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One of the many issues of counterinsurgency campaigns is that it's never entirely clear when the war is over. There's rarely a surrender, as such, or a ceremony that can be anointed as The Moment. There's no V-E Day, V-J Day, or anything similar. The point of insurgencies is to delay or deny that moment, the goal of counterinsurgencies is less to win a grand decisive battle or campaign than to convince large number of insurgents to give up the effort or, better yet, come over to your side (cf. Anbar Awakening). The result is that knowing when the war is over, when one side has won a military victory, is frequently deeply difficult. When Teddy Roosevelt declared victory in the Philippines on July 4, 1902, it had more to do with domestic politics than military realities. Ironically, winning can lead to a withdrawal ('bringing the soldiers home'), but withdrawal is also what nations waging counterinsurgencies often do when they're losing. The potential for confusion is obvious. Nor does winning mean that the violence has ended. In fact, the violence can go on for decades after the moment the war has 'ended.' In fact, there is a continuum of time when a combatant like the United States might declare the war to have ended and bring the troops home. That could be when the war is going badly and the U.S. feels it no longer worth waging (as happened in Vietnam), it could be when the war has reached some form of stalemate that the U.S. does not feel can be broken (Malaysia, for the British), or it could be when the situation has reached a comparatively stable point that looks like as much of a victory as is possible (Greece in the late 1940s). Having said that, this is pretty much as close as one gets to military victory in a counterinsurgency: Iraq, 2009. American fatalities have dropped massively since the start of the surge and remained low:

Nor is this because U.S. forces are isolating themselves in fortified operating bases. Rather, they are more spread out and vulnerable at this point than they were during the height of the recession, parceled out in penny packets among the population. And the Iraqi population is feeling secure:
Eighty-four percent of Iraqis now rate security in their own area positively, nearly double its August 2007 level. Seventy-eight percent say their protection from crime is good, more than double its low. Three-quarters say they can go where they want safely

March 17, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


[Following on from yesterday's analysis.] Given this past history, President Obama's most important responsibility is to enforce realism. Simple sounding in theory, but difficult in practice and notably absent for the last several decades. The two most critical parts of enforcing realism is

  • Budget discipline
  • Building for Real Wars
First, budget discipline. Perhaps the most pernicious practice of the Bush Administration was the splitting of the defense budget from the budgets for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense budget &,
supplemental budgets, 2001-2008
The latter were paid for with 'supplemental budgets' which were passed by Congress separately. The effect was to enforce spending discipline on neither effort. Billions of dollars have been lost in Iraq, while the defense budget has continued to spiral as the military continues to buy larger and more expensive weapons. President Obama seems well on his way to dealing with this one, having announced not only the unification of defense budget and war budgets, but also putting a cap of $537 billion on non-war related defense spending for the next year. As a method for bringing the defense budget under the control, this is a good start. Second, the Pentagon needs to plan for real wars. This sounds like an obvious idea, but practice has been to plan for potential wars rather than actual ones: wars that the United States might wage, rather than ones they were actually waging. In the Cold War, when the genuine potential existed for a large-scale ground war in Western Europe existed, this practice was marginally defensible, though even then it left the U.S. badly prepared for Vietnam, among other conflicts. But now, when a conventional conflict against China or Russia is all but impossible, and the United States is involved in two counterinsurgencies, the practice is actively dangerous.
F-22 Raptor
The primary goal of the services must be to wage the wars they are actually involved in, not the ones that they believe possible. Doing the former leads to the purchase of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for the conflict in Iraq and the rewriting of the Army's Field Manual finally to address counterinsurgency. The latter leads to billions being spent on the F-22, and the use of billion dollar warships to chase pirates off Somalia. The wars that the United States has been involved in in the past few decades have all been asymmetric--against much smaller foes--and a mix of conventional and insurgent campaigns. The defense budget has to focus on preparing for those, not for imaginary conflicts with China. Does that put the U.S. at risk if a massive conventional war comes along? Surely. But no more so than preparing for the large-scale conventional war put us at risk of getting bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this time, America simply does not have the resources to prepare for every contingency no matter how remote. That leaves us only one option: waging the wars we are actually fighting.

February 27, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


There is always theater in the writing of a defense budget. That is true no more so than this year, when a string of unusual events has made the American military process even more complicated than usual. In 2009-2010, the defense budget is...

  • Being made by a Democratic President and Democratic Congress for the first time since 1994,
  • Being made in a time of catastrophic economic global meltdown,
  • Being made as the United States is moving out of one war (Iraq) and moving more deeply into another war (Afghanistan),
  • Being made as some of the services are beginning to shift away from a Cold War mentality,
  • Being made as the military struggles to rebuild and enlarge itself after seven years of uninterrupted war,
  • Being made as all the services are struggle with procurement difficulties in their next generation weapons systems
  • Being made as the wide-open spigot of funding that started in the post 9/11 era is finally being twisted shut.
The Obama administration's first defense budget is a critical one, both to begin the process for dealing with the factors above, and to set a tone of rationality for the coming years of the administration. Before we turn to that budget, let's peer back at recent defense budgeting history, to get a sense of context. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in an era of essentially unfettered defense spending, aimed at winning the Cold War. Defense budgets shot up and remained up for most of the 1980s, reaching nearly 6% of GDP ($840 billion in 2008 dollars). The end of the Cold War substantially reduced those budgets and the size of the military. What did not change, however, was the essentially unfettered ability of the military to decide its own strategy and purchasing decisions. With the exception of a small period from 1991-1994, the Pentagon essentially on military strategy ('The Powell Doctrine,' for example) and procurement (continued emphasis on Cold War weapons). President Clinton's difficulties in handling the military essentially led him to abdicate any hard choices about future strategy. There was another brief break from this trend in 2001 as the incoming Bush Administration pushed a self-consciously 'transformational' agenda. Donald Rumsfeld tried to break the services from their Cold War mindset, most notably with the cancellation of the Crusader artillery system. All of that stopped with 9/11 and (despite the legendary dislike of Rumsfeld by the military) the military was allowed by American policy makers essentially to run its budgeting ship, with ever increasing funding.
Tomorrow: What Obama needs to do

February 26, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


So how did the four issues I highlighted in this post play out during the Presidential campaign, and what lessons do they hold for the future? 1. Economic

January 14, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


Part I (Army), here Part II (Air Force) here Part III (Navy) here The services remain largely stuck in their efforts to transform for the 21st century. The Army, though moving closer towards developing an institutional knowledge of counterinsurgency, remains wedded to purchasing high technology equipment and weapons more suited for large conventional war. The Air Force has attached itself to the F-22 air superiority fighter and now, rather than regrouping, spends much of its time desperately seeking an enemy or a mission for that fighter. The Navy has made a few, intermittent steps towards revamping itself, but without any overarching strategic vision. This slow transition has made the United States vulnerable. Most particularly, in Iraq, the inability of the Army to handle

November 14, 2008 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


Part I (Army), here

Part II (Air Force) here

November 01, 2008 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


Part I (Army), here The United States Air Force has been the poster child for avoiding the cold war transition. Perhaps more than any other service, the USAF has insisted on purchasing weapons and promulgating doctrines that would be just as applicable in 1978 as in 2008. The capabilities have changed, but the mind set has not. The

October 17, 2008 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


Shortly before the 2006 midterm elections, I heard a prominent political scientist argue, in public, that the Dems had no shot at taking back Congress. He was led to this view by his reading of the relevant statistical and historical patterns. In the manner of many political scientists these days, he sought in these patterns the real logic of electoral politics, the driving force beneath all the superficialities of public debate and deliberation (such as they both are). The political scientist was wrong, of course, though you

September 10, 2008 - Posted by Paul C. Taylor in Militarism


Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the American military to begin to think about 21st century warfare in a realistic way. Post-cold-war, the military gave lip service to the idea of reforming and rewriting how it fought wars, but actually continued down the same conventional path it had before. The Pentagon talked about