How Obama Is Changing the Way the United States Wages War

Military analysis.
Oct. 19 2011 1:26 PM

The New Interventionism

How Obama is changing the way the United States wages war.

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This isn’t to say that the Army should be decimated. There’s always North Korea to deter, and some other contingencies that justify staying prepared as a hedge. But it’s hard to make a case for a huge land force. Advise-and-assist missions tend to involve dozens of troops, at most a few hundred. Many veterans of these missions, most of them Special Forces officers, say that a small footprint is best: it helps us remember that we’re helping allies fight their war, not turning it into our war; and it lets us retain our leverage, in case the government we’re helping turns out to be no better than the rebels they’re fighting. (We can fit all 100 of our advisers inside a single C-17 airplane.)

Does this suggest that Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of “military transformation” is right—that all we need are a few units of Special Forces backed by smart bombs dropped from Air Force jets or fired from Navy carriers?

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Well, for many scenarios, yes. But for some scenarios, no, we need more. And for the wars that Rumsfeld helped unleash, we needed many more.

The distinction goes back to the political goals of a war, which is to say the political nature of warfare. The Bush administration, with Rumsfeld as its chief war planner, used a relatively small invasion force to topple Saddam Hussein—and, before then, a much smaller force (the proverbial handful of Special Forces units, backed by air power and local guerrillas) to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. But destroying a regime creates a vacuum, which tends to end up filled with something. And if the destroyer doesn’t help fill it—with security, justice, institutions of government, the restoration of services—then the most ambitious, well-armed factions of society will. And if the society lacks roots in democratic practices, then anarchy or civil war or some new monster will inevitably loom.

That’s what happened in Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and Iraq in the spring of 2003: A small fraction of the U.S. military threw out the bad guys in swift order; but there was no plan for the aftermath—and, after much delay and denial, we had to build a plan on the fly, at the cost of much blood even now and with mixed results at best.

The intervention in Uganda is very different. There is no pretense of reforming its government or improving basic services. The Lord’s Resistance Army isn’t a classic insurgency; it offers no ideology with which the government has to compete for popular appeal. It seeks power through rape, abduction, intimidation and conquest. All U.S. forces have to do is help the government (which wants our help) kill or capture a couple hundred of the most repellent “rebels” on the planet.

By the way, for those, like Dick Cheney, who think that Obama doesn’t take the war on terror seriously: President Bush sent a few dozen special-ops forces to tangle with the LRA back in 2008; its leaders got away. Maybe Obama will do better with 100.

The administration isn’t identifying who these 100 advisers are, but John Pike and Joseph Trevithick, of the research center GlobalSecurity.org, figure that most of them come from the 3rd Special Forces Group (airborne), tasked to U.S. Africa Command, with the rest coming—as they generally do in these situations—from “three-letter agencies” in the intelligence community.

In the past few years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Special Forces groups have become quite proficient at tracking bad guys, then killing or capturing them. It’s a lot easier to do that than to help build a new society. In this case, the society-building won’t have to be part of the mission. If it did, my guess is Obama wouldn’t be going there.

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