Afghanistan: the neighbours ponder the strategic context

In an important article in Foreign Affairs, Robert Gates, George W. Bush’s Mulligan defence secretary who is being kept on by Barack Obama, discusses his vision for the U.S. military. I’ve gleaned highlights below. Near the bottom, alert readers may notice a fairly direct rebuke to Gates’ predecessor.

Support for conventional modernization programs is deeply embedded in the Defense Department’s budget, in its bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress. My fundamental concern is that there is not commensurate institutional support — including in the Pentagon — for the capabilities needed to win today’s wars and some of their likely successors.

Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory. Where possible, what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit.

The most likely catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland — for example, that of a U.S. city being poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack — are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states.

To truly achieve victory as Clausewitz defined it — to attain a political objective — the United States needs a military whose ability to kick down the door is matched by its ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.

Russian tanks and artillery may have crushed Georgia’s tiny military. But before the United States begins rearming for another Cold War, it must remember that what is driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate its “near abroad” — not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe.

The first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict from beginning to end. As General Charles Krulak, then the Marine Corps commandant, predicted a decade ago, instead of the beloved “Son of Desert Storm,” Western militaries are confronted with the unwanted “Stepchild of Chechnya.”

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, instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

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