the last several days about war aims, an issue that has only been further confused by the president's remarks on the subject. In the directive portion of the Security Council resolution, that august body variously demands, stresses, authorizes, recognizes, decides, calls upon, requests, requires, and urges various parties to take certain actions. I'm going to boil all of that down to the fundamentals. So here's what the resolution does:

1. Demands an immediate cease-fire and end to violence against civilians (presumably by the regime).

2. Demands that the regime meet the basic needs of its civilian population.

3. Authorizes member states to take action to enforce (1), including by arming rebel forces.

4. Establishes a ban on flights over Libyan territory, with certain exceptions, and without specific instructions as to how such a ban will be enforced, or by whom.

5. Authorizes member states to figure out (4) for themselves, and to take responsibility for enforcement.

6. Forbids the deployment of foreign occupation forces on Libyan territory.

7. Reinforces the provisions of a previous resolution (UNSCR 1970) that relate to an arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze on members of the Libyan regime.

As you can see, member states are pretty well left to their own devices when it comes to enforcement. That means that individual states like the U.S., or groupings of states operating as an international enforcement coalition, must translate these demands and requirements into desired endstates and military objectives. How might that look? Here's my run at it.

1) Operations against civilians by the Libyan regime are halted (either voluntarily or by compulsion)
2) A no-fly zone over Libyan territory is created and enforced
3) Basic needs of the civilian population are met by the Libyan regime*
4) Humanitarian assistance is freely provided to affected populations

*The president elaborated this requirement by saying that "Qaddafi must... establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas."

These endstates are conditions that are not time-limited; they contain no measure of sustainability, so we must assume that to enact them initially will be considered an objective endpoint. By this standard, the UN-authorized operation would have achieved its purpose if each of these conditions were to be satisfied -- that is, if Libyan forces declared and honored a cease-fire; a no-fly zone were created; water, electricity, and gas were restored to the entire country; and humanitarian assistance reached those who have been impacted by violence. (The president added that "Qaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, [and] pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiya;" presumably this is to ensure the protection of civilians, but if a cease-fire were to be declared and honored, withdrawal would seem redundant.)

1a) Defeat, dislocate, and/or destroy those Libyan regime forces directly threatening the safety of civilians
1b) Defeat, dislocate, and/or destroy those Libyan regime forces that refuse to withdraw from the immediate vicinity of Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya
2a) Establish air supremacy over Libyan territory in order to prevent regime air assets from operating
2b) Defeat, dislocate, and/or destroy those Libyan regime air defenses that may threaten coalition forces enforcing a no-fly zone
3a) Coerce Libyan regime to restore supply of water, gas and electricity to civilian population
3b) Disrupt Libyan regime efforts to interrupt supply of water, gas and electricity to civilian population
4a) Defeat, dislocate, and/or destroy those Libyan regime forces presently positioned to disrupt the provision of humanitarian assistance to affected civilian populations
4b) Secure those airfields and port facilities, and supply routes deemed necessary to deliver humanitarian aid
4c) Execute delivery of humanitarian supplies as necessary in support of international humanitarian relief effort

To be clear, if all of these objectives are achieved, here's where we're at: Qaddafi regime retains power; those Libyan forces not postured to threaten civilian populations are left armed and operational; governance of rebel-controlled areas, including supply of water, gas, electricity, and other basic needs becomes the responsibility of opposition forces, and/or the international community, as the Libyan regime will no longer have access to this territory; a de-facto partition of Libyan territory without any plan or vision for how this partition is either formalized or resolved. This untenable reality is, of course, a policy and strategy problem, not a military one.

But what about those military objectives? Are they achievable with the ways and means at our disposal?

1) Coalition air and naval strikes against Libyan regime maneuver forces
2a) Persistent presence and monitoring of Libyan airspace by coalition air and electronic warfare assets
2b) Coalition air and naval strikes against Libyan air defense and command and control assets
3a) Coalition air and naval strikes and information operations against Libyan regime leadership
3b) Restoration of water, gas and electricity supplies by coalition ground forces and/or provisional governmental authority
3c) Coalition air and naval strikes against Libyan regime maneuver forces
4a) Coalition air and naval strikes against Libyan regime maneuver forces
4b) Airfield and port seizures by coalition airborne and special operations forces
4c) Movement of humanitarian aid by military transport and logistics assets
4d) Persistent coalition air and ground presence to secure lines of communication

Let's pause for a second before we move on to means. There are a few of these ways that directly contravene various provisions of the UNSCR, notably the prohibition on "foreign occupation forces" (read coalition ground forces) on Libyan territory. As such, the ways available to coalition military forces to effect objectives 3 and 4 are fundamentally non-viable. Without the use of coalition ground forces to directly restore or coerce the Libyan regime into restoring water, gas and electricity, or to allow the movement of humanitarian assistance into affected areas, the only way to accomplish these objectives is to hope the regime can be battered so fiercely as to accede to international will. (This seems -- to risk understatement -- unlikely at this point.) And to make things more difficult, the regime must be battered sufficiently to allow the imposition of the international community's will, but not so thoroughly as to render it incapable of delivering mandated public services.

But now what about the means available? This is the easy part.

1), 2) U.S. and other coalition air and naval assets in the Mediterranean Sea, Crete, Malta, Italy, other parts of continental Europe, and long-range assets from the U.S. and non-European forward staging areas
3), 4) [Not applicable as they would cause a violation of UNSCR: as above, plus coalition ground forces, transportation and logistics assets, and humanitarian relief assets from the international community]

What if the roadblocks went away? Well, that's where things get really messy. If you want to talk about the restoration of public services to the population, the wholesale removal of regime threat to any and all civilians on all parts of Libyan territory, etc., then see Iraq, Republic of, 2006 et seq.

As mentioned earlier, all this is made even more confusing by President Obama's response when asked if regime change was a goal of coalition military operations:
“It is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference with the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera. “And we’ve got a wide range of tools in addition to our military effort to support that policy.” Mr. Obama cited economic sanctions, the freezing of assets and other measures to isolate the regime in Tripoli.
In case this doesn't make sense to you: the goal of coalition (including U.S.) military action in Libya is to enforce UNSCR 1973. An additional policy goal of the United States is the removal of Qaddafi from power, but at present the U.S. does not seek to effect that goal through the application of military force -- i.e. through the expansion of the ongoing military campaign. What the president doesn't speak to is U.S. policy post-Qaddafi: if we get what we presumably want and the despot goes, then what? What is our responsibility? What is our desired endstate? What assets and resources can and should we bring to bear to effect that endstate? We're left in the dark. I suppose we can cross that bridge when we come to it, right?

So to sum this all up, our "focused goal" is to enforce the provisions of a UNSC resolution that is in part unenforceable, and on the whole almost certainly unsustainable. Our follow-on plan is to transition whatever military effort remains (after initial operations achieve their objectives) to an international coalition of uncertain composition and under uncertain leadership, and then to use what other non-military means we have at our disposal to seek the non-coalition, non-military, U.S. policy objective of regime change in Libya. ("We are not going to use military means to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.") And then: apres Qaddafi, le deluge... of win. (We hope.)

UPDATE: Here's ADM Locklear, commander of JTF Odyssey Dawn, speaking to the press yesterday:
I think our president was pretty clear when he laid out the construct in his POTUS [President of the United States] speech on 18 March of what his expectations were; one of those, that the regime forces of Gadhafi have to stop advancing on Benghazi; they have to pull back from Zawiyah, Ajdabiya, Misurata.  They have not done that.  Benghazi, we have -- we basically have forced him out of Benghazi.  In the other three places, they have not complied -- (audio break) -- direction from our president.
And so if I take a look at how I -- my mission here, I apply that type of standard to operations that are occurring.  If Colonel Gadhafi would meet that requirement, would have a cease-fire implemented; stop all attacks against citizens and withdraw from the places that we've told him to withdraw; establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas and allow humanitarian assistance, then the fighting would stop.  Our job would be over.
This seems to confirm the military objectives identified above, as well as my conclusions about when U.S. leadership feels the operation will be over.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Command and control of a UN coalition for Libya

As the international community has reached consensus that a coalition of air forces will begin enforcing a no-fly zone and possibly air strikes, it's time to begin thinking about how to operationalize this endeavor. At last count, France, UK, Canada, and Denmark have already ponied up forces and President Obama was in discussions with Congress and French and UK leaders about possible U.S. involvement.

Here's the catch with U.S. involvement: if we provide troops (in this case planes and naval vessels), command and control of the operation may fall to the U.S. Title X of the U.S. Code dictates that the chain of command for U.S. forces will never deviate from the President to operational commanders. In the 1990s, President Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 25, which states that if the U.S. is involved in UN operations, U.S. forces can be placed under the operational command of competent UN force commanders. It also states that as the proportion of U.S. forces in the command increases, it is less likely that U.S. forces would fall under foreign command. At the moment I can't find anything that supersedes this PDD (if our readers do know of anything please post in the comments), so it seems that it is the most liberal document on this topic and can likely be ignored, leaving the default deciding factor as Title X.

If the United States provides an aircraft carrier or two, we would likely be the largest single nation contribution to the coalition. That means we would have command. I would imagine this is in the administrations calculus on whether or not to be part of a coalition. It doesn't seem we want to own this and would prefer letting Europe take the lead, but it seems we can't do that and provide forces. This will be a tough decision for the U.S. and the international community.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Powell Doctrine's fundamental flaw and the administration's dithering

I was going to write (yet another) post on intervention in Libya - specifically that the proponents of intervention, particularly a no-fly zone, are conducting their "planning process" backwards. They are starting with the tool they want to use and then backpedaling to find an interest to substantiate U.S. involvement (anywhere from human rights to the imminent threat Quaddafi poses). I was going to show how the process is supposed to work, starting with a grand strategy (or at least regional strategy) and then define the problem, what assets you have, etc. And then I was going to point out that the interventionists are correct on one thing: that President Obama is dithering. But not on what they think he is dithering on. The reason we don't know what to do with the Arab uprisings is that we don't have a coherent strategy to drive our policies and operations in the region - we don't know what we want out of all of this. That's where the administration is dithering, not in not blindly acting as to be seen as doing something.

The reason the previous paragraph wasn't turned into a full post of its own is because as I was about to go through the Powell Doctrine line-by-line, I noticed it, too, has a gaping strategic hole. And I thought that was more important than restating with an example that the U.S. has still not developed coherent regional or global strategies. Anyway, here's the hole: it doesn't account for the existence of any sort of greater strategy. The problem with the Powell Doctrine is the first question (the remaining questions address the operationalization of the intervention), which is the only question to address the reason for intervening. But it merely asks if a vital national security interest is threatened. The current situation in Libya is showing that without a strategic framework that elucidates what is a vital national security interest, when faced with a decision to intervene it can be very difficult to determine the answer to the first question.

As the administration has not yet said what they would want out these uprisings or a more general strategy in North Africa and the Middle East, we can speculate as to what those interests are. Some have argued that protecting the rebels in the east is a vital national security interest because failing to help them will have long term credibility consequences in the region. Others have argued that Quaddafi presents a threat to the United States (I think this is tenuous at best, but it is an argument being made). Or our oil interests in the region. Non-interventionists have argued that none of these are vital national security interests and therefore we shouldn't be involved. So who's correct?

The inaction of the administration (which most of you are aware that I support) indicates that they (and mainly the President) do not feel that any of these things are threats to vital national security issues. But they haven't said so and have been involved in interminable "discussions". These uprisings have been going on for nearly two months now and the administration has yet to define their stance on how to react to them. There is still no strategy, which would tell the U.S. government, the U.S. people, and the citizens and governments of Arab states what we consider to be our vital national security interests. Instead we're in a position where the administration doesn't know what to do, Arab leaders don't know what we're going to do, and the Arab people don't know what to expect from us. This can be a very dangerous situation with so many different expectations on what the U.S. can and should do.

The utility of the Powell Doctrine has been widely debated and untested, but now we're seeing that without a strategic framework to guide decision-makers in determining our vital national security interests, it doesn't much help us in deciding to intervene. It does provide a useful checklist for policymakers before intervening, but not whether or not to intervene. It appears we're getting past the point of useful intervention in Libya, but that doesn't mean the administration shouldn't still develop a strategy (or policy at least) to describe what it wants out of the region. If our current strategic incoherence continues, we are going to constantly revisit the intervention question and still not be able to intelligently address that question. Now would seem like a good time to finally developing viable strategies instead of putting out fires as they arise.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Leon Wieseltier: At least he's consistent!

You might remember that just as all this Libya drama was really getting kicked off a few weeks ago, I derided what I viewed as ill-considered advocacy for intervention by Leon Wieseltier. The broad outlines of the intervention/non-intervention debate have remained roughly the same in the intervening period -- most commentators have used the last three weeks to sharpen up their arguments with such compelling justifications as "look at all the people who agree with me/disagree with you," and that's something I've mostly tried to stay out of. But I couldn't help myself this afternoon when Ex pointed back over to good ol' Wieseltier, still harping on about American impotence and the staggering simplicity of effecting complicated political ends through the use of force. At least he's consistent, right? Hm, well, about that...

Here's what Wieseltier wrote today:
Of course nobody is suggesting that a single American soldier step foot on Libyan soil
But here's another distinguished foreign policy commentator back on February 25th:
Is the United States really prevented by its past from deploying the small number of troops that would be required to rescue Tripoli from Qaddafi’s bloody grip?
Apparently there is somebody suggesting that American soldiers step foot on Libyan soil. Or at least, there was somebody a couple of weeks ago, before pushback on even the prospect of a no-fly zone perhaps drove home for that guy just exactly how unpopular his proposal was with both the American electorate and the national security commentariat.

Oh, yeah, and this might also be noteworthy: that quote from last month was Wieseltier, too, of course.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A word on the inexorable eastward shift in the global military balance

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies released its annual Military Balance report yesterday to some fanfare in the British press. (And unless you want to spend ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-EIGHT POUNDS to download the actual pdf, you'll have to depend on media reports and the Institute's own press release to summarize the contents.) In a representative example, Reuters' write-up is headlined "East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report."
Western cuts and swiftly rising defense spending in emerging economies are redrawing the global strategic map, a leading think-tank said on Tuesday, with the danger of conflicts between states also rising.
In its annual Global Military Balance report, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said the shift in economic power was already beginning to have a real military effect and closing any strategic gap.
"Western states' defense budgets are under pressure and their military procurement is constrained," said IISS director general John Chipman. "But in other regions -- notably Asia and the Middle East -- military spending and arms acquisitions are booming. There is persuasive evidence that a global redistribution of military power is under way."
The Drudge Report later tweeted the Reuters piece, but otherwise the report's release made barely a ripple in the American media. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, seeing as the Retuers headline alone seems such perfect fodder for the defense defenders.

What of it, then? Are you persuaded by Chipman's "persuasive evidence that a global redistribution of military power is under way"? If so, should we be worried?

Before we get to discussions of "military power," we ought to talk about the raw numbers: spending. Should we be spooked that western defense budgets are continuing their steady decline in most cases, while those of China and several other developing countries are increasing? Well, for one thing, we can't treat "the west and the rest" as differentiated, analytically meaningful groups. Most people are going to focus on China, and that's fair enough. But several of the other big spenders cited in the report -- India, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Colombia, and the GCC countries, for example -- are U.S. allies or partners. Furthermore, a significant share of the cash they're pouring into military modernization will end up in the coffers of western defense industries, helping to sustain the industrial base necessary to field equipment to the U.S. military in a relatively expeditious and cost-effective (meh, ok, not really) manner. We ought to keep some perspective on this when considering the "shifting East-West military gap."

As for China: we see a lot of talk about threatening annual growth in Chinese defense spending, with estimates ranging from sustained yearly increases of perhaps 7% to over 12%. I'd suggest this is only natural and concommitant with the broader growth of China's economy and national aspirations (particularly those associated with efforts to sustain the supply of natural resources helping to fuel that economic growth). But, dude, they're a developing country. Double-digit increases in growth are impressive, no doubt, whether you're talking about economic growth or budget growth. I'm hesitant to draw an imperfect parallel from another putatively communist country almost a century ago, but I'm going to do so anyway. You know where else I've seen double-digit economic growth over the course of a decade? During the first couple Soviet Five-Year Plans. They grew their economy by 12 or 13% a year through much of the 1930s. And you know where they were at the end of that? Still an economic midget compared to the U.S. Why? Because it's pretty simple to create growth by aggressively industrializing and modernizing a largely agrarian economy, one that was starting out on a pretty low rung of the ol' economic development ladder. The same is roughly true of modernizing a massive, reasonably unsophisticated "people's army" (especially as of 1989, when spending increases really jumped). Like I said, Soviet economic growth is an imperfect parallel for China's military spending, but I think there's a lesson here: you can throw a whole bunch of money at mud huts and show dramatic, impressive "growth," but I'll still take the city with the glass and steel skyscrapers chugging along at zero real growth.

But let's stipulate for a second that aggressive spending plans are significant to the discussion, and that we ought to care about tanks and planes and submarines. What exactly is military power, and how do the numbers figure in? Chipman doesn't give his own definition, but we can presume that any assessments based on a reading of what the press release calls "an increasingly detailed record of the numerical indicators of the military strength of an expanding number of states" will be necessarily quantitative in nature.
Thus, using The Military Balance, it is possible to make time-series comparisons over many years of states’ defence spending, military personnel numbers, and equipment holdings. But it is entirely valid to ask how much this tells us about real military capabilities: the ability of states to deter potential adversaries and, if necessary, to deploy and use military force effectively.

The IISS already includes substantial qualitative analysis in The Military Balance, in order to strengthen its utility to those assessing military capability. For example, for many air forces we indicate the number of flying hours per operational pilot. We include a table showing selected major military exercises and training activities. We provide extensive narrative surveys for each region, which among other things highlight national efforts to develop military capability.

We recognise, though, that The Military Balance could more systematically take account of a fuller range of factors contributing to contemporary national military capabilities. Specifically, we plan in future editions to assess key states’ capacities in areas such as logistics and combat support, C4ISR, training, joint-service operations, and interoperability with allies. In that light, we expect to increase country-specific narrative capability assessment significantly from next year onwards. At the same time, we are reconsidering the categories of equipment that we list in the context of their contribution to military capability.
This is a very important qualifying statement, and it's heartening to see the report's authors acknowledging its qualitative limitations. In the acquisition and materiel world, people have a habit of using the word "capability" to refer to a piece of gear. It's easy to forget that a weapon system only translates into a warfighting capability when that piece of gear is nested into a comprehensive framework for its employment, one that takes into account training, doctrine, organization, and so on. (This is what the U.S. DoD refers to as the DOTMLPF construct (pronounced "DOT-muhl-pee-eff"; yes, seriously) -- for Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and education, Personnel, and Facilities.). To put this another way, if you give two different organizations the same piece of kit, they won't necessarily be able to employ the same capability.

Why this digression? Because I think it's important when you're looking at a bunch of whiz-bang charts showing numbers of big hull ships and armored vehicles and fighter/bombers to remember that existence in the arsenal does not equal fightability. So while we can certainly say that there's a global redistribution of military spending, we should be careful not to draw unsupported conclusions about relative military power.

Let's take a gander at what I think might be the most interesting feature of the materials that were publically released (for FREE, that is) by IISS yesterday: a graphic comparing U.S. aircraft assets with those of our NATO allies.
Take a look for yourself, but let me highlight some numbers I think are significant:
Total number of heavy transport aircraft: U.S. 285; European NATO allies 16.
Total number of tankers and multi-role tanker/transport aircraft: U.S. 538; Europeans 72.
Total number of heavy transport helicopters: U.S. 632; Europeans 205.
Total number of medium transport helicopters: U.S. 2090; Europeans 633.
That's 18 times as many heavy transports, seven times as many tankers, and three and a half times as many medium and heavy lift helos. Whether you're talking about inter- or intra-theater, operational or tactical transport, the U.S. is still absolutely essential to NATO. You can obviously do a bunch of analysis with just these few numbers and draw a lot of conclusions about strategy, policy, and spending -- the Europeans don't spend enough; the Europeans are too dependent on U.S. lift assets and this highlights a flaw in both concepts and procurement strategy; the U.S. has made a good/bad decision in making itself indispensable to NATO efforts to conduct out-of-area operations; etc. -- but one thing you cannot do is take a chart like this, change the row names to "country A" and "country B" to avoid all the geopolitics inherent in this kind of hypothetical, and then assume that country A is going to kick country B's ass in a war because it's got more of X and Y.

Which brings us back to relative military power: from a strategic planning perspective, comparative measures aren't particularly useful. We should more appropriately be asking "what is X country's capability to perform this particular mission?" Frankly, it doesn't matter one damn bit whether China achieves parity in global military power with the U.S. next year, ten years from now, in a century, or never. What does matter is when Chinese capabilities begin to meaningfully impinge upon the USG's ability to accomplish its desired ends in a particular theater, the most important of which, of course, is probably Northeast Asia/the Western Pacific. You could argue that this is already happening, and that the pace at which this is happening is accelerating. That's a much more important piece of analysis than simply projecting that Chinese defense spending will match the U.S. budget in real terms within a certain number of years.

Hopefully that's some food for thought. (Wish I didn't have to chip in three Benjamins to get more to chew on!)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A couple of notes on arming Libyan rebels

Josh Rogin is reporting this morning that P.J. Crowley has dismissed proposals to arm Libyan rebels as "not a legal option." Here's more:
"It's very simple. In the U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Libya, there is an arms embargo that affects Libya, which means it's a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday.
Crowley denied reports that the United States had asked Saudi Arabia to provide weapons to the Libyan opposition, and also denied that the United States would arm opposition groups absent explicit international authorization.
Pressed by reporters to clarify whether the Obama administration had any plans to give arms to any of the rebel groups in Libya, Crowley said no.
"It would be illegal for the United States to do that," he said. "It's not a legal option."
Crowley's blanket statement seemed to go further than comments on Monday by White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said, "On the issue of ... arming, providing weapons, it is one of the range of options that is being considered."
Crowley maintained that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970, which imposed international sanctions on Libya that included an arms embargo, applied to both the Qaddafi regime and the rebel groups.
"It's not on the government of Libya: It's on Libya," he said.
First: I don't know anything about U.N. Security Council Resolutions. I don't know on whom they're binding, I don't know the definitions they're operating under, and I don't know to whom the terms refer. That said, the language of the resolution (pdf) seems pretty clear:
Decides that all Member States shall immediately take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, from or through their territories or by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned, and technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance, related to military activities or the provision, maintenance or use of any arms and related materiel, including the provision of armed mercenary personnel whether or not originating in their territories, and decides further that this measure shall not apply to:
(a) Supplies of non-lethal military equipment intended solely for humanitarian or protective use, and related technical assistance or training, as approved in advance by the Committee established pursuant to paragraph 24 below;
(b) Protective clothing, including flak jackets and military helmets, temporarily exported to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya by United Nations personnel, representatives of the media and humanitarian and development works and associated personnel, for their personal use only; or
(c) Other sales or supply of arms and related materiel, or provision of assistance or personnel, as approved in advance by the Committee;
Furthermore: what I do know is U.S. arms transfer regulations. And in those, unless otherwise specified, embargoes and other limitations on the transfer of defense articles pertain to all persons, corporations, business associations, partnerships, societies, trusts, or other entities, organizations, or groups, including governmental entities. (This according to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which are published by the Department of State and govern the transfer of defense articles and services to non-U.S. parties.) Particular end-users can be subject to certain specific transfer restrictions, but the ITAR elaborates policy determinations and embargoes on export to particular countries. Export, in this case, means transfer or disclosure to a foreign person. So if you show some documents containing technical data to a foreign national at your office in DC, that constitutes an export. All of which is a long way of saying that U.S. arms transfer restrictions on Libya pertain to all of Libya and all Libyan persons, not just the Libyan government.

And here's what Crowley didn't mention: UNSCR 1970 didn't impact the U.S. position on arms exports to Libya one whit. Here's ITAR 126.1(k) (click here for Part 126 in pdf form):
Libya. It is the policy of the United Sates [sic] to deny licenses, other approvals, exports or imports of defense articles and defense services destined for or originating in Libya except, on a case-by-case basis, for:
(1) Non-lethal defense articles and defense services,
(2) Non-lethal safety-of-use defense articls (e.g., cartridge actuated devices, propellant actuated devices and technical manals for military aircraft for purposes of enhancing the safety of the aircrew) as spare parts for lethal end-items.
For non-lethal defense end-items, no distinction will be made between Libya's existing and new inventory.
The short version? U.S. arms exports to Libya were already blocked by U.S. policy and regulation. These can be changed in exigent circumstances, of course, but they've now been bolstered (or one could even say obviated) by the provisions of the UNSCR.

(A P.S. while we're on the subject: Josh is one of what seems to me to be a vanishingly small number of national security journalists who takes the time not only to at least briefly research the law and policy issues that underpin his reporting, but to cursorily address them in his stories. Presumably the journalistic convention of not doing this derives from the assumption that the average reader is either disinterested in trivia or too stupid to understand the details of the background; as a result, I particularly appreciate those who go a little deeper.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

The U.S. is not the new Prussia

Yesterday, the Small Wars Journal carried a post by Franz-Stefan Gady on the militarism of the United States, comparing this phenomenon to Prussian militarization. While not addressing every point in this piece, I do want to hone in on a couple of issues the author raised about the interaction of a nation with its military.

Politicians and the Military
To any observer it is fairly easy to see that the U.S. military has inequitable clout in U.S. foreign policy, the most recent review of our policy in Afghanistan being the shining light example. There is an imbalance that needs to be righted. What Gady doesn't discuss is a likely causation for this or how to fix it (save his comments later in the piece on the Defense budget, which I'll get to). Politicians defer to general and flag officers on matters of war too frequently, but the big question is why? I can't say for sure, but I've postulated before that the civilian leadership has abdicated there roll of military supervision because they don't really know what they're doing. Waging war, especially limited war, has become so complex that it requires special expertise often not found in career politicians. So they look for that expertise in those that have been conducting and training for war most of their lives (to include their former military, civilian advisors). As part of my grand strategy series, I pointed out the nature of U.S. military officership, which puts a high premium on initiative, nearly demands that officers fill in decision-making void created by civilian politicians. I don't see how this is done any differently with any highly specialized function of government. I'm not supporting this as something that should happen, just observing it.

One of the interesting aspects of the recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is a reversal of militarization. Many politicians have been calling for military intervention, particularly in Libya, and it has been the military pouring cold water on great ideas. How does this phenomenon fit into our understanding of civil-military relations at the national government level? I'm not sure yet, but I think it speaks volumes against Gady's argument. It seems that in most cases civilian politicians will defer to defense officials on defense matters as a matter of course (let's face it, the Ike Skeltons of the world are few and far between). Because they are the experts, whether you like it or not. I believe that these uniformed experts do provide their advice, which more often than not lately have become policy, based on their understand of the nation's objectives and (almost always) not on how they see these decisions would affect their own prestige or sense of militarism. In sum, I don't see this as militarization as much as highly specialized functions of government wherein the politicians defer to those that have more expertise than they. Politicians shouldn't do this, but policy details don't win elections, popular stances do. Which brings us to the next topic...

The People and the Military
I'm not sure what Gady's point is about strangers buying drinks for servicemembers in uniform and that this wouldn't happen in Europe. Strangers buy drinks for servicemembers because in this age of limited war waged by a small all-volunteer military, it's about the only thing they can do to recognize the many sacrifices made by these men and women and their families. I have been fortunate to have been on the receiving end of this symbolic gesture and it was almost always accompanied by thanks for my service and/or sacrifice. I don't see this as militarization of the U.S., but instead as a sense of doing something for someone who does give a lot (not necessarily directly for the drink buyer) and is quite foreign to most of the population. I think a good question to ask is why doesn't this happen more in Europe? As much as the U.S. population's love for the military has been a knee-jerk reaction to Vietnam, Europe's apathy or disdain for its militaries are still reactionary from World War II (generally speaking - it obviously differs country to country but in the stated case of Germany...).

This sense of distant gratitude does not explain the recurring election or campaigning for office of former generals and admirals. Why do the American people put so much stock in military service when considering political candidates? I'd like to say that for a lot of the electorate it is the belief that officers have spent their lives in service to their nation and not themselves, they are proven leaders under difficult circumstances, they are proven executives, that they are honorable and truthful people, etc. I think we all know that's not the case for every retired officer who runs for office. There's also the idea that experience equals expertise and that an expert in defense issues would better protect the nation, also an erroneous idea. I think it's more of the former ideals of military service that people think so highly of former servicemembers when considering them for elected office. Maybe this is a sign of militarism in the United States and I for one would like to see more study on this topic.

The Defense Budget
Gady states that "[r]educing the defense budget would not threaten the security of the United States or lead to a decline in its international standing." His not being a paper on defense economics, that is quite a statement to make. In my opinion, should DoD make cuts? Yes, to improve efficiencies lost of the past forever years. But Gady seems to suggest that this should be done to decrease the militarism of the United States. I haven't read the Adams and Leatherman article referenced (I stopped my subscription to Foreign Affairs last year), but generically stating that we can maintain our security and international status is dubious at best. Even by taking the bloat out of the Pentagon's budget and stop paying the $100B or so for Iraq and Afghanistan, it still costs a lot of money to maintain and equip the world's most advanced military (in most regards at least) and to procure equipment needed for the future. Oh, and good luck telling Congress to make a ton of cuts. The recent budget battle has just reinforced the idea that Congress uses the DoD as a jobs program in manufacturing jobs, which has nothing to do with militarization.

Civil-military relations have been a hot topic lately and will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. I haven't covered nearly everything in Mr. Gady's paper here and do not intend to in the future. Suffice it to say that I think there is a tilting towards militarism in the United States in some of the ways that Gady suggests. I do not think many of the things he discusses are militarism, but instead are practical (if not necessarily correct) reactions to environmental stimuli as outlined here. While I've been thinking about it, I cannot begin to suggest how to correct for either actual militarism or reactions that resemble militarism. I do believe that Gady is way off on suggesting that the United States is the new Prussia. We may be on a path to such a state of affairs, but if we are we've only just begun and have time to turn back. Being stuck in two very long wars that will likely result in our achieving few objectives will most likely help us not to continue down such a path.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cameron's fuzzy math and the failure of the SDSR (Updated)

With pundits and leaders (PM Cameron specifically) calling for NATO action to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, I'm at a loss on how this could be done. Even if we put aside the fact that the preponderance of the alliance does not want to get involved militarily, there's a plain old numbers problem with doing this. Let's go through this:
  • Number of aircraft carriers needed to enforce a no-fly zone: at least 2 by most calculations.
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers that the UK owns: 0.
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers that France owns: 1. That has all sorts of maintenance issues and is just returning from an extensive trip in the Indian Ocean. Given it's history, it should think about heading home as fast as it can.
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers owned by rest of European NATO allies: 4. Of the smaller variety (less than 27k tons)
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers that the US owns: 11.
Well, well. Thank you Mr. Cameron for your interest in NATO (and the UK specifically) taking the lead on this important issue, in spite of the fact that you have no way of doing this without essentially asking the U.S. to do almost all of it for you. You either can't do sums or you're trying to goad the U.S. into action while assuming the lead. Well done, old boy. Buddy is only half of a word.

I am against a no-fly zone personally as I don't think the U.S. can answer the questions posed by the Powell Doctrine. If we can't answer those questions, I'm certainly against another open-ended military commitment with vague objectives. But make no mistakes, given the geography of the area, we're not talking about a multi-national coalition enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. It's a U.S. enforcement. While our Special Relationship has been tense the past few years, it takes a lot of gall to clamor for NATO involvement and take the mantle of leadership upon yourself when you don't have the kit to back it up. Maybe that whole SDSR thing doesn't meet your national aspirations. Maybe you ought to give it a rethink. Or this is going to keep happening and our relationship is going to get more tense before it gets better.

UPDATE: Just a couple of point of clarification. Yes, the primary impediment to a no-fly zone is political. I get that. If that impediment is removed, it will be difficult to implement.

Land basing becomes difficult as well - although not impossible. Malta is not a NATO member, which would make air basing there difficult. I've also hear Cyprus, Crete and bases around Corsica. I can't speak for the infrastructure at these places, but I would hazard that it would be quite expensive to move the equipment and personnel necessary to these places. Especially for such long sorties to Libya, never mind time on station once they're there, and the flights back. For example, Crete to Tripoli would take nearly 2/3 of the fuel capacity of a Tornado (with extra fuel pods and no ordnance) just to cross the water between the two places. That's a long ways to go if you're planning on patrolling once you get there. Maintenance, fuel, refuel, and crew requirements make this a very expensive operation. No, I think carriers would be the best option (save Malta of course - but I'm making a NATO-internal argument here).

Finally, I hope our French readers do not take offense at my comments on the Charles de Gaulle. It was not a swipe at the French military, it was commentary on the shoddy maintenance record of that ship over the past few years and the fact that it's been in extensive operational use for Afghanistan and in exercises in the Indian Ocean. I'm not a naval expert, but when you combine those things, I would guess that the de Gaulle should head to port for some much needed sustainment maintenance. I could be quite wrong though.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Debating the terms of the debate about intervention

In case you've been living under a rock lately, there's been an intensifying debate about whether and how to use military force to keep Qaddafi from turning relatively limited massacres into a complete blood bath.

I - and as far as I know, none of my fellow Ink Spotters - know enough about Libya's internal politics and military capabilities to justify having a firm view on what the best option should look like (although I look forward to them proving me wrong). That's not what I want to write about here.

Rather, I want to take on the knee jerk reaction from many otherwise thoughtful commentators on military affairs to any suggestion of US military action to protect foreign civilian from getting slaughtered.* I suspect that some at least will protest that this isn't what is motivating their calls for caution, but the consistency of how this debate plays out (over the last 20 years, at least) is disturbing, and suggests there's some disappointing predictability on both sides. So in the interests of getting some very bright people to put some serious thought into how to deal with this problem,

1. Military action isn't always the answer, but sometimes it is the only option to halt mass killing.

The last time this debate occurred, Ex put forth four basic questions that cover most of the important ground. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no one - including Ex - is publicly answering those questions with regard to Libya. Most of us (again, including Ex) just don't know enough about the country, and what is currently going on there.

However, Ex, Elkus and others are all emphatically pointing out how complicated military intervention can be, and in the past have highlighted the potential for things to go wrong - very wrong, very quickly.

On this, they are absolutely correct, but it's true of all military operations, regardless of the objectives. Repeating it ad nauseam is not really contributing to the debate. Certainly, those who underplay or obscure the very real dangers should be challenged. But those who draw false analogies with little if any resemblance in the specifics of the situation are equally guilty of misrepresenting reality. And the skeptics of intervention tend to stubbornly ignore examples of success in some very hard cases.

Moreover, those of us who've studied this particular type of problem in detail would warn that history has consistently demonstrated that when groups tip over into mass killing, very little short of military action has ever proven effective. Everything else takes too long to bite, or simply doesn't bite hard enough to change the strategic calculus of the perpetrators.

So instead of vague discussions of how difficult and costly it might be, or patronizingly dismissing the other side as not understanding the complexity of military operations, those who want to weigh in should be making specific arguments about the situation confronting us.

I will say this, though: a no-fly zone is unlikely to prove effective unless the perpetrators are only able to attack civilians from the air, or value their air assets above the goals they hoped to achieve through mass killing. Given that mass killing is usually justified or even triggered by a perception of existential threat from the victims, the latter is pretty unlikely. A pair of articles (to which Ex linked) highlight the limitations of no-fly zones in general, and with reference to Libya.

2. Acknowledge that inaction has costs

As stated above, those who caution that any military operations to halt massacres will carry risks and costs are inarguably correct. Advocating for military action without honestly assessing those risks and the likelihood of success is irresponsible. But so is advocating against military (or diplomatic or economic, for that matter) action without discussing the risks of inaction.

Those risks depend on the specifics of the situation, but they are never zero, and in many cases are much larger than opponents of action are willing to acknowledge. Whether in Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, or the Horn of Africa last decade, or North Africa today, there are real strategic costs to inaction. While sometimes hard to tabulate, they can be substantial and shouldn't be ignored in the policy debate.

Opponents of military action need to offer serious alternatives, and be held to the same standard of honest assessment when it comes to the risks of their recommended course of action as proponents of using force.

3. Take the question seriously

The most frustrating aspect of this debate is many of the best military analysts out there seem to never really engage with the challenge of how to achieve US foreign policy goals when they prominently include preventing large scale killing. On Afghanistan; on drone strikes; on counterinsurgency in the Philippines and Thailand; on CT in Indonesia; on Lebanon and Israel...on all these issues, analysts whose primary expertise may be in military affairs and not the particular region feel it is incumbent on them to develop enough regional expertise (or at least consult with those who have it) to be able to competently discuss the USG's policy options. Not so with regard to situations of mass killing, especially if they occur on the African continent. Somehow, despite it being a recurrent challenge in US foreign policy decision making back to early 20th century...despite its mention in the National Security Strategy...despite the creation of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to work the issue, preventing mass atrocities continues to get short shrift from the very people who a) tend to think Rupert Smith knows what he's talking about** and b) could help develop more realistic and effective policy options.

To my fellow security analysts, a plea: if you think the calls for intervention in Libya (or anywhere else) are ill-conceived, then engage your abilities with as much dedication and conviction as you would for more established strategic priorities. Treat the prevention of mass killing as seriously as you would any of the other goals that have to be considered in developing policy and strategy.

UPDATE: The New York Times has a pretty decent Room for Debate on the subject here. Lots of different perspectives from the commentators, with a general abundance of caution. Sadly, the most consistent point is that we don't know enough about Libya. Even sadder when you consider how much money and effort we put into intelligence.

* At no point will you find me calling this kind of operation a 'humanitarian intervention'. The term 'humanitarian' is vague, loaded with baggage, and has a very specific meaning in the laws of armed conflict (not to mention for the humanitarian community, and the UN). There isn't really a neat alternative term, but I'm convinced enough of its pernicious effect on the debate that I'd rather wrestle with other language than contribute to the confusion.

** Ironically and unfortunately, General Sir Rupert was ill-served by his researcher, fact checker and editors when it came time to write about Rwanda - he managed to get many of the basic facts wrong in his otherwise excellent book.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Police development: more bang for your buck

This morning, Andrew Exum highlighted a throwaway piece in the Washington Post on the police in Egypt. Like many unstable and/or despotic states, the police forces are among the greatest threats to the citizens of those countries. Whereas in most Western countries the police exist to protect the people, in most of the rest of the world the police exist to protect the state from the people. As you can imagine, governments love and people hate this setup. In cases like Egypt, changing the police forces to protect the people can go a long a way to improving the stability of the country - especially after they've tried and failed to suppress the population.

Change of this nature requires significant work on not just the training of police, but cultural adaptation and development. Evolving the mindset of established forces can take a long time, if it's not a generational effort. Sacking the police and starting over usually fails as well. Just like disbanding militaries, firing armed and trained policemen introduces a destabilizing force onto the streets; a force that had had better luck with the previous regime (see Iraq). It also presents the difficulty of vetting new police, often in countries with low literacy (see Afghanistan). Mere training programs from the U.S. also do not even begin to address the problem - often the police are already moderately trained. While improving their skills and capabilities are necessary, developing them as professional police requires a change in mindset and should be the focus of U.S. police assistance. The entirety of the literature on this topic supports this, even if development doesn't always do the trick (obviously, the host nation needs to really want to change its ways).

Ex is right in the gist of his post - if we're invited to help these newly-democratizing nations, we should start with the police. I diverge from his position in that we shouldn't start a training program, we should initiate a police development program (again, if invited to do so). Funding-wise, a small team of police development experts that help the Egyptians revamp their police structure, policies, and police academy curriculum would provide dividends much greater than the investment. This should be our focus in the region, not military aid, which is expensive for the USG and provides little return in stability or U.S. national objectives.

For those of you not in the small circle of people and organizations that work on police development issues, the USG's primary organization for doing this is the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). (Disclosure: With my previous company I did some work with ICITAP, but they were never a client.) This is a fantastic program within the Department of Justice that I was very impressed with, both here in Washington and in the field. And they really get it, which is why I'm giving them this free advertisement. They also come in a quite cost effective as they have relatively small staff and are funded by other USG agencies when implementing programs abroad. The challenges to getting them out into the field, though, is that they have a relatively small staff and are funded by other USG agencies when implementing programs abroad. In spite of their good work in many places (see Kosovo, Iraq, Panama, and a host of others), they aren't always the first agency used for U.S. police programs. Often, train and equip contracts are used first - sometimes succeeding, but often not and then require ICITAP expertise to sort things out. Another challenge for ICITAP is that police development often takes 10 or more years if done correctly, which is often beyond the political and budgetary horizons of the U.S., so the U.S. often chooses haste over right. We need to stop doing that.

The point of all of this is to say that police development is what the U.S. should focus their efforts on if we're asked to asked to help out in these countries. And we're asked to do so, the USG should support ICITAP missions to conduct these development and reform operations (in conjunction with their their DoJ OPDAT brethren and DoS INL training programs). In these days of governmental austerity, it is a cost effective way to meet USG objectives and the needs of the local governments and people.

Leah Farrall knows much, much more than you about al-Qaeda

Like, way more. It's not even close. She reads extremist tracts. She emails with jihadi intellectuals and Taliban political philosophers. She's smarter than you.

That's why you should read her new piece in Foreign Affairs, entitled "How al Qaeda Works: What the Organization's Subsidiaries Say About Its Strength." (If you're not a subscriber, it's reprinted in full on Leah's excellent and sadly underpopulated blog.) Here's the gist:
Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks. Before 2001, its history was checkered with mostly failed attempts to fulfill its most enduring goal: the unification of other militant Islamist groups under its strategic leadership. However, since fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas in late 2001, al Qaeda has founded a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula and acquired franchises in Iraq and the Maghreb. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.
Still, most accounts of the progress of the war against al Qaeda contend that the organization is on the decline, pointing to its degraded capacity to carry out terrorist operations and depleted senior leadership as evidence that the group is at its weakest since 9/11. But such accounts treat the central al Qaeda organization separately from its subsidiaries and overlook its success in expanding its power and influence through them. These groups should not be ignored. All have attacked Western interests in their regions of operation. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also long targeted the United States, but its efforts have moved beyond the execution stage only in the last two years, most recently with the foiled plot to bomb cargo planes in October 2010. And although al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has not yet attacked outside its region, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was reportedly involved in the June 2007 London and Glasgow bomb plots.
It is time for an updated conception of al Qaeda’s organization that takes into account its relationships with its subsidiaries. A broader conceptual framework will allow for a greater understanding of how and to what degree it exercises command and control over its expanded structure, the goals driving its expansion strategy, and its tactics.
American politicians, analysts, and commentators blithely assert a number of things about the "terrorist threat" to justify their preferred policy course, and it can be tough to know what's true. Our policy toward central and south Asia (and really, our national security "strategy" writ large, such as we can be said to have one) is defined almost wholly by just such a specious assertion: that the continuation of the war in Afghanistan will contribute to al-Qaeda's weakening and eventual destruction.

There are, of course, competing interpretations and analyses of al-Qaeda's branch/franchise structure (at least so far as I'm aware). But the one Leah offers here is compelling, and it should have a dramatic impact on the way we approach the "struggle against violent extremism." This is must-read stuff.