Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Further Adventures in Westphalian Foreign Policy

I realized that I was operating according to certain principles when I wrote the Westphalian foreign policy post that I have not fully explained.

The Four Rules of Engagment

1. Cyberwarfare - Cyberwarfare is barely even war at all and under normal circumstances would cause zero casualties. Its aim is economic and possibly infrastructure damage. It is distinct from economic and diplomatic sanctions and part of this progression because it is offensive, destructive and uses direct coercion.

2. Covert/Special Operations - Covert Operations is defined by tactical missions and objectives rather than strategic missions and objectives. Covert ops begin and end within days or hours. They depend on the enemy never knowing about the op until it is too late, presumably because enemy forces in the area are vastly superior and would overwhelm the op if it is not extracted quickly. Covert operations also maintain some level of deniability, which is why troops operating inside foreign countries does not trigger a conventional war. Covert or special operations warfare aims to resolve minor international conflicts by making the point moot. In other words, suppose the conflict is about extradition of a criminal. One country wants this criminal; the other country refuses to give him up. A covert operation to kill or extract the criminal by force makes the point moot and solves the conflict. A conflict between countries about development of nuclear weapons could be solved by a covert/special operation to destroy a nuclear reactor, making the point moot. In other words, covert/special operations, unlike the next two rules of engagement, do not attempt to force the enemy to make any decisions in order to resolve the conflict.

3. Conventional War - Characterized by large troop movements intended to overwhelm or destroy enemy troops and occupy enemy territory. This is the normal meaning of the term "war". Conventional war aims to resolve the conflict by either occupying and controlling enemy territory and removing all its means of fighting the war, or by toppling their government and forcing a regime change on the belief that it was the enemy's particular government that caused the conflict, not necessarily its population. Conventional war is analogous to a pin in wrestling or a checkmate in chess. The killing blow never lands, but the opponent is compelled to concede defeat.

4. Total War - The use of nuclear weapons or other so-called "weapons of mass destruction" against civilian targets. Other intentional targeting or bombing of civilian populations also falls under these rules of engagement, such as the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. Conventional warfare typically causes civilian deaths but this is not intentional and is called "collateral damage". Total war on the other hand intends to cause massive civilian casualties and tries to break the will of the enemy population to continue fighting the war, as opposed to breaking the will of the enemy government and/or destroying an opposing military force, as in conventional war. The hope is that the population will give up and force its government to end the war or perhaps even surrender to the enemy. In extreme cases, total war becomes genocide if the enemy population refuses to concede defeat. Total war is almost never prescribed since it is almost never the case that an actor has the ability to break the will of an entire enemy population without first defeating its government and military forces and forcing a decision according to the rules of conventional war.

All of these categories are defined by their unique method of conflict resolution and to a lesser extent the methods used. For instance, establishing a permanent base inside another country does not necessarily escalate the conflict from covert operations to conventional warfare if the goal of the deployment is not occupation, but merely to establish a forward base for future covert or special ops. Using a tactical nuclear weapon to destroy an enemy troop concentration does not necessarily escalate a conflict from conventional to total war, since the target is not civilian. These categories are defined by different methods with which conflict resolution is pursued, not necessarily a change in weapons or tactics.


Escalation is here defined as either beginning a conflict in any of these four categories or changing the rules of engagement for an existing conflict from a lower number to a higher one.  Refusing to escalate is a defensive position, and any government which engages in conflict without escalating is considered to be defending itself. Escalating a conflict, including by beginning one, is an aggressive move and the escalator should be considered an aggressor.  In the first post I implied that escalation is never prescribed, but that was not my intention. Practically and historically escalation is not usually a good move, as there are usually more defensive minded nations than aggressive ones, and defensive nations usually band together. Escalation can be considered in specific, limited circumstances, and I will attempt to explain those limits and circumstances.

1. Escalation should never occur without thoroughly exploring the possibility for conflict resolution within the rules of engagement under which the conflict began.

Escalation should never occur at the very beginning of a conflict or before a reasonable attempt has been made to achieve a decision. A great example of escalation would be the Battle of Britain in World War II. Initially the Germans were attacking and bombing only military targets, such as airplane factories, runways and radar installations, which falls under conventional war. The Germans had a plan to invade Great Britain called Operation Sea Lion, but instead of proceeding with the plan, they chose to escalate in hopes of forcing Great Britain to surrender without invading. Hitler got impatient and decided to switch to civilian targets in an attempt to break the will of the English people. This turned out to be a grievous error, and it has always been my opinion that the Germans were winning the Battle of Britain until they escalated the conflict. It's a perfect example of an escalation which turned out to be the wrong move because the Germans attempted it without attempting to reach a decision through conventional war. Governments often tend to believe that escalation always increases their chances of winning, but this is simply not the case.

On the other hand, when the U.S. was close to winning a conventional war with Japan, it escalated the conflict to total war and ended the conflict much more quickly than a conventional war would have been expected to end it. In this situation, escalation turned out to be the right move and probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides and ended the war early in terms of years, not months. On the surface this escalation was similar to the German escalation in the Battle of Britain. However, the U.S. and Japan had been at war for four years before this escalation occurred. The Germans and British had been at war for only a few months when Germany escalated that conflict. (I am not counting the "phony war". Declarations are meaningless. Actions count.) The U.S. had taken vast territory from the Japanese and had witnessed firsthand the Japanese fanaticism and preference to death over surrender. The U.S. was therefore quite justified in believing a de facto escalation to total war would have occurred anyway upon invading the Japanese homeland. The Germans on the other hand had taken zero territory from the British and had only engaged the British Expeditionary Force in France, and the British are anything but fanatics. There is every reason to believe the British would have accepted resolution according to conventional terms had they been invaded and conquered, which the Germans had a very good opportunity to do.

Escalation is always a judgment call, but it's important that the default position be to not escalate unless there is a very good reason to believe the conflict will not be resolved according to the current rules of engagement.

2. Escalation should never be done out of feelings of anger, frustration or helplessness. Escalation should be a rational attempt to bring a decisive end to a conflict which appears to have no decisive conclusion available.

According to these guidelines, it should not be difficult to define a conflict clearly within one of the four categories initially. (An exception would be the different kinds of terrorism which I will deal with later.) However, in the course of the conflict it might become increasingly difficult to distinguish between them. It is vital to a successful conflict resolution that any change in the rules of engagement not occur "in the heat of battle" so to speak. This might result in making a mistake just because some undisciplined troops got an itchy trigger finger. Escalations should always come through the proper chain of command and not decided de facto by units on the ground, even if the other side escalated first. This requires well-trained and disciplined troops. Escalation should occur in a rational and objective fashion according to one's overall goals, methods and capabilities.

Even through the proper chain of command, any faction considering escalation should check its emotions at the door. If unable to do so, it would be a good idea to delay the decision to escalate until such time as it can be made rationally. Historically the decision to escalate has often been made out of feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness. As already stated, escalations do not necessarily increase the chances of victory, but most people tend to believe that escalations are always in their favor, especially when they appear to be losing. They tend to believe that if the other guy brings a knife to the fight, the best response is to bring a gun. In a dark alley this might be the case, but it is often not the case in conflicts between nations because these types of conflicts include political elements. (By extension, it is not always the right move to escalate political conflicts either.)

The strategic bombing campaign over Europe during World War II is a good example of an escalation made out of feelings of frustration and helplessness, compounded by a brand new theater of war, air-power, which was not yet fully understood. Before D-Day in June of 1944, the Western Allies had been somewhat stymied in the European theater. The North African campaign was a seesaw affair until the U.S. landed in Morocco, and even then the U.S. campaign in North Africa was initially an embarrassing mess. The invasion of Italy stalled completely. Even though it began years before D-Day, the Italian campaign did not end when Italy surrendered and was not even over until Germany surrendered in 1945.* All of this led to the feeling among the Allied leaders and especially the Soviets that the Western Allies were not so much losing as not making any progress. When the strategic bombing campaign began, D-Day was years away, Britain was recovering from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, and the U.S. was still mobilizing. The Soviets, at the time nearing total disaster and defeat in the East, were crying for help and a two-front war. The feeling was that the Western Allies must "do something", it matters not what, and that is an indicator that an irrational decision is about to be made. The military historian could perhaps forgive Germany for escalating the Battle of Britain, since an exclusively air-power assault had never been tried before, though it must be noted that the success of blitzkrieg was based on air-power in the ground support role and there should have been a realization that "air-power only" was a different, untested strategy not assured of any success. But the Western allies cannot be forgiven. They should have learned from Germany's mistake. There was always an intention to invade Europe with ground troops, but the strategic bombing campaign against Germany was explicitly not intended as ground support but to force Germany's surrender by itself, leading to the eventual escalation of the bombing campaign in the same way Germany escalated the Battle of Britain. The strategic bombing campaign targeting German industry and civilian populations was by most accounts a failure and incurred losses exceeding the losses suffered by the Germans. It could be argued this had attrition value, but that is a terrible military argument. Attrition almost never works in forcing a decision. The strategic bombing campaign of Germany must be considered a failure and the Allies would have been better off using their massive air-power to attack military, ground targets such as runways in France, defensive installations on the coast and German naval units, ports and U-boat pens. At most, it should have been used to achieve tactical air superiority over France only in preparation for eventual ground assault, in the same way the Germans should have limited their goals in the Battle of Britain to military targets and tactical air superiority in preparation for Operation Sea Lion. This is an example of a decision to escalate taken out of frustration and impatience and ultimately resulting in failure. Just because the Allies won anyway does not mean it was the right move.

Escalation should never be considered emotionally or in response to events outside one's control. It should be considered only after a failure to achieve a decision when lower modes of engagement have already been thoroughly explored.

3. The goal of escalation should always be to decide the original conflict. Escalation should never be used to pursue different goals within the same conflict. In general, it is a bad idea to attempt resolution of conflicts other than the one which precipitated military action.

In Afghanistan, what began as a conflict with the international terrorist group Al Qaeda became a mission to help the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban government and eventually a conventional occupation whose goal was nation-building. Al Qaeda was not directly controlled by the Taliban government and to this day there is no evidence the Taliban knew or participated in the attacks on 9/11. The Afghan government did refuse to cooperate in bringing Al Qaeda to justice, although its ability to do so had it wanted to was in serious doubt. The U.S. quite justifiably viewed this as unacceptable, and this conflict clearly and properly began under covert and special ops rules of engagement. The United States proceeded in two ways. First, they began bombing and otherwise attacking Al Qaeda targets inside Afghanistan. Second, they inserted special operations units to train, arm and fight alongside the Northern Alliance with the intent of overthrowing the Taliban government. The former is clearly within the rules of engagment for covert/special ops. The latter is not. It is possible that the U.S. government intended an escalation to conventional war from the beginning, but the evidence suggests they attempted to achieve conventional war goals using special operations. Historically this usually does not work out. See, for instance, the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Even so, this would have been an escalation right at the beginning of the conflict and was not advisable. In the actual event, the Taliban was overthrown rather quickly and the goal of regime change was initially successful. At this point the U.S. should have counted its lucky stars and re-focused on more limited covert operations targeting Al Qaeda and left it at that. Problems arose because the internal base of power of the Taliban was not destroyed, leading to the possibility they might regain power. This was not, of course, desirable, but covert/special operations cannot and should not be expected to ensure the complete destruction of a political power base. It is always a risk that an overthrown government may return to power after the conflict is decided, even in conventional war. Therefore the decision was made, seemingly unconsciously, to escalate to conventional war. This was incorrect in my view, because the escalation occurred in order to pursue a new goal: preventing the Taliban from returning to power.

The goal of this escalation had little to do with finding and destroying Al Qaeda. Rather, the goal became to establish internal security and a stable government in order to build Afghanistan into a Western-style liberal democracy which would never again refuse to cooperate in bringing terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda to justice. On top of being the internal business of Afghanistan, building a stable political order had very little to do with the conflict with Al Qaeda over 9/11 and everything to do with preventing all similar future conflicts. The original U.S. goal of destroying Al Qaeda probably could have been pursued successfully without "regime change" in Afghanistan, and that should have factored into the decision to pursue regime change. By all appearances it did not. It also seems obvious, at least in hindsight, that as an international organization Al Qaeda was not limited to Afghanistan. This might seem petulant, but the U.S. never intended to invade every country that refused to extradite Al Qaeda members. The conflict between the U.S. and Al Qaeda was separate from the conflict with the Taliban government, a conflict which ordinarily would not precipitate conventional war. It seems to me yet another good reason to make sure conflicts like this are properly defined. International organizations cannot be defeated by defeating a single national government. As it stands now, Afghanistan appears to be in not much better shape than it was before the war, and what's left of Al Qaeda has disbursed around the globe significantly diminished but not completely defeated. It seems unlikely that the new Afghan government and a continued but drastically reduced U.S. presence will be able to prevent terrorist organizations from operating inside Afghanistan in the future, though I'm sure they would prefer other places first. The conventional war in Afghanistan appears to me to be of dubious added value compared to a special operations campaign targeting only Al Qaeda. There does not appear to be anything of actual value the U.S. accomplished by occupying territory and providing security in Afghanistan that could not have been accomplished by targeted special operations. Of course I am not privy to all of the information necessary to make such a judgment, but in a certain sense nobody is. Barack Obama campaigned against the Iraq war but called Afghanistan the "right" war. Westphalian foreign policy suggests he got it backwards.

I have not written much on foreign policy in this blog, but my first love was military history. War seems so simple, but studying it as I have reveals that conflicts between nations are anything but simple, and resolving them even less so. Military histories often catalog factors which most people would never see as pertinent to war but turn out to be important, even decisive. Most people think war is about who has the biggest guns, but in the real world war is most often decided by mobility and logistics tactically, intelligence, and pursuing clear and achievable goals strategically. Commanding armies is a much different animal than fighting off a mugger in a dark alley. A mugger can be stopped with a single bullet and that is the end of it. But nations cannot be simply eliminated short of genocide, and a commander must always keep in mind that his opponent must be convinced to change his mind and accept a decision against his interests in order for victory to be achieved. Fighting fair and according to the scale and conditions of the initial conflict is important in achieving that decision, and the enemy must also be correctly identified and categorized, otherwise conflicts can spiral out of control. Clear principles should be advanced so that the world knows under what conditions and with what goals the U.S. will use its overwhelming military force. Without that, they must simply act as though we are an irrational, irresistible force of nature. They will duck and cover when we come, and do whatever they want once we leave. They have no guidelines to understand what does or does not precipitate our involvement, and thus no reason to modify their behavior according to our wishes. We need to send a clear message about our priorities and the conditions under which we will become involved. Not only have we not had such a clear position, we also appear to even enter into conflicts without fully understanding what we are doing. Sometimes I wonder if certain elements across the globe see the U.S. not as a dangerous or respected adversary, just idiots with a big stick.

Now that's whack.

*The Italian campaign was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who called Italy the "soft underbelly" of Fortress Europe, yet another example of great political leaders of the democratic era failing miserably as generals. Political leaders tend to see political weaknesses in their opponents and discount military factors. Italy was politically weak, but the Italian peninsula was a bottleneck chock full of easily defensible terrain. Italy surrendered quickly, but the defensive positions were taken over by German troops who held out till the end of the war. Even if the Italian campaign had been successful, did Churchill really think crossing the Alps was the best approach? The Allies had much better options than were available to Hannibal.