America’s new-old military thinking

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
27 July 2009

The centre of the wars that the western powers, principally the United States and Britain, are involved in has moved east. Afghanistan, where the "war on terror" was launched in October 2001, has replaced Iraq as the site of their principal military effort. But as the campaign there becomes increasingly mired in difficult local terrain, a larger effort is being made to use this shift in the major theatre of war to think about the fundamental purposes of what these powers are engaged in.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here

What are the wars and local insurgencies the United States and Britain are seeking to win, manage or contain now about? How are the different "small" conflicts around the world related to each other? How do military analysts now understand the current security threats faced by western states?  Such questions shadow the increasingly fraught atmospherics of the anti-Taliban effort in Afghanistan.

The Afghan dilemma

A tough summer campaign by British forces in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand is incurring almost daily casualties that are widely reported by the media. There is a fairly even split of public opinion between those supporting and those opposing a continued presence in the country; while overall backing for the troops is often accompanied by doubts over their mission and military strategy. What is most striking about mid-2009 is that these doubts and concerns have been voiced by senior military and political figures (see "Afghanistan's lost decade", 16 July 2009) 

The British government has been on the defensive in a controversy over equipment limitations. This itself can become a diversion from the reality on the ground, namely the unexpectedly strong resistance that the Taliban and other paramilitaries are offering in Helmand. Moreover, in many ways the experience of the British troops is little different to that of the other national contingents (Canadian, Dutch or American) that have been heavily involved in direct combat. All forces in southern Afghanistan have been struggling with the same problem: how to bring in larger numbers of heavily armoured vehicles and helicopters, as they face paramilitaries adept at disrupting road patrols.

A view that has quickly acquired the status of an orthodoxy is that the answer is "more helicopters". This too is misleading, on two counts. The first is that any enduring presence by western forces, intended as a medium-term prelude to a handover to a rebuilt Afghan national army, requires numerous small units entrenched in towns across the province and able to conduct frequent foot-patrols. This presence cannot be provided by helicopters, and even robust armoured road vehicles have limited relevance.

The second point is that any greater reliance on helicopters will be met by paramilitary attempts to acquire shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. It was the introduction of these weapons that inflicted so much damage on the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even arguably creating a military turning-point in the war. They could once again become a major threat.

Turn, and turn again

A wider view of the evolving conflict entails recognition that the war in Afghanistan is closely linked both with what has happened in Iraq and current developments in Somalia.  The impact of the "insurgency knowledge" gained by paramilitaries in Iraq is clear enough, as is its translation into both countries. What has happened is that Iraq has been a six-year combat-training zone for young paramilitaries from across the middle east and north Africa, a process that will have an enduring impact (see "Iraq's gift to Afghanistan", 20 November 2008).

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 books include 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. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

These trends are part of a more general change in military circumstances, as a worldwide security environment emerges that is markedly different to what was anticipated as recently as 2000. This evolving environment is provoking intense rethinking within the US armed forces - though to some extent what they are engaged is less new thinking than a recovery of ideas that were common currency in the 1990s but receded to the background when George W Bush came to power in January 2001.

For example, a notion that was common in the US navy in the early 1990s was that its post-cold-war function would be to "keep the violent peace" and protect US interests across the world (see Paul Rogers & Malcolm Dando, A Violent Peace: Global Security After the Cold War[Brasseys, 1992]). A more colourful way of expressing the same point was used in 1993 by Bill Clinton's first CIA director James Woolsey, when he said that the United States had slain the dragon (the Soviet Union) but now lived in a jungle full of poisonous snakes.

This perspective was embodied in the mid-1990s in an emphasis on special forces and amphibious-warfare capabilities, but their moment passed when the Bush administration's neo-conservative agenda revealed itself to have other priorities. The idea of "taming the jungle" was essentially defensive; now, in 2001, a much more aggressive and proactive project - creating the "new American century", in which global security is guaranteed by a single, unrivalled superpower - came to the forefront.

This worldview regarded 9/11 with utter shock and dismay. It reacted with fury and the appearance of certitude, and prepared its military for what was intended to be a definitive and awesome demonstration of unchallengeable military might. But the outcomes of this policy choice - two bitter and lengthy wars, the risk of deep instability in Pakistan, and the continuing risk of al-Qaida attacks - only deepened its predicament and exposed its inner fragility.

The response has been a bout of serious reflection within the US military as to its future direction. The debates that are occurring are made even more sombre by the spreading acknowledgment that the routinely huge increases in military budgets under the Bush administration cannot be maintained in an era of more constrained American power (see "The costs of America's long war", 8 March 2007).

The militant mix

A conventional digest of these debates sees them in terms of two broad views: arguing that the United States's main military emphasis should either be on preparation for counterinsurgency campaigns, or on conventional wars (most likely involving Iran, or in the longer term China or a renewed Russia). 

A recent study concludes that this is too much of a simplification (see Frank G Hoffman, "Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict", Strategic Forum, April 2009 [Institute for National Strategic Studies, Washington]).

Frank G Hoffman identifies four, rather than two, schools of thought:

* Counterinsurgents  - who focus heavily on irregular forces as the main threat

* Traditionalists - who are concerned very much with conventional warfare

* Utility infielders - who say the answer is to create forces that are sufficiently agile and well-trained to handle any threat

* Division-of-labour people - who want forces divided into different categories to meet the different threats.

These varied currents tend to be complicated by inter-service rivalry, with the army and the marines emphasising counterinsurgency and the air force and navy much more geared to conventional war. These divisions are not absolute, and there is certainly some overlap; but they still run deep. They are also accentuated by the sheer costs and timescales involved in expensive projects such as aircraft-carriers and new strike-aircraft, as well as the need for senior officers to protect their own careers.

There is nonetheless a sense in which military analysts are going beyond these institutional limitations  to focus on what are increasingly being termed "hybrid threats". This approach recognises that in the reasonably near future the the United States and its allies will face opponents - non-state movements, and possibly states - that according to circumstances employ a combination of guerrilla tactics and conventional war. These opponents may be all the more challenging in their versatile capacity to recognise the overwhelming conventional military power available to the United States and its allies without being in any way cowed by it.

Thus, Hizbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006 used a complex mix of strategies - ranging from sophisticated anti-ship missiles acquired from Iran to guerrilla tactics close to the Israeli border. In Iraq, the conventional forces of the special republican guard (SRG) military units were the backbone of the military units that initially fought the US after 2003. These rapidly evolved into effective guerrilla forces; in turn, they attracted young paramilitaries from across the region, and the tactics and weapons developed in Iraq have since turned up in other war-zones.

Frank G Hoffman cites intelligence sources suggesting that several middle-eastern states, most likely including Iran and Syria, are purposely developing irregular units on a substantial scale while retaining conventional forces. The latter may have a defensive function; they may be no match for the US military, but could combine with irregular warfare in any future confrontation to create real damage.

Hoffman concludes that the United States:

"must maintain the ability to wage successful campaigns against both large, conventionally armed states and their militaries and against widely dispersed terrorists - and against everything in between. We must be smart about our force posture and lean towards agile, rigorously multipurpose forces capable of being adaptive in approach to the unique conditions each conflict poses."

The far horizon

In its own way, such thinking is typical of the intelligent analysis being conducted in some of the United States's military-research centres. It is all a long way from the immediacy of Washington's politics, and all the more interesting for that. But it also remains limited by a basic premise: that the world is a jungle and that jungle has to be tamed. 

This analysis thus says very little about the underlying causes of conflict; and still less about why states and sub-state groups may be antagonistic to US interests in particular and western power in general. Moreover, it shows no recognition of any wider understanding of security, one that could raise awareness of the need to address two major global issues: the widening socio-economic divide and the likely impact of climate change (see "A tale of two paradigms", 25 June 2009).

But it does at least recognise what the eight years since 9/11 have made unavoidably clear: that the world is changing. The best military analysts have the habit of thinking long term. It is as good a reason as any for engaging with them on these much wider and more fundamental security issues.

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