The Asymmetric Temptation

I’m always glad to find prestigious support for one of my personal bête noires, and that goes double when the prestigious person in question, the National War College’s Michael Mazarr, takes care of two of them at once (.pdf). In this case, it’s the militarization of American diplomacy and the temptation of COIN, both of which he tackles in the current issue of The Washington Quarterly under the title of ‘The Folly of Asymmetric War.’

Mazarr makes a lot of the arguments I’ve been trying to develop on the subject, but more articulately and with a broader base of knowledge than I could hope for. He veers a bit off into the risk of degrading conventional warfighting capabilities and the Russia-China bogeyman scenario, but for the most part his argument is a pretty straightforward one: the strategic threats posed by asymmetrical warfare scenarios (failed states, counterinsurgencies, etc.) are exagerrated; tailoring our military to an asymmetric/COIN footing will increase the risk of deploying it to respond to them; and the subsequent funding imbalance will wither the civil agencies that are actually essential to addressing the root causes of the crises:

It is thus dangerous to view the military as the lead agency to deal with very diffuse, broad-based asymmetric challenges such as radical Islamism, nation building, stability operations, and even counterinsurgency. . . [A]symmetric challenges demand asymmetric responses—political, economic, cultural, informational, and psychological tools, tactics, and techniques allowed to work organically over time, not retrained military forces whose true purpose is to fight and win wars, which are different enterprises. The strategic trap is obvious: Furnished with a vast, expensive, skillful military tool, policymakers will use it again and again, as they have been doing, without confronting the tougher challenge of shifting resources into nonmilitary tools of statecraft. . .

. . .As long as large proportions of the U.S. military are being retooled for asymmetric war, the perceived need for and role of other instruments will continue to lag. This result will be warned against, feared, and bemoaned, but it will also be inevitable. (p. 38-39)

His prescription is at first glance old-fashioned in the age of non-state actors and stability operations, but probably more in line with the actual competencies of the military, and strategic logic more generally:

This then ought to remain the cardinal role for U.S. military forces in the years ahead: to serve as the backbone of global deterrence of interstate war and thus to lend continuing momentum to the emerging norm against territorial aggression. This norm and trend are enormously positive for the United States, leading as they do to a world with fewer large-scale, state-based military threats to U.S. interests. Underwriting these trends is the most important thing the United States could do for its long-term security, more important even than the campaign against al Qaeda, provided that movement remains more or less as it is today. Placing the U.S. military in the service of these trends is an act of profound strategic logic. (p. 47)

In the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco and the rise of the “Counterinsurgents” (Gen. David Petraeus, et al.), Donald Rumsfeld has been blamed for his vision of a trimmed down, tech-ed up, lighting fast and crushingly lethal Army. But the fact is, the Rumsfeld modernization plan was probably the one thing he did right as Defense Secretary. The problem wasn’t the Army, which the initial invasion demonstrated was perfectly adapted to a classic mission of interstate warfare. The problem was in being blinded by arrogance to the subsequent asymmetric conflict that would inevitably follow.

It’s been argued that the American Army wasn’t adapted to fight that second conflict, and has spent the best part of the past four years getting up to speed. But I’d argue that no army ever really is adapted to that second conflict, since by nature it’s a political conflict, and that the ultimate result of our growing infatuation with counterinsurgency doctrine will be to learn that lesson the hard way, the way the British and French colonial and post-colonial armies did. There will be tactical victories along the way, enough of them to make us forget the tactical defeats they precede and follow. But in military terms, the mission as it is now being defined is a colonial mission doomed to longterm strategic failure, since the peace it is meant to establish will forever be ephemeral and unstable. Worse yet, it’s a mission that goes against not only our military culture, but our political culture as well.