Thus far, the intervention in Mali seems, at least initially, a banner standard for the practice, insofar as Washington is concerned. A coalition of African and European forces, with France taking the lead in the air and with crack troops on the ground, is sending AQIM and fellow travelers and cobelligerents such as Ansar Dine and MUJAO packing from the cities of Gao and Timbuktu*. The U.S. role appears for now limited to the provision of airlift, refueling, and ISR, a far less costly task than firing barrages of Tomahawk missiles and airstrikes to dismantle its air defenses and the rest of the regime with it.
The debate about the role toppling Gaddafi played in Mali’s current crisis still rages. Algeria’s government, which appears a great deal more sympathetic to the latter position, forced a bloody end to a retaliatory hostage-taking and siege in its own territory, killing foreign citizens along with the terrorists who seized the gas field. As for America’s limited role in the operation, Philip Carter rightly pointed out that even extremely limited role in the U.S. intervention comes at a price, and one perhaps too high.
If the war in Mali is – for now – the best Washington can hope for in an intervention, then the flaws it presents are worth paying attention to, for they’ll arguably be the hardest to eliminate. At the largest level, and perhaps applicable to the widest number of future crises, is the issue Carter highlights – the broken system of burden sharing. I disagree with Anne Applebaum when she posits this intervention as proof of a new European superpower. For one, let’s not give “Europe,” or even the majority of countries in it, so much credit. France is leading Operation Serval, neither the EU nor NATO are in control. That other countries are providing ancillary support is well and good, but French troops are the only Europeans openly committing to combat operations.
Not only that, but France and an assortment of other countries conducting a limited war in Europe’s historical backyard does not a superpower make. Operation Épervier, France’s long-running intervention in Chad, along with many other French operations, long demonstrated Paris’s ability to conduct military operations across northern and western Africa. Nobody ought to question that when French troops arrive in theater, they are extremely competent, and the record of French troops after Algeria and Indochina affirms this. However, that European states lack the willpower or capability to muster sufficient airlift and refueling assets for a small-scale operation in Mali, just as many ran low on munitions in Libya, is a warning sign for future planners, and an obvious red flags for any hasty claims to superpower status (not even de Gaulle was so grandiose).
If one of our most militarily capable allies cannot confidently act unilaterally in its own historical sphere of influence, or requires significant subsidization to do so, the U.S. ought question the incentives it is perpetuating for the supposed major stakeholders in its emergent security policies. Without allied capability to independently project power, burden-sharing could mean the U.S. getting locked into wars primarily of interest to its allies, while its allies will have less to offer in return during U.S.-led war efforts, which frequently require much longer logistical tails. The next war European states want American assistance in may come at a time when U.S. forces are more overdrawn and the conflict in question is more difficult, while the next theater of war America may ask European aid in may be even harder to operate in without the U.S. paying for an increasing share of the power projection.
Beyond issues of power-projection, the interaction of issues of counterterrorism, regime change, and rebellion in Libya and Mali still demand attention. Even assuming forgoing intervention in Libya would have led to the exact same outcome in Mali, resources are finite. Those engaged in toppling Gaddafi and now dealing with the aftermath of Libya might have been better spent in contingencies to limit the spillover of a longer-running civil war or surviving Gaddafi regime. Particularly since the Algerian gas field siege demonstrates that even the most successful interventions face the potential for expansion, escalation, or blowback, saving energy and assets for dealing with the vicissitudes of fog, friction, and fate is particularly prudent, especially when the next crisis presents a more direct threat.
Now, France is outlining plans to halt, or at the very least suspend, its offensive into central Mali, and let other forces take on the brunt of the ground fighting. As limited warfare in practice, France’s model initially has much to recommend it. Jason Fritz, when assessing the merit of airpower in support of unconventional warfare, suggested a rebel force unworthy of ground support might also be unworthy of air support. In Mali, France identified a threat urgent enough to merit a ground deployment and interests constrained enough to sketch a plan for that deployment to be responsible.
Ultimately, France’s ability to contemplate restrained interests relies on the political context of its intervention. It fights at the request of the local government rather than to unseat it. It fights broadly on the side of tradition against Islamist groups perceived to be foreign in origin, intolerable in behavior and alien in ideology. It fights more to restore a status quo rather than revolutionize a region.
Of course, it is far too early to tell if Mali’s war will end up being so amenable to French and broader international interests as it is now. Trying to understand the local context that will ultimately decide so, however, is more a job for analysts such as Andrew Lebovich, Alex Thurston, Hannah Armstrong, along with journalists such as Peter Tinti and Joe Penney, who have regional experience or, in the case of the last three, are in Mali now. Ultimately, while it is useful to consider at the macro-level where Mali fits into understanding of how interventions succeed and fail, the more vital questions about Mali itself can’t be answered at this level of analysis. Hopefully, though, a better conception of what interests are worth fighting for and how best for the U.S. to advance them will, even if it cannot prevent such a tumult from reoccurring elsewhere, clarify if and how the use of force can ameliorate its consequences.
* I also wanted to highlight an amazing story about the preservationists and other residents of Timbuktu, who saved the majority of the city’s collections of historic manuscripts – documents important not simply to locals but to the world’s posterity – from destruction at the hands of retreating Islamist militants. Although initial reporting suggested arson destroyed most of the records, it appears preservationists had left enough in museums to prevent militants from catching on, and sequestered the rest in safe houses. Despite the recent retreat, the location of historical materials remains guarded, in case those who tried to destroy them have a chance to return.
The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le
Drian, recently stated that France is willing to help impose
a “partial” no-fly zone in Syria, pending
international legitimacy and participation, and so long as it was not a full
no-fly zone, since that would be “tantamount to war.” There are several
curiosities to unravel here, and they are not exactly unique to this case.
The modern obsession with finding forms of military intervention short of war is a quixotic enterprise. As Micah Zenko has extensively studied, and co-blogger Adam has written about elsewhere, Discrete Military Operations such as no-fly zones are tantamount to wars in many respects. They are, if not sanctioned internationally, acts of aggression. They will often be treated by the target actor as an act of war. The dynamics of conflict and military action still apply.
What is particularly revealing here is that a “partial” no-fly zone is floated as some sort of non-war action, but a nationwide no-fly zone in Syria would be “tantamount to war.” But of course, imposing a no-fly zone over part of Syria or the whole of it is a matter of quantitative degree rather than qualitative difference. As I explored in a piece for the United States Naval Institute, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would likely mean conducting intensive Suppression of Enemy Air Defense to destroy Syria’s air defenses and air force. Even a partial no-fly zone would likely require some strikes outside its limits in order to degrade Syrian airfields, early-warning radars and mobile or semi-mobile air defense systems.
Imposing even a partial no-fly zone would be tantamount to war, just as arming Syria’s rebels would be an act of war, and constitute foreign engagement in the Syrian civil war, and their success would rely on the combustible cocktail of passion, reason, and chance that all wars do. The difference between these “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military actions” and war is ultimately an arbitrary distinction of political language which gives away when either the target or the intervening force, in order to achieve its objectives, escalates force to the point where the label is no longer tenable or useful.
In Iraq, the case is instructive on the dangers and shortcomings of such short-of-war thinking. In the wake of Desert Storm, despite the battlefield defeat of the Iraqi army and widespread desertion or imprisonment of Iraqi conscripts, Iraq maintained the will to suppress revolts in its north and south, resulting in the imposition of no-fly zones under Operations Northern and Southern Watch. The result was continued U.S. engagement in warfare against Iraqi air defenses and air forces and Iraqi warfare against rebelling forces in both no-fly zones. Saddam repeatedly violated America’s imposed standards despite the experience of 1990-91, which occasionally required the threatened reinsertion of Western ground forces or, in the wake of Saddam’s intervention in the Kurdish Civil War, and ended pretenses of respecting them due to strikes nominally aimed at his WMD program (but in practice, at many other critical political and military facilities). Ultimately, America’s political goals in Iraq, as codified in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, required a military action everybody rightfully identified as a war.
Ultimately, although using labels such as “humanitarian intervention,” “kinetic military action,” or, to get really old school, “Quasi-War” may be politically or historically sensible, particularly in retrospect, they remain, from the perspective of military analysis grappling with prospective scenarios, frequently misleading. It is only the result of an equilibrium between the preferences of the belligerents engaged, and frequently devolve into war because each side retains the capacity to frustrate the political objectives of the other without an unmistakable increase in willpower or commitment. In Iraq, that increase ultimately came in the form of an invasion force. In Libya, luckily enough, it was a combination of NATO airstrikes and a weak government military which allowed escalation to proceed on much more favorable terms. Any application of concerted military force against a sovereign state is “tantamount to war.” Being vague or conflicted about its ends and obscure about its ways and means just makes it more politically convenient to discuss openly, but less convenient to discuss effectively.
... U.S. Army LTC and CNAS Military Fellow Tony DeMartino, who was awarded the French Order of Merit for his service in Afghanistan. I got through about eight lines of La Marseillaise in the staff meeting this morning before Ellen told me to be quiet.
Reading through the Washington Post on the bus this morning, these paragraphs jumped out at me:
“This is not classic combat, where you see people advancing and you shoot them,” [Amos] Gilad said. “Because you achieve the opposite results, and it’s not fitting for a country like ours.”
The Israeli military has experience in confronting unarmed protests. The first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in the late 1980s, pitted youthful stone-throwers against Israeli combat troops, who had to adjust their tactics and weapons, shifting from the battlefield to riot control.
Yet despite years of experience and acquisition of riot gear, the army remains fundamentally unaccustomed to confronting civilian demonstrators, and the prospect that such protests might increase has become a subject of Israeli concern.
Now this is ironic, since only five years ago people were saying the IDF lost in southern Lebanon because they had spent too much time preparing for stabilization-type operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and not enough time training for conventional combat. Now we're saying, apparently, that the IDF is too focused on conventional combat and cannot respond non-lethally to unarmed protests. Here's Yossi Peled, speaking to the Associated Press:
Ex-general Yossi Peled, who commanded Israeli troops on the Lebanese and Syrian borders, said border breaches will likely be attempted again and must be stopped at any cost — regardless of the political fallout — because they pose a direct challenge to Israel's sovereignty.
"Yesterday's promo leaves us little time to draw the conclusions and come up with a new method of warfare where Israel will confront unarmed civilians, children and women," he said.
We can argue with Gen. Peled about whether or not "war" is the appropriate lens through which to view these kinds of unarmed demonstrations. (Was rock-throwing what Clausewitz had in mind when he defined war?) But I think Gilad and the rest of the IDF understand two things: (1) that shooting unarmed protesters, even when they are throwing rocks at you, has a negative strategic effect and (2) that the IDF will continue to be expected to deal with these kinds of demonstrations.
The IDF, in other words, will continue to be expected to be able to respond to every contingency in the book from police operations to high-intensity combat until there is a viable political settlement that allows the IDF to primarily focus on the kinds of high-intensity contingencies for which militaries normally prepare. How the IDF copes in the meantime, with a conscript army and limited time and money for training, will be fascinating to observe for anyone out there trying to identify future spending and training priorities for their own military.
[Note: There is a vocal segment of this blog's readership that gets all bent out of shape when I dispassionately write about the IDF in the same way I would any other military organization. (Because, you know, "Don't Forget Palestine!" etc.) There is another segment of this readership that gets bent out of shape when I dispassionately write about Hizballah or Hamas in the same way I would any other military organization. (Because, you know, Islam! 9/11! Terror! etc.) All of you need to chill. Trying to analyze and write about the performance of military organizations in as value-neutral a way as possible is part of my job.]
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) got a pretty nice love letter in the mail from Walter Pincus today. All I will say is that getting this kind of public approval from such an experienced and wise observer of intelligence affairs says a lot. Rep. Rogers seems like exactly the kind of person you would want in his job.
Sticking up for your friends, especially when those friends are reviled by everyone else, is admirable. Implying that your friend deserves different treatment in the eyes of the law because he is powerful, though, is repugnant. So too is a lack of empathy for victims of alleged sexual assaults. So too is single-handedly convincing your country to start an open-ended war in Libya that shows no sign of -- oh wait, that's another issue that should be dealt with separately. Let me conclude with a reminder to Bernard-Henri Lévy: aux États-Unis, Dominique Strauss-Kahn est un justiciable comme un autre. Deal with it.
My post mourning the death of Marcel Bigeard attracted some lively commentary, so I am going to up the Algeria ante by linking to this fascinating 1970 debate between Roger Trinquier and Yacef Saadi, old adversaries in the Algerian War. My friend Judah Grunstein passed this along, noting the way Trinquier and Saadi dispassionately discuss, among other things, the use of torture. U.S. readers will recognize Saadi as having played one of the lead characters in The Battle of Algiers, a film in part based on Saadi's wartime experiences. [via Ultima Ratio]
P.S. Yes, this is in French. Sorry.
One of the greatest warriors in history has passed. He was a hero of Dien Bien Phu and Algiers and was immortalized by several fictional representations, including "Raspéguy" in The Centurions. Gen. Petraeus reportedly kept an autographed picture of the great man in his room in Iraq in 2007. Le Monde's obituary is here. Le Figaro's obituary is here. "Bruno a quitté la fréquence," mourns Jean-Dominique Merchet.
Whew. It's been quite a whirlwind journey. After leaving Beirut on Thursday, I spent the weekend in Paris where, among other things, I paid a visit to my friend Etienne de Durand at IFRI and also lunched with another friend, Judah Grunstein (et fils). I am now south of the Blue Line staying with Charles Levinson, an old drinking buddy from Cairo who has gone all respectable of late. I plan to spend about two weeks here writing in coffeeshops, doing some tourism and conducting a few interviews. After spending almost three years in Beirut -- as well as stints in Cairo and Tangier (and, of course, Baghdad and Kuwait City) -- I have, incredibly, only spent seven days of my life in the Hebrew-speaking Middle East. So this next fortnight should be fun, and a great learning experience.
When I wasn't editing dissertation chapters in Paris, meanwhile, I was reading stuff for both fun (like this novel) and for personal enrichment. Like many of you, no doubt, I have been reading this excellent Krepinevich and Watts essay (.pdf) on U.S. strategic (in)comptence and what we are going to do about it. In light of our Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue and the compaint by a few of the readers (far fewer than I first thought, actually) that this blog focuses on operations at the expense of strategy, I was particularly struck by this observation:
The persistent recurrence of these strategy pitfalls argues that deciding in whose hands to place US strategy in the twenty-first century is a critical issue. The fact is, however, that few individuals — regardless of intelligence, education, credentials or experience — possess the necessary cognitive skills and insight to be competent strategists. The insight to see more deeply than one’s opponents into the possibilities and probabilities of a competitive situation is rare. Strategy may be a game anyone can play, but the evidence is strong that very few can play it well.
Krepinevich, of course, is a guy who has written brilliantly about counterinsurgency operations and possesses what many believe to be a first-rate strategic mind. (I myself would settle for either but am not, shall we say, holding my breath.) But he's a rarity. You need people who can excell at tactics, operations, strategy and grand strategy -- and they don't all have to be the same people. So a proven operational genius might not be the best strategist, and a good strategist might not be able to handle modern military operations or day-to-day diplomacy. All of this is to ask the readership a question: who, in your opinion, are some of America's best strategic thinkers? Krepinevich himself? Bacevich? Kagan? Cartwright? Slaughter? Brimley? Put your suggestions in the comments section. I'll be interested in seeing which names you consider. Bonus points go to those names of people who are either not currently in high-level government positions or are not yet well-known among the evil DC commentariat.
[This] writing should inspire, in depth, our action toward the Afghan population. This goes also through a strong respect for for the Afghan people -- for their traditions, for their faith -- and we must do everything we can to avoid side effects -- collateral damage -- which of course is giving strength to the recruiting for the Taliban...Obviously, that sounded a lot better in French. But leaving out the fact that Gian Gentile is now deep in the basement of West Point's library, furiously translating his articles into French, this represents a milestone for population-centric COIN theory. For much of the 20th Century (and even the later years of the 19th Century), French small wars theorists have heavily influenced the way in which we in the English-speaking world have thought about countering insurrections. Now things have come full circle in the most ironic of ways, with Americans popularizing and interpreting a French thinker for the French themselves.
Read this entire article. Some good stuff on NATO, France, and Afghanistan.
President Sarkozy of France will tell Gordon Brown next week that France plans to send an extra 1,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to bolster the battle against the Taleban. Senior ministers have told The Times that Mr Sarkozy wants to underline his commitment to the alliance during his state visit to Britain.
The Ministry of Defence has made a working assumption that President Sarkozy will announce a deployment of “slightly more than 1,000 troops to the eastern region”, one said.
The deployment would deliver a significant fillip to the military operation in Afghanistan, ensuring that other countries such as Canada remain engaged. It would also provide concrete evidence that France was keen to forge a new relationship with Nato.