The Armchair Strategist

Not Another Vietnam

By Mike McGlothlin

This column was submitted for the December issue but did not run at that time. It has been somewhat overtaken by events but is still interesting for its analysis of the military issues and as a lead-in to Mike's January column. --Jonathan Wallace

No, it is not what you have been told. The reader has been deluged with trite comparisons of this "new and different kind of war" to America's experience in Vietnam without clarity. The easy comparison to Vietnam is the (constant) reappearance of the ever-lurking "Vietnam Syndrome," that enervating reluctance to shed American blood on battlefields for whatever purpose, and the desperate dread of a new "quagmire" in Afghanistan that lasts for more than the undetermined "X" amount of days/months/years/decades. The first of these invocations of the past is correct, the latter is quite incorrect, however, what is truly missing are the more vital and critical similarities and dissimilarities of the Vietnam experience. The major similarity of the current military campaign in Afghanistan to that of Vietnam is the most recent recurrence of that military virus called "incrementalism." The major dissimilarity to Vietnam is the lack of geopolitical constraints facing America. To better understand these factors, requires understanding some basic terms and concepts of Clausewitzian war theory.

The major error characterizing the current military campaign in Afghanistan are the incremental efforts being made to destroy the enemy, that is to say, to prevail over the Taliban and its symbiosis, al-Qaeda. It is generally recognized that it is preferable to conduct offensive operations against an enemy in order to win a war, rather than defensive ones. The Allies are conducting just such an offensive military campaign in Afghanistan, despite the latest attacks that have given rise to the current campaign having taken place in the continental United States on September 11th. While overall, the war itself might be characterized as defensive, against the terrorists, the military campaign in Afghanistan is strictly offensive. Clausewitz elaborates two concepts of war that pertain critically to offensive military campaigns. The concepts of "center-of- gravity" and of "adequate forces" apply to all aspects of warfare, but since the side conducting offensive operations expects some concrete military and therefore political results, the burden for ascertaining the enemy's "center-of- gravity" and then applying "adequate forces" to it, belongs to them. These two concepts are contingently linked.

Clausewitz defines "center-of-gravity" as "the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends--that is the point against which all our energies should be directed." Centers-of-gravity can be thought of as the heart of the enemy strength. Often, the enemy will have multiple areas of strength, distributed across the military and political spectrum. These areas of strength can be allies, finances, natural and human resources, time, terrain, popular support, the list goes on. However, the critical area will be that which outstrips all others in importance, that area that when deprived of, the enemy cannot possibly obtain their objectives. This critical area is known as the "center-of- gravity." The concept of "center-of-gravity" is analogous to the concept in logic of a "necessary condition." A "necessary condition" is "a condition A whose non- existence prevents condition B." Often, ascertaining the center-of-gravity is very difficult, and it often can and does change. In the Vietnam War, America's center-of-gravity eventually turned out to be public support for the war effort, which only came to the fore after a long and fruitless military effort had failed to destroy the communist "insurgency," which, of course, was actually a civil and colonial war wrapped in Cold War ideology and geopolitical fog. In the war against the terrorists, their precise center-of-gravity has yet to be determined.

Despite the difficulty of always determining to within a nanometer the enemy's exact center-of-gravity, Clausewitz advises that a logical place to start is to destroy the enemy's military forces, "no matter what the central feature of the enemy's power may be, the defeat and destruction of his fighting force remains the best way to begin, and in every case will be a very significant feature of the campaign." After September 11th, it became clear that the terrorists of al-Qaeda, who were hiding under the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan, were probably the group that had launched the attacks in question. The terrorist organization in Afghanistan had launched earlier attacks in 1998, and attempts to destroy them militarily by use of "asymmetric" cruise missile attacks had failed. Al-Qaeda itself now had to be destroyed.

Unfortunately, the Taliban regime was actively sheltering the terrorists. It is clear that the Taliban and the terrorists are not a case of a government sheltering a terrorist group, as the Syrians and Lebanese do Hezbollah, but instead they are rather inextricably intertwined, in a politically symbiotic form. The "Afghan-Arabs" that form al-Qaeda also formed the "shock" troops of the Taliban's military forces, including the so-called "055" Brigade, a combined-arms force whose weapons were antiquated Soviet equipment and religious zealotry. It is these forces which provided the backbone that gave the Taliban its edge over its rivals in the long Afghan Civil War which broke out after the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. In order to eliminate the terrorists, it is necessary to eliminate the Taliban. Destroying both the Taliban and al-Qaeda is the military objective being pursued in Afghanistan.

It has been a confused pursuit. The objectives of the military campaign in Afghanistan are clear; the effort to obtain those objectives has been ever increasing. Unfortunately, this has been exactly the problem. Clausewitz explains that when endeavoring to undertake a military campaign, but most especially an offensive campaign, it should be with the "largest possible army" available. Clausewitz recognizes that the maximum force available for military operations will always be constrained by military factors, particularly, the need to maintain defenses or capacities in other areas of active or potential conflict. It will also be constrained by purely political and geopolitical factors, such as was the case during the Cold War.

The United States fought at least two "major theater conflicts" during the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam. Both conflicts were limited in the sense that an all-out effort involving every aspect of American, and indeed, the "Free World," (as it was called then), efforts, was not made, as it had been in World Wars II and to a much lesser extent, World War I. The "selective service" draft provided sufficient numbers of troops to the armed forces for both active operations in Korea and Vietnam, and to maintain the conventional military balance against the Warsaw Pact, largely without significant mobilization. The near-permanent "military-industrial complex" that President Eisenhower warned of provided the vast new weapons systems, which consumed an inordinate share of the GNP. Yet within this geo-strategic bubble, the American public and that of the "Free World" were able to largely go about their lives in the pursuit of happiness, particularly due to the advent of the "nuclear umbrella," what Churchill called the "sinister shield." Deaths and defeats in far-away Asia held little concrete relevance to American life. That is why troops in Vietnam referred to "CONUS," (CONtinental United States), as "The World." The deaths of 28,000 Americans in the (still ongoing) stalemate in Korea and 58,000 Americans in a failed war in Vietnam barely ruffled the real lives of most Americans, and eventually even seemed almost irrelevant to the "containment" of the International Communist Threat, the stated purpose of both "conflicts."

These "limited conflicts" were limited due to the geo-strategic fear of escalating the Cold War into a thermonuclear "hot war." Consequently, the strategic military objectives in both Korea and Vietnam was not to defeat the communist enemy, but rather to retain South Korea and South Vietnam within the "Free World" geo-political orbit of power. Essentially the wars were defensive in nature. As a result, the commitment of American military forces was incremental in both cases, ramping up to what eventually became their maximum levels. As both conflicts grew more intense, more military forces were committed. The strategic military policy achieved the political objective in Korea, but it failed in Vietnam. This type of "strategy" is called "incrementalism," but it is not so much a deliberate strategy as it is a reaction to the actions of the enemy.

The geo-strategic constraints that fostered "incrementalism" no longer exist. No power on the planet of significant force is opposed to the campaign in Afghanistan, or should it be determined, anywhere else the terrorists are hiding. In fact, the opposite situation exists; virtually the entire world, and certainly those who have the most power, support the war against the terrorists. It is puzzling then why given those facts, that the Bush war effort in Afghanistan has been one of incrementalism.

The military campaign started with a deployment of air-power to Central Asia, relying first on tactical naval air provided by three, then four, aircraft carrier battle groups. The air battle at first properly attacked the rudimentary but still dangerous Taliban air defense network, and any possible counter-air forces, such as the few ancient MiG-21's that the Taliban possessed. However, after the destruction of the enemy air-defense capabilities, the air battle seemed to continue in a desultory way, repeatedly hitting the same targets. This was related to the political confusion about what the aftermath of a defeated Taliban would bring to Afghanistan, with Colin Powell reacting to Pakistan's fears of an outright Northern Alliance victory. The delay was probably also related to two other factors: the Northern Alliance required massive logistical reinforcement, (supplied by the Russians, and probably paid for by the US), uniforms, ammunition, functioning armor, fuel, and all the other necessities of modern warfare; and that the vital ground-to-air planning and communications link for bringing the available tactical air power to bear on the Taliban ground forces was not in place.

Contrary to reports by both the news media and the Pentagon, it is not "Special Operations" forces that have been directing tactical air strikes in Afghanistan, but rather the United States Air Force itself. Direction of air strikes from the ground is done by USAF officers known as "ALO's," or Air Liaison Officers. These officers are Air Force pilots who are specially trained to coordinate air strikes with ground forces, and equally important, possess the specialized UHF radios required to talk to aircraft, radios that normal Special Ops or other ground force personnel do not possess (tactical ground forces usually use short range FM radios). Unfortunately, USAF ALO's are not Special Ops types, they are primarily pilots and getting them trained for their unusual role in Afghanistan is probably a major reason why tactical air strikes on the Taliban ground forces were delayed. It is true that Army Special Ops are on the ground in Afghanistan, but one of the reasons they are there is to support and secure the USAF ALO contingents, as well as hunting al-Qaeda, of course. After the Northern Alliance was reequipped and after tactical air power began its strikes, the military power of the Taliban virtually collapsed, with various subordinate leaders of the Taliban switching allegiance to the Northern Alliance or surrendering. The highly publicized Ranger raid on Kandahar in October looks increasingly like a rerun of the Doolittle Bombing Raid on Tokyo in early 1942. That is to say, a military operation undertaken to buck up civilian morale and to stop nay Sayers from criticizing the military effort in Afghanistan. Despite the boldness of a low-level airborne combat night drop, one of the most difficult and dangerous military operations that can be undertaken, the raid seems to have accomplished little in concrete military results. Perhaps the lack of results of this operation was merely a bad turn of chance, but the deliberate propaganda aspects of having videotape of the operation instantly available cannot be ignored. In any case, with the collapse of the Taliban everywhere in Afghanistan except for Kandahar proper, and the deployment of a 1,000 strong Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to the airfield that the Rangers jumped into, in order to establish a "forward base," is concrete evidence that the military effort in Afghanistan is ramping up by increments. There will be much more ground forces of all types moved into Afghanistan, at least until the Taliban and al- Qaeda are thoroughly destroyed.

Since the Taliban has virtually collapsed and the end of them is in sight, and the terrorists of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan either dead or on the run, and their end is in sight, criticisms of the military campaign in Afghanistan might seem misplaced. That might very well be the case. Clausewitz notes that judgment of the effectiveness of military campaigns can be made "when the outcome is simply used as proof that an action was either correct or incorrect, this may be called a judgment by results." It is damned hard to argue with success. And yet, an analysis of the military effort so far is not fully justified by this standard. Earlier, it was noted that Clausewitz had advised that when fighting a campaign, the largest forces possible are called for. He notes that:

Strategy decides the time when, the place where, and the forces with which the engagement is to be fought, and through this threefold activity exerts considerable influence on its outcome, we believe then that in our circumstances and all similar ones, a main factor is the possession of strength at the really vital point--usually it is actually the most important factor--to achieve strength at the decisive point depends on the strength of the army and on the skill with which this strength is employed. The first rule, therefore, should be: put the largest army into the field;this may sound a platitude, but in reality it is not.

Consequently the "forces must be adequate":

1. To score a decisive victory over the enemy's

2. To make the effort necessary to pursue our victory to the point where the balance is beyond all possible redress.

The issue here is not whether America's military campaign is violating Clausewitz's dictum simply by not putting a huge force on the ground in Afghanistan, but whether the campaign forces being used are "adequate" to achieve a decisive victory and to prevent any possible tactical "redress" by the enemy.

Unfortunately, the constant and increasing deployment of military ground forces to Afghanistan tend to undermine the claim that all is going according to plan, including the latest deployment of the MEU. The MEU was put on the ground at Kandahar, not because they are the most fitted to the mission at hand, but because they are the closest and most available capable of accomplishing the mission. There seems to be little question that the MEU is incapable of destroying the remaining Taliban, with any margin of success, consequently, they will secure the airfield and await reinforcements. When a sufficiently large force is assembled, the military will attack Kandahar to destroy the remaining Taliban. In the meantime, they will conduct reconnaissance and raid missions throughout the area to interdict and destroy Taliban and al-Qaeda that remain in the area of operations.

This means that the constant increase of ground forces by increments is a consequence of the lack of decisive results through the air battle and through Northern Alliance fighting. It is a tacit admission that an "adequate force" has not been employed and is only now being assembled. This week The Army Times reported that an infantry battalion of the Arkansas National Guard, the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, will be deployed for peacekeeping duty to the Sinai Peninsula in lieu of the slated active duty infantry battalion from the 10th Mountain Division. According to Forces Command (FORSCOM commands all Army Forces in the United States), another as yet unspecified army National Guard infantry battalion will also be replacing an active duty infantry battalion of the 172nd Infantry Brigade from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, on a peacekeeping rotation to the Balkans. This allows the two active army infantry battalions, both specially trained in mountain warfare and cold weather operations, to be "readily available to immediately respond to whatever contingency may arise" according to MAJ. Rumi Nielson-Green, the FORSCOM media officer. It seems clear that the active component infantry forces may very well be deployed to Afghanistan if necessary. That is to say, the government does not now know what level of force is "adequate."

That is why Clausewitz says to employ the largest force possible at the outset. It will rarely be known with precision what level or mix of forces will be "adequate," so the campaign should begin with as much as possible. If the level of forces turns out to be excessive, the only drawbacks are the superfluous military forces. However, if the fighting forces are inadequate, then more will be required and in the meantime, reverses may occur. The longer a military action is dragged out, the less chance of success it will have. Therefore, "getting thar fustest with the mostests" is always a sound military decision. It never violates common sense or military utility to have more military forces available to the commander than insufficient military forces. Even with the current collapse of the Taliban, the military is incrementally building its ground forces in Afghanistan. If the Taliban had not collapsed, even more ground forces than have been deployed or are being readied for deployment would have been required to accomplish the mission of destroying the enemy in Afghanistan. It might be true that a military commander may be forced to attempt a mission with less than adequate forces due to geo-political or military constraints elsewhere, as was the case in Korea and Vietnam, but this is not the case now. Therefore, the lack of large ground unit readiness and deployments to Afghanistan seems to be an acknowledgment that the military campaign there has fallen short. If the Taliban and al-Qaeda are undefeated by next month, or if their defeat requires even more forces on the ground than are currently in Afghanistan, then the military campaign will have failed Clausewitz's "judgment by results" standards. In either event, it seems clear that the military virus called "incrementalism" is alive and well in the Bush Administration. The unanswered question is who exactly is infected.