Zenpundit's Mark Safranski, who read the tea leaves correctly about the limitations of POPCOIN (population-centric counterinsurgency) tactics in Afghanistan, has, I believe, done it again in his latest post, The Tip of a Shadowy Spear . If you want to know what the newly-minted U.S. counterterrorism strategy will look like on the military end, and how the newest phase of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is shaping up, read Mark's essay.
Mark concludes with the observation, "America is headed into the Light Footprint Era, ready or not."
The light footprint will require heavy reliance on special forces and thus, the title of his post. What happens, however, when the tip of the military's spear (special forces) becomes part of the shaft, as the lighter U.S. footprint will demand? Mark's analysis isolates the major downsides of the approach and in this passage raises questions that extend far beyond battle tactics:
Thirdly, an emphasis on a special forces dominant force structure may have the unintended consequence of causing the executive branch civilian officials to move even further away from strategic thinking and incline them more toward reactive, tactical, retaliation.Although the writing is primarily addressed to the defense policy community and makes use of military terms, the general reader will only need to surmount a few acronyms to understand the ideas put forth. ("AVF" simply means an all-volunteer force, as the U.S. military has today.) But because Mark invokes two terms (FID and mass) that have more than one interpretation (e.g., different branches of the U.S. military have different standardized definitions of what constitutes mass) and branch into somewhat complex concepts, I wrote to ask that he explain what he meant by the terms in the context of his discussion. He replied:
Misuse of special forces is the American historical norm. Special forces are so well suited for “emergency use” that they are frequently employed for every “priority” mission except those that are intended to have a strategic effect, even when a regular military unit of combat infantry is more than adequate for the task at hand (Or for that matter, using non-military options!) [...]
I meant "mass" in the simple terms of large, conventional, deployments as we have in Afghanistan and had in Iraq. [...]NOTE -- 2:45 PM ET
Foreign Internal Defense (FID) are the training and advisory missions and military aid programs extended to other countries facing insurgencies. US special forces, usually Green Berets, teach, train and advise allied armies and police in unconventional warfare, COIN and special forces tactics but do not take a leading combat role as in COIN campaigns. FID missions are quiet, cheap and small in terms of personnel. COIN campaigns feature US forces doing the above but taking a major combat role until the allied forces can assume the burden themselves (Vietnamization).
COIN has a checkered and fiercely debated historical record. Why do we keep doing it? Because the alternative at the moment of decision is usually the collapse of the ally and that involves a hard strategic assessment of the ally's worth, which seldom happens. Easier to punt and play for time.
Mark doesn't read tea leaves of course, nor (to my knowledge) does he have a functioning crystal ball; he does have excellent powers of observation, which led him to spot several trends that have building for many months and note how these were starting to converge. The result in my opinion is the clearest picture available to the general reader of how U.S. warfare is evolving to meet the challenges of the present era.
Yet the picture has so many wider implications that it's almost impossible to resist the temptation to use it as a springboard for many policy and philosophical discussions. Mark himself, as I indicate above, didn't resist reading in a few implications. My response to the essay was to ruminate so much on the wider implications that my original title for this post was, "East of the Danube" lol. (Don't ask.)
I finally chopped down my discussion to one paragraph, which I've now decided to delete even though I'm fond of it and will probably re-deploy it in a future essay. I did this because Mark has written an important essay, one that deserves to be studied on its own merits before hanging all number of glittering ornaments on it.