Last night in his announcement of his intended draw down of American forces in Afghanistan, President Obama underscored the beauty, the appeal of asymmetrical war for those who put their strategic fortunes in its ample basket. Stripped of its camouflage, cover, and concealment the president's words conveyed the simple appeal of asymmetrical war--it works.
Asymmetrical war worked in Afghanistan. That is obvious. The US has lost. And announced that defeat in the verbiage of declaring victory. The president made all the expected genuflections before the alter of economic necessity. He took the position that now was the time for "nation-building" here in the US. But, under this convenient shelter, the reality remains. The reality is blunt. The US, We the People, the government which purports to represent us and seek to protect our national interests abroad, has lost the political will to continue the war.
This, my friends, is the goal in all asymmetrical wars. Defeat the numerically and technologically superior enemy by progressively exhausting his political will to continue. Taliban, the Haqqani network, even the not-quite-pathetic remnants of al-Qaeda as well as their supporters and sponsors in Pakistan have succeeded in so enervating the political will of the US that we are tossing in the sponge even as we teeter on the edge of military success.
The announcement does nothing to advance the progress of the very tentative talks with Taliban representatives. History in both the Korean and Vietnamese wars shows that diplomacy of talking depends for progress let alone success upon the diplomacy of the gun. The battlefield and negotiating table are connected head, shoulder, and hip. Only the continued demonstration of political will in combat serves to convince the talkers at the table that they had best make the best deal possible as quickly as possible lest they lose everything on the bullet raked fields of battle.
Given that the only campaign of vital interest to President Obama is Campaign 2012, his decision to undercut the efforts of the past two years in Afghanistan and declare the losses of dollars (replaceable) and hundreds of lives (irreplaceable) to be written off in fact if not in rhetoric was to be expected. He would have announced an even faster pull out, such as that demanded by his progressive base, if that move would not have simultaneously cost him potential votes among the rest of the electorate. As it was, his decision was informed far more by the polls showing the escalating war weariness among We the People than the expert advice of the commanders on the ground.
Ten years ago the thought that the US would suffer one more defeat in an asymmetrical war was almost unthinkable. Within the military there was a widespread belief that the phrase "no more Vietnams" meant or at least implied that the US would never again engage in an intervention or, if we did, it would be of the very limited sort typified by the operations in Kosovo. Overall, the men in uniform thought that the so-called Powell Doctrine would prevail. No significant military commitment absent an overwhelming force and full domestic support.
The small number of people both in and out of uniform who had spent the decades of the Eighties and Nineties studying asymmetrical war under its several different names--unconventional war, interventionary operations, limited war, counterinsurgency--were not so optimistic. The end of the cold war had liberated a number of pressures which would result in small, nasty wars some of which would put American interests in peril. At the same time the effects of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the ongoing Arab-Israeli war served to promote the growth of violent political Islam. The net result was the conclusion that the US would be in an asymmetrical conflict with an Islamist adversary within the next ten years--and, neither the military nor the civilian government would be ready to fight that inevitable war.
The past ten years have shown, as the Geek adumbrated in yesterday's post, the power of asymmetrical war in a way both dramatic and unmistakable. Now that the power of that sort of war has been underscored by President Obama's message of American defeat, asymmetrical conflict will be more common around the world at the same time as the US will be decreasingly willing to take up the challenge.
Now, like the coach sez, "let's get back to basics."
One basic about asymmetrical war is that it is nothing new. Over the sanguine centuries of warfare--defined as the centrally directed, organized application of violence to a political goal by a state, a pretender to statehood or a non-state actor--asymmetrical wars have been as numerous as peer-to-peer conflicts. Insurgencies, both offensive (revolutionary) and defensive (separatist,) have been and continue to be asymmetrical in nature. All peacekeeping or peace imposition (stability) operations are inherently asymmetrical. The increasing use of proxies, the growth in sponsored transnational terrorism, the rise of narco-warfare, all of these constitute sub-sets of asymmetrical wars. All will be common in the future for reasons to be considered in later posts.
A second basic about asymmetrical war is that it is identical to conventional peer-to-peer conflicts in one essential respect. The intent is to bring about a better state of peace by bending the enemy to your political will. The difference, a very critical one, between the peer-to-peer war and its asymmetrical kin is found in the means of bending the enemy to your will. The side initiating the asymmetrical conflict seeks to attack and progressively reduce the target's political will and social cohesiveness by imposing costs which are politically and economically unacceptable while remaining tolerable to the attacker.
Here is the takeaway, the nitty-gritty which was not understood ten years ago but is blindingly apparent today: The goal of al-Qaeda and similar entities was to inflict such politically and economically unacceptable costs on the US employing means which capitalized on strengths inherent to Muslims such as to compel the US to accede to a set of political demands. Based upon the American responses to earlier attacks, the expectation that the attacks of 9/11 would be sufficient to force the US to bend to Arab political will was not lunatic in nature.
The weak and ineffective responses by the US to the series of terror strikes on American targets both overseas and domestically convinced Osama bin Laden and others (including some holding positions of authority in Pakistani agencies) that the proposed 9/11 attacks would be effective at low risk for retaliation. While the Clinton administration was correct to have responded to the truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center as a law enforcement matter, its limp wristed reactions to later attacks, Khobar Towers, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the water borne hit on the USS Cole were not only too little, too late, they were de facto admissions of impotency. Each demonstrated the power resident in asymmetry. It was only logical to anticipate the same sort of non-linearity when nineteen good Muslims converted commercial aircraft into manned cruise missiles.
Bin Laden and company blew it. They had misjudged the American character. They didn't understand the Pearl Harbor syndrome and its potency in the collective American mind. Instead of the expected flight of easily evaded cruise missiles, the Mighty Men of the Great Sheik got a reasonable imitation of a military full court press.
Now comes one of the most, perhaps the most, thoroughly delicious ironies known to the Geek (a devoted collector of historical ironies.) The Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Neocon Ninny administration blew their phase of the asymmetrical war as much or more than bin Laden blew his. They failed to understand what previous leaders had discovered. In the counter strike period of an asymmetrical war, one uses overwhelming force quickly and decisively. The superior force must be employed so as to bring the speedy and complete destruction of the inferior.
The archaic, politically impolite but quite accurate term for this counter strike is "punitive expedition." The goal is to demonstrate political will as well as military supremacy by obliterating the enemy who mounted the attack while "punishing" what and whomsoever supported, facilitated, or gave safe haven to the attacker. The purpose of the exercise is not judicial in nature.
One is not interested in bringing an alleged offender before the bar of justice, but to eliminate him. With respect to those who aid, abet, and protect the enemy, the purpose is to inflict an unacceptable level of economic, social, and political damage upon him. The superior force uses his capacities to squash the offensive but inferior one in a manner akin to the Monty Python giant foot descending irresistibly from the clouds.
The response of the attacked but superior target is quick, brutal, and decisive. The word "brutal" may be offensive to today's hyper-sensitive ears but in the final analysis it is a far more humane approach than would be the ineffective efforts at "nation-building" embarked upon by the clueless bunch in the Bush/Cheney White House and continued until last night by the successor Obama administration.
Afghanistan has been termed the "graveyard of empires" not because the empires lacked the means to successfully defeat and occupy the land and people of the region but rather because the "empires", British, Russian, and American, have lost their political will in the face of the rugged physical and, even more, the spiky human terrain of the place. All, and, most particularly, the American, efforts have foundered because the invader has lacked the political will necessary or the correct strategic and operational concepts to prevail.
The takeaway here is simple. When entering an asymmetrical war, the US must not only employ sufficient means quickly and firmly, it must limit its goals to those which can be achieved by purely military means. These goals are few and easily defined. Military force can topple a regime, but it cannot build one. It can impose a peace but it cannot create stability. It can punish a malefactor but it cannot rehabilitate one. It can back the diplomacy of talk, but it cannot replace it. Most importantly, military force can terminate hostilities, but it cannot resolve the underlying conflict which resulted in the outbreak of hostilities.
Whether any of us like the idea or not, there will be future challenges in the area of asymmetrical war. The specter of transnational terror has not left the world. Nor has the threat posed by violent political Islam. Even if peace breaks out in Afghanistan, there are plenty of other locations where asymmetrical attacks might be planned and mounted. There is Yemen. There is Somalia. There is Sudan. There is Pakistan. Any or all of these might become necessary targets of an American counter strike. So also might a number of other failed or failing states.
There is more to be learned from a defeat resolutely and honestly studied than a victory celebrated. Now that the president has announced an American defeat (or, if it makes you feel better, an incomplete success) in Afghanistan, the time has come to take a very long, very hard, and very honest look at what was done wrong--and right--in Afghanistan. We must be prepared to do the job right the next time out, for there will be a next time regardless of the wishes of any of us.
Or, there is an alternative. We can build a very high and very thick wall around the US and pretend the rest of the world isn't out there.