The Empire Has No Brains

America is missing something in its foreign policy…something very important. I am not referring to a unified grand strategic vision; we certainly don’t have one of those, but as I’ve commented elsewhere, that is to be expected in a democracy and its absence is not fatal to American statecraft. Nor am I referring to the ability to actually conduct strategy; that isn’t our strong suit either, but when we put our minds to it we’re able to muddle on through well enough. What is missing is something much more basic…much more elemental. I will let Bernard Brodie explain:

It is the conception simply of reasonable price, and of its being applied to strategy and national policy – the idea that some ends or objectives are worth paying a good deal for and others are not. The latter include ends that are no doubt desirable but which are worth attempting to achieve only if the price can with confidence be kept relatively low. Can it really by that such a simple and obvious idea is often neglected or overlooked? The answer is, most decidedly, yes.

Brodie was writing in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but his point remains just as relevant today: the U.S. is apparently incapable of conducting a simple cost-benefit analysis. At least not until the American public realize that they’ve been incurring significant costs but experiencing few benefits. Unfortunately, nearly nine years after the Afghan war began, U.S. policymakers have still not faced the blunt question of whether the return is worth the investment, and if not, how to bring costs and benefits back into equilibrium. The need to combat terrorists is not in dispute. What should be debated is the current strategy to pursue this objective.


I remember feeling a distinct unease in the late 1990s whenever I read about the ongoing debates concerning military “transformation.” Back then, the counterinsurgency community was still a small but vocal minority, and I had the suspicion that their arguments were not the product of legitimate national security concerns – after all, where was the insurgency we needed to quell in those years, and why were our existing capabilities insufficient for the task? – but rather the efforts of ideologues and bean counters inside the Beltway who wanted a plausible excuse for gutting the defense budget. Lightly equipped gendarmerie, the type of forces well-suited for COIN, are vastly cheaper than heavy mechanized divisions, surface and sub-surface combatants, fighter jets, strategic bombers, etc…right?

Wrong. Very, very, very wrong.

Of course, a force structure optimized for counterinsurgency would be cheaper than one built for regular warfare, but the U.S. is demonstrably incapable of operationalizing a COIN doctrine without sinking hundreds of billions of dollars into development assistance and operating costs. Defense budgets are currently at obscene levels, but recent years have seen a relative degradation of our military capabilities as the OSD tries to free up money for the wars by cutting so-called “obsolete Cold War-era platforms.” The military’s future force structure is being determined today by tactical budgetary moves made for short-term gains. The Army has not received a new weapon system in a quarter century; its acquisition programs make easy victims for the Powerpoint-friendly “lessons learned” of today’s conflicts (“The Crusader would not have been used in Operation Anaconda, had it been available then? Kill it! We don’t need it! We’ll never need self-propelled artillery again!!” And please don’t cite the Stryker or the MRAP to argue this point). Robert Gates revealed an irrational hatred for the F-22 program when he justified the 183-unit production cap on the grounds that the aircraft has not seen combat in either Iraq or Afghanistan, insulting the intelligence of the American public with such an absurd argument (he also said that advocates of the F-22 program were endangering the lives of the troops, which was one of the most underhanded, irresponsible, and stupid comments I’ve ever heard from an American official). So ten to fifteen years from now, when we wish we had a few more squadrons of F-22s to support our deterrence commitments, we will instead have to rely on the questionable performance of the F-35. And in the most recent budget request, the CG(X) cruiser program was killed. For a maritime power like the United States, the prudence of this move is questionable to say the least (though I wasn’t surprised by the decision…after all, the CG(X) hasn’t seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan).

All of these programs are expensive, but they pale in comparison to the costs of the ongoing wars. Including the FY11 budget request, the U.S. has spent over $1.2 trillion dollars funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This number does not include the tens of billions given in development assistance to both countries through different government channels, or items in the regular defense budget directly related to the wars.

I’m being hard on Secretary Gates. The truth is, with the exception of his bizarre decision about the F-22, I agree that he is making a sincere effort to balance the needs of current wars with the need to hedge against future threats. The real issue is not the specific measures being taken to achieve that balance, but rather, why the effort is being made in the first place. The reason, of course, has already been mentioned: the U.S. has set objectives and selected a strategy that can deliver “victory” only after a massive investment of time, treasure, and blood. The strategy is so expensive that the military is mortgaging its future to pay for it.

A small but powerful cadre of academics, bureaucrats, and military officers would have us believe that, in the dark days of 2006, when Iraq was teetering on the brink of an ethnic civil war, they swooped in – armed with their Ivy League educations, confident personalities, unconventional ideas, and maverick reputations – kicked out the staid and unimaginative bunglers that had manged the war until that point, and saved the f’in day. This version of events is not completely untrue, but for long-term U.S. interests, it was like being saved from the clutches of Jason Voorhees by Freddy Krueger; not much of an improvement.

Counterinsurgency is a military technique, not a worldview. Military organizations have understood its fundamental principles for millennia. If they normally resist practicing it,  it is because they recognize it as an expensive and inefficient technique applied mostly in circumstances where interests are ill-defined and military force is of limited utility. Furthermore, it is downgrade of sorts; a military force optimized for counterinsurgency will be defeated utterly if it finds itself in regular warfare. As long as there is another great military power in the world, attuning a military for COIN will result in a relative decline in combat power. This point is not irrelevant, as some would suggest, because a regular belligerent can compel battle on its own terms if it chooses to do so. The particular formula of counterinsurgency doctrines vary, but they all emphasize protecting the population, giving them a stake in the future to ensure their loyalty to the government, and building up government capacities. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, this in turn relies upon massive nation-building efforts.

This brings us back to Brodie’s point about reasonable cost. In an article that has received a good deal of attention in the blogosphere, Bernard Finel hits the nail on the head:

Since 9/11, the policy consensus has gone completely overboard. Now, not only do American leaders have the will to eliminate any significant terrorist apparatus, especially one that would be protected with, at best, poorly armed militias, but American leaders have developed the compulsion to try to prevent even the possibility of such camps emerging by transforming countries such as Afghanistan into stable bastions of good governance, thus theoretically eliminating “upstream” factors like poverty. It is overkill.

Afghanistan is probably the most underdeveloped country on the planet, economically, politically, and socially. Our strategy there assumes that, with U.S. assistance, the country can magically shortcut about 500 years of human progress to become a stable, unitary state. Spending money toward that goal is not quite the same as stacking it in a big pile, dousing it with gasoline, and lighting it on fire, but it’s pretty close.

The best case scenario for Afghanistan is that, perhaps five to ten years from now, it will be another failed state on life support, entirely dependent on international financial assistance for its budget, but with a stable distribution of power between Kabul and the provinces, and security forces strong enough that the insurgency does not threaten to unseat the government. These modest gains will have only limited value in the fight against Al Qaeda and radical Islam because such entities can easily relocate to new areas – such as Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen – where U.S. power cannot pursue because of self-imposed restraints. Furthermore, this fragile state of affairs will remain hostage to the turbulent undercurrents of tribal politics, which the U.S. is powerless to influence. Sooner or later, these forces will be unleashed, as they have time and time again in Afghanistan’s history, and the whole house of cards will come crashing down. All this purchased at the cost of well over $1 trillion, thousands of lives, and decades of counterinsurgency. How is this a reasonable price?

Last August, in a post that criticized U.S. political efforts in Afghanistan and sketched out an [admittedly vague] alternative program, I made the following comment:

This is not to sound defeatist. If the U.S. is willing to expend sufficient blood and treasure on its present strategy, then victory is eventually assured, though it will be a hard slog. Building a state is not cheap, and that is what the current strategy requires.

My sentiments haven’t changed. I want to be crystal clear on this point: I do not deny the value of counterinsurgency theory. The fundamental tenets of COIN are undeniable, and it is an important skill set that the military must have, but except in very limited contexts, or in dire matters of national security, it is too expensive. The costs might be reasonable if the U.S. was waging a counterinsurgency in Southern California, or in a more developed state that was integral to U.S. interests. Even Iraq is a different case: a densely populated, oil-rich, semi-industrialized country bordering an ambitious Iran, the consequences of failure were so great that strategic considerations demanded every possible effort to stabilize the country, including a hugely expensive occupation and COIN effort.  In any case, we broke it; we were morally obligated to fix it (this raises the question of whether the war itself was a good idea, but since 2003 that issue is water under the bridge).   But in a hardscrabble backwater like Afghanistan, against bands of superstitious and uneducated primitives, the current costs are not reasonable (and please spare me the platitudes about the Taliban’s “ferocity” and skill at guerrilla tactics…that’s hardly a rare talent in humanity).

Proponents of COIN often voice their agreement with the point that the method they advocate is merely that: a useful and necessary military instrument that had been missing from the U.S. toolkit ever since the conclusion of the Vietnam War. It was necessary to re-learn the technique to meet our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are correct, but what is unique about these people is that they can speak the point without gagging. A strategy that requires decades of war, trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and a noticeable erosion of America’s military strength and overall power, is not a strategy at all…it is an abomination.

Last month, in a post about the grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire, I closed out by commenting that America

continues to proclaim maximalist objectives (e.g. the eradication of terrorism) while abiding by the constraints that prevent it from reaching those objectives, gradually exhausting itself in a vain pursuit of final victory and the End of History. If America should learn one thing from Byzantium, it is that war is eternal; to exert strenuously against a particular enemy is only to hasten decline, for a new enemy is always on the horizon.

Costs and benefits. Reasonable price. Is it possible to restore these simple but all-important ideas to the “war on terrorism?” Is there an alternative policy that achieves a more acceptable balance between losses and gains?

The answer is yes.

The U.S. must stop indulging in the hubris that it has the power to correct the political, economic, and social failings that give rise to the Islamist movement and its associated terrorism. There is no “strategy” that can resolve these problems. This is a struggle within the Islamic world, as globalization forces it to reconcile itself with modernity. Until that happens, the U.S. has only the power to contain, deter, and punish. These are unglamorous powers, but they are the core competencies of American statecraft, are much more affordable than nation building, and they are well served by existing military capabilities. In the same article cited earlier, Finel writes:

I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy — which might loosely be termed “repetitive raiding” — could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America’s adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.

If terrorists are found gathering, kill them. If a training camp pops up somewhere, bomb it. If a regime seems to be harboring terrorists, punish it. If insurgent forces threaten to overthrow a friendly regime, destroy them (keep in mind that if insurgents are strong enough to threaten to physically remove a government, they are already assuming regular characteristics and are thus amenable to rapid annihilation by U.S. military power…Cuba was probably the only example of a government melting away without suffering a decisive battlefield defeat) or provide enough indirect assistance that the regime manages to stay in power. DO NOT embark on some multi-decade counterinsurgency to secure the regime unless costs can be kept very low (i.e. less than a billion dollars and a handful of casualties per year…current U.S. operations in the Philippines and Colombia are good examples). If it becomes necessary to remove a hostile regime, then do so, but allow the locals to find their own equilibrium afterward. If hostile elements are massing in ungoverned spaces – like the al-Shabaab in Somalia – allow them to do so, until they make nice, juicy target sets. Then do what the Ethiopians did: blow the hell out of them. Contract out the work to clients and allies wherever possible. Repeat as necessary. But don’t do anything unless a convincing national security rationale can be articulated, one that includes a cost/benefit analysis, and doesn’t dwell on intangible factors that can be neither proved nor disproved. The U.S. need not concern itself with every little club of would-be jihadists.

Joseph Fouche, Master of Guillotines over at the Committee of Public Safety, likens Fidel’s proposal to the razzia techniques that the French used to subdue Algeria, and comments on its strong points:

Finel’s proposal has some positive antecedents as well as some positive points in its own right. It favors the heavy conventional maneuver force of the True Warriors of the Fulda Gap over the culturally aware touchy feely manpower intensive force the COINdinistas favor. It favors firepower over manpower based on the calculus that the other side will run out of men before we run out of high explosive. It favors the short attention span of the American viewing audience. It favors the Army’s most important mission (force protection) because casualties would probably be light (at least at first). It favors a technological and engineering focused mindset over a humanistic mindset.

Of course, there would be critics of this policy. In discussions of the proposal thus far, there has been two major themes of criticism. The first is that the punitive nature of the strategy would outrage the Muslim world and result in unacceptable civilian casualties. Ah, yes…the infamous rage of the Muslim world in general and the “Arab street” in particular, which no doubt does exist, but seems to mysteriously dissipate whenever the bombs are actually falling. If I recall correctly, 9/11 occurred before any of these wars started, and followed a decade in which the U.S. had repeatedly intervened to protect Muslim minorities in the former Yugoslavia. Not to mention protected the Gulf states from that infidel Hussein.  Anti-Americanism in Pakistan is currently at virulent levels, even with the politically correct war being waged next door and the billions given in assistance to the Pakistani government. U.S. policy cannot be hostage to the emotional whims and selective memory of a people frustrated by the failure of their civilization.

Concerning the point about potential civilian casualties, I see no reason why they would be more severe than those associated with the ongoing COIN efforts. Counterinsurgency is a very bloody affair. Many civilians are killed accidentally by coalition forces, but many more are killed by insurgents as they try to intimidate the local population. These deaths, however, go unreported by the news media. In COIN, civilians die by the handful, day after day, for years on end. The bodies stack up. Regular operations are destructive, but they’re also noisy and difficult to miss. Unlike insurgencies, civilians know what they’re fleeing, and in which direction they can go to find safety. And U.S. forces can take measures to minimize civilian casualties.

Furthermore, Joseph Fouche’s analogy to the razzia – which often targeted civilian infrastructure – is not perfect. The “repetitive raiding” that Fidel proposes would not constitute wars of extermination, or campaigns to compel obedience to an imperial writ. Indeed, the virtue of it is that it does not seek maximalist objectives, so the more ruthless aspects of the razzia would be unnecessary.

Joseph Fouche also offers the second, more trenchant criticism:

…I doubt the tactic that Finel proposes would be politically feasible in the United States any time soon. For a tactic of “repetitive raiding” to be successful, you would have to be able to repeat an invasion on the scale of the combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in spring 2003 again and again as needed. Given that every American military intervention in my lifetime has been sold to a generally unenthusiastic American public as the rhetorical equivalent of World War II, demanding an equal level of emotional investment, I doubt the routinization of military intervention would go over well. Nomadic hordes of the steppes could easily justify annual raiding. The ideological and cultural framework that would supporting annual raiding seasons by the United States doesn’t exist.

Large operations that have the potential for heavy casualties certainly require a great deal of emotional investment, but campaigns on this scale would be required only rarely, if at all. By contrast, history suggests that the American public is willing to tolerate short and sharp punitive operations, provided that casualties stay low and the duration of commitment is short (Grenada, Panama, and the combat phases of the Balkan interventions for recent examples). For better or worse, the “routinization of military intervention” has already occurred.

However, there is another aspect of the American body politic that must be addressed. In his 2009 book Advice to War Presidents, Angelo Codevilla comments that

The American people’s preference for tolerating inconveniences, but then ridding themselves of enemies by short, decisive wars, is a mark of sophistication, not of immaturity. Nor does our presumptive preference for peace amount to pacifism. On the contrary, it means recognizing that peace is the result of dealing with enemies successfully, and it concentrates the mind on what is needed to do so – including war.

Americans are willing to accept a degree of risk in exchange for peace and normalcy. When this risk becomes unacceptable, the threat must be eradicated completely. Neither COIN nor “repetitive raiding” is fully reconciled to this peculiarity. Counterinsurgency promises a lasting victory – of a sort – but only after decades of constant war. “Repetitive raiding” acknowledges the impossibility of  decisive victory, but offers a degree of normalcy subject to regular interruptions. I would argue, however, that repeated punitive actions strike a better balance between the requirements of policy and the idiosyncracies of the American people.


I have no illusions about the realism of this strategy. In Afghanistan, we are beyond the point of no return. The war there will continue until victory is achieved, however meager that “victory” turns out to be, or until the American public tires of the commitment and demands curtailment. Nor would it solve all of our problems; the U.S. is spending too much money on everything, not just the wars. It would not resolve the challenges posed by the Islamist movement; it would simply manage the threat, keeping the risk at an acceptable level. But if America is committed to fighting the “long war,” then it must adopt a sustainable strategy, one that delivers gains proportionate to the costs. Counterinsurgency has been unable to do this. Perhaps Finel’s “repetitive raiding” can.


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