The Skeptics

Iran Sanctions Leakage

The Skeptics

There is an emerging consensus that the international economic sanctions against Iran are causing serious pain to the clerical regime. The principal disagreement among Western pundits and policy experts is whether the sanctions will bite deeply enough and soon enough to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

But there is growing evidence that the effectiveness of the sanctions themselves may be overrated. Caution about the prospects of a successful outcome is warranted for several reasons. First, we’ve heard the confident claims before that restrictions were causing severe economic dislocations in Iran, resulting in major pressure on the regime. Indeed, such claims were prominent during the Bush administration. Clearly, that optimism was misplaced, or advocates of a coercive policy would not have had to push for new rounds of sanctions. Time will tell whether the optimists are finally right or whether the latest pronouncements are just another false dawn.

Second, the historical record shows that sanctions fail more often than they succeed. That is especially true when they are designed to compel a target regime to abandon a high-priority, high-prestige objective. The issue is not whether sanctions inflict pain on the general population in that country. Measured in that fashion, the tactic always works, since ordinary people—especially the poorest, least powerful—do suffer, often badly. The real issue, though, is whether the country’s economic and political elites are so discomfited and weakened that they are willing to capitulate regarding the issue in dispute.

It is rare that elites cannot insulate themselves from the impact enough to avoid having to make unpalatable concessions. Moreover, even elites will endure considerable pain to avoid giving up a high-priority policy. And there is little question that the nuclear program is an extremely high-priority goal for Iran’s political elite.

Finally, sanctions have an especially anemic record of success without comprehensive international cooperation. That aspect also raises serious doubts about the effectiveness of the Iranian sanctions to this point and going forward. China and Russia have a long record of foot-dragging about imposing sanctions on Tehran, and both countries retain important economic links with Iran despite the tightening international restriction.

Beijing’s reluctance to go along with the policy Washington favors is understandable. Iran is a significant supplier of energy to China’s voracious economy, a factor that is already important and will become more so as the Chinese economy continues to grow. An anti-American Iran also serves as a brake on U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The other major oil producers in the region, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the small Gulf states, are all close U.S. allies or are at least under significant U.S. influence. Iran’s role as a counterweight makes both Moscow and Beijing extremely wary of going along with Washington’s anti-Iranian agenda.

But the leakage in the sanctions system is not confined to the actions of Russia and China. Even key U.S. allies such as Japan and several European Union countries have not entirely severed their commercial links to Iran. And India seems to be almost ostentatiously flouting Washington’s wishes. A major Indian trade delegation visited Tehran recently and came away extremely pleased with the outcome.

There are few signs that India will reduce its $11 billion a year imports of petroleum from Iran. The international sanctions have largely cut off Iran’s banks from the global banking system, but all that has done is force India and other purchasers of Iranian oil to use a barter system. Beyond the petroleum sector, India’s influential manufacturing lobby sees a great opportunity to fill the vacuum created by the decline of Western exports to Iran.

At a minimum, those factors suggest that New Delhi will continue to be a reluctant, unreliable participant in the sanctions system. Indeed, the Obama administration just excluded India (as well as China) from the list of countries that have reduced their oil imports from Iran sufficiently to be exempt from Washington’s own sanctions.

Leakage from a sanctions system is quite substantial whenever two of the top economic powers in the world are not fully on board. That certainly seems to be the case with the current sanctions against Iran.

Relying on sanctions to pressure Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions is preferable to the reckless proposals of hawks who seemingly can’t wait to bomb that country. But proponents of sanctions are being too optimistic about the efficacy of their strategy. The odds are that economic pressure will not cause Iran to abandon its nuclear program. It is time to start thinking about a “Plan C” to deal with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Image: osipovva

TopicsEconomicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

Osama’s Feckless Plot against Obama

The Skeptics

In three recent colums for the Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals bits of two letters found in Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him. One is a 48 page letter from bin Laden to Ilyas Kashmiri,a senior al Qaeda operative since killed in a drone strike. In the letter, bin Laden dispenses advice and dreams up potential terrorist acts, including a suggestion that al Qaeda teams shoot down planes carrying President Obama or General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Ignatius is doing some excellent reporting here, providing insight in bin Laden’s last days. But he inflates bin Laden’s stature, calling him a “terrorist CEO” and his feckless hope to kill Obama a “plot” that we should find “chilling.”

As I wrote in a letter published in Wednesday’s Post, Ignatius’s article reveals something closer to a fantasy than a “plot.” Ignatius notes that al Qaeda probably lacks the weapons to down standard military aircraft, let alone Air Force One. Additionally, it’s not clear that Kashmiri had the men to pull off the plan. We should not assume that that he took these suggestions seriously rather than simply listening to bin Laden with strained patience, as with a cranky uncle. Perhaps the most absurd element of the letter is bin Laden’s political analysis. He argues that elevating Joe Biden to the presidency would somehow lead the United States into crisis rather than creating a massive rally-around-the-flag-effect.

This is a happy reminder of al Qaeda’s incompetence, not a chilling one. As John Mueller recently noted, the materials revealed about al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death are more evidence that the cunning, disciplined al Qaeda of popular imagination is a myth. Al Qaeda consists of disjointed groups of guys dodging drones and desperately trying to live up to their inflated reputation to terrorize. There is no true central command. That is clearly true today, and was likely the case even the al Qaeda’s 1990s heyday. That disorganization helps explain why most terrorism, even al Qaeda terrorism, is homegrown—mostly organized by small groups of people in the country where it occurs with little help from abroad. That gets you awful tragedies, as we saw this week in France, but hardly the apocalyptic nightmares we’ve been told to expect.

On April 13, Cato is holding a morning conference to explore homegrown terrorism, with one panel focusing on the United States and one on other western states. The panelists (including Mueller, Risa Brooks, Brian Jenkins, Glenn Carle, Michael Kenney and Mitchell Silber) will discuss, among other things, how al Qaeda’s lack of hierarchy affects its capacity to kill and terrorize. You can sign up here.


Five Reasons to Withdraw from Afghanistan

The Skeptics

Recent events in Afghanistan have raised serious doubts about staying the course, despite testimony this week from General John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that we are making “real” and “sustainable” progress. Here are five reasons why Americans should rethink the war and support an expedient withdrawal.

1. Safe Havens Are Myths

In 2009, President Obama declared that our strategy in Afghanistan had a clear mission: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.” What was less clear was why bringing a modern army to Afghanistan would stop al-Qaeda from attacking America. Would-be terrorists have reduced their dependence on “base camps” and “physical havens.” They can plan, organize and train from virtually anywhere. The 2008 Mumbai attacks, for example, were planned in the same Hamburg mosque where 9/11 was plotted. Countering al-Qaeda requires discrete operations, intelligence sharing and surgical strikes when necessary. Unfortunately, U.S. officials remain hostage to the outdated notion that a specific territory matters. Many assume incorrectly that the defeat of al-Qaeda depends upon a prolonged troop presence in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But such a presence is neither necessary nor sustainable.

2. Creating a Self-sufficient Afghan State Is Not an Exit Strategy

Remaining in Afghanistan to the point when locals can stand on their own is the back door to an indefinite presence. A detailed report released last August by the independent, bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. government contracted for dozens of clinics, barracks, hospitals and other facilities that exceeded Afghan funding capabilities. In essence, the coalition spent tens of billions of dollars to build physical infrastructure that goes beyond the Afghan government’s financial and technical capacity to sustain. The American people have grown increasingly skeptical that a viable and independent Afghan state can be built at a reasonable price. Their cynicism is justified.

3. Al-Qaeda Is Not the Taliban

We’re often told that failure to create a minimally functioning government in Afghanistan will turn that country into a base for the Taliban and hence, al-Qaeda. That argument is specious. It assumes that the Taliban would again host al-Qaeda—the very organization whose protection led to the Taliban’s overthrow—and that terrorists won’t attack America if there’s a Western-backed client regime in Kabul. U.S. leaders have lumped al-Qaeda (a loose jihadist network responsible for 9/11) with the Taliban (an indigenous Pashtun-dominated movement with no global mission). As a result, the United States remains at war with the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami Group and other indigenous militants who pose no threat to America’s sovereignty or physical existence. Meanwhile, America’s suppression of al-Qaeda is not seen as the victory it is.

4. Current Policies Destabilize Pakistan

A year before leaving her post in Pakistan, former U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Anne Patterson warned her superiors that while the “unilateral targeting of al-Qaeda operatives and assets” was important to countering terrorism, it also “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.” Drone strikes, ground raids and other covert activities in Pakistan have proven to be a double-edged sword: helping decimate al-Qaeda’s senior leadership but also provoking terrorism on American soil, increasing the Pakistani people’s hatred of America—and thus their passive acceptance of anti-American militants—and adding to the dangerous destabilization of a volatile nuclear-armed state. As a 2011 report published by the Middle East Policy Council warned, “Rather than calming the region through the precise elimination of terrorist leaders, however, the accelerating counterterror program has compounded violence and instability.” Americans shouldn’t forget Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani immigrant who in 2010 pleaded guilty to trying to detonate an S.U.V. packed with explosives in Manhattan’s Times Square. Among Shahzad’s motives was the killing of Muslims by the U.S.-led drone campaign.

5. Remaining In Afghanistan Weakens America

Many prominent opinion leaders argue that withdrawing from Afghanistan will boost jihadism globally and make America look weak. Perhaps, but propagating these fears has been more useful in selling a bad foreign policy to the American public. Whether America “cuts and runs” or stays and bleeds, it’s win-win for America’s enemies. After all, one of bin Laden’s primary goals was to damage the U.S. economy. From a strategic and economic perspective, no tangible gains could outweigh the costs of America maintaining an indefinite presence in Afghanistan, especially when its landlocked position will render whatever gains we do achieve vulnerable to sabotage from surrounding states. If the 9/11 wars have taught us anything, it’s that weak local enemies who enjoy home-field advantage can nullify our overwhelming military superiority. The lesson to draw is not that America should never give up after having intervened, but that we should avoid staying course no matter the cost.

Image: The U.S. Army

TopicsCounterinsurgencyTerrorismSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

Romney’s 4 Percent Military Spending Still a Fantasy

The Skeptics

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Mitt Romney’s proposal to spend at least 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon’s budget. In yesterday’s Boston Globe, Michael Kranish explores the implications:

Enacting such an increase at the same time that Romney wants to slash taxes and balance the budget could cost trillions of dollars and require huge cuts in domestic programs. As Romney’s website puts it matter-of-factly, "This will not be a cost-free process.’’

There are several curious claims that emerge from the story and that raise additional questions.

First, Romney’s advisers have no idea when the 4 percent target will be achieved, nor can they point to other spending that will be cut to make up the difference. I take at face value Romney’s claim that he will not raise taxes or add to the deficit. At a minimum, Romney should clarify when he expects to achieve his 4 percent goal, and he should then spell out what spending he plans to cut in order to increase the Pentagon’s budget.

Second, as with most other things, focusing on how much we spend isn’t nearly as interesting, or important, as why we spend it. As I explained in my earlier post, it only makes sense to be spending so much more money, in real terms, than we did during the Cold War if we believe that today’s enemies are dramatically more threatening than those we confronted then. I find the mere suggestion utterly absurd. But Mitt Romney apparently does not, judging from his pledge to spend, on average, at least 42 percent more than Ronald Reagan did during the 1980s.

Third, the story leaves me wondering if Romney cares at all about the quality and character of the nation’s military. The story notes, for example, that Romney regularly compares today’s fleet to the number of ships from nearly a century ago, and the number of planes in the air force since just after World War II. This proves to be one of his most consistent lines from the stump.’s Truth-o-Meter labeled his claim that the U.S. military is at risk of losing its "military superiority" because the navy "is smaller than it's been since 1917" and because the air force "is smaller and older than any time since 1947 a "pants on fire" lie. But Romney adviser Mackenzie Eaglen, now with the American Enterprise Institute, explains that such comparisons are appropriate, so long as the candidate also provides some context. (Awkward fact: Romney doesn’t). From the story:

[Eaglen] said it should be obvious that ships and crew are more capable than years ago, but said it is also true that more ships are needed to cover the earth’s waters.

"One ship, one aircraft, or one brigade can only be in one place at one time around the world,’’ she said. "So even with sophisticated technologies and people in the military, numbers still matter. A lot of deterring is achieved through physical presence of these assets. Quantity has a quality all its own.’’

If that is true, then why not simply field hundreds of very small ships, armed with minimal armaments, as opposed to a handful of very expensive aircraft carriers (estimated to cost about $14 billion each to build, plus hundreds of millions every year to operate). Or consider the several dozen Arleigh Burke-class destroyers ($2 billion each) or up to fifty-five littoral combat ships (expected to average about $600 million each) that will comprise the backbone of the surface fleet in the 2020s. Could we purchase twice as many ships at two-thirds the cost, or half the cost? Several other platforms under development suggest the answer is "yes." Finally, where do submarines factor in this equation? If the object of a large navy is for maintaining a highly visible "physical" presence, how then to measure the value of the silent service?

I am as much a fan of the U.S. Navy as anyone, and I am far less enamored of deep cuts there than in the ground forces. But I remain deeply puzzled by the suggestion that "quantity has a quality all its own," particularly as it applies to surface ships.

As before, I anxiously await Governor Romney’s answers to these and other questions.

Image: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseThe PresidencyPolitical EconomyPoliticsSecurity

Robert Kaplan Isn’t Rescuing Anything

The Skeptics

Stephen Walt writes at his FP blog that Stratfor has hired

noted realist Robert Kaplan to write a regular feature on geopolitics. I don't always agree with Kaplan's analysis—I don't agree with anyone all of the time—but he's one of the few prominent journalists who sees the world through a realist lens and has a clear capacity to think in broad strategic terms. He's also an intrepid traveler and lucid writer who is willing to challenge conventional nostrums, and I'll be interested to see what he has to say from his new perch.

I was interested, too. Stratfor has released a video featuring Kaplan discussing Iran with Stratfor’s leader, George “Coming War with Japan” Friedman. In that clip, Kaplan offers a number of interesting observations about the politics of the Middle East and Iran’s potential role in them. Let’s take two of his thoughts:

 Iran’s frontage on both the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, its “access” to the Middle East as well as Central Asia, and its road- and pipeline-building projects in that region make Iran a “potential regional hegemon.”

This is absolute, unmitigated nonsense. “Regional hegemon” is supposed to mean something. To take the definition used by someone Kaplan knows well, John Mearsheimer, it means a state that is powerful enough to “dominate all the other states” in a “distinct geographical area.” By Mearsheimer’s definition, the only regional hegemon in modern history is the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Is Kaplan really saying that Iran could throw its weight around in the Middle East akin to the way in which Washington throws its weight around in the Western Hemisphere?

To poach a bit from my forthcoming article in the April American Conservative, let’s look at Iran’s military power:

Iran does not have significant power-projection capabilities. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2012 issue of The Military Balance makes clear, an Iranian effort at power projection, if opposed, would face terrible odds. Iran comprises less than 10 percent of regional military spending, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 36 percent and Israel’s 14 percent.

Regional hegemon?

• Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon could lead to something resembling a reconstitution of "the Iranian empires of old, whether Parthian or Achaemenid or whatever. You have the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. Almost.”

Something’s wrong with this. The Achaemenid empire included chunks of Greece, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Parthian analogy is somewhat less egregious, but Iran can’t gnaw off chunks of Pakistan or probably even Iraq without causing itself lots of trouble. And suffice it to say that neither of the empires mentioned above squared off against a power with the capacity for strategic denial like the United States. If Iran started trying to conquer its way toward either of those empires, and if the United States lifted a finger to help Israel and the Gulf Arab states, Iran would be in a world of trouble.

Walt wonders whether Kaplan can “rescue” the foreign-policy debate in America. If this is what’s supposed to rescue us, I’m still waiting

TopicsGrand StrategyGreat PowersRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIranPersian GulfMiddle East

Skepticism Needed About “Freedom Fighters”

The Skeptics

As if Rush Limbaugh didn’t have enough problems following his defamatory rants against Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law student who dared to speak out on the ongoing contraception controversy, critics have now dredged up his astonishing October 2011 statements regarding the infamous African warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. Not only did Limbaugh criticize the Obama administration’s decision to send one hundred U.S. troops to aid Central African governments that were battling the LRA (which was a perfectly legitimate criticism), but he also went on to praise Kony and his insurgent force. The Lord’s Resistance Army “are Christians,” Limbaugh thundered. “They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops, to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them.” He then read from the LRA’s “manifesto,” which included commitments to democracy and eliminating oppression. “These are the objectives of the group that we are fighting,” Limbaugh said with exasperation.

Limbaugh’s statements have become an acute embarrassment, especially since the release of the video documentary on the “invisible children,” which exposes the LRA’s many abuses against some extraordinarily young victims. But Limbaugh is hardly the first prominent American to have expressed ill-considered support for sleazy foreign political movements. One need only recall such naive backing for fascist and communist movements in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s and for communist movements in the Third World during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, that type of poor judgment has repeatedly plagued portions of the opinion elite in the United States. President Ronald Reagan once described the Nicaraguan Contras as the moral equivalent of America’s own founders—an assertion that probably caused Washington, Jefferson and Madison to whirl in their graves. Americans across the political spectrum reflexively praised the Afghan mujahedeen as “freedom fighters,” even as evidence mounted that the anti-Soviet resistance was dominated by the most reactionary, authoritarian religious elements. Contrary to the assertions of American admirers, even the term mujahedeen meant “holy warriors,” not freedom fighters—a very different connotation indeed.

Even more troubling, the Wall Street Journal and numerous conservative activists enthusiastically supported Angola’s Jonas Savimbi as a staunch anticommunist hero, even when more and more evidence accumulated that he was both a sociopath and a political opportunist. A little investigation would have informed those naive conservatives early on about Savimbi’s opportunism, contrary to his professed commitment to democracy and free markets. Before Savimbi sought the backing of the United States, he had solicited support from Maoist China. They might also have discovered that potential rivals within his UNITA organization had a nasty habit of meeting untimely ends.

In the late 1990s, Senator Joseph Lieberman argued that the Kosovo Liberation Army was fighting for the same values as the United States. In reality, the KLA (and much of the subsequent Kosovar government) helped make Kosovo the center of drug trafficking and prostitution in Southeastern Europe. The most nauseating revelation occurred in late 2010, when a European Union investigation found credible evidence that KLA leaders, including Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, had been guilty of murdering Serb prisoners and harvesting their organs for sale on the black market.

One might think that given such a long history of embracing foreign political movements that turned out to be odious, American opinion leaders would learn to exercise extreme caution before making such endorsements. But Limbaugh’s gaffe and the recent fawning over rebel forces in both Libya and Syria—despite a woeful lack of knowledge about the ideological makeup of either force—makes it all too clear that such dangerous, delusional thinking is alive and well.

Image: RIA Novosti

TopicsMuckety MucksMediaGrand StrategyHumanitarian InterventionReligionSecurity RegionsCentral AfricaAngolaSudanBalkan PeninsulaUganda

The Massacre in Panjwai

The Skeptics

In today’s Politico, my coauthor Robert Naiman and I examine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the wake of the sad and inexplicable massacre of 16 Afghan civilians—nine of them children, most of them allegedly toddlers—by a U.S. soldier in Panjwai, Kandahar. While we address some of the possible policy implications, it is equally instructive to read what is happening on the ground. On Monday, the New Yorker's Amy Davidson aggregated reports from local witnesses. I would encourage everyone to read Davidson’s piece in full; below are some of the more interesting excerpts:

First, in the early hours of Sunday, there was noise. "I told my son not to speak because the Americans are here,” an Afghan woman told the BBC. “They went next door and the first thing they did was shoot the dog. And then there was a muffled bang inside the room—but who could go and see?”

A mother using the word “Americans” to scare her child into silence is alone cause for reflection. And “who could go and see”? Despite the dark and noise and confusion—was there more than one soldier? A helicopter?—some Afghans in the village saw something. Here is what another woman told the BBC:

There was one man, and he dragged a woman by her hair and banged her head repeatedly against the wall. She didn’t say a word.

And Mohammad Zahir, age twenty-six, to the AP:

He was walking around taking up positions in the house—in two or three places like he was searching. . . . He was on his knees when he shot my father. . . . [My father] was not holding anything—not even a cup of tea.

Abdul Hadi, age forty, to the Times.

My father went out to find out what was happening, and he was killed. . . . I was covered by the women in my family in my room, so that is why I survived.

Gul Bashra, identified as a “mother,” on Al Jazeera (and the woman who told the BBC about the noises):

They killed a child who was two years old. Was that child Taliban?

Anar Gula, an elderly neighbor, to the Times:

All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned. . . . We put out the fire.

War is heart wrenching, as Afghans surely know. Their country has been in near ceaseless conflict for the last thirty years, and according to the latest U.N. report on armed conflict in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Although insurgents were mainly responsible for those deaths, in 2009 the Obama administration adopted a new mission: protecting ordinary Afghans and winning over their allegiance, a case put forward most vigorously by General David Petraeus (ret.), General Stanley McChrystal (ret.), and other military and civilian experts in what now seems like eons ago.

Today, the metric for success is to help Afghans establish some semblance of internal security, a shifting goalpost that was always an uphill battle. During and after the surge, it was clear that the administration’s new strategy did not have enough troops, enough time or enough competent local partners—as called for by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in its counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual—to compete credibly with the Taliban. As a result, officials in Washington and Kabul fed foreign observers stage-managed showpieces like the offensive in Marjah.

Applied according to doctrine, COIN in Afghanistan would have required several hundreds of thousands of troops, ten to twelve years of implementation and local government leaders who were not motivated primarily by personal advancement. It’s difficult to imagine a successful application of COIN in that landlocked country even if the coalition had these essential building blocks. After all, in addition to the oft-mentioned issue of cross-border militant sanctuaries, the cultural chasm between foreigners and rural locals has always persisted—and the Taliban have readily exploited this rift.

As Army Special Forces Maj. Fernando M. Lujan noted in a March 4 article, “One of the first things we learned was the power of a simple narrative, repeated endlessly by the Taliban: The coalition is here to occupy Afghanistan and destroy Islam.” Indeed, right after last Sunday’s massacre and the allegation that the soldier’s multiple deployments may have created mental-health issues, the Taliban issued this statement:

If the perpetrators of this massacre were in fact mentally ill, then this testifies to yet another moral transgression by the American military because they are arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against the defenseless Afghans without giving a second thought.

Although a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 54 percent of Americans believe we should withdraw before the Afghan army is “self-sufficient,” the administration remains committed to withdrawing in 2014. Between now and then, it hopes to set up a minimally functioning government in the middle of central Asia that is resistant to internal insurrection and to foreign invasion. It’s going to be a long two years.


TopicsCounterinsurgencySecurity RegionsAfghanistan

The Heroes of COIN

The Skeptics

The views expressed here are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Spend a little time reading about the war in Iraq and you will discover that there were actually two wars: one before Petraeus, and one after he took command. The war before Petraeus, we are told, was characterized by frustrating efforts to use conventional tactics in an unconventional war. The war after Petraeus arrived was much better. Rather than continuing down an unsuccessful military path, U.S. and coalition forces implemented a new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that emphasized population security and efforts to gain legitimacy for the fledgling government. Petraeus’s great achievement in Iraq was convincing the military to turn on a dime in a chaotic and violent place. He persuaded a hidebound army to radically change its ways and achieved astonishing results. In a matter of months, he dramatically reduced the level of violence and provided badly needed breathing room in Iraq. A small army of COIN analysts, along with reporters like Tom Ricks and Linda Robinson, have chronicled and praised his efforts in Iraq.

Paula Broadwell tells a similar story about General Petraeus’s efforts in Afghanistan. According to her account, Petraeus arrived in Kabul with the same basic ideas that guided his previous efforts. “As he prepared to head to Afghanistan,” Broadwell writes, “Petraeus viewed the campaign in simple terms. The key to victory lay in protecting the indigenous population, not just in killing the enemy. That was the insight Petraeus stressed over and over.” Broadwell does not argue that Petraeus fully succeeded in Afghanistan, but she does suggest that victory would have been much more likely if he had arrived there sooner. She traces his intellectual evolution and praises his deep understanding of insurgency that led him to develop his set of COIN best practices. “One had to wonder what Afghanistan might have looked like, eight years after September 11, 2001, had these tactics been carried out from the beginning.”

Similarly heroic stories pervade the literature on past counterinsurgencies. The conventional portrait of Petraeus is strikingly similar to the portrayals of earlier leaders in the Huk Rebellion (1946–1956), the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960) and the period of major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1964-1973). These wars are often cited by COIN analysts as evidence in support of the principles championed by Petraeus. In each case, observers criticize initial efforts as brutal and counterproductive because campaigns to root out and destroy insurgent fighters ended up alienating civilians and driving them into the arms of the enemy. And in each case, observers conclude that the tide turned only after the emergence of leaders with a deeper understanding of the political nature of insurgencies.

What explains this peculiar pattern? I suspect that analysts gravitate towards the heroic narrative because it is optimistic. It offers solutions consistent with core liberal values. It shows that military organizations can overcome their conventional biases and promote unconventionally minded leaders, and it promises that they can succeed by responding to legitimate public concerns instead of resorting to overwhelming violence. The heroic narrative is especially seductive today because it offers hope that we can overcome our blunders in Afghanistan and achieve something like victory.

But as I explain in the current issue of Orbis, the reality of past conflicts is nothing like the stylized histories that dominate the literature. In the Philippines, Malaya and Vietnam, a great deal of coercive violence was necessary to establish a semblance of political order. These conflicts were not counterinsurgencies, per se, but state-building wars in which fragile governments needed to establish control before they could worry about legitimacy. Whereas modern COIN theorists focus on population security and popular support, theorists of state building describe a bloody and protracted competition for power under near anarchy. Establishing a state means killing or co-opting one’s rivals and gaining the capacity to enforce laws. As Paul Staniland puts it, “We may think we can ‘win hearts and minds’ while establishing a strong state, but state formation is intrinsically about coercion and dominance.” Well-meaning efforts to gain legitimacy will be irrelevant if the government cannot demonstrate the ability to control the population. The upshot is that the heroes of late-stage COIN might actually depend on the earlier villains who do the dirty work of establishing a political hierarchy and coercing the population into obedience.

The other implication is that the United States should disabuse itself of the notion that there are technocratic solutions to the political problems of civil war. U.S. forces can still pursue more practical missions like counterterrorism. But the belief in so-called COIN best practices may cause U.S. leaders to overestimate their ability to control events in any war-torn country with a weak or nonexistent political order. State building is a long and brutal business, and efforts to win hearts and minds before the state has established control are likely to fail. The real heroes of counterinsurgency may be those who are willing to come to grips with that fact.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary StrategySecurity RegionsAfghanistanIraq

Bombing Iran Risks Mission Creep

The Skeptics

In an op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, my co-author Jonathan Owen and I argue that damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities from limited strikes would be modest, and likely require further strikes every few years or a long-term occupation on the ground. The better option at present is for the Obama administration to show restraint and continue to explore diplomatic options:

Unless Americans are willing to fight Iranians to the death — possibly every few years — Washington must stop polarizing the situation. Aggressive policies and rhetoric do not benefit our security.

Without demanding that Iran surrender on the issue of uranium enrichment, the U.S. — which accounts for almost half of the world’s military spending, wields one of the planet’s largest nuclear arsenals and can project its power around the globe — should lift sanctions, stop its belligerence and open a direct line of communication with Tehran.

The President has said repeatedly that “all options are on the table.” But contrary to popular belief, diplomacy with Iran is an option that has yet to be fully exhausted.

Left out in the final cut was the important point that if the United States was to go to war with Iran, U.S. soldiers will once again be asked to risk their lives by prosecuting a reckless war of choice against an enemy willing to accept high casualties. Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught policymakers that mission creep often drives seemingly easy and limited interventions toward prolonged wars of occupation and nation-building. Attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would risk a similar, unacceptable mission creep.

TopicsMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

Recalculating Romney’s 4 Percent Gimmick

The Skeptics

I have a new piece up at on Ron Paul and the Republican Party, focused in particular on the strong support that Paul draws from young people, with some additional speculation about where those young people will end up if and when Paul steps back from his very public role. My instincts are that these young people are motivated at least as much by the ideas that Paul espouses as by Ron Paul, the person. If I am correct, many of them are likely to remain active in politics. I close with a warning to GOP leaders that they would be making a grave error if they ignored this libertarian-leaning voting bloc. Unfortunately, that is what the GOP’s leading candidate, Mitt Romney, seems to be doing by pushing a short-sighted plan for boosting military spending at a time when the country is awash in debt.

I have always been puzzled by the fact that conservatives who rail against welfare dependency here at home miss the pernicious effects of security dependency among our allies. Tim Pawlenty didn’t get it. Neither does Mitt Romney. Rather than questioning the mantras that have guided U.S. foreign policy for over a generation, Romney simply assumes that the United States will remain the world’s policeman, other countries will continue to free ride on our security guarantees and U.S. taxpayers will happily foot the bill. He proposes spending at least 4 percent of GDP on the military’s base budget, plus whatever additional money might be needed to fight the wars that he wants to fight (for example, this one).

I commented on the 4 percent gimmick a few months ago, and now I have a bit more detail about Romney’s plan relative to the Obama administration’s latest ten-year projections. I alluded to these numbers in the piece and below provide some more detail. (I am grateful, as always, for the help of my colleague Charles Zakaib in sorting through these and in preparing the charts).


The chart above shows spending in nominal, current-year dollars over the next ten years. The Obama administration plans to spend $5.7 trillion between 2013 and 2022 (the blue bars). If Romney keeps his promise of 4 percent for defense, he will spend at least $8.3 trillion (using OMB’s GDP projections) over that same period, an additional $2.58 trillion (the yellow bars). His budget in 2022 would top $1 trillion and would be at least 61 percent higher than Barack Obama’s. He hasn’t said what other spending he will cut, or what taxes he would increase, to cover that difference. Until he does, it is logical to conclude that he plans to pile on more debt.

And we should remember that current laws call for even less spending than President Obama has proposed, but he has chosen to ignore the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act. GOP leaders in Congress seem equally disinterested in following through on their promise to kick the spending habit, and several have put forward plans to undo sequestration for the Department of Defense. Either way, the bottom line is more debt. As I speculate at, no wonder young people seem to like Ron Paul so much (and Mitt Romney so little).

Another way to demonstrate the absurdity of Romney’s plan is to control for inflation and compare it to future and past trends. Looking ahead, in constant, 2012 dollars, annual Pentagon spending will average $744.8 billion over the next ten years—again assuming the same GDP projections as Obama’s plan. That is 44 percent higher than Obama’s average budget (the bright pink line) over that same period and nearly 59 percent higher than sequestration (the dark red line).

Now consider how this compares with the recent past. As you can see, Romney’s 4 percent gimmick would result in taxpayers spending more than twice as much on the Pentagon as in 2000 (111 percent higher, to be precise) and 45 percent more than in 1985, the height of the Reagan buildup. Over the next ten years, Romney’s annual spending (in constant dollars) for the Pentagon would average 64 percent higher than annual post–Cold War budgets (1990-2012), and 42 percent more than the average during the Reagan era (1981-1989).


Mitt Romney may genuinely believe that today’s enemies are 42 percent more frightening than the big bad Soviets. He might believe that spending an average of $450 billion (in constant dollars) every year since 1990 has left the country dangerously vulnerable. If that is true, he should say so. More importantly, however, he should be compelled to answer the question on everyone’s mind: Where is he going to get the money to fund his Pentagon spending binge?

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseThe PresidencyPolitical EconomyPoliticsSecurity RegionsUnited States