When it comes to issues of irregular
warfare and Middle Eastern conflict, there is an understandable focus on the
terrestrial domain and the problems of insurgency and terrorism. Furthermore,
given the recent record of that experience, it’s unsurprising that direct
engagement in land warfare is something of an anathema in debates about the
American strategic future. Avoiding “land wars in Asia,” whether by
substituting local soldiers for Americans or by avoiding such conflicts
altogether through a strategy of “offshore balancing” is again the new vogue.
Many commentators and analysts, particularly those of the realist persuasion in international relations, have sought seapower and “offshore” models of power projection as a refuge from the problems that now seem inextricably linked with land warfare and land presence generally - terrorism, insurgency, occupation and nation-building. Even the rhetoric of the “pivot to Asia” and the seeming defense policy transition from a large-footprint counterinsurgency force to a suite of unconventional or offshore counterterrorism and counter-A2/AD capabilities suggests an escape from the messiness of the Middle East and irregular conflicts.
Yet as the recent death of one fisherman and the wounding of several others off the coast of Dubai should remind us, naval operations - and maritime-centric strategies and policies - are still messy, even if they are not as obviously costly or politically painful as those of the past. The USS Cole bombing and Iran’s persistent use of irregular maritime operations to harass American shipping should make it clear that the problems of irregular conflict on land - the unclear distinction between combatant and noncombatant, the counteraction of American conventional superiority with unconventional platforms and tactics, and the persistent risk of violent entanglement with American presence still remains in the Gulf. Indeed, as a comparison of American responses to Iranian naval provocations and its well-documented operations against American forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan shows, the risk of wider conflict breaking out appears higher at sea than due to American land presence.
Far from being an easy extrication from “perpetual war,” America’s maritime presence, and the sorts of missions and political interests associated with it, has often been a trigger of major conflicts. The Quasi-War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam all had maritime incidents as serious triggers. As the U.S.S. Cole bombing demonstrated, even in areas where the U.S. does not have a permanent basing presence, naval vessels pose potential targets.
“Gunboat diplomacy,” and all the political and cultural connotations it presents, should disabuse us of the notion that offshore power’s exercise is inherently more warmly received. Not only that, however, but a clear delineation between offshore power projection and onshore warfare is not likely to remain a viable strategic concept. As the recent report of the Amphibious Capabilities Working Group points out, a “single naval battle” approach requires addressing challenges not simply in the maritime domain, but in the air, space, cyberspace and on land. Whether the maritime threat includes a state’s sophisticated land-based defenses or home ports for pirate vessels, the arbitrary political division between offshore assets and onshore warfare requires a competent and reliable ground complement for operational and strategic coherence.
In cases such as Libya, the U.S. and its allies were lucky enough to work with an irregular ground force capable of matching Gaddafi’s military and paramilitary assets, albeit likely with support from contractors and allied special forces. In Somalia, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and I have noted, the U.S. has worked with a wide network of partner nations and proxy groups within Somalia, often buttressed with private contracting, to accomplish ground operations in support of substantial U.S. offshore assets. Yet it’s unlikely that local allies will always be able to furnish the requisite ground power to enable the muddier aspects of the “single naval battle,” let alone war aims more firmly rooted in enemy soil.
As Chris Rawley has noted, war on land is not synonymous with the modes of warfare the U.S. has charged its land forces with in the last decade. The offshoring of U.S. power, if it does occur, should not and probably will not mean an end to the frequent use of land power as an instrument of U.S. policy. Nor is such an approach ultimately incompatible with an austere, downsized military with limited national aims. After all, the Small Wars Manual was a product of a Marine Corps fighting in a relatively underfunded military with low tolerance for large footprints and in a political framework under which the U.S. enjoyed far less flexibility and international freedom of action compared to today.
On the high-intensity end of the warfighting spectrum, Brett Friedman argues that even a concept such as AirSea Battle, which gives land warfare a backseat in its very name, ultimately will have to relate to a theory of victory that addresses land power. Ultimately the division between air, sea, cyber, land land, is one of political convenience, obscuring a strategy reality where someone, at America’s behest or in America’s aid, provides Wylie’s “man on the scene with the gun.” As in the late 19th and early 20th century, after the sound of the cannons fades, or beyond the reach of their shot, even an invulnerable offshore force faces the problems of land warfare.
History has also demonstrated, since then, that naval power projection and naval forces do not provide an escape from irregular warfare or regional military entanglement. Ultimately, while an “offshore” strategy and its supporting policies may have many reasons to recommend them, they do not necessarily mean a low footprint, a less bellicose foreign policy, or even an escape from the problems of land warfare. Instead they demand a reconsideration of ways of warfare, especially amphibious operations, that will likely prove a necessary complement to any sea and air-based defense posture.
The U.S. occupation of Australia has begun. U.S. officials claim the occupation has nothing to do with the behavior of China, leading defense analysts to conclude this has more to do with helping Australia counter the well-publicized scourge of baby-stealing dingos down under. The problem with this kind of dingo-centric "strategy" -- can you even call it that, or is it just a collection of tactics? -- is that it's hard to see how the U.S. Marine Corps will maintain its core competencies while in Australia. I have made a careful study of the U.S. Marine Corps from 1942 to 1945, and based on that study, I have concluded that amphibious landings are really the heart and soul of the Corps. The history of the U.S. Marine Corps from 1775-1941 and from 1946-present is also quite interesting and may well have included some other stuff, to include counter-dingo operations, but it is largely irrelevant as far as Marine culture and doctrine are concerned. No, amphibious operations are the only thing that really matters, which is why I am also concerned the costly deployment of Marines to Australia will endanger the long-term health of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, without which the U.S. Marine Corps would surely decide to turn in their uniforms and weapons, grow out their hair and take up hemp farming in Idaho.
There are other things that trouble me about this deployment. How many cultural advisors, for example, have these Marines deployed with? How many Marines in each platoon speak the local language or have any training in the tribes and customs of the Australians? How many Marines know that an "Australian" is what you call a native, whereas an "Australiani" is the local unit of currency? (I predict that ten years from now, it will still be possible for esteemed professors of international relations at Harvard to get these two terms confused in the pages of the New York Times.) I understand that U.S. Marines believe "Fosters" is the Australian word for beer, but I worry that few of them know that it is also the Australian word for "cat urine."
Finally, it may make sense today to limit the U.S. mission in Australia to a struggle to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the dingo menace. But inevitably, U.S. Marines will be drawn into adjudicating the petty internal rivalries of Australia. Without a proper understanding of Australia's culture or troubled history, U.S. Marines will create winners and losers among the population, which will eventually tire of our heavy-handedness. Equally inevitably, well-meaning U.S. Marines will offend Australians by asking awkward questions, like, "Why are all your rugby players from Fiji?"
Australia is a land populated by criminals, which is why Alexander the Great stopped well short of there. (Alexander the Great understood defense in depth.) The British Empire has been humiliated in Australia time and time again, and there is no reason to imagine that we Americans will have any more luck. I fear we are embarking on another fool's errand.
For a man to charge into fire once requires grit that is instinctive in few men; to do so a second time, now knowing what awaits you, requires inner resolve beyond instinct; to repeat a third time is courage above and beyond any call of duty; to go in a fourth time is to know you will die; to go in a fifth time is beyond comprehension.
Meyer's performance was the greatest act of courage in the war, because he repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it.
From an otherwise great dispatch from Afghanistan by -- who else? -- Bing West:
Marine tactics, like Ohio State football, have the subtle inevitability of a steamroller.
I'm not sure what Bing is getting at here in comparing the Marine Corps to the Ohio State football team. Does he mean Marines pawn their valor awards?
I was on a plane to the Middle East on Sunday evening when I spotted these lines from Leon Panetta's op-ed in the Washington Post:
The main lesson from this attack is that, like our military, CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies. They take risks to confront the enemy, gathering information to destroy its networks and disrupt its operations. This is a vicious foe, one that has struck our country before and is determined to do so again.
As an agency, we have found consolation in the strength and heroism of our fallen colleagues and their families.
We have found no consolation, however, in public commentary suggesting that those who gave their lives somehow brought it upon themselves because of "poor tradecraft." That's like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills.
The op-ed was, written, I believe, in response to commentary like this op-ed by Reuel Marc Gerecht arguing that poor tradcraft was, in fact, at least in part to blame for the deaths of seven U.S. operatives and one Jordian agent. I myself do not know much of anything about the tradecraft of an intelligence officer at the CIA, so I am not going to pass judgment on what happened in eastern Afghanistan. What Panetta wrote above, though, sure does trouble me.
Panetta assumes that is beyond the pale to say that Marines or U.S. soldiers died in a firefight due to poor war-fighting skills, but that in fact has happened quite regularly over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every single firefight U.S. soldiers and Marines engage in is subject to an admirably honest after action review (AAR). Readers of this blog no doubt count themselves as veterans of many an AAR held everywhere from Fort Polk, Louisiana to Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan. In some military mini-disasters -- like the hapless convoy that was ambushed during the Battle of Nasiriyah and resulted in the capture of Jessica Lynch -- an extensive AAR process reveals that soldiers died because they did, in fact, possess poor war-fighting skills. (After Nasiriyah, that particular finding led many within the U.S. Army to stress the importance of basic rifle marksmanship and maintenance for even so-called "support" soldiers.)
The military is, by now, used to engaging in a pretty frightful AAR process that, when successful, lays bare the weaknesses of fighting organizations tested by realistic training or combat. When aggressive national security journalists don't think the U.S. Army or Marine Corps is being honest enough, they do not hesistate to say so. (Exhibit A.) So in conclusion, it is not, in fact, taboo to say that Marines died because they have poor war-fighting skills. Marines do sometimes die because they have poor war-fighting skills. And when that happens, the U.S. Marine Corps relies, like the U.S. Army, on a vigorous AAR process to identify faults in training, leadership and equipment.
One can only hope that the CIA is engaged in a similar process today. But when the director pre-emptively says that the "main lesson" of this loss is that "CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies", it makes me think the director, at least, is on the defensive. Because that's a pretty anodyne main lesson to draw from this. A visit to any tactical U.S. military unit in Iraq or Afghanistan -- where successes and failings are analyzed and provoke reforms on a daily basis -- tells you it doesn't have to be that way.
The CIA is, of course, conducting an investigation. But an investigation can be a lot different in tone and scope than an AAR. An investigation has a prosecutorial air about it and can focus on factors outside an organization. An AAR, by contrast, should focus on dynamics inside an organization. It should also be conductd in such a way as to encourage honesty from subordinate leaders and participants -- no one should fear for their career. A how-to guide can be found here. Tips and techniques from readers on how to conduct an effective AAR are encouraged in the comments section.
In related news, the report on the failings of U.S. military intelligence in Afghanistan -- and the accompanying recommendations for a way forward -- has been downloaded 9,864 times as of yesterday. That's a new record for a CNAS report. I heard the director of one of the civilian intelligence agencies thought the Flynn report was in part directed toward his agency. It wasn't, but his alleged knee-jerk response -- angry and defensive -- was revealing.
Nick Francona -- U.S. Marine, Penn graduate and all-around American Hero -- emailed me to wish me a Merry Christmas and to say he gave me a shout out on ESPN.com. Nick's story is a pretty incredible one, and I for one am really resisting the urge to make a comment about the patriotism of Red Sox fans as compared with fans of another club (that will go unnamed lest I draw the wrath of the Jeter-loving Lady Muqawama). But if you happen to be a fan of baseball, read this article. Go Red Sox, and Semper Fi.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey "Jay" Goodes just led the CNAS celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday, and Abu Muqawama salutes all the leathernecks celebrating downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan. In honor of the Marine Corps, we now present Gunny Highway versus the Swede. In Italian. Which somehow makes Heartbreak Ridge even more awesome.
On the ground, far from the generals in Kabul and the policy makers in Washington, the hour-by-hour conduct of the war rests in part in the deeds of men this young, who have been given latitude to lead as their training and instincts guide them.One of the Marines profiled, though, takes a not-so-subtle jab at my former service:
What a little twerp! Chivers no doubt included this line because he, too, is a Marine. I know a certain U.S. Army regiment at Fort Benning that would relish wiping that cocky smirk off Corporal Conroy's face. But fair is fair. These Marines are national treasures as far as I am concerned, and as an Army buddy of mine wrote when he sent along this article...
In all, Corporal Conroy said, in five months here, he and Lance Corporal Murray have been attacked more than 70 times. He said he respected the insurgents’ courage, but was grateful that most of them lacked an essential skill.
“They are experienced and understand the principles of the ambush,” he said. “But they are not very good shots. If these guys knew how to shoot like even the U.S. Army, we would be taking 50 percent casualties on all of our patrols.”
This is the modern equivalent of the Vietnam advisory mission, only done by Lance Corporals and Corporals, not Captains and Majors. It almost makes this Army Captain want to say "Ooo-rah," not "Huah." Almost. ;-)P.S. A reader reminded me to mention the great photographs which accompany the article.