"Pyrrhic Victory"? US drones in strategic perspective

Last June, I wrote a post (Fr.) summarizing current questions and assessments about the use of drones by the Obama administration in which I concluded that that had the potential to raise further issues. Last week, the debate inside the US bounced back with the release of a leaked memo by the Department of Justice outlining legal criteria for targeting American citizens, and with the confirmation hearing of John Brennan before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. It now seems that legal and ethical questions trump  strategic considerations on the relation between short-term tactical efficiency and long-term strategic outcomes of using that weapon in a broader campaign the US is waging against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

To be fair, those two realms of ethical issues and strategic efficiency are intimately intertwined. If waging a war necessitates to frame narratives toward a broader range of audiences, it also implies that "winning" is achievable once those audiences become convinced that political objectives are met, even if partially, and that  our will has been imposed on the adversary (which is less than evident in case of actors pursuing absolute goals). Yet, the American strategic imagination is mainly idealistic in its mainstream current: war is waged according to values. Furthermore, the set of norms and rules established and enforced through the US Hegemony, even if it proves elastic at some times, constrains military actions and strategic decision. That implies that ethical and legal issues arising from the use of armed drones in at least nominally sovereign states may have strategic consequences. Put it otherwise: the tactical efficiency of drones has to be considered in the right way, as a temporary achievement and not as a silver bullet, because of the potential unintended consequences on the long run and the risk of "Pyrrhic victory".

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"Should I stay or should I go" (The Clash)

Somewhere near Sirte in October 2011, dictator Muammar Gaddafi met his fate. That event seemed to make an end to a successful western-led and UN-endorsed intervention which had aimed to protect the Libyan from a brutal repression and eventually toppled a decades-long authoritarian regime.

To some, it appeared as a good news: from now on, it would be possible to rely on military force to enforce the liberal order and, in a somewhat romanticism way, wage war for the salvation of innocent civilians. For others, that success triggered concerns that western power (and maybe others) would use Libya as a precedent in order to legitimate any intervention.

But neither occurred. On the contrary, the messy civil war in Syria and the brutal repression exerted on the population by Bacher Al Assad have not seen yet a western intervention. Proponents and opponents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have then argued that that situation of "double standards" is another proof of western states’ cynicism.

Underlying this assumption is a fundamentally flawed perception of what is intervention in the strategic realm and, moreover, what is its meaning in today’s international relations.

R2P and "just war": a case for intervention

As Jean-Baptiste Jengène-Vilmer argued in an insightful article in July, R2P is frequently misled as a legitimating tool to intervene. In fact, R2P is neither a duty nor a free-hand given to a particular state in order to violate the norm of sovereignty upon which the international political system rests. More accurately, it could be depicted both as a condition for sovereign states to be recognized as such and as a right given to external actors, under certain circumstances, to act under UN mandate to interfere in the internal affairs of another state in order to protect its civilians.

In short, R2P functions more like the "just war" doctrine as a set of criteria to discern when and how going to war. It is worth remembering that "just war" is not only about a "just cause" but also about consequences: war is deemed "just" when its expected consequences is not to add more harm or to aggravate the conflict. Put otherwise, that implies intervention is neither a tool of last resort nor a task to be performed in every situation where civilian population is put at risk by a specific government.

Values and interests:

States, and especially great powers, are thus more prone to intervene when there’s a strong consensus among them to do so (in the case of "humanitarian intervention") or when they have both the power and high perceived stakes to act (in the case of "regime change"). Put simply, intervention is function of a particular actor’s logic. That logic rests upon a balance between perceived interests and perceived values. Both matter: values are often framing the way a particular conflict is inscribed into that actor’s interests, and interests are of course what drive the actor to include intervention in its strategic opportunities.  It is critical to make that point because values and interests are more often than not perceived as opposed and sometimes conflicting categories. In most cases, there’s a necessity to balance between them rather than to oppose them. In the case of France in Libya, values and interests are melted to a point that is nearly impossible to really separate them. Indeed, France was willing to assert its role as both a Mediterranean power and a promoter of Democracy. On the domestic stage, intervening was also seen as an opportunity driven by the perceived necessity to act in order to restore the president’s image.

But if either values and interests shape the stakes in a particular situation, they have to be balanced with obstacles and potential costs in a strategic calculus. In a sense, Libya presented only a few obstacles: for France, the necessity to frame public opinion and international audience to present intervention as neither a post-colonial move nor a casualties-creating conflict. Those obstacles (mainly internal) drove the way France chose to intervene. That’s not to say that public opinion really mattered as an objective obstacle. On the contrary, it is worth saying that public opinion was seen by political and military elites at the time as either a potential multiplier of legitimacy or a potential constraint in case France would suffer casualties.

In the case of Syria, obstacles are much more important and constraining. First, there are those constraints emanating from the international stage (i.e. the opposition of both China and Russia at the UNSC). Second, political elites are not willing to rely on direct military force and subsequent occupation to deal with Syria. That may be explained by either the interpretation of the last decade’s interventions or by political elites’ perceptions of costs overcoming benefits. Put another way: stakes and interests are not seen as sufficient to risk military or political backlash on either the domestic or the international stage. Third of course, military operations would prove much more difficult in Syria than in Libya, for a great range of reasons.

Moreover, consequences matter: there are growing concerns that an intervention in Syria, while desirable in the light of many interests or values, would lead to unintended and unwanted aftermaths.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems to prove that when stakes are high enough, political elites in the world’s most powerful actor can overcome perceived obstacles. On the international stage, the US was able to do it because of its unchallenged capabilities. On the domestic stage, the aftermath of 9/11 allowed the administration to secure a large support in favor of the intervention.

In short, interventions are much likely to occur when stakes and capabilities are higher than dealing with both external and internal constraints. That’s obvious, but that has two implications. First, context matters of course. But second, the way political elites perceive the desirability of a particular course of action seems to be more important than objective constraints.

Beyond intervention:

Those points highlight the fact that Libya has not become the precedent some feared (or hoped) to be. Political elites in most western countries seem to perceive much higher costs and difficulties to intervene in Syria.

It is more likely that, in the near future, western states will choose another course of action, absent the very conditions that allowed the intervention in Libya to be  decided, waged and successfully put to an end. In reality, the alternative is not a binary one: between intervening or doing nothing.

States could choose to manage conflicts, humanitarian catastrophes or so-called "rogue states" instead. That’s not to say that we are returning back to the 9/11 era. In many ways, western elites have learnt many lessons from that period. On the other hand, they’ve also drawn wrong lessons from the last decade, especially with regards to which effects military force may and can achieve.

Managing those situations would mean that states would rely on other means to deal with them. First, states could use sanctions or other tools in order to persuade. They could also use proxies or a light footprint approach in order to avoid being entangled in these situations. More probably, great powers would choose to intervene indirectly in order to contain potentially threatening consequences for a particular areas or for themselves.

Conclusion: France in Mali

That’s why France would certainly choose not to intervene directly in Mali. More accurately, one would not expect France to rely on the same assets and on the same course of action than in Libya. First, political elites are willing to avoid any accusation of attempting to reassert control in a previous colony. Second, external threats are seen as less important than domestic issues. Third, further cuts in the defense budget would weigh on capabilities to act. Fourth, France’s political leaders are unwilling to use force by fear of potential reprisals on French hostages. It seems that we forgot the very necessity of deterrence in that particular case. If France intends to remain a global power (albeit with reduced capabilities), it would be critical to remember the political message the use of force may send to both adversaries and partners. Because force means determination, it would be regrettable to lock ourselves in the binary alternative of fear vs. posture.

"Survivre, c’est vaincre" (R. Aron)

In his seminal book, Paix et guerres entre les nations, Raymond Aron chose  to take a particular stance vis à vis the Cold War: he stated that, in order to survive, the West had to win. By that, he did not mean achieving a clear victory in the traditional sense, that is by compelling the Soviet bloc to accept a peace that would end the global confrontation of his time. On the contrary, that sentence, widely discussed and debated at the time, meant that the West had to manage the threat. Put otherwise, he thought that winning could be equated to not losing or, more accurately, to preventing the adversary to achieve a decisive victory. Of course, during the Cold War, any confrontation would certainly have led to a global nuclear struggle, with no winner in sight.

That assessment remains true today, where western countries and the international liberal order they managed to build is put at risk by extremists movements threatening to either destabilize a given area or to wage a campaign of attacks against western or western-supported societies. Furthermore, the rise of the "rest" – while not a threat – is giving birth to a world in which we have to recognize the plurality of cultures, norms and values.

An important caution is needed before outlining my main argument. I was raised in a country mostly secure in the sense that no external state threatens it (to be fair, I remember having been scared by the risk of a nuclear armaggedon when I was a child). I’m aware of the fact that today’s threats are also a matter of perception. But I would not discard them, since the actors behind those threats are real, and have the capabilities to strike. But, make no mistakes: I’m not an alarmist and I despise those so-called "pundits" who raise the specter of catastrophic attacks in order to gain more audience. I despise them just as those who demonstrate constant blindness and indulgence toward the risk of real attacks.

Deterrence: Managing threats

In the April issue of Contemporary Security Policy, Thomas Rid wrote a highly scholarly and insightful piece about the way deterrence functions in Israel’s security strategy. Basically, deterrence is a way for Israel to manage "current security" threats, i.e. bomb attacks or rockets lobbed by the Hezbollah, Hamas or other non-state organizations. Thomas explains that Israel is experiencing for a long time a kind of ‘postmodern’ deterrence, relying on punishment and reprisals designed to enforce several norms. By making its action both more predictable and more unreasonable (or, more accurately, by shaping perceptions toward those conclusions), Israel is able to establish and enforce "rules of the game" which guarantee that threats to its security remain relatively low and manageable. Of course, that strategy is not free from contradictions. But the whole strategic realm is made of contradictions which strategists and policymakers  alike are tasked to balance.

The main problem of that particular approach is its interference with the mainstream western strategic culture which values decisive victory and a subsequent strategy of annihilation. There are many reasons which could explain that preference. I do not aim to explore here its many historical, societal, cultural and political roots. Suffice to say that it is deeply internalized and plays a great role in shaping strategic choices.

Nevertheless, the US is experiencing a shift toward a more coherent and comprehensive approach to deal with "extremists" threat. The very notion of deterrence itself has been used by strategists and policymakers since 9/11. In the war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, a strategy of attrition has been progressively adopted and implemented. In a sense, the so-called "shadow wars", their other political opportunities notwithstanding, are a first step toward the perception that threats can only be managed and not totally and decisively defeated.


In that context, it is important and critical to emphasize the discrepancy between values and actions in France’s strategy to counter "extremists" in the Sahel (and mostly  in Mali). Values are certainly a good point of departure to make political choices. Unfortunately, they often conceal the lack of political will or, worse, poor strategic thinking. Of course, I consider France to have a particular ability to pursue its own national interests on the international stage. But I’d like to underline the importance of the way we perceive threats and the way to manage them. In a sense, we are still locked to an old fashion view of deterrence as mainly a characteristic of the nuclear threat. We conceive the use of force in a sophisticated way, but we avoid to consider that coercion still plays a role in order to prevent further threat. Put otherwise: we consider that, if force is used, deterrence failed.

Of course, context and the way it is perceived matters: neither France nor the US have stakes higher than those raised by the Israeli government. But that doesn’t invalidate the opportunities set up by deterrence. On the contrary, given our perceived interests to remain an influential actor in West Africa, and given our means, such a strategy would be well suited.


In short, Aron remains relevant precisely because he underlines the importance to recognize that a realist alternative is not between winning and losing, but between winning and preventing the other to achieve its political goals (when those goals are opposed to ours). Maybe it is worth remembering that being aware of that is not cynicism. On the contrary, Aron never gave up his hope in a more peaceful world. But that world could not emerge either through the temptation of Empire or through complete abdication. That’s why deterrence, either through attrition, reprisal or interdiction has still a future. Aron once wrote that one of the main way to demonstrate power and to remain in peace is for an actor to honor his bill or to keep his promises.

Israel and Hamas: a strategic analysis

The recent military operations between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas at Gaza triggered a flow of comments and analysis. Of course, given the fact that that conflict is highly politicized even in western audiences, many skirmishes between pros- and cons- occured, sometimes leading to  blur the question even further.

Whereas many could argue about what they think is "objective reality" (is Hamas an existential threat to Israel? Is Israel a colonial state willing to oppress the Palestinian people?), I deem it more enlightening to focus on a more nuanced approach that could take into account actors’ logic and perceptions. In addition to be more accurate in dealing with the strategic and political issues, it is also more relevant as it is really analytic and neither descriptive nor normative. Furthermore, such an analysis would have to gain a better understanding of the way those logic act in a dialectical way toward each other.


After "Cast Lead", it is highly plausible that the Hamas leadership understood that is was in its own interest to avoid any provocation toward Israel. Since it has become the ruling party in Gaza after the 2006 elections, Hamas had to navigate a very narrow line. On the one hand, avoiding any reprisal from Israel, fearing that the latter would be able to devastate the strip and endanger Hamas’ capability to provide public services and to act as an effective government. That explains why the number of rockets fired on Israel decreased significantly. At the same time, Hamas struggled to prevent the rise of more extremist groups (like the Islamic Jihad) and even cracked down on Salafis. On the other hand, those groups openly challenged Hamas whose legitimacy relies on its status as the representative of the Palestinian people’s resistance to Israel.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the hypothesis would be that Hamas attempted to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in neighboring Egypt. In addition, the demise of ruling powers in that very area meant that it became a path for funneling weapons and cash to Gazan Salafis. Thus, they were able to strike Israel and put Hamas in front of an alternative: relying on coercion in order to suppress the rising and competing Salafis groups (but with the risk of losing its credibility as a "resistance movement"), or tolerating the attacks in the hope that Israel would not retaliate (but with the risk of being held accountable by the latter).

Thus when Israel zeroed in on Hamas, the rank and file in the organization pressured the leadership to give up restraint and to resume attacks. If president Morsi officially condemned and criticized Israel, his support to Hamas did not go further. At the end of the day, the changing internal and regional environment was perceived by Hamas leadership as an incentive to act. Internal contest and regional changes seemed to provide the organization with new opportunities to exploit in order to gain a better position in the confrontation with Israel. The goal was not to break the siege of Gaza, since in many ways that siege is useful for the organization’s political aims and financial interests. But it was certainly to force regional actors to act in order to demonstrate to the Israeli leadership that it would not be able to break Hamas’ rule on Gaza.


To some political elites, Hamas’ political goals pose an existential threat. In addition, if the size of Gaza makes it vulnerable, that is also true for Israel, whose territory can be hit by rockets launched from the coastal strip.

Facing such a threat, strategic calculus coupled with strategic culture led to a strategy of attrition. That strategy aimed to further pressure Hamas as well as more radical groups in order to disrupt those groups’ capabilities to hit Israel with medium-to-short range missiles. At the same time, that strategy was coupled with an information campaign designed to frame the narrative of the conflict for both domestic and international audiences. Showing its willingness and its determination to act, Netenyahu’s government proved able to manage the threat posed by Hamas. Lastly, even if that system is not totally perfect, the Iron Dome deflected the threats posed by rockets and missiles on the Israeli population.

There’s an important point here: that strategy is not aimed to win "decisively’ against the Palestinian organization. That is nearly impossible, since there’s only two courses of action that could lead to that outcome: either Israel would prove capable to cut Hamas’ support among the Gazans (which would necessitate an "hearts and minds" campaign directed toward the Palestinians , which doesn’t seem possible given the growing gap and cleavage between the IDF and the population and which is also not deemed desirable nor achievable by the Israeli government), or Israel would decide to cut a deal with the organization (which is highly improbable given the fact that the latter’s legitimacy relies on its rejection of any long-term deal with Israel). Put otherwise: there’s little hope for Israel to achieve any decisive political objective against  Hamas, or at least this is the main perception.

In short, Israel’s strategy consists in dealing with Hamas thus opening the question of what to do on the long run. There’s a lesson to draw from that short (and sometimes questionable) analysis. The alternative in war is not necessarily between winning and losing. Sometimes, it is more reasonable and more rational to deal with a threat or with an adversary by preventing him to reach his political objectives. Attrition is particularly well suited for that kind of strategic attitude. It can either lead to the adversary’s exhaustion (or isolation) or to its complete annihilation. More probably, it is able to maintain a high level of pressure against him, thus preventing him to hit and to harm. It is also truer when combined with deterrence, both by reprisals and by interdiction. Of course, that cannot replace a long-term reflection on how to put an end to the conflict. In that particular case, and given the role played by mutual perceptions, it is unlikely to see that outcome before minds are able to change in a deep way.

Stéphane Taillat

Unleash Hell!!! "War logic" and the war in Iraq

As far as I can remember, the biblical story of David vs. Goliath has never been to me the story of a bright victory of weakness against strength On the contrary, I’ve always thought that David was the strongest of both opponents. Not only does he rely on the will of God but he also draws upon his cleverness in order to defeat his adversary. It’s not so counter-intuitive as it could appear at a first glance: power doesn’t necessarily imply strength or having much more material capabilities.

From "war" to "logic of war":

In the last issue of Res Militaris, Laure Bardiès wrote a smart and insightful piece in which she argues to give up descriptive categories  and instead promote analytical ones in order to better explain and understand contemporary wars.

Basically, her arguments draw on weberian sociology to build ideal-types that could account for the logic of actors (by which she means not only the belligerents, but also different actors, pursuing different and sometimes diverging interests, inside a political-military apparatus). The reason is clear: categories we are used to employ in order to depict contemporary conflicts are either too descriptive (i.e. tied to the formal characteristics of wars) or too normative (i.e. shaped by one actor’s perception of the other). "Asymmetric" war (war between a "weak" and a "strong") falls in the former while "irregular" war (war between state-soldiers and terrorists/insurgents) is clearly typical of the latter.

She proposes to look further: according to Clausewitz, war is waged for political purpose. Means as well as ends are a function of the significance of the fight given by the actor. It could thus be possible to design ideal types that could account for their logic, the dynamic interplay between them and their evolution in time. Accordingly, she offers to transform the categories of "total war" and "limited war" into "total war logic" and "limited war logic".

In order to build her ideal type, she suggests to analyze the relations between issues, objectives and means.

Thus, a "total war logic" would exist when an actor has absolute issues at stake (like its survival), design accordingly its objectives as imposing its will whatever the costs and thus relies on every means at its disposal in order to do so. On the contrary, a "limited war logic" would be characterized by relative issues, objectives restricted by a threshold beyond whom costs would overcome the expected benefits, and  thus means would be quantitatively restricted.

Eventually, Laure Bardiès concludes by articulating a dynamic interaction between those logic:  what if an actor has a "limited war logic" against his opponent waging (in its own perception) a "total war"? Obviously, the latter has the advantage owing to its greater capacity to abide costs. In addition, she argues that the real difference between both logic lies in two criteria

1) the determination to pursue the armed struggle

2) the proportion of means effectively engaged in comparison to the total amount of means at the actor’s disposal

Applying "war logic" to the US War in Iraq:

Empirically, it is difficult to apply that model. Of course, this is precisely the function that ideal type is supposed to perform: to serve as a reference in order to analyze contingent situations.  No historical configuration would exactly fit with one of the ideal type, the greatest probability being that it would be situated somewhere between both poles of the spectrum (or, more precisely, that it would shift from one to another due to the dynamic characteristic of war). But, if we take the three elements of the model, the Iraq war (as waged by the Bush administration) would fit in the following table:

In that case, issues and objective are congruent with a "total war logic" while means comply more with the "limited war logic". Indeed, issues were raised at a very high level, with the Bush administration arguing that Saddam Hussein could use weapons of mass destruction or funnel them to terrorist groups in order to wage war on the US soil. Objectives were also designed as absolute: first to destroy the regime and then to transform Iraq in a stable, democratic State allied with the US in its struggle against Al Qaeda. On the contrary, means were mostly limited, both in the invasion phase and in the subsequent stage of occupation (the main strategy during the first years being to withdraw troops as soon as possible).

In order to understand that gap, one should examine the very reasons of the war against Saddam’s regime, which have nothing to do with the real threat it posed to the US (even if Bush and his counselors thought it could be a real threat at the time), but more with several ideologically biased perspectives about  the threat. First, the invasion was supposed to prevent (or preempt in the Bush’s rhetoric) attack from Saddam and second to deter any aggression. Instead of assessing the threat of non state actors, the Bush administration at the time was more concerned by the threat posed by rogue states. Second, that move was a way to fix the problem posed by the the regime of sanctions imposed on Iraq. Third, the war was also a mean to restore the status of the US after 9/11.

That gap could also be explained by the way Donald Rumsfeld and several strategists in the Pentagon thought war should be now waged: with limited, but more lethal and decisive, means. In their view, technological advance coupled with operational excellence would suffice to overthrow the regime.

Eventually, ideology had a vote: neoconservative Weltanschauung – which envisioned democracy as the "natural regime" of any society – coupled with the administration’s reluctance to nation building led to a poorly planned post-Saddam Iraq.

With regards to the means, they were mostly limited both in quantity (troops deployed on the ground were mostly insufficient to perform the task of securing Iraq after the fall of the regime and achieving Bremer’s revolutionary agenda) and in quality (meaning here that the strategy was oriented toward withdrawal).

Incoherent strategy: 

That discrepancy between issues and objectives on the one hand, and means on the other hand led to strategic incoherence.  In order to understand the difficulties encountered by the US military in Iraq, one has to add two critical variables.

  1. the dominant elements of the strategic and military culture insist on the necessity to achieve a decisive victory. In other words, even a "limited war logic" can imply the maximum use of force in order to win a quick victory (and one could add: all the more decisive that issues and objectives are "limited"). In the case of Iraq, that logic implied to deliver the maximum amount of force in order to topple the regime. The problem is that, once Saddam defeated, a much harder challenged emerged, which would have requested a much larger amount of political patience and strategic flexibility. Consequently, in the absence of a decisive victory in the other goal (building a stable and democratic Iraq), the Bush administration shifted to denial. That produced a lowering of the expectations regarding the final stage to achieve before withdrawing and releasing sovereignty to the Iraqi government. Hence, the hope raised by a temporary surge of force in order to achieve a decisive victory against insecurity. The fact that the Bush administration took such a long time to accept the challenge of the task and the reality suggests that the "total war logic" was almost rhetorical. The fact that it accepted to lower its expectations suggests that the logic became less and less "total" and more and more "limited" with time (and especially after Bush secured a second mandate). Nevertheless, the capabilities of the US to endure such a military effort on the long run is tied to both determination (especially regarding the political leaders and the officers deployed on the ground) and endurance (with regards to military capabilities to sustain a high tempo rotation cycle).
  2. given that first element, it is worth to underline the link between that culture of "decisive and quick victory" on the one hand and the reliance on a strategy of annihilation on the other hand. That link is in no way necessary. Insurgents’ strategy suggests that a "total war logic" can instead rely on a strategy of attrition, in order to raise the opponent’s costs until he decides to give up. Facing such a strategy, the Bush administration (and the theater commander) could not longer rely on the sole use of military force in order to win the decision. If the surge achieved several of the objectives set by the administration, it was a consequence of multiple factors, in which the US strategy is only  a part (even if I argue that it is the most important as it benefited from other political dynamics at play which it partially shaped in return). Although eventually that strategy morphed into a "hybrid" form, associating annihilation goals (dismantling "irreconcilable" actors) and attrition means (the use of SOF raids in order to disrupt AQI’s organization and leadership).

Time and interests:

That model is highly significant if one considers the very importance of time and interests. Actually, interests are what shape issues and objectives. Those interests lie in various actors and can take several forms: material as well as ideological, bureaucratic as well as corporate. In some case, they even can affect the whole society (when survival is at stake). But that doesn’t imply those interests to be stable or able to determinate issues and objectives in a strict causal way. A narrower view tends to show how the margin of maneuver for political leaders is more important than one would expect. Notwithstanding, interests play a role in limiting or raising issues.

But that’s also a function of time: the longer a conflict, the more the tendency to shift from one logic to the other. In the case of the war waged by the Bush administration in Iraq, determination and stubbornness was a byproduct of high issues and unrealistic objectives. But determination translated into denial and did not lead to raise the level of means deployed in Iraq, with the very exception of the surge. But Bush’s decision to escalate is not a proof a a "total war logic", it has more to do with the bias toward the need to achieve decisive victory. On issues and objectives, time tended to lower Bush’s expectations and focused his attention on more limited objectives in Iraq.  Quite the opposite, Obama’s narrowing of issues and objectives fit more with the "total war logic": by elevating the real objective of the US toward dismantling Al Qaeda and escalating drones strikes and SOF raids, the 44th president showed his willingness and determination to achieve victory.

In short, the Iraq war case study suggests that means are not necessarily determined by issues and objectives, but by other factors. Among them is the perception of what military force can achieve in terms of military and political effects. In return, that false perception gave way to a misleading assessment on those effects, leading to the belief that the US should avoid long term commitment on the ground in the near future.

To conclude, the war waged in Iraq by the Bush administration may fit the "war logic" model proposed by Laure Bardies. Indeed,both  determination and the relative level of means are  a function of the duration of the conflict. But, as her model deals more with the coherence between issues, objectives and means, it is worth to complete it with intermediary variables that would help to explain and understand the disjunction between those elements. In short, her work is the first step toward a better understanding of today’s dynamics of conflict. Further researches programs should focus on relevant question as the supposed role of the public opinion – or more accurately, its perception by political elites – in shaping strategic decision; while mine are more focused on the way "war logic" is an important component in the process of shaping political and military effects.. Because not only is strategy a bridge between ends and means, but its function is to generate effects.


Armée et Nation: le retour de la conscription aux Etats-Unis?

Le 29 juin dernier, lors du 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, le général McChrystal s’exprimait ainsi:

"I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population (…) I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game"

Autrement dit: le retour à la conscription.

Or, voilà bien quelque chose d’étonnant: l’établissement d’une force entièrement professionnelle en 1973 (All-Volunteer Force) répondait au soucis des décideurs militaires de reprendre le contrôle de l’outil militaire des mains des politiques qu’ils estimaient être responsables du désastre vietnamien. En cause: la micro-gestion, l’élévation artificielle des enjeux et la pression de McNamara ou de Johnson sur les chefs d’Etat-major (et même si on s’en tient à la ligne définie par Henry McMaster qui estime que ces derniers ont manqué à leur devoir en se taisant). La constitution d’une force professionnelle ainsi que la complexification des mécanismes de levée des réserves devaient permettre aux décideurs militaires d’empêcher toute interventionnisme. Dans la lignée de la doctrine Powell, les militaires s’érigeaient ainsi en arbitre de l’usage de la force, usurpant les prérogatives de la sphère politique (et même si on considère les sphères politiques et militaires comme distinctes sans être réellement séparées).

Après 10 années d’interventionnisme, certains tenant de l’école de la "suprématie militaire" considèrent qu’ils doivent non seulement reprendre le contrôle de l’outil militaire, mais également assurer que soit garanti le soutien de l’opinion publique. Cela répond à l’un des mythes dominant au sein de la société militaire: celui qui explique la défaite par le manque d’implication de la société (ou de la "Nation" pour reprendre la terminologie souvent utilisée) à cause des médias, de la trahison ou de la microgestion du pouvoir politique. Lier étroitement Nation et Armées est vu comme naturel (l’Armée est fait pour gagner les guerres de la Nation, c’est même la définition que se donne l’Army, tandis que la Nation compose l’Armée) et doit permettre de garantir un soutien sans faille de l’opinion domestique.

C’est d’ailleurs l’argument repris par McChrystal:

"We’ve never done that in the United State before; we’ve never fought an extended war with an all- volunteer military. So what it means is you’ve got a very small population that you’re going to and you’re going to it over and over again (…) Because it’s less than one percent of the population… people are very supportive but they don’t have the same connection to it."

Bien entendu, c’est une voix qui n’est certainement pas dominante (puisque penser la sphère militaire comme unitaire est une erreur, à rebours de ce que voudraient faire croire de nombreux officiers), mais qui se fait entendre de plus en plus au sein de certains cercles. Elle montre que restent tenaces certains poncifs. Mais au-delà des préjugés, il est intéressant de saisir l’enjeu d’une telle demande (qui a peu de chance d’aboutir évidemment): il s’agit de lier véritablement le sort des armes (sur un théâtre expéditionnaire lointain) et celui de la société…

Loin de moi l’idée de ne pas saisir ce qui peut animer une telle demande, au-delà des préjugés et des poncifs sur les "civils": il s’agit de mettre fin aussi à cette dichotomie spatio-temporelle expérimentée par beaucoup en Irak et en Afghanistan (et qu’illustre aussi le sort des vétérans aux Etats-Unis)… Etre mieux compris en quelque sorte. Certes, cela ne doit pas empêcher de rappeler la hiérarchie qui doit exister entre les sphères politiques et militaires, et de prendre conscience que l’absence de menaces réelles ou d’ennemis identifiés  rend moins pertinente l’existence de la conscription…

Logique de guerre, logique de paix

Ce petit texte est un résumé du premier chapitre de ma thèse, ou plutôt d’une réflexion plus approfondie sur les liens entre décideurs politiques, décideurs militaires et unités déployées sur un théâtre extérieur (ici, l’Irak de 2003 à 2008).

La question posée est celle des évolutions observables dans les politiques, les stratégies, les doctrines et les tactiques américaines. En effet, on ne peut nier un effort d’adaptation dans tous ces domaines entre l’invasion de 2003 (voire les attentats du 11 septembre) et aujourd’hui. Toutefois, le scepticisme règne quant à la profondeur et à la pérennité de ces processus. Je renvoie notamment à David Ucko ici et. Le principal obstacle consiste à analyser ces processus comme si ils n’en formaient qu’un seul. Certes, ils sont liés et relativement interdépendants, mais il me semble que l’on peut les découper pour mieux comprendre en quoi ils fonctionnent selon des logiques bien différentes.

  1. L’adaptation des politiques, des stratégies et des institutions militaires relève d’une logique interne à l’appareil de Défense des Etats-Unis et, plus largement, au constant ajustement de la politique étrangère américaine depuis la fin de la guerre froide.  Dans une certaine mesure, les réformes accomplies restent superficielles, les stratégies répondent davantage à la pression exercée par la sphère politique sur les décideurs militaires. Enfin, il faut tenir compte des pressions internes provenant des élites et, dans une mesure plus difficile à quantifier, de l’opinion domestique. A titre d’exemple, l’insistance du Pentagone à vouloir des institutions adaptées aux menaces dites "irrégulières" n’est pas neuve, mais elle ne suscite que des ajustements non-significatifs qui renvoient au soucis des top brass de répondre à la demande politique en fonction de la manière dont ils perçoivent leurs intérêts.
  2. L’élaboration doctrinale est plus complexe. Elle a donné lieu à une refonte profonde des doctrines et des concepts, processus qui est toujours en cours d’ailleurs. Ce phénomène dépend davantage de dynamiques internes aux institutions, et notamment à la rivalité entre groupes de pression qui pourraient se découper entre "réformateurs", "conservateurs" et "modérés". Le mot d’ordre principal est celui de l’adaptation (en rapport avec le premier niveau). Il se manifeste par une volonté de certes "coller" au contexte des guerres contemporaines, mais également de rester le plus pertinent possible dans la concurrence entre organisations. A ce niveau, les acteurs sont partagés entre ceux qui font preuve de réflexivité et saisissent consciemment ces enjeux, et ceux qui adhèrent aux nouveaux concepts comme à des mythes essentiels ou à des solutions stratégiques.
  3. L’adaptation tactique est un processus organique aux unités déployées sur le terrain. Elle est presque essentiellement fonctionnelle (c’est à dire qu’elle cherche à répondre aux défis du contexte conflictuel), mais se trouve comme saisie par les enjeux des deux autres niveaux. La circulation des savoirs et des savoirs-faire qui en forme la clé de voûte est essentiellement horizontale et, lorsqu’elle se trouve liée au niveau supérieur, elle fonctionne plutôt du bas vers le haut.

Cette distinction de logiques (politiques, institutionnelles ou fonctionnelles) se comprend dès lors que l’on saisit qu’au fond il s’agit de deux espaces-temps bien distincts, sans être séparés. Les décideurs politiques et militaires agissent dans une logique de temps de paix, ce qui permet de les analyser selon les modèles "classiques" de Stephen Rosen ou de Barry Posen. Les unités déployées sur le terrain agissent dans une logique de temps de guerre, ce qui correspond davantage aux travaux d’un Bruce Gudmusson par exemple.

A cela, on peut ajouter une réflexion: les officiers et militaires sur le terrain se trouvent face à des objectifs politiques définis de manière ambitieuse ou floue. Laissés à eux-mêmes, ils développent leurs propres tactiques et tendent aussi à vouloir peser sur l’élaboration stratégique (notamment à travers le groupe des "réformateurs" et à partir du moment où les premiers officiers supérieurs ou généraux ayant fait leurs armes en Irak se retrouvent à des postes de responsabilité au sein de leurs institutions).

Enfin, on ne peut oublier qu’il existe des ponts entre ces trois niveaux d’analyse. C’est le cas notamment d’individus tel que le général David Petraeus. Bien qu’intéressé aux trois processus, on voit cependant que ce dernier reste orienté essentiellement par les deux premiers… Logiques de guerre et logiques de paix s’entremêlent ainsi, mais sans jamais se confondre.

Asymmetrical vs. Irregular

The concepts of "asymmetrical" and "irregular" wars tend to be blurred and used as if they depicted the same reality. Of course, I do not believe that reality can be encapsulated in mere concepts, and thus I propose both to draw a conceptual line between those two notions and to examine what we can learn from them about contemporary war and warfare.

Let’s begin by the notion of  "asymmetrical war". It is often use to depict a conflict in terms of different means. That is, asymmetry here suggests a huge imbalance between belligerents, one being the "strong" and the other the "weak". Much has been written about that notion and its explanatory power in order to predict outcomes in such conflicts. But, in order this notion to be analytically useful, one has to take into account a broader and deeper view of what "asymmetry" means.

  1. rather than speaking of means, one should instead insist on asymmetrical tactics: in such conflict, one side uses terrorism or guerrilla, instrumentalize the media and information in order to subvert the rules tying the "Strong" and to get around the latter’s "strenght". Furthermore, the "Weak"‘s organization and structure seems better adapted to the battlefield than the "Strong"s ones.
  2. the asymmetry is much deeper when looking at military objectives. One side may only achieve not to lose while the other has to win in order to complete his goals. That point is highlighted in David Galula’s work: the counter-insurgent must build while the insurgent may only destroy. Of course, in case of civil wars -where both parties seek to gain power- there is much of a zero-sum game, meaning that asymmetry being not the core of the concept’s essence.
  3. finally, there exists a third level in which asymmetry can be observed: that of the issues at stake, and the subsequent strategies that follow from them. In many instances, the "Weak" is engaged in "total war" (with absolute issues) through an attrition strategy while the "Strong" (especially in the case of foreign interventions) has less important issues at stake (because of the theater’s peripheral characteristic).

That notion seems relatively objective but is difficult to apply to any situation in which there is one "Weak" and one "Strong". The most important insight gains from this analysis relates to what it teaches us about the ontological difference between the two belligerents.

And that’s how it also relates to the concept of "irregularity" in war. Of course, the significance and the meaning of that concept cannot be separated from their historical context. By "irregular" war, I would mean a conflict in which the two following criteria are met:

  1. one actor uses tactics and technics deemed "non-conventional" with regards to the "Law of Armed Conflict" or the broader customs of warfare.
  2. one actor is not represented by a legitimate entity (meaning here a State).

Whereas these two criteria appear as objectives at a first glance, in reality they are not. "Irregularity"  indeed implies a normative aspect, by which an actor (usually the Western/Modern one) sees the other as "illegitimate". It is thus deeply rooted in the Modern conception of the State as the sole actor who has the legitimacy to use force and the monopoly on its means.

As normative, that category has many implications in the conduct of war. First, because not seeing the adversary as a legitimate actor (as it in the case of the classic Jus Gentium) tends to forget that he pursues political objectives. Rather, the adversary is considered as a criminal which uses political violence but is not waging war.. Remember: we don’t negotiate with terrorists (but what for political organization that seek to achieve their political goals using terrorism as a tactic?)

Second, because if the adversary is seen as a criminal, there’s sufficient reason to use every means at disposal in order to maintain order. In this case, it is even possible not to speak of "war", but rather of "events", "intervention", "stabilization", "peace enforcement" and so on.. If war is a dialectical interaction between two actors seeking to achieve their political goals, then facing an "irregular" opponent is not war.

Third because relying on the use of force while dismissing the opponent’s political goals creates a risk to rise to extremes. Whereas it is important to remember that negotiation and peace is the ultimate step in a war, it would not be the case if the opponent’s legitimacy to resort on coercion is not properly recognized. Furthermore, relying on brute force in order to suppress the irregular enemy means that it is seen as an "Enemy" in a Schmittian sense. This "depoliticization" process put at high risk the society on which that war is waged in that that does not allow to recognize proper goals and motives for the population when it sides with the insurgent. Of course, if the "Enemy" is a criminal against which every means is necessary, that would also lead to a strategy of annihilation.

To sum up, "irregular" seems much more tailored as a sociological framework to study today’s conflict while "asymmetrical" is more about the strategic dynamics between two belligerents. However, it seems to me that those two concepts do not fit well with several case studies, and do not include "civil wars" for instance.

In short, those two concepts are not highly relevant analytic tools. Those are mere ideal-types that tell us more about the way we define what is war in a normative way. Nevertheless, they are inscribed in the power relation that characterizes today’s international relations. Dario Battistella’s "hierarchical wars" concept show us how the distribution of power among actors (and mainly States) functions in a dual dimension: a material dimension (in which the US has a huge comparative advantage) but also a normative dimension (that allows democratic states not only to avoid war with each others but also to legitimate "intervention" against smaller or non-legitimate actors). As such, "irregular" and "asymmetrical" characterize the mainstream way of defining what is a legitimate actor and what is not (while this move is not unchallenged both a the domestic and the international levels) and reveals us the normative dominance of western countries and especially the United States. But, as they have strategic and ethical implications, their analysis should not be dismissed and should lead to a careful examination of our perceptions of both "war" (as a social and political activity) and "enemy" (as a social actor’s will using force to pursue its political goals).

Drone strikes

Sur le plan stratégique et militaire, le mandat du président Obama restera certainement marqué et caractérisé par l’utilisation des drones. Plusieurs ouvrages parus récemment aux Etats-Unis ont insisté sur ce point et sur les guerres "secrètes" menées par l’administration américaine au Pakistan, au Yémen et en Somalie. De ces récits, solidement informés et bénéficiant de sources parfois issues de "fuites", émerge un président à la fois soucieux de respecter ses buts politiques et ses principes moraux et engagé dans une lutte sans merci contre Al-Qaïda et ses "filiales". Les aspects éthiques, couvrant les luttes politiques internes aux Etats-Unis, ont fortement dominé les débats au détriment d’autres questions portant sur le processus décisionnel américain, sur la pertinence tactique et stratégique de ces frappes ainsi que sur les caractéristiques de ces "guerres de l’ombre".

Une inflexion stratégique:

Avec près de 280 attaques de drones pour le Pakistan seul, la période Obama surpasse de loin celle de son prédécesseur (à qui on impute près de 50 frappes). En effet, la politique étrangère poursuivie par le président cherche à réconcilier le monde arabo-musulman en réduisant (ou en retirant) la présence militaire américaine en Irak et en Afghanistan. Par ailleurs, il s’agit d’abandonner la rhétorique de Georges Bush sur la "guerre à la Terreur" (devenue "guerre contre Al Qaïda et ses affidés" dans la logique des "guerres accidentelles" inspirée de David Kilcullen). Le nouvel objectif est ainsi défini le 1er mars 2009: "démanteler, perturber et défaire Al Qaïda en Afghanistan et au Pakistan". Bien entendu, ce but est étendu à l’ensemble des groupes se réclamant ou rattachés à AQ, tels que les Shebabs en Somalie, Al-Qaïda dans la Péninsule Arabique au Yemen, les Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP ou Taliban Pakistanais) ou le Réseau Haqqani au Pakistan.

Dans cette optique, l’usage des frappes de drones peut être considéré en première instance comme une utilisation sélective de la force. C’est à dire qu’elle repose sur une violence maximale mais restreinte pour ne détruire ou endommager que l’adversaire.

Néanmoins, il faut relever deux illusions quant à leur efficacité tactique et leur capacité à accomplir les objectifs stratégiques:

  • leur précision n’est évidemment pas absolue, aussi bien du fait de l’environnement de la cible que de l’identification souvent hasardeuse de cette dernière (d’où l’usage par la CIA des signatures strikes, c’est à dire de frappes contre des individus ou des groupes présentant les "caractéristiques" des "terroristes").
  • leur utilisation dans le cadre d’une stratégie de coercition par décapitation ou par intimidation semble avoir aliéné une grande partie des populations, ou suscite en tout cas des résistances politiques de la part des sociétés ou de certaines élites.

De ce fait, on ne peut nier l’efficacité des drones dans l’élimination du leadership d’Al Qaïda et des organisations ciblées, mais à  un coût politique qui ne prouve en rien l’avantage de ce moyen sur d’autres plus conventionnels. Par conséquent, si à court terme on peut constater l’affaiblissement d’Al Qaïda, on peut craindre que cette tactique ne nuise à moyen ou à long terme aux objectifs de politique étrangère du président.

Ce qui pose la question des intérêts et enjeux pour l’administration américaine: ne s’agit-il pas de poursuivre une stratégie destinée avant tout à persuader l’opinion publique américaine que les guerres coûteuses et sanglantes de l’ère Bush sont terminées?

L’arbre qui cache la forêt?

D’autre part, il faut être conscient que les drones ne sont que la partie émergée de l’iceberg que sont les "guerres de l’ombre". Sans rentrer dans le discours scientifique postmoderne sur la "visibilité" de la guerre, on peut effectivement constater que la croissance des médias et la sophistication des moyens de communication ne rendent pas pour autant plus transparents les conflits contemporains.

De ce fait, disséquer les opérations "secrètes" ordonnées par l ‘administration et menées par les forces armées américaines et la CIA révèle bien plus que la focalisation sur les drones. En effet, même au Pakistan -où l’administration a du promettre de restreindre la visibilité de la présence américaine- les groupes de poursuite de la CIA (Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams) et les unités du Joint Special Operations Command sont largement présentes. En Somalie, des AC-130 Gunship apportent un soutien aérien aux forces kényanes et éthiopiennes, tandis que missiles de croisière et même des tirs d’artillerie navale participent à la lutte contre les Shébabs.

D’autre part, les opérations militaires en tant que telles sont inscrites dans une stratégie globale concernant ces trois théâtres: guerre par "procuration", soutien financier et assistance technique aux forces armées locales, effort global de contre-insurrection en soutien du "gouvernement-hôte". Plus largement, dans le cadre de la lutte contre les actes terroristes, la stratégie de "nouvelle dissuasion" élaborée depuis le 11 Septembre comprend un large éventail de tactiques, qui vont du sabotage des réseaux Internet au financement de l’enseignement et de l’instruction dans nombre de pays, en passant par le démantèlement des organisations insurgées et terroristes en ciblant leurs "noeuds".

La centralisation du processus de prise de décision:

Le principal effet de l’usage des drones est de concentrer encore davantage le processus décisionnel entre les mains du président. En effet, les divisions quant aux stratégies et aux tactiques à adopter vis à vis d’Al Qaïda et des mouvements qualifiés d’extrémistes sont extrêmement nombreuses. La fragmentation n’est pas seulement bureaucratique mais aussi individuelle. La focalisation sur les drones a permis à Obama de passer au-delà des querelles de chapelles, tout en laissant ces dernières se dérouler au sein du Pentagone, de Langley ou de l’Aile Ouest de la Maison-Blanche.

Dans un premier temps, Obama a réussi à coordonner la CIA et les militaires non pas en leur imposant une division du travail (les opérations spéciales au JSOC et les frappes de drones à l’Agence) mais en mêlant leurs compétences et leurs sphères d’activité. Cette mise en concurrence a été doublée d’une volonté de fusionner davantage les intérêts politiques et les cultures bureaucratiques des deux institutions. La nomination de Leon Panetta -ex-directeur de l’Agence- à la tête du Pentagone et celle de David Petraeus à la tête de la CIA n’en est que l’illustration la plus visible. Ce mode de gestion compétitif se retrouve également entre les principaux conseillers du président et jusqu’aux experts juridiques du Pentagone et de l’Agence chargés de valider ou non la "légalité" des frappes.

Dans un second temps, la centralisation du processus décisionnel a été accentuée à l’extrême puisque le passage en revue des cibles et l’autorisation de les frapper relève du seul président, entouré de John Brennan (son conseiller au contre-terrorisme) et du général Cartwright -ancien n°2 du Comité des Chefs d’Etat-major. On sait depuis peu l’importance des réunions du comité contre-terroriste du mardi dans la mise en place de kill-lists et l’importance qu’apporte Obama à autoriser lui-même les cibles. Toutefois, cette centralisation ne va pas sans les réticences bureaucratiques d’usage. Tout d’abord parce que le président a finalement cédé à la CIA quant aux signature-strikes (rebaptisées TADS pour terrorists-attack-disruption-strikes) après une forte réticence dans la première année de son mandat. Il n’a pu non plus s’opposer à la tactique consistant à cibler aussi les secours après une première frappe. Il en est de même avec les militaires qui ne peuvent frapper que des cibles individuelles et positivement identifiées mais qui n’ont cessé de vouloir élargir le théâtre des frappes aux alliés supposés d’Al-Qaïda (sans toujours tenir compte des rivalités internes aux organisations).

Par ailleurs, cette centralisation a un coût: coût moral puisque le président se retrouve à décider de la vie ou de la mort de personnes sur la base de renseignements qui ne sont pas absolument parfaits (outre les erreurs politiques qu’il peut y avoir à tuer de potentiels alliés, il faut noter que les civils représenteraient 17% des décès dus aux drones). On sait en revanche que le président a montré de l’obstination dans la traque de Anwar Al-Awlaki, le chef d’AQAP par ailleurs citoyen américain.  Coût politique surtout puisque, en dépit du bénéfice qu’il y aurait à montrer de la détermination pour répondre aux accusations de l’opposition Républicaine, c’est bien le président lui-même qui devient responsable de cette stratégie, de ses succès (la mort de Ben Laden ou celle du n°2 d’AQ) mais aussi de ses échecs. A ce titre, on peut d’autant plus parler des "guerres d’Obama": non plus seulement les guerres qu’il doit mener par "nécessité" (ou pour gérer le lourd héritage de son prédécesseur) mais également celles qu’il mène seul dans le Bureau Ovale.

Or, outre les réticences internationales (Navi Pillay, haut-commissaire des Nations-Unies aux réfugiés, n’a pas hésité à affirmer que les attaques par drones posaient de sérieuses questions quant au respect du Droit International Humanitaire), il faut prendre en compte à la fois les risques locaux (l’aliénation des populations, l’instrumentalisation des frappes de drones par les élites et régimes locaux) et domestiques (les défenseurs des libertés fondamentales et les opposants à la guerre en Afghanistan se retrouvent pour condamner l’administration sur ce point). Plus grave: si Obama doit pouvoir donner des gages à l’opinion publique et aux élites politico-militaires américaines, il sera plus difficile de le faire avec les militaires eux-mêmes.

Conclusion: le secret, la bureaucratie et la guerre au XXIème siècle

L’essentiel des débats "critiques" ou "favorables" sur les frappes de drones porte sur le coût politique moindre de cette tactique: en effet, autant pour leur effet de précision et de portée que par l’absence de pilote embarqué, les plates-formes rendraient l’usage de la force -et partant le déclenchement des opérations militaires- plus aisé pour les décideurs politiques.

Or, outre que ce discours a déjà été tenu à la grande époque de la RMA ou de l’Airpower, il faut retenir que les frappes de drones et les soit-disant "guerres secrètes" (qui s’étalent en pleines pages dans les journaux nationaux) reflètent une autre tendance des guerres contemporaines, surtout pour les démocraties. Si, selon l’adage des théoriciens de la "Paix Démocratiques", les démocraties ne se font pas la guerre, elles usent sans hésiter de la force contre des dictatures ou des acteurs non-étatiques (qui n’ont à leurs yeux aucune légitimité à faire de même). Ces guerres hiérarchiques sont une composante majeure de l’analyse des relations internationales contemporaines.

Il n’en reste pas moins que peu d’études ont été menées sur les raisons pour lesquelles ces conflits sont déclenchés et rendus possibles, dans des sociétés réputées "post-héroïques" et hostiles au risque. Le cas de l’administration Obama dévoile un coin du voile: c’est la culture du secret (savamment entretenu ou agité comme un chiffon aux yeux des médias) et la sophistication des bureaucraties (ainsi que leurs rivalités) qui ont permis cette évolution vers un usage quotidien et brutal de la force…

Si l’alliance entre le secret et l’utilisation de la violence sélective n’est en effet pas neuve, ce n’est pas le cas de leur inscription dans une culture bureaucratique et politique au sein d’un système démocratique. Le secret y est en effet à double-tranchant: il permet de mener des opérations militaires ou clandestines, mais il expose les décideurs politiques à leur responsabilité. Sans compter que, dans le cadre d’une bureaucratie complexe et en constante rivalité, le secret peut devenir un obstacle cognitif majeur à l’origine de nombreuses erreurs. L’auteur de ces lignes n’a pas partagé l’enthousiasme plus ou moins général à l’élection d’Obama. Mais il faut reconnaître au président américain une force de caractère et un pragmatisme hors du commun.

Sources et données:

Les données compilées par le Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Les données de la New America Foundation: sur le Pakistan, et sur le Yémen.

L’ouvrage de David Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

L’ouvrage de Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

Many thanks to Adam Elkus for his incisive and brilliant thoughts on that question: you can visit and enjoy his blog here. He’s also a contributor to Andrew Exum’s Abu Muqawama weblog.

Afghanistan: quelques réflexions tactiques et stratégiques

Note: ce billet se veut une réponse un peu approfondie à une question posée sur nos tactiques en Afghanistan, et notamment l’opportunité ou non d’un "Plan Challe" revisité. Merci à Guillaume Ménager.

En réalité, le choix d’une tactique obéit à l’interaction entre trois impératifs:

  1. celui du contexte et de la tactique ou stratégie ennemie
  2. celui des moyens dont on dispose
  3. celui de l’objectif militaire que l’on s’est fixé afin d’atteindre le but politique

Dans le cas de l’Afghanistan, la tactique choisie ne peut prendre en compte la suppression de l’adversaire (c’est à dire sa neutralisation et sa destruction définitive). Pour plusieurs raisons:

  • un problème de moyens: le faire nécessiterait un contrôle étroit du territoire et de la société afghane, et donc une véritable conquête militaire calquée sur la "pacification"
  • un problème stratégique: mettre en équivalence la destruction des Taliban/insurgés et la victoire militaire suppose que tel est effectivement le but poursuivi. Outre que cela ne résoudrait qu’en partie la "question afghane" (laquelle est aussi celle d’un Etat défaillant et d’une société en pleine révolution depuis plus de 30 ans), un tel objectif n’est de toute manière pas celui qui a été retenu par les décideurs politiques, notamment américains.

En effet, si Obama a fait campagne sur le thème de l’Afghanistan comme "guerre de nécessité" qu’il se promettait de remporter, sa position a évolué. A tel point que l’on peut se demander (de manière rhétorique) si son objectif n’est pas aujourd’hui davantage un retrait (qui permettrait de garder une présence résiduelle aux portes du Pakistan, véritable enjeu de la région pour son administration).

En d’autres termes, la question n’est pas d’abord celui du choix tactique, mais bien du choix politique: qu’est-ce que "gagner" veut dire? Dans le cas de l’Afghanistan -et en acceptant que le cours de l’Histoire n’ait pas déjà été fortement infléchi par les décisions antérieures- nous aurions trois réponses:

  • éliminer les Taliban ou les empêcher de se réimplanter en Afghanistan
  • construire un Etat stable et démocratique
  • éviter de rester pour l’Histoire un nouveau Lyndon Johnson

Et  il semble bien que ce troisième but soit celui finalement retenu. Dès les débuts de sa réflexion sur l’Afghanistan (mars 2009), l’Administration Obama a été hantée par la peur d’un nouveau Vietnam et par la figure de Lyndon Johnson (Obama a même invité à dîner à la Maison-Blanche les historiens américains ayant le plus travaillé sur ce prédécesseur, son processus de prise de décision et ses "erreurs").

Mais ce revirement n’est pas seulement du à la hantise du Président: il reflète aussi la hauteur des enjeux que représente la stabilisation de l’Afghanistan pour les Américains. Non plus déconnectés des intérêts des Etats-Unis, mais bien plus réalistes. Disons-le, l’Afghanistan n’a aujourd’hui d’intérêt que dans la mesure où:

  • c’est un point de passage éventuel pour les hydrocarbures évacués de la Mer Caspienne
  • sa stabilité relative peut éviter d’en faire un sanctuaire pour Al Qaïda
  • il s’agit d’empêcher la perte de contrôle de son arsenal nucléaire en plein développement par le Pakistan
  • le conflit est un lourd héritage à gérer et jouera un rôle dans le bilan du président sortant.

Au final, l’objectif militaire ("démanteler, perturber et défaire Al Qaïda au Pakistan et en Afghanistan") ne demande ni le maintien d’une force d’occupation/stabilisation, ni la mise en oeuvre de tactiques de quadrillage et de ratissage.


Il n’en reste pas moins que risque d’émerger une incompréhension croissante avec les acteurs sur le terrain (c’est à dire les militaires). En effet, après leur avoir présenté la lutte contre les Taliban et la reconstruction de l’Etat Afghan comme des enjeux vitaux (pour lesquels tous les moyens doivent être mobilisés, ce qui suscite logiquement une perception des Taliban comme des ennemis absolus qu’il faut détruire), le fait de relativiser ces enjeux peut devenir source d’amertume et de rancoeur (car, à quoi bon tant de morts et de sacrifices?)… Si les décideurs politiques ont souvent à coeur de se concilier l’opinion publique et les élites militaires, il n’en est pas de même pour les soldats sur le terrain..

NB: petit détail historique. L’idée d’attirer les Taliban dans des embuscades est particulièrement présente dans l’approche choisie par la TF Korrigan du Col. Chanson en 2009. Articulant sa manoeuvre autour de la construction de routes dans la Kapissa, il a en effet choisi de s’en servir comme "aimant" destiné à provoquer des attaques et à prendre l’adversaire sur son terrain.. Mais une guerre ne se gagne pas sur le champ de bataille.

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Thème Esquire.


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