Monday, August 13

Meet the new U.S. defense policy. Same as the old policy.

At first glance it seems that the government of the United States has launched a bold new era in defense policy, the Light Footprint era, which Zenpundit Mark Safranski outlined in his July 8, 2011 essay, The Tip of a Shadowy Spear:
The shift that is happening in Afghanistan, partly by fiscal necessity, is going to become our default defense paradigm for at least the 2010′s. Highly mobile, extremely fast, networked, partially covert, backed by lethal high-tech firepower.
As to how the partially covert operations would shake out, Mark explained that the tip of the shadowy spear the U.S. military was fashioning -- to hurl at shadowy terrorist and transnational criminal networks around the globe -- was U.S. special forces. He then enumerated the worst drawbacks of heavy reliance on special forces, chief of which is that United States doesn't have enough special forces to handle the myriad simultaneous 'light footprint' military operations it would take to keep the bad guys at bay.

And if special forces were the tip of the spear, my question was whether drone technology was supposed to be the shadowy shaft. Contraptions firing missiles from the sky were not my idea of proper pussyfooting around. Little more than a year later Tom Dispatch, which I don't think has seen a U.S. military operation since the Civil War it doesn't consider imperialist, supplied the answer in considerable detail.  The shaft is being made from a vast proxy army drawn largely from the world's poorest nations and trained by guess who. In his August 9 essay, Washington Puts Its Money on Proxy War: The Election Year Outsourcing that No One's Talking About, Tom Dispatch's Nick Turse explains:
While the United States is currently engaged in just one outright proxy war, backing a multi-nation African force to battle Islamist militants in Somalia, it’s laying the groundwork for the extensive use of surrogate forces in the future, training “native” troops to carry out missions -- up to and including outright warfare. With this in mind and under the auspices of the Pentagon and the State Department, U.S. military personnel now take part in near-constant joint exercises and training missions around the world aimed at fostering alliances, building coalitions, and whipping surrogate forces into shape to support U.S. national security objectives.

While using slightly different methods in different regions, the basic strategy is a global one in which the U.S. will train, equip, and advise indigenous forces -- generally from poor, underdeveloped nations -- to do the fighting (and dying) it doesn’t want to do. In the process, as small an American force as possible, including special forces operatives and air support, will be brought to bear to aid those surrogates.
And by June of this year Nick had caught up with the fleet-footed Mark Safranski with his essay, The New Obama Doctrine, A Six-Point Plan for Global War: Special Ops, Drones, Spy Games, Civilian Soldiers, Proxy Fighters, and Cyber Warfare

So, despite their doctrinal differences (Tom Dispatch on the anti-war Left, Zenpundit on the hawkish Right) and shared concerns about the unintended consequences of the Light Footprint approach, two shrewd observers of the military scene are in agreement that a new era in U.S. defense policy is well underway.

Enter M K Bhadrakumar, a retired Indian Career Diplomat of such vast experience he's forgotten more about the machinations of governments than today's crop of diplomats will ever learn. In his July 20 column for Asia Times Online, US, Pakistan eye a new cold war, I think the ambassador misreads the recent agreement between the USA and Pakistan on transport of lethal NATO materiel through Pakistan (unless he knows something about the agreement that you and I and the rest of the general public don't) but then settles into explaining that in "a dramatic shift of fortunes, Pakistan is regaining its status as a key ally of the US in regional security:"
In overall terms, Washington's "pivot to Asia" strategy provides the backdrop for the restoration of the US' security and military ties with Pakistan. Getting Pakistan on board is an imperative need for the US if its efforts to outflank China in the west are to gain traction.

Looking ahead, Pakistan is also the key to the US' New Silk Road initiative. Meanwhile, Washington sees the tactical advantages in keeping Pakistan on its side at a time of spiraling tensions in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has also come into the picture, proposing that it will help Pakistan to meet its energy crisis provided Islamabad cuts back on ties with Tehran. This offer has been held out at the level of the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who will himself meet the visiting new Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in Jeddah on Monday. The new Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz is also expected to visit Pakistan.

Abdullah is virtually dusting off a US-Saudi-Pakistan trilateral security matrix that dates back to the Cold War era.
The rest of the writing is mostly taken up with Mr Bhadrakumar's ruminations on how India's government feels about being folded into America's Asia Pivot. So he doesn't rake up embarrassing history; namely, that about 95 percent of the global terrorist threat could have been neutralized after 9/11 if the United States had bombed Pakistan and Saudi Arabia back into the stone age, and that if a few stray bombs had fallen on London this would have further reduced the threat by a couple percentage points.

Nor does he dwell on the unpleasant present, which finds the U.S. government still covering for Pakistan's military, which has been supporting groups that kill American troops in Afghanistan.

And he doesn't mention that if the USA is so intent on taking down global Islamic terrorism it has a strange way of going about it, given that one can't find a more anti-Islamic terrorism government than China's, unless it's Russia's -- the other country in the cross-hairs of America's Asia Pivot. 

But Mr Bhadrakumar's carefully limited discussion is still enough to convey that when one looks past the new-fangled widgets and geegaws of the Light Footprint era and its reliance on proxy armies and special forces, one hand is fighting the other hand, which is another way of describing NATO's protracted cold war against the Soviet Union.

In the post-WW 2 era, the United States and its NATO allies were intent on quickly rebuilding Western Europe's industrial base, which meant Western Europe relied heavily on Soviet energy supplies, which provided Russia with the wherewithal to build a nuclear arsenal and stave off collapse of the Soviet Union for decades.

So if you switch out yesterday's bad guys for today's, you're looking at the same old U.S. Cold War defense policy, gussied up with the weapons and communications technologies of this era. The basis of the policy isn't victory over Islamic terrorism, any more than victory over the Soviets was the objective of the U.S.-led Cold War. 

What, then, is the government of United States really aiming at?  I think the answer was alluded to by ISAF/U.S. Forces in Afghanistan Commander General John R. Allen when he gave a pep talk earlier this year to a gathering of grim-faced American soldiers in Afghanistan. This was right after the first wave of murders of U.S. soldiers, done ostensibly in retaliation for the burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers at Bagram Airfield on February 20 -- an incident, by the way, that an unnamed "Western" official close to the joint Afghan-U.S. investigation of the incident insisted on March 3 to the Associated Press -- insisted, mind you -- never actually happened, in contradiction to public assertions by American officials that a few Korans had been accidentally burned before the book-burning operation was halted.

Gen. Allen, by all accounts a fine warrior who never received (at least not in public) the credit he deserved for his key role in turning around the situation in Iraq, exhorted the soldiers to practice restraint in the face of severe provocation.  To inspire stiff upper lips, Gen. Allen enjoined the troops to keep in mind that the mission in Afghanistan represented a coalition of forty-four countries -- his emphasis, not mine.

The forty-four countries meme was brought up by others in the U.S. military and by Obama administration officials in the run-up to the NATO summit in Chicago in May, as if the sheer number of countries that the U.S. had gathered and coordinated under the ISAF banner represented the major victory in the Afghan War.

Coalition-building had been an aim of U.S. defense policy even before World War Two but it became the overriding aim after the war ended. It's not hard to see why.  Much has been made of the number of American combat deaths -- 47,424 -- in the Vietnam War, which dragged on for 19 years.  In little more than five weeks, 19,246 Americans were killed in combat during just one battle -- the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945).  That's not including the missing in action and wounded, and it says nothing about the British casualties and casualties on the German side of the battle. 

When one reviews all the casualty figures in the second world war, at some point the mind refuses to process what it's reading.  And yet those horrific numbers are like nothing, next to what the death count would have been if the British Empire had collapsed with great suddenness, and a victorious Third Reich and Imperial Japan had dealt with the anarchy that would have followed in countries that for generations had only known British-imposed order.  

The Nazi war machine had perfected a quick and antiseptic method for killing large numbers of prisoners and disposing of the bodies; no more messy firing squads and tell-tale mass graves.  Nick Turse wrote about the U.S. using poor countries as proxies; many of those countries wouldn't be in existence today if the Axis powers had been victorious. There wouldn't have been enough left of the native populations to maintain national borders. Because of this I'm always surprised when I hear certain Christians say that Armageddon is on the way.  Armageddon has come and gone. In its wake the American government determined that nothing like the second world war would ever happen again. 

So the accusations leveled at the United States about its military-industrial complex, its expansionism and support of dictators -- all these are like fleas on the back of an elephant when compared to the great American project to so closely engage the countries of the world with each other that they can never get enough elbow room to start World War Three.  The large multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations, World Bank and IMF, and the hosts of regional alliances, including the European Union, were American inventions or inspired by the examples of American-led multilateralism and strongly encouraged by the American government. 

The American project was founded on the traumatic experience of the two world wars, which taken together pounded home the point that victory in an armed conflict doesn't necessarily create a lasting peace and can lead to a worse war than the one that started the ball rolling. However, there are problems with a defense policy that's a reaction to traumatic experiences, problems that can start small and become increasingly large over time.  A big problem is that once the policy gets institutionalized and passed from generation to generation, its rationale is no longer clearly evident to those who execute and fund it.  

Put another way, President Obama doesn't sit down to breakfast in a room where the walls are plastered with lists of U.S. casualties in World War Two battles and maps of the battles.  The same goes for the rest of official Washington and probably the majority of American military planners and for the American citizenry at large. Yet once a government loses the thread of a policy, once how it all began starts to fade from daily thought, decisions based on the policy can drift far from its original intention.  A kind of mental blindness sets in, as following the policy becomes rote.

The problem multiplies when it converges with a very changed world. The U.S. project has been remarkably successful at staving off major wars. But just because of the success, there's now a situation not unlike the one that leads to uncontrollable wildfires when a municipality won't do aggressive controlled burns to thin forests and keep brush under control.  Someone throws a lit match during the dry season and the next thing, half a county's on fire. 

I think that currently there are about 192 nations, a figure which is surely much larger than when the U.N. was established. And in that era the British and Soviet empires were still imposing some semblance of order on vast swaths of the world.  Once the order vanished and everyone and his uncle wanted his own country and his own way of doing things, the clever American peacekeeping scheme to entangle the fates of nations began to resemble the tale of Mother Hubbard, who lived in a shoe and had so many children she didn't know what to do.

Yet these aren't kids we're trying to shoehorn into one big family. And the role of Mother Hubbard isn't a wise one for a superpower.


bdoran said...

Absolutely Brilliant.

I posted this over on Doctrine Man.


Pundita said...

B- Thank you. Zenpundit liked it too.