This Week at War: Obama's Nixonian Withdrawal Strategy

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Obama hopes that good Afghan policy will mean good U.S. politics,

2) Is the Marine Corps just another army?

Obama hopes that good Afghan policy will mean good U.S. politics

A month ago, the Obama administration's relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai were broken, with the insulted Afghan president threatening to join the Taliban. Today, early April seems like a lifetime ago. In a White House meeting this week that was almost canceled in April, U.S. President Barack Obama decisively allied himself with Karzai.

During his news conference with Karzai, Obama reaffirmed his intention to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011. Obama undoubtedly wants to run for re-election in 2012 with the message that he wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He may be using Richard Nixon's first term as a model. Nixon reduced the U.S. head count in Vietnam from more than 500,000 to just a few thousand by election day in 1972. That wind down of the war, combined with an economic rebound and a weak opponent, resulted in a landslide re-election.

The dangers of Obama's July 2011 withdrawal declaration are well known. The Taliban, with ample sanctuaries, can easily conserve their resources and adjust the tempo of their operations to extract maximum political effect. Once a U.S. withdrawal begins, it will become irreversible. Political events might even lead to its acceleration. The United States' remaining coalition partners surely won't dither on the tarmac. Another risk is that Afghanistan's security forces will not be ready to accept heavy responsibility in 14 months.

Obama undoubtedly understands this. Doesn't his policy of a quick U.S. withdrawal risk creating an even bigger mess, a debacle of his making that he would have to fix in his second term?

We have to assume that Obama and his advisors have thought this through. Obama's statements indicate an intention to gradually transition from the current large-scale manpower-intensive counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign to a small-scale advisor-based security assistance program. In addition, they have likely concluded that the 2010 troop surge and its suppression of the Taliban in Afghanistan's south further reduces the risk of transitioning from COIN to purely security assistance.

The best military strategy isn't very good if it can't maintain political support. A small security assistance program might be riskier than a well-staffed counterinsurgency campaign, but that comparison is irrelevant if the COIN campaign is no longer politically realistic. Seeing what happened to the political support for the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq on election day in 2006 and 2008, Obama apparently doesn't want to take any political chances with his campaign in Afghanistan. Better to end it on his terms than risk having the electorate end it for him.

Some may see Obama's withdrawal plan as a cynical move to get reelected in 2012. If it works, he will have to live with the consequences. Obama and his advisors have apparently concluded that a smaller advisor-based and open-ended security assistance program will keep Afghanistan from becoming a headache in his second term. If he gets re-elected, he will get a chance to experience that theory.

Is the Marine Corps just another army?

On May 7, during a discussion with students at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College, Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed that he is interviewing candidates to replace Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, who will retire this fall. Gates said he will expect the candidates to explain to him what in the future will make the Marine Corps unique and not just a second -- and by implication, wastefully redundant -- Army. "We will always have a Marine Corps," Gates said. "But the question is, how do you define the mission post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan? And that's the intellectual effort that I think the next commandant has to undertake."

The Marine Corps has long sought to differentiate itself from the Army by specializing in amphibious operations -- the ability to project military power from ship to shore. But during his talk to the students, Gates wondered whether large-scale amphibious landings would ever again be practical in the age of relatively cheap, numerous, and precise anti-ship missiles. If not, then what will make the Marine Corps unique?

Some analysts have already attempted to answer Gates's questions. Many of these analysts have concluded that security assistance, with numerous small detachments of Marines providing training and support to allied military forces, will be a major mission in the future. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Novack, then a staff officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, described a plan for Marine Corps regiments to each specialize in a particular region of the world, learn its culture, and then deploy security assistance training teams to build partnerships and indigenous military capacity. Analysts at Rand Corp. called for the both the Marine Corps and the Army to permanently designate up to a third of their combat units for security assistance work. Echoing Lt. Col. Novack's plan, Steven Metz and Frank Hoffman suggested assigning Latin America and the Pacific Rim to the Marine Corps and the rest of the world to the Army. Alternatively, Metz and Hoffman would have the Marine Corps be the Pentagon's primary assault force, with the Army specializing in stabilization, security, and counterinsurgency.

By contrast, Dakota Wood, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, thinks the Marine Corps can still perform offensive combat operations from its traditional naval platform. Wood believes Marine units deployed on Navy ships and equipped with air power and landing craft will be useful for counterterrorism raiding and for direct action against nonstate adversaries. Against nation-state adversaries, Wood concludes that Marine Corps operations against adversary shipping lanes are feasible. However, Wood thinks that the Navy and the Marine Corps need to adopt a more decentralized structure to be effective against the most capable opponents.

Gates's candidates will no doubt explain why the Marines' sea-based tradition will remain relevant into the future. But as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, that argument for what makes the Marine Corps different from the Army will not stop the Marines from jumping into any kind of land war. Even when far from the ocean and appearing to be just another army, the Marine Corps has its own particular way of doing things. That, more than sea-basing, is what makes the Marine Corps unique and a value to the country.

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Comments

I'm bemused by Robert Haddick's continual references to "security assistance" when what is actually meant is security FORCE assistance. The two terms are not interchangeable.

Don't get me wrong, the lexicon is confusing. But FM 3-07.1 Security Force Assistance defines SFA like this: "the unified action to generate, employ, and sustain local, host-nation or regional security forces in support of a legitimate authority"; i.e. all efforts to improve the capacity and capabilities of foreign security forces.

Security assistance is "a group of programs authorized by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended, and the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, as amended, or other related statutes by which the U.S. provides defense articles, military training, and other defense-related services by grant, loan, credit, or cash sales in furtherance of national policies and objectives" (JP 3-57).

Security assistance is transactional: a foreign partner purchases training, education, or equipment either with their own country funds or with U.S. grants, or the U.S. buys it for them through something like 1206. Security assistance is often referred to by the shorthand "train and equip."

Having said that, the sort of interactions necessary to stand up and build the capacity of a foreign security force are broader than just training and equipping. Actions across the entirety of DOTML-PF, for example, are generally going to include a whole lot of Title 10 security cooperation and thus constitute SFA, not security assistance. And when U.S. units from the operating forces -- as with Advise and Assist Brigades (AAB) in Iraq or Modular Brigades Augmented for SFA (MB-SFA) in Afghanistan -- interact with FSF in a theater of conflict, this is most definitely NOT security assistance, at least not if we want the two terms to have any distinct meaning.

Sorry, annoying lexicon rant over.

I mis-typed above. The paragraph that says, "While Obama's depiction of the beginning of a draw down in 2011 could have been better phrased, I believe that critics who say or imply that ANY statement that American commitment is open-ended are off base" should have said:

While Obama's depiction of the beginning of a draw down in 2011 could have been better phrased, I believe that critics who say or imply that ANY statement that American commitment is NOT open-ended are off base.

What I was trying to suggest was that when an outsider is involved in counterinsurgency, it is important that it constantly reinforces the notion that its involvement in not open ended. This both undercuts the insurgent narrative and motivates the partner government to augment its own capability.

While Obama's depiction of the beginning of a draw down in 2011 could have been better phrased, I believe that critics who say or imply that ANY statement that American commitment is open-ended are off base.

Remember that one of the major themes used by the Taliban and AQ is that the U.S. wants to occupy Muslim countries. Refusing to talk about the end of American involvement feeds this.

I believe the Obama administration should constantly talk about American disengagement, but always stress that its beginning and its pace will be determined by the Afghan government, not by criteria that we develop.

... or that analysts from the 80s and 90s have held up Malaya in Juxtaposition to the US in Vietnam and bludgeon the US for not "learning" coin in Vietnam like the Brits did in Malaya.

In the greater scheme of things, relative to the French in Algeria or the US in Vietnam, the Malayan insurgency albeit important for British micro-strategic interests was chump change. If Vietnam had never happened for the US Malaya would have been a very small blip on the post colonial radar screen.

To understand the difference in scale between the two (US in Vietnam and the British in Malaya) the British over the course of 12 plus years lost 500 regular soldiers and the Americans in Vietnam roughly over an 8 year period lost close to 57,000 service members.

We owe this supremely overstated reliance on the Malayan model to Sir Robert Thompson who began propagating a better way of hearts and minds to the US in the later years of the Vietnam War and from a bevy of army officers and analysts who emerged in the 1980s with the strident belief that better Coin tactics could rescue failed strategy and policy.

Some of those individuals are senior defense department members and analysts and active and retired senior military officers today.

And that the insurgency was almost entirely ethnic Chinese, who did not have the support of all the Chinese in country and also enabled the Colonial and later Malaysian government to play the ethnic card. The effects of this can still be seen today. I have mentioned before, when Malaya became Malaysia it was not until 1991 that the last insurgency from that period finished. It was a dirty little war on both sides, and many of the tactics employed are not applicable or acceptable in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere.

Forced removal of squatters into armed villages, who lost access to areas their family may have farmed for decades. The arbitrary arrest without trial of family members of 'suspected terrorists', being effectively being held as hostages by the governemnt is not acceptable either.

I do find it ironic that Malaya is often held up as a model for how to do counterinsurgency, yet one of the things that made that campaign successful was that the British announced their intention to withdraw.