February 26th, 2012

R2P and Military Strategy

Anne-Marie Slaughter recently published a New York Times op-ed that laid out an strategic and operational plan for civilian protection in Syria. In short, the plan involves the creation of “no-kill zones” protected by Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and international special operations forces trainers. Spencer Ackerman wrote a sound critique of the piece, prompting a response from Slaughter that further exposed some major problems and contradictions in discussions of intervention and military strategy (or lack theorof).

In my post on victory and the essence of strategy, I (partially) critiqued an analysis of current trends in warfare also written by Slaughter. My criticism of the concept of “credible influence” rested primarily on the basic misconception of the policy-strategy nexus. A policy can be limited or unlimited, but strategy—the bridge between violence and politics that facilitates “currency conversion” between the two realms—exists to accomplish the policy. A strategy is built on tactics, the core of which reside in purposeful violence. The political object—an “end”—is accomplished through force.

"Victory" in an absolute sense does not really exist above the tactical level, certainly. But for all intents and purposes, one succeeds in war when they use force to accomplish a political object. Victory and defeat only assume meaning in the context of policy and politics. But it is one thing to declare that a context-neutral "victory" does not exist and another to throw away the term altogether. As Fred Ikle declared in his classic book, every war must end.

Because political, material, financial, and above all else human resources are limited, a state of war cannot indefinitely continue. It eventually ends, and someone either realizes their political object or does not. Sometimes the results can be quite decisive—Gaddafi lost his power and his life. Other times, even indecisive wars generate political-military decision. The Korean War decided that neither the US nor China would dominate a unified Korea, and North Korea obviously did not mesh into a united Korea.

The argument that the wars of the future would not be “won” but instead “credibly influenced” should inspire closer examination I questioned whether or not abandoning the concept of victory meant unintentionally endorsing the idea of fighting without a theory of victory or intention to achieve a political objective. In other posts, I have observed that some R2P advocates have actually explicitly rejected the concept of strategy altogether, believing that it is important to simply act and hope for the best.

Spencer Ackerman asked precisely this question in his post, which I quote at length: 

Then there’s a more general problem with the Responsibility to Protect, as instantiated in Syria. The endgame of Slaughter’s proposal is a “regional, and ultimately national, truce.” Then what? Do the international forces go home? Do they still patrol the “no-kill zones”? Why, on the day after the truce, with Assad still in power, do both sides — and particularly Assad — bide time until a renewed attack looks advantageous? Do foreign forces stop arming the rebels after the truce?

Now, why do I say this is a broader problem with the Responsibility to Protect? Because it shows that the R2P is a military endeavor that still lacks actual, substantive objectives for militaries to achieve. If I am one of the Qatari SOF captains who has to aid the “no-kill zones,” I don’t know from Slaughter’s guidance how to design my operational campaign. I get that I have to help the Free Syrian Army clear out a “no-kill zone” of loyalist Syrian troops; I can presume that I must hold that zone. But what happens when I get mortar fire from the loyalists who’ve pulled back? Does protecting that zone mean I can push it outward? If it does, then I am escalating the objectives as Slaughter has described them; if it doesn’t, then I have failed to hold the no-kill zone.

This is a military illogic that is all over the R2P. Advocates don’t want to concede that they’re actually calling for regime change — often, they don’t want to call for regime change — so they stop short of that, and call for separating combatants in the hope that a deus ex machina materializes. But the further they stop short, the more problems they hand off to the military commanders who must implement the R2P. This is why Libya looked like a stalemate, right up until the point where the deus ex machina — the fall of Tripoli; the killing of Gadhafi — materialized. You’re not designing a military campaign that leads to a desired result, you’re launching discrete tactical maneuvers and hoping shit works out.

Ackerman was essentially stated that R2P, as expressed in popular debates, lacks a theory of victory. A theory of victory is a narrative that expresses how force achieves the political object. It is not necessarily equivalent to strategy (although his post argues that there is also a strategy gap) but implies a dysfunction in the crafting of strategy. In answering his question, Slaughter implicitly argued that R2P was a new kind of war in which strategic endstates and a guiding concept that would unify tactics and operations could be, by necessity, eschewed: 

But here’s the larger and much more important issue. Supporters of R2P are indeed comfortable with stalemate when the alternative is civilian massacre. R2P is not about winning, it’s about forcing a government to fight fair, which means it doesn’t shoot civilians as a strategy. From the warrior’s perspective, that is deeply unsatisfying — after all, the point of war is to win. But the women, children, and old people who would otherwise be dying daily are likely to be both deeply grateful and prepared to wait a long time.

There are multiple problems with this paragraph, which in connection with Ackerman’s criticism go to the heart of the contradictions unleashed by a military concept rooted in civilian protection.

It is a bad idea to engage in military conflict without a sound idea of how it will end. “Winning” is not a bad thing, and “warriors” are the not only ones who should be interested in it. And are those warriors wrong to be concerned about actually winning? On the contrary, winning—or, to be more precise, using force to achieve a clearly defined political object—is the entire purpose of war. And R2P’s military dimension, however much some of its advocates desire otherwise, is war. War involves killing, destruction, and death, not only of soldiers but inevitably the civilians caught in the way as well. As we have learned over the last ten years, force is a blunt instrument and it is not wise to use force without a clear idea of what it can achieve.

Debates over interventions focus on tactics (no-fly zones, airdrops, the pros and cons of arming the opposition) because civilian protection in and of itself a tactical rather than strategic goal. And because advocates of intervention do not consider interventions to be forms of war (remember, the Korean War was originally called a “police action,” implying that the conflict was petty crime rather than political war), there is an expectation that simply interposing oneself between the combatants or giving the weaker side the ability to fight back is a neutral, apolitical action rather than a conscious military intervention in a civil war that is by nature a total war in which the cost of defeat is lifetime imprisonment, show trial, or brutal death.

The refusal to subject R2P to actual, time-tested principles of warfare and strategy or even view it within the framework of military operations is indeed very troubling. It is only fair to the warriors that contest today’s battlefields, their relatives, and the foreign civilian populations that inevitably suffer as a result of warfare that a credible endstate be provided. Otherwise, as John Kerry memorably declared about Vietnam, no one wants to die for a mistake. The hypothetical Qatari SOF captains Ackerman discusses—and the civilians they would be presumably protecting—are at risk of violent death, and their lives should not be thrown into the balance thoughtlessly.  Good intentions are not enough—there must be a reasonable chance of success. If we are unable to envision what success looks like—and forswear the idea of victory altogether in favor of discrete tactical maneuvers—are we being fair to those who would actually bear the brunt of a confused policy and strategy?

Stalemate is not an acceptable outcome precisely because it is actually not an outcome. It is an intermediary point that leads to an outcome—which could be distinctly unfavorable. In Libya, NATO was in a race against time in the battle against Gaddafi. Stalemate worked against NATO, because the longer Gaddafi held onto power, the greater the logistical and political pressure on the mission. Had NATO been unable to sustain operations until the Libyan resistance forces in the West had broken through, the United States may have become more involved in the operation in a manner that might have been distinctly undesirable.

Stalemate works to the benefit of the enemy (which Assad’s Syria would be) because war to Assad is a struggle for survival as opposed to a war of choice. As Ackerman notes, what happens even if the assumptions that guide Slaughter’s proposed operational concept work? States that conclude civil wars with truces are rather notorious for breaking them. And many internal conflicts are either ongoing or in a state of tenuous peace.

Korea is in a state of extended truce, brokered only by the might of a large and capable South Korean military and a substantial American deployment. The Korean War is still ongoing, even if the military maneuvers have long since been replaced by political machinations—for now. North Korea continuously tests the boundaries by militarily aggressing against the South and daring Seoul to do something about it. Bosnia remains at best a fractured community and at worst a “frozen conflict” held together by outsiders. Though a multiplicity of means, NATO defeated Serbia. But even the removal of Milosevic has not stopped political and paramilitary struggle over Kosovo.

But Bosnia and Kosovo represent best cases. Safe zones being hungrily watched by the Syrian army is not really a best case scenario. Unless Slaughter expects the intervening powers to indefinitely sustain a patchwork of safe zones, stalemate is not an acceptable option for intervention in Syria. Given that the Syrian regime is engaged in an battle of life and death, it is extremely unlikely that anything except the military defeat of that regime will cease the killing. Defeat does not necessarily imply overthrow, but the removal of the means by which the regime prosecutes its civil war. But this is precisely the kind of expansive aim that limited intervention in Syria is supposed to avoid. A stalemate without a plausible endstate simply postpones the killing to a later date. Just as Colin Kahl wrote that a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would not obviate the need for containment—but only make it more difficult—a stalemate is simply an intermediary point to a later outcome. Force is intended to decisively shape the ground for a future outcome, not substitute for it.

In theory, some of history’s most august military theorists warn against stalemate. Sun Tzu warned against waging in protracted war, an observation that Mao would later fashion into a theory of war that emphasized putting an opponent to a strategic stalemate before engaging in a series of decisive offensive operations. Even if the goal of war is truly limited, force is still used to create a position of advantage from which a side can bargain. For example, the Chinese army did not need to totally destroy the Indians in their brief border war. Instead they achieved escalation dominance in the  disputed territory the Indian soldiers had occupied. Similarly, the Indians gained a position of military advantage in the 1999 Kargil War against the Pakistani infiltrators. How would Sun Tzu, if somehow raised from the dead, react to a strategic concept based on the idea that stalemate was somehow an acceptable outcome? One imagines a stream of ancient Chinese expletives.

Moreover, is shooting civilians really a “strategy” for the Syrian government? Crushing the rebellion by force is the strategy that accomplishes the political object of staying in power. Shooting civilians as a purposeful means of state terrorism may be a gruesome and illegal tactic, but intimidating the Syrian government through force would not stop civilian deaths since the strategy of Assad would remain unchanged. It would only shift the nature of civilian death to the indirect consequence of total warfare in densely populated areas. Without understating the heinous and ghoulish crimes of the Syrian government, is this burden shift really significant? The numerous victims of mid-20th century European warfare—and this to say conventional war rather than the myriad of bloody internal wars that the Syrian Civil War actually resembles—suggest otherwise.

And under the circumstances, what would “fighting fair” look like? A Syrian army somehow shorn of its homicidal tendencies would still be capitalizing on its overwhelming conventional military advantages, leaving a trail of bodies under its tank treads. We have seen how even the best of Third World forces fight, and discipline, precision, and discrimination do not number among their qualities. Rather, as the Russian Army did in Chechnya, the tendency is to throw a grenade into a house without positive ID on target and level a building at the first sign of resistance. Is there a substantial difference between what the Sri Lankan Army did to crush the Tamil Tigers and what Assad is doing now besides the horrible footage leaking onto the Internet?

Whatever the merits or demerits of R2P, it faces persistent problems, the most prominent of which is a consistent refusal to grapple with military and strategic realities. Intervention is war, and cannot escape from the implications of strategic principles proven over countless years of military history.

  1. rethinkingsecurity posted this
Loading tweets...


A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng