A world beyond control

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 May 2008

George W Bush used the occasion of his speech to the Knesset on 15 May 2008, marking the sixtieth anniversary of Israel's foundation, to liken a willingness to negotiate with Iran with appeasing the Nazis - a remark clearly aimed at Barack Obama, even if the favourite to win the Democratic Party's nomination for the United States presidency was unnamed in Bush's address.

The US president's political intervention in the contest for his successor created a brief media and political firestorm that was in two ways not necessarily to the benefit of his presumptive Republican heir, John McCain. First, in highlighting the continued perceived threat of a leading member of the "axis of evil" outlined in his state-of-the-union address of January 2002, George W Bush gave Barack Obama the opportunity to make the point that the war in Iraq has had the effect of increasing Iran's influence in the region. Second, and related, in thus propelling the Iraq war back into the election campaign Bush's remark focused attention on the contrast between Obama's opposition to the war and John McCain's support for it, and for a longer-term American military presence in Iraq.

Indeed, McCain is preparing for the coming challenge with his probable Democratic adversary by outlining a confident vision of Iraq in 2012 - towards the end of his presumed first term in office. A sustained US military effort, he argues, will ensure that the war will by then largely be won in an Iraq more peaceful and democratic, thus allowing the troops to return home 2013.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 McCain's assessment is the most optimistic view of Iraqi trends offered by an establishment conservative politician to the American people - yet it is a measure of how much the nature of "optimism" has been tempered by Iraqi realities that the would-be president expects the United States still to be immersed in the region nine years after the war began. Moreover, even though this scenario is so distant from widespread expectations in the pro-war camp of immediate victory in early 2003, most analysts (those on the neo-conservative wing excepted) now see it as about the best imaginable from the US perspective. A more prevalent outlook is that a low-intensity conflict will continue in Iraq for many years to come in which the US cannot but be engaged (see "The Iraqi whirlwind", 7 April 2008)

Afghanistan, too, is approaching the eighth year of the start of its own conflict amid clear indications that an extended war is in prospect. An indication of the way things are going is the report that the US army - in a significant change of policy - plans to build a large prison complex at the Bagram air-base capable of housing 600 long-term and up to 1,100 short-term detainees under its own control (see Eric Schmitt & Tim Golden, "U.S. Planning Big New Prison in Afghanistan", New York Times, 17 May 2008). This underlines the army's evolving view that its in-depth military occupation of large parts of Afghanistan requires what amount to permanent infrastructural facilities, however expensive (the Bagram complex alone will cost $60 million).

A military shift

These developments in public debate and policy indicate the United States's understandable belief that Iraq and Afghanistan will remain for the foreseeable future the principal focus of its military attention. But from the inside, the impact of these two wars goes far deeper than a visible military campaign. Indeed, the whole experience of the "war on terror" since 9/11 has now convinced senior US military commanders that the kind of low-level but intensive and prolonged conflicts their forces have been engaged in in these two countries set the template for a decades-long military strategy.

A clear indications of this is the way that experience of counterinsurgency is becoming an important criterion in the preferment of senior army officers. In late 2007, the army convened a promotions board that was responsible for recommending colonels for promotion to one-star generals (the Brigadier- General category); the board's membership includes several senior commanders who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a sign too of the Pentagon's recognition that the army has carried the main burden of both wars (see Ann Scott Tyson, "Army's Next Crop of Generals Forged in Counterinsurgency", Washington Post, 15 May 2008).

It is revealing too that the Pentagon has asked General David H Petraeus, the outgoing commander of the US military's operations in Iraq, to lead the new board. In April 2008, Petraeus was nominated by the White House head of US Central Command, the unified military structure (combining the army, navy, air-force and marines) responsible for US operations in a huge swathe of territory from northeast Africa across the middle east to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed.

This emphasis on counterinsurgency represents an extraordinary shift of focus. As recently as 2003, the then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was arguing that the United States simply did not need large numbers of "boots on the ground" - future wars would be waged by precision-guided missiles, long-range strike-aircraft and a whole range of new weaponry, ensuring victory with a minimum of direct human involvement on the battlefield.

The distance from such visions to the emerging reality can be glimpsed in a report from the US army's training-and-doctrine command (Tradoc), based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The report, Asymmetric Threats to Current and Future U.S. Forces, concentrates on the new weapons available to insurgent groups. The problems it envisages are less likely to be highly advanced aircraft, tanks or warships than cheap devices readily obtainable on the international arms markets (see Kris Osborn, "More UAVs, Missiles Will Face U.S. Forces: Report", Defense News, 12 May 2008 [subscription only]).

Asymmetric Threats suggests that thirty-two countries already deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), some costing less than $3,000 each. There is every chance that these systems could be obtained and modified by insurgents to deliver explosive charges or even chemical weapons. The Lebanese movement Hizbollah has already flown small UAVs across northern Israel, much to the alarm of the Israeli air-force (see "Hizbollah's warning flight", 5 May 2005). There are now commercial UAVs available, such as the Yamaha RMAX helicopter used in rice farming, that could be adapted for warfare. Another example is the new RPG-32 rocket-propelled grenade made by a Russian company called Bazalt. It has a range of around a kilometre, can be fitted with anti-tank, anti-personnel or fuel-air explosive warheads - and is coming on to the open market.

In Somalia, four-wheel drive pick-ups mounting machine-guns - of the kind that in the mid-1990s were called "technical" - can now be fitted with mortars or RPGs. They are highly mobile, difficult to track in urban areas and have been responsible for numerous attacks on US helicopters in Iraq.

A landscape of threat

The world's leading arms companies make most of their money from grand high-tech projects, some stretching over two decades or more and costing tens of billions of dollars. It is little wonder then that this new world of asymmetric warfare is causing grave concern in their boardrooms. Donald Rumsfeld's successor as US defence secretary, Robert M Gates, has increased the fear by warning arms companies can no longer rely on such ultra-complex weapons if they were wish to stay relevant to the wars the US is now fighting (see Thom Shanker, "Gates Says New Arms Must Play Role Now", New York Times, 14 May 2008).

The coming age of anti-insurgent and anti-militia warfare is also worrying to other branches of the US military, such as the navy and air-force, which anticipate that the new pattern of conflict will entail a diminution of their role. This apprehension is shared too by the services of the US close ally Britain, where the long-awaited confirmation of the decision to build two huge new aircraft-carriers is provoking anguish at senior levels (see Michael Evans, "Defence chiefs have last-minute doubts about £4bn carriers", Times, 17 May 2008). What, some commanders are asking, is the point of Britain committing so much of its future defence purchases to the largest warships ever to be deployed by the Royal Navy? They may field the the new US F-35 (the world's most advanced aircraft) and they may give Britain a unique ability to partner the US in future expeditionary warfare in the oil-rich regions of the middle east - but what if the real problem comes from troops tied down in remote parts of Afghanistan? (see "Gordon Brown's white elephants", 26 July 2007).

Such nervous questioning is apparent in many other countries whose military leaderships are - whether or not they are directly involved - watching carefully how post-9/11 warfare is unfolding. A comprehensive report on special forces in Defense News (19 May 2008) gives numerous examples: Germany is reshaping its forces to counter "asymmetric" threats; Denmark, Sweden and Norway are increasing funding on special forces while budgets in other areas are being cut; Turkey is reworking its commando forces to develop their counterinsurgency roles; Israel, China and Taiwan are boosting their own special forces.

Many countries too - the United States and Britain most notably - have committed substantial new funds for domestic counter-terrorism, often by double or even triple the previous amounts. There is far less evidence, however, of an equivalent increase in comprehension of why there is a greater threat and what motivates the paramilitaries (see "The war for understanding", 15 May 2008).

A jungle out there

The deeper story here is that military thinkers and strategic planners have gradually come to recognise that they are facing new opponents in new - unexpected and unpredictable - conflicts; but that their responses remain trapped within the kind of "old thinking" that helped to initiate and intensify the existing range of conflicts. They are thus embarking on the attempt to devise military forces capable of matching the fresh challenges, while making very little effort to analyse and understand the dynamics that have allowed those challenges to develop.

The director of the CIA from 1993-95, R James Woolsey, famously commented that the United States had slain a "large dragon" (the Soviet threat) only to find itself living "in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes". One of the new inhabitants of the "jungle" bit back with pitiless vengeance on 9/11, and the reaction in the United States in particular has been an even more determined attempt to bring the entire ecosystem under control.

Today we have a new threat, a new enemy, which is engaging us in new ways. The jungle is even more dangerous than we thought and those poisonous snakes are everywhere. The predicament is compounded by the fact that, as Woolsey said, "in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of". Our job as military specialists is to respond to this situation with force.

The possibility that this enemy actively wants and welcomes such a vigorous military response is beyond our imagination; and it is not our job to examine the wider political context in which the enemy has evolved. The control paradigm - also known as "liddism", keeping the lid on things - is what we do. That is how it has to be. It is not our job to do anything else. There is, put simply, no other way.

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