At long last, America has decided to stop fighting the Cold War. On 1 December, the US Department of Defence approved a directive calling upon the American military to be ‘as effective in irregular warfare as it is in traditional warfare’. This means that the question of how best to fight ‘asymmetric conflicts’ will henceforth consume America’s military strategists as much as their more traditional preoccupation: planning WW3. This might seem like cause for celebration, but I am not so sure.
The directive’s architect, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, thinks that the greatest threats to America are no longer ‘aggressor states’ but ‘failed states.’ Although no other conventional power can challenge America – by way of illustration he mentions that the US navy is the size of the next thirteen largest navies combined, eleven of which are allies –the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq exposed the mighty superpower’s vulnerable underbelly. Guerrillas armed with AK-47s and home-made bombs did what Soviet nuclear weapons and Chinese aircraft carriers failed to do.
Seven years in Afghanistan and five in Iraq have taught the US army a great deal. Belatedly, they have learned to fight ‘the war on terror’ and Gates wants the accumulated know-how to be institutionalized. He wants to beef up development agencies and the diplomatic corps. He believes US troops should do less of the fighting themselves and instead help strengthen the armies of their allies. He even thinks America should make an ‘effort to address the grievances among the discontented.’
Although Gates was appointed by George W. Bush in 2006, Barack Obama has taken the unprecedented step of asking him to stay on in his job. It is easy to see why. Gates makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the military strategy pursued by Bush: ‘we should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission’.
Few will mourn the shelving of ‘shock and awe’, few will decry Gates’ pledge to intensify diplomacy, but we should all be concerned that fighting small wars is now the Department of Defence’s top priority. The lessons which Gates wants to see institutionalized are those of the surge. They rest on the assumption that the surge in Iraq has worked and that the strategy will work again in Afghanistan. I think it is too early to say whether the Americans have brought lasting peace to Iraq and I think the war in Afghanistan is doomed, however many soldiers they send.
‘Irregular warfare’ is as old as war itself. After the Vietnam debacle, America swore never again and concentrated instead on containing Soviet armies in Central Europe. Humiliating retreats from Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1994 only reminded them again why they avoided small wars. But the temptation to intervene is – for a superpower – perennial.
Only two counter-insurgency methods have ever worked: extreme restraint and extreme brutality, and the latter more often than the former. Neither strategy is now available to the US. Today, wars are fought ‘in the spotlight of the media and the shadow of international lawyers’, as Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army, put it. The brutality of the British in Malaya or the French in Algeria would today land their practitioners in court. Managing public relations has become all-important. Russia learned this to its cost in Georgia.
Gates says that America is unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan ‘anytime soon’ but cryptically adds that it might face ‘similar challenges in a variety of locales.’ Military expertise operates according to Say’s law: supply creates its own demand. I fear counter-insurgency experts will need new wars in which to put their new ‘institutionalized’ knowledge into practice.
No doubt Obama will be more diplomatic than Bush. But do not expect any of America’s ‘small wars’ to end soon. Indeed, the era of small wars may only just be beginning.