A continuation of Plan to Defeat ISIS, Part 2, this is prompted by (Reuters) Exclusive: U.S. weighs deploying up to 1,000 ‘reserve’ troops for IS fight, which suggests a new military strategy is in the offing.
The most famous quotation of Carl von Clausewitz is “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.” With multiple translations to english, there is question by some scholars as to whether von Clausewitz actually wrote this, or meant what he wrote. In the age of Hegel, some say, it could have been a mere debating point. But you can find it in bold print on page 22 of the “obsolete” translation of Colonel J.J. Graham. This is why General Mattis said, (Face the Nation) “If you cut the State Department’s budget, then you need to buy me more bullets.” And, (CNN) “More than 120 retired generals and admirals signed a letter Monday pushing back on the White House’s proposal to make major cuts to diplomacy and development.”
Even though von Clausewitz never encountered stateless warfare, On War is still the one of the ultimate wellsprings of military thought. Conceived in the age of massed formations, muskets, and cavalry, he was somehow able to distill the principles of warfare in a manner that transfers over centuries. Nevertheless, new principles arise. Military thinkers naturally want to constitute these in a way commensurate with his clarity of thought.
Since the reforms of the “Rumsfeld Doctrine”, the U.S. has shifted away from emphasis on heavy forces, with massive firepower, that require long lead-times to deploy, and massive logistical tails. It has moved sharply in the direction of lightweight forces, capable of almost momentary deployment. This is because of the change of perception of potential threats, which held rigorously until Ukraine.
But there is a “doctrine gap” between SEAL raids and conventional deployments, meaning, no guiding principle for brief deployments substantial forces. In the U.S., the beginnings and ends of interventions are marked as political events, even if they never actually occur. Every strategic move in Iraq was marked as a political decision. The withdrawal of the last American units from Iraq was marked by a picture.
The gap exists partly because, until recently, there was a technical gap between the capability for commando deployments and the conventional. The Osprey aircraft, other hardware innovations, and basing in Kuwait offer alternatives. The doctrinal gap remains, partly due to the political process, the shared understanding that war is a serious thing, requiring public deliberation and common assent. The downside is lack of agility against ghost-like opponents, and “telegraphing the punch.” If you’re not into boxing, this means a preparatory arm movement that cues the opponent on when and where a punch is coming.
The extreme of this was in the Vietnam War, when, due to infiltration of the government of South Vietnam by the North, almost every deployment, even by helicopter, was known to the North before it occurred. In Iraq, it is not a problem now, but it will become a problem soon. When the temporarily deferred clash with Iran’s proxies occurs, infiltration of Iraq’s government will have an analogous effect. This is why, in Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?, I wrote,
The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities. Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would steamroller it.
A different guiding principle is required to operate in the non-permissive Iraq and Syria of the near future. Some recent strategies of other countries contain innovative elements:
- Russia in Ukraine: a “private brand” military, has had a ghost-like quality. With multiple withdrawals and redeployments, it significantly delayed correct identification by the West, and so, political response.
- Russia in Syria: a similar pattern, with an over-advertised withdrawal, and understated deployment.
- Russo-Georgian War of 2008: an almost completely transient event, snatching only small bits of territory as a permanent acquisition.
- China in Vietnam: In the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, an antiquated Chinese army occupied northern provinces of Vietnam for about a month. China’s military performance was said to be unimpressive. A bunch of provincial towns were destroyed. And then, the necessary message having been sent, China withdrew. It was, from the Chinese point of view, a complete success.
- In the Sino-Indian War of 1962, China seized substantial parts of Ladakh, and gave most of it back. The result was unusually ambiguous.
None of these had geopolitical goals of the type pursued by the U.S. All of the above are characterized by the temporary seizure of territory. They were ephemeral. They offer suggestions as to how the U.S. can project power into a region with weak or nonexistent states, and hostile non-state forces:
- Deploy very, very quickly.
- Accomplish the objective, but without the usual finality or thoroughness.
- Get out before non-state forces can react to the presence.
I call this the “Doctrine of Ephemeral Deployment.” It is an estimate of the purpose of the proposed Kuwait deployment. It is not new. Von Clausewitz thought of it some time between 1816 and 1830.