Strategic Asset vs. Strategic Annoyance
If counterinsurgency as a theory of victory is on the wane, then we ought to take care that the “light footprint era” does not replace the predominately operational focus of the COIN era with an even flimsier operational-tactical artifice built on an attempt to equate the raiding tactical concept with a national security policy.
That concern is at the heart of Joseph Fouche’s new piece, which has much to be recommended. However, I’ll zero in on these two points—Fouche argues that two constraints animate American strategy-making in the absence of crisis:
- It must be small enough to escape sustained public awareness.
- It must be big enough to have real strategic effect.
The result of struggling to square these two incompatible constraints is settling by default on a strategy of annoyance. A strategy of annoyance is big enough to irritate an enemy but not big enough to produce real strategic effect. It produces increased friction for the U.S. from the enemy so irritated without the compensating strategic effects that build toward real strategic gain.
Fouche uses Bin Laden’s death as a rather sad example of a strategy of annoyance:
The life of the late and unlamented Osama bin Laden is one example of the consequences of a strategic vacuüm that limply defaults to annoyance. American efforts were enough to get Bin Laden deported from the relative comforts of the Sudan, making him leave behind his stuff and property, but not enough to leave Bin Laden an unrecognized hump of dismembered viscera dumped on the side of a Khartoum road for the jackals and vultures to feast on. So Osama Bin Laden found himself in backwoods Afghanistan, hanging out with a bunch of rubes.
Though his primordial enmity was already tilted against the United States, his escape from the Sudan with his life but not his property greatly annoyed Bin Laden without decisively deterring him …The assisted death of Bin Laden in Khartoum in 1996 would have been a strategic triumph. The assisted death of Bin Laden in 2011 was a strategic whimper. But the former wouldn’t have happened because the political environment of 1996 ruled out action consequential enough to produce strategic effect. The latter happened because, after Bin Laden inflicted ~40,000 casualties on this nation, the situation in 2011 was downright encouraging towards his assisted departure from this life.
As Fouche notes, a force optimized for raiding capabilities risking drifting into this strategic cul-de-sac.
From a capabilities standpoint it should also be observed that special operations forces do not grow on the trees in Fort Bragg (and the problem, seen in the World War II British Army, of regular vs. special services fighting for officers, could get acute if the ground services see large personnel reductions), Afghanistan 2001—like Austerlitz for post-Napleonic armies—is not a great idea to base a strategy around, and the Army ran into real strategic mobility issues trying to fit Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) concepts. This suggests more of the same—strike operations against men in funny hats and the continued leveraging of direct action missions.
Whether or not the Marines resolve the identity crisis provoked by the growing cost and complexity of amphibious assault and the procurement challenges associated with the equipment needed or circumvent the issue entirely (The island-hopping campaign and Inchon are indeed only one point on the spectrum of amphibious operations as a whole) is another question.
Away from the military-technical perspective, A.E. Stahl and William F. Owen’s new piece in the Michigan War Studies Review shows a very useful way to think about the style of warfare that we have arguably embraced:
Targeted killings are carried out against specific individuals because of their relevance or relationship to policy. If the security apparatus of a state recommends the elimination of a particular person, it thereby links tactics with policy via strategy. For example, the Israelis would not arbitrarily target random members of Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad just because they belong to the organization. Rather, Israel, or any state, acts on the basis of an (ideally very precise) intelligence picture that proves the need to eliminate an individual in the furtherance of some state policy. Killing is thus a tactic—targeted killing is a strategy, a means to attain a policy end.
It’s a long piece, but well-worth reading because Stahl and Owen demonstrate how a policy sets the requirement for tactics—and dispels many myths about the use of violence in irregular warfare. Perhaps the most important point:
A targeted killing is a strategy of the state, linked to a wider stated policy objective and executed by a state’s armed forces or other security institutions (for example, intelligence agencies, police forces). Second, a targeted killing is a focused use of proportionate and limited lethal force by tactics carried out on land and sea or from the air. Third, “targeted killing” designates only actions against individuals engaged (or threatening to engage) directly or indirectly in violent, lethal conflict against a state (including its interests abroad). Fourth, there should be an attempt at apprehension, if and only if it should prove feasible. Fifth, in the absence of international legal consensus, a targeted killing is ultimately subordinate to a state’s policy-makers, since it represents one means to attain a political condition. Sixth, any strategy of targeted killing must be adopted as a self-defense measure. Seventh, it must occur only in the context of an armed conflict, not during peacetime or some notional state that is “neither war nor peace.” Targeted killing may, however, occur during a cessation of hostilities between two or more actors, such a hiatus constituting not peace but “war on hold.”
Targeted killing is a state strategy carried out in self-defense, which may take the form of preemption and prevention. It is part of a wider policy objective to be attained by the limited, discriminate, and proportionate exercise of force against individuals or groups using (or threatening to use) lethal violence against the state, during armed conflict or a temporary cessation of hostilities.
While it is commonly stated that Israel’s use of targeted killings is primarily tactical in nature, it does reflect a policy that its national security decisionmakers have given considerate thought and care to. Strategic success or failure reflects the nature of the policy more than the tactic used (although tactics that do not fit the policy are also bad).
Which is why Dan’s recent point about covert operations is dead-on. If you have made a policy commitment to a strategic outcome and are not willing to apply massive force to do it, the only way to avoid being a strategic annoyance is to understand the point of having a Central Intelligence Agency that specializes in Guatemala and Tehran type operations is to have options. Unfortunately, as Mark observes, it is likely that our basic discomfort with the seamy side of statecraft will limit our employment of covert operations to the Jason Bourne side of direct action rather than the more ambitious—and successful— grand tactics of Charlie Wilson’s War.