Victory, Control, and Strategy

  • June 5, 2012
  • Abu Muqawama
  • Strategic Theory

When reading Gregory Johnsen's excellent piece at Waq-al-Qaq on US involvement in Yemen, this phrase jumped out at me:

I have argued for several years now that the US needs to draw as narrow of a circle as possible when it comes to targeting AQAP in Yemen. I worried then as I do now, that any expansion of targeting in Yemen would find the US in a war that it could never kill its way out of.

Johnsen is of course totally right. Should the US interests become coequal with the client government's fortunes, it will find itself even more embroiled in Yemen's local politics than it already is. It is difficult to see how the United States could rectify those politics, especially considering the "light" (heavily qualified, at least lighter than Afghanistan and Iraq) American political and military presence. But the phrase "kill its way out of" reminded me of Admiral Mike Mullen's comment about the impossibility of "killing your way to victory" and the conceptual morass it created for counterinsurgency theorists and practitioners surrounding the proper use of force vis-a-vis persuasion. The following is not to disagree with Johnsen, who has contributed much (if not everything) to our understanding of Yemen. Rather, it is to look at the way that a meme sprung into the consciousness of political and military thinkers.

The statement that one cannot "kill [their] way to victory," from the framework of strategic theory, is not particularly useful. The concept of "victory" does not objectively exist outside of the tactical level. Because victory is defined so much by political objectives, one could primarily achieve victory through force or balance force with other tools of national power depending on the overall policy and strategy. Thus Mullen's phrase cannot be relied on as a universal strategic dictum. Second, while the possibility of achieving victory through brute force is left open to the unique policy context, one can gain control over a situation with a sufficient and strategically employed use of force.

Whether or not that control leads to bigger and better things depends very much on what an actor does to build on it. The US gaining control in the American Civil War was only strategically relevant because of Abraham Lincoln's policy decisions regarding the treatment of a defeated enemy. But in order for whole-of-government power to be employed, the enemy's ability to interfere with the process must be curtailed. As long as an opponent has a "vote" in a situation, nothing can be assured. Syria provides one of the better examples of the situation. Spencer Ackerman, critiquing Anne-Marie Slaughter's proposal for Syrian intervention, observes the following:

Now, why do I say this is a broader problem with the Responsibility to Protect? Because it shows that the R2P is a military endeavor that still lacks actual, substantive objectives for militaries to achieve. If I am one of the Qatari SOF captains who has to aid the “no-kill zones,” I don’t know from Slaughter’s guidance how to design my operational campaign. I get that I have to help the Free Syrian Army clear out a “no-kill zone” of loyalist Syrian troops; I can presume that I must hold that zone. But what happens when I get mortar fire from the loyalists who’ve pulled back? Does protecting that zone mean I can push it outward? If it does, then I am escalating the objectives as Slaughter has described them; if it doesn’t, then I have failed to hold the no-kill zone.

The example illustrates several important points. First, the non-military task of civilian protection is dependent on the use of force to gain control over a tactical zone. Second, the process of gaining control, contrary to the ancient stereotype that force-on-force warfare is simple or does not involve complex decisions, is in fact extremely complex. Tactical decisions are the building blocks of strategy, and each tactical decision is in fact extremely fraught with strategic implications. The gaining of control is neglected at one's own peril. The cost of British inability to gain tactical control over Basra is well-known to readers of this blog, as are the UN's failures in Bosnia and Rwanda. Military forces, when given clear strategy and policy and sufficient resources, can gain control.

Sometimes gaining control through force is possible but also prohibitively expensive. Israel, as Thomas Rid has argued, has opted to use force to build or refresh deterrence rather than gain control. This reflects Tel Aviv's limited resources as well as its desire to contain external threats without detrimental domestic effects. Rid analogizes this to law enforcement concepts of deterrence, which must be constantly refreshed through punishment, instead of nuclear deterrence. Perhaps this model will come to predominate in an era of American fiscal austerity, but it would require an altogether different foreign policy and philosophy of employing force.