America’s past and emergent counterterrorism strategies frequently raise
concerns about unilateralism, the multilateral and cooperative aspects remain
relatively low in visibility. Actual or merely perceived unilateral acts, such
as JSOC direct action raids and drone strikes capture much of America’s
attention, while the role of host governments, proxies, and third parties of
all kinds retains a relative background role. In reality, the inclusion of a
wide variety of consenting foreign actors, ranging from militias to militaries,
play a supporting and prerequisite role that is as troubling as it is vital.
Take, for example, the cases of drone strikes in Pakistan. As the infamous Drunken Predator Drone explains in this excellent post, the covert and lightly-publicized quid pro quo between Washington and Islamabad over American counterterrorism efforts in South and Central Asia complicates the policies of both. Noting the wide ranging problems within Pakistan, he notes:
The Pakistani political class is much happier to instead see the nation’s outrage, ink and airtime dedicated to a safer topic. Like sovereignty violations.
And by cooperating with our counterterrorism efforts (including drone strikes,) the influential Pakistani military gets access to some of the choicest American defense hardware...
As has been obvious for 10 years, U.S. counterterrorism assistance represents a golden opportunity for Pakistan’s armed forces to gear up for war with India. Ending drone strikes would derail a $4.3-billion gravy train. And that’s far from the only American aid in the mix; development groups receive billions of dollars for education, shelter and basic nutrition in Pakistan. (Of course, many Pakistanis have no idea. American markings are often removed from aid shipments out of fear that they will become targets for militants.)
The elected, legitimate government of Pakistan has weighed costs and benefits, and made a clear decision. Granting permission (however grudging or tacit it may be) for drone strikes represents a better option than risking a strategic break with America.
from being a simple trampling of Pakistan’s will, the U.S. and Pakistan play a
delicate - and relatively obscure - game which buys permission for America’s
counterterrorism initiatives while bolstering some of the core objectives of
the Pakistani deep state. Unfortunately, for too long American policymakers and
publics have assumed American aid will engender a more comprehensive confluence
of moral values, political principles, and strategic interests between them.
Rather than simply presenting tactical and pragmatic ways to mitigate U.S.
coercive potential, cash in on its immense political-military resources, and
use them to advance prior objectives, America has for too long relied on a
notion that America could strongly influence or control a country’s political
will without actually exerting control.
The political benefits of such an indirect approach are as apparent in the American public arena as they are in Pakistan. While the consequences of dysfunctional clientelism are made more and more apparent with each insider attack in Afghanistan, where America’s force posture puts conventional boots on the ground and lives on the line, the clandestine assets in Pakistan elicit no such public attention or outcry because they create no similar degree of risk. Yet this basic crack in the policy assumptions of clientelism-enabled counterterrorism remains. C. Christine Fair has outlined a plausible way forward: acknowledging the two countries will sometimes have irreconcilable aims and mitigating the negative effects accordingly. But Pakistan is hardly the only country where we see the same problems.
In Yemen, the elite units which received U.S. military aid were redirected to regime preservation rather than counterterrorism. But aid to the Yemeni regime was the cost of political acquiescence to U.S. strikes, helping to foster a Yemeni deep state (even if Saleh is gone) with interests that may tolerate anti-American radicalization, so long as its existence and internal power remains secure.
While U.S. aid has had varying degrees of success in making military forces more organizationally cohesive, operational proficient, and generally professional, it has faltered when it comes to changing the policy objectives that guide the militaries and the regimes they serve themselves. Just as many rightly call for more scrutiny of the consequences of drone strikes, they are just the latest privilege the U.S. has purchased from regimes and militaries in exchange for enhancing their military power and political longevity. Distressingly, many alternatives proposed to drone strikes fail to solve this deeper problem. An effective capture program nearing the scale of the drone program would require similar, if not greater U.S. concessions to local regimes, while a policy of promoting partnership, training, and advisory roles for the U.S. necessitates capacity building for regimes even if their intentions remain in many respects malignant towards U.S. interests.
Complicating this matter, few of the local regimes where the U.S. wages its counterterrorism campaigns (and assists in the counterinsurgency campaigns of others) have Huntingtonian security forces. The evolution of the “deep state” in many of our former Third World partners gave security forces and their partners and proxies a political, social, and economic role alien to the Weberian ideal or the misleading state/non-state typology. Given the known and possible radicalizing and destabilizing roles of harsh imprisonment regimes, brutal local security forces, and the political machinations of rentier states and their proxy forces, devising a policy that tackles the essential principal-agent problem in current U.S. counterterrorism operations is as essential a task as finding alternatives to the strategies such as targeted killing themselves. Even if the targeted killing strategy were to give way, the dangerous game that enabled it may yet persist.
Reading John Arquilla's latest Foreign Policy piece makes, me, as I am wont to, think about dead Prussians. Arquilla takes a look at the battle for Obama's "strategic soul" and contrasts it to Reagan's own deliberations about the best response to the first wave of Middle Eastern terrorists to strike the West. Arquilla, relying on intelligence histories of the period, argues that Reagan briefly considered unleashing special operations and intelligence operatives against the terror masterminds:
Soon after that weekend conclave of experts, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 138 -- most of which is still highly classified. Christopher Martin's declassified history of political and military policy during this period points out that the directive called for "secret FBI and CIA paramilitary squads and use of existing Pentagon military units -- such as Green Berets and the Navy SEALs -- for conducting what amounted to guerrilla war against guerrillas...a de facto declaration of war."
As Arquilla notes, Reagan ultimately stepped back from the brink. He was persuaded by military advisors concerned about an "unfocused revenge approach." Moreover, the United States had conventional tools for disrupting terrorist sponsors such as Libya. There are certainly parallels to today's concerns over the use of special operations forces, intelligence, proxy fighters, and unmanned aerial systems against terrorists, but most of the conversation about the uses of these elements of national power have been remarkably content-free. Arquilla does us a great service by dredging up a historical episode with some teaching value.
The phrase "unfocused revenge approach" is actually an oblique acknowledgment of a central problem of counterterrorist strategy: finding the enemy's center of gravity (COG). The COG is a relatively minor concept in Clausewitz that nonetheless has engendered a good deal of misunderstanding. I will not bore readers with the details, but want to point to a recent eludication of the concept by the Strategic Studies Institute's Antulio Echevarria. As I noted in an article I wrote on the subject a couple years ago, Echevarria makes the point that the COG is essentially "effects-based."
Drawn from classical physics, Echevarria explains that the COG should be considered the "point where the forces of gravity can be said to converge within an object, the spot at which the object's weight is balanced in all directions." Striking at it or upsetting it can cause the target to lose its balance or equilbrium. The catch is that to have a COG, an object must have sufficient connectivity between its parts. The concept does not apply if the enemy elements are disaggregated. For example, the Axis powers in World War II had no COG and barely cooperated with each other. Echevarria chided doctrine writers for often assuming a single COG bound together a disaggregated set of enemies.
Reagan's advisors were ultimately grasping for a COG. They couldn't find one, because the terrorist threats facing America in the 80s had little to do with each other. The bombing of American forces in Beirut involved Iran and its local allies, and the mercenary Abu Nidal Organization and its Libyan backers were another matter entirely. Thus, Reagan and his advisors were undestandably reluctant about conducting a wide-ranging war. Diplomatic complications were a concern, and the Cold War conventional balance in Europe as well as side contests in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia demanded attention. Nonetheless, Reagan committed to tackling both issues separately--and somewhat unsuccessfuly. Conventional force against Libya did not halt their acts of terror, and Iran's use of proxy groups and proclivity for terrorism is still a constant in its foreign policy.
Today, there is still a rigorous debate over the structure and dynamics of al-Qaeda. That debate is complicated by the fact that al-Qaeda, like most violent non-state actors seeking to survive, exists in a murky realm. Intelligence--closed or open source--shines a light into the cave but cannot illuminate the entire structure. The main problem with the targeted killing program is precisely uncertainty over who the targets really are and how their deaths lead to strategic effect. Much of the structure was more visible after the September 11 attacks, and it became clear that the COG was al-Qaeda's base system in Afghanistan. Destroying this system in an military assault and aggressively targeting its financial links complicated our understanding of the COG. Moreover, al-Qaeda and its affiliaties worldwide today may not have a single COG, just as the Axis lacked a common connectivity that gave them order and purpose.
Al-Qaeda is certainly less dissegrated than the complex reality behind the 1980s idea of a comprehensive terrorist network targeting the West. Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann, and Rafaello Pantucci make a case here that the organization's middle managers are precisely the connective tissue that would constitute a COG, and others have discussed AQ's structure without the use of Clausewitzian theory. Still, there is a risk today that without a strong sense of where the blow should land, our efforts will be unfocused. And as in the 1980s, there are also competing strategic priorites that decisionmakers will inevitably have to manage. Getting the COG right will be a difficult--but ultimately essential--task for American strategists.
Up at Information Dissemination, Owen Cote Jr. of MIT has an interesting take on the future of naval warfare. Those interested in the future of US defense strategy should pay attention to these two grafs, from which I quote at length:
The next major change in naval warfare caused by U.S. submarines will likely result from the marriage between the submarine on the one hand, and precision, land attack, tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) and small, long endurance UAVs on the other.In general, fast weapons and small UAVs would give submarines a capability to find and strike high value, mobile targets ashore. Specifically, in the context of the new Air-Sea Battle strategy, they would enable a submarine-based capability to destroy rather than merely suppress modern, ground-based air defenses, or in the DOD vernacular, DEAD. A submarine-based DEAD capability would close a major capability gap against modern A2/AD networks. The systems that form these networks often seek to use the sanctuary provided by mobility in the cluttered environment ashore as a base from which to launch missile strikes against fixed targets necessary for power projection like air bases, or more ambitiously against ships at sea.
DEAD? I suppose someone had some fun with that one. Of course, Cote observes that air defenses under this scheme are also assumed to be mobile, which presents a set of different problems:
Ever since the failed “SCUD Hunt” of Desert Storm, persistent airborne surveillance has been identified as key to the rapid identification and precise geo-location of mobile targets, as has been a source of precision weapons for attacking those mobile targets in time urgent fashion when they are found. Everything learned during the decade-long war on terror in operations against IEDs and terrorist leaders has amplified that message. This means that persistent airborne surveillance and time urgent weapons will also need to play a central role in defeating the mobile targets that form the heart of an A2/AD network. ... At the heart of any DEAD capability against a modern air defense system is the need to destroy relatively small numbers of expensive, phased array engagement radars. Without them, SAM batteries lack the ability to track targets with the accuracy needed to guide missiles against them. These radars need only emit intermittently during an engagement and can be quickly moved afterward. Thus, traditional radar-homing weapons like HARM will not work because they require a continuous signal to home on, and traditional single-platform, angle-of-arrival (AOA) ELINT techniques cannot provide accuracy sufficient to target coordinate-seeking weapons.
Cote goes on to look at how an alternative ELINT/COMINT technique called Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA). At this point, I fear that my acronym limit has been reached. The point, overall, is something Dan and I have highlighted in the past. These are major conflict capabilities, but will most likely find operational use in humanitarian interventions, offshore counterterrorism operations, and missions in the Persian Gulf. As Robert Caruso observed about the Afloat Foreward Operating Base, naval ships that enable light projection of special operations forces, Marines and allow dominance over onshore battlefields without the need for large infrastructures are indispensible for current American strategy. A DEAD (OK, bad pun) giveaway is the way Iraq and Afghanistan experiences with improvised explosive devices and high-value targeting has influenced the design of counter-shore capabilities for conventional warfare.
When coupled with operational cyber capabilities for missions against state opponents, what you begin to see is the shape of a military building a capability for decisive onshore intervention. Granted, it is important to qualify this (as we have with drones). The US could, with sufficient investment, destroy Syria's air defense system with existing technologies. But even so, the real problem is the postwar situation and regional effects. Weapons do not make war, and the ultimate determinant of US intervention will be the way these innovations mesh (or do not) with policy discussion in Washington.