« 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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Stabilization: closing the doors or closing the Gap?

In two recent articles, two French prominent scholars lead an assault against the French intervention in Mali. The first is from Olivier Zajec – a researcher at ISC – in Le Monde Diplomatique (In French and behind a paywall unfortunately): he basically explains that western interventions in the last decade are characterized by a lack of strategic vision which amounts to a strategic hiccup. Unable to draw the right conclusions of past quagmires and failures, Western States would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes, especially regarding four elements he deems  necessary in order to succeed:

  1. a failure to assess the threat on its own right (by labeling « terrorists » any insurgent or ethnoseparatist movement)
  2. a failure to see how legitimacy (and especially that of the local government) should preclude any long term commitment
  3. a failure to recognize the limited role our military forces should play in unlocking the tactical situation in order to let local dynamics freely develop
  4. a failure to plan an exit strategy which would amounts to a greater  political freedom of action

The second is from Olivier Roy – a world known scholar on Muslim societies – in Le Monde: his main argument highlights the dilemma raised by the characterization of the enemy as an irreconcilable terrorist. Indeed, by labeling the adversary as a unitary actor, one would ignore the more complex political and social dynamics at play, thus precluding any chance to disrupt AQ by letting the local actors whom it tries to be a parasite to give up their protection. Put otherwise: that would prevent any opportunity to collaborate with less extremists actors whose agendas are more amenable to compromise.

Of course, both articles have strong argument, and I share them for a large part. But I disagree with each on two points:

1) The conditions outlined by Olivier Zajec are too idealistic. In other words, they preclude any intervention or stabilization on the basis that they are not likely to be met in the real world. To be fair, those four principles could be met, but only during the course of the operation.

2) hence my second point: those two pieces (and especially Zajec’s) seem to ignore the necessity to study strategy in a dialectical way. A strategy of exit, tactical operations which would unlock the situation and even a fair and autonomous analysis of the enemy would depend on the adversary’s strategy, its capabilities and its own political freedom of action and capability to unlock the situation on the ground. Iraq is a good example: the ’07-’08 surge unlocked the military situation and let local dynamics develop with a relatively low US pressure and inducement. But to be fair, during the surge, US needed to pressure, induce, persuade and leverage the various political actors (first and foremost Prime Minister Maliki). On the other hand, both pieces fail to fully recognize AQ’s strategy to embed itself in the locals’ very social fabric: when Roy uses the analogy with a parasite, he seems to forget that it is more than that. Jihadists often use gaps and fault lines, first seducing but also using coercion and intimidation in order to establish their social and political order. Of course, local societies may be tempted to rise against foreign fighters, but as the failed 2005 revolt in Anbar should demonstrate, it is likely to be crushed without external alliance (in that case, the successful alliance between several cheiks and the US military at fall ’06).

To me, closing the gap (that is, in Odierno’s words, to boost the host-government legitimacy) is a far more realistic way, under certain circumstances, than closing the doors (letting local dynamics creating more chaos and instability). The colonial era is over, and thus no western country can stabilize alone: it has to build coalitions both outside and inside the targeted state’s society. But on the other hand, as we are in a hierarchical world (maybe it could be or even it should be otherwise, but it is not), western states are the most powerful and hence have more chances to assert their interests than local states. In that perspective, if such a state (or its leaders) perceives that it has stakes and interests to intervene and stabilize, and if it calculates that the obstacles and anticipated costs are low enough to allow that, it is likely that it will act accordingly. Eventually, by doing so, it is also likely that the best course would be to help build the legitimacy of the local government. It is obviously a dilemma, since an external-imposed legitimacy is more difficult to enforce and sustain, but no dilemma can be resolved by starting from what the world should be rather than what it really is…

« 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

Perils and promises of drones: a strategic appraisal

A short post to outline several ideas and thoughts about the use of drones in the US strategy against Al Qaeda.

1) we have to grasp the political significance of Obama’s choice to rely on drones and SOF in order to « disrupt, dismantle » Al Qaeda:

The president narrowed its political goals: fighting Al Qaeda and its allies or affiliates without relying on state building, and without committing too much troops on the ground in a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach. Instead, Obama understood his role as fighting the jihadist organization in order to deter further attacks against the US.

2) that goal led to a new strategy:

Using drones strikes as well as SOF raids (or other more conventional assets) is done through an attrition strategy. The main mechanism through which attrition is supposed to work is to inflict casualties to the enemy organization faster than it can replace it. It is not primarily intended to exhaust the adversary, but to raise its costs to pursue the war. In other words, exhaustion is only one possible outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, complete annihilation is another one.

3) physical and psychological effects of drone strikes:

Drones are not used only to inflict physical casualties, thus undermining the operational capabilities of AQ/its affiliates to control effectively a territory, to keep safe havens or to prepare further attacks. They also have psychological impacts, mostly on the networks, and especially on its weaker nodes, that is those actors amenable to leave the fight, or to hide in order to escape the strikes. As such, the strategy which relies on drones is not only an attrition strategy, but also a part of a more comprehensive deterrence strategy. That’s what « disrupting » means: inflicting systemic blows that undermine the operational capabilities of a given network as a whole.

On the material side of the effects, drones have proven highly effective as a decapitation tool. On the psychological one, it’s difficult to really assess the effects, but it seems that drones, used in addition to other tools, may have produced subversive effects.

4) Pressuring Al Qaeda?

The problem is the relevance of such a strategy on the long run. A « pure » attrition strategy would likely lead to a slaughter, since AQ and its affiliates have been able to reinforce or to replace the losses. What could be the threshold that would trigger an annihilation, or exhaustion of AQ? The « search and destroy » experience in Vietnam should remember us that relying only on measurable metrics (especially in terms of « body count ») is fraught with cognitive biases.

On the other hand, a « pure » deterrence strategy is difficult to wage against non-state actors, and especially « irregular » organizations. It is thus possible to limit AQ’s capabilities to wage a campaign of attacks, but up to a point. Zero-risk is not really a realist option.

That’s why using drones strikes – both more precise and less costly than conventional counterinsurgency i.e. as much efficient as a strategy can be – should prove more relevant on the long run if used as a way to sustain the pressure against AQ and its affiliates. The goal would not be to dismantle or to disrupt (not to speak of neutralize), but instead to compel AQ to stay on a defensive stance (or, at least, a less offensive one).

In addition, relying on drones and SOF raids, while highlighting other potential costs (in diplomatic terms since it is necessary to achieve an agreement with the host nation, with the very exception of failed states maybe; in terms of domestic support since both the military institutions and the public opinion could raised several political obstacles, in terms of local support since drones may have a negative impact on the local population), should not be thought as a silver bullet. Furthermore, relying on such an indirect way to deal with AQ should not let the military institutions to forget its institutional experience from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, that strategy has to adapt to the evolving character of the war, which is both conditioned by internal calculus and political bargaining and of course, by the adversary’s strategy.

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.


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).

US strategy in Iraq: an analytical perspective

In a previous post on Strategy(ies), I highlighted the critical importance to both grasp Strategy’s role and function.. If Strategy’s role is to bridge the gap between ends and means, it functions as an effect-generator and is thus an accurate metric for power.

I’d like to advance a few hypothesis on US strategy in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. My aim is to focus on the significance of strategic adjustments made in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008.

It is important to underline the lack of precise and clear objectives between 2003 and 2007. If the objective seems clear in 2003 (to topple Saddam’s regime), it quickly became more confuse once reached. Hence a vague and ambitious endstate: a democratic, allied and stable Iraq.

In order to achieve that goal, it would have necessited to develop and implement a complex strategy with all necessary means needed. Instead, the political leaders decided to maintain a low troop-level and to underline such critical steps as economic reconstruction, a new Constitution and democratic elections.

The main result of that planning was to leave the strategic decision to in-theater Commanders. Even if the Pentagon issued the directive 3000.05 en 2005 (that insisted on the necessity for military institutions to prepare for stability operations and military support to stability operations) and the Quadriennal Defense Review in 2006 (that focused on irregular threats), it was a pressure directed to the services in order they adjust their doctrine and tactics. Put it simply, it was not a reconsideration of the political goals but rather an incentive for the military (and especially general Georges Casey) to seek other means in order to achieve the initial goals.

In both 2004 and 2005, general Casey (and his immediate superior, general John Abizaid) outlined a strategy that struggle to meet those objective with limited means and in front of a growing insurgency (and the incoming civil war). Hence a campaign plan and tactical directives that insisted on building Iraqi institutions through a top-down process.

It is not clear for Historians if the 2006 strategic review consisted in a conscient move by President Bush to lower the political goals. Meanwhile, the product was a significant departure from the previous approach. For the first time, the Administration sought to advance less ambitious goals and, more important, adjusted to domestic political pressure. Hence a strategy that moved goals, ways and means. The goal was to secure Iraq in order to ease the withdrawal process, the way was a political approach to reconciliate the various Iraqi actors and the means were new tactical and operational procedures embodied in the « counterinsurgency » word.

In a sense, the strategy moved from solving the Iraqi « problem » to easing the future withdrawal of troops. By focusing on more coherent, precise and less ambitious goals, the Bush Administration enhanced the strategic approach and allowed a more sophisticated campaign plan that focused on generating effects designed to shape audiences in Iraq and in the US.

The most important point here lies in defining issues: if Iraq was first depicted as an absolute issue, it has become a more realist one (that is, more aligned to real US interests).. Issue is thus a critical point for any strategic analysis that focuses too much on ways and means.

Update: that means that a strategy can be attrited both from above and from below (thanks to Jason Fritz).

  • From above: when issues are raised too high (that is, when they don’t match with real interests. For instance, toppling Saddam Hussein could make sense because of the WMD threats -that wasn’t- and in order to ensure oil flows from Iraq). For « artificial issues » to be met, political leaders must obtain a total mobilization of his Nation’s means. To do that, he must be able to ideologize his audience and ensure his definition of the issues to be credible enough. Another problem is met when artificial issues do not lead to credible ends: that is, issues are deemed as absolute but ends are either too vague or too irrealistic. For instance, « stabilization » means building institutions in the hope that democracy and free market (and all the « liberal » stuff) will emerge like Venus from the sea. Third, in expeditionary operations, it is more difficult to ensure the coherence between issues, their perception by the domestic opinion (and especially the political and military elites) and thus to achieve a sufficient level of means in order to reach the goals. Hence the perpetual dilemma in Iraq between presence and withdrawal into large bases. My hypothesis here is the fact that, in Iraq, issues were raised high in order to ensure public and international support to the invasion, but were not of critical importance for the political elite in the Bush Administration (except the fact that, once in war, it is difficult for any leader to accept defeat, thus leading to maintain the issues at a high level for a long time). Thus, political ends (a democratic Iraq) were left too vague and the military leaders had just to align with that goal with insufficient means.
  • From below: it is the case when political ends are not discussed and taken for granted. The main problem is to define how to meet those goals. If military leaders (as it is the case in expeditionary operations) are left on their own, they would have tendency to craft a strategy starting from the means at their disposal (meaning level of troops of course, but also those tactical procedures that seem to succeed). In Iraq, both military commanders (Casey and Petraeus) sought to design a strategy starting from the collection of tactics and operational procedures we call « population-centric counterinsurgency ». If the political leader does not define his ends in a strict and coherent way, then that hypothesis would predict that Tactics (means) will lead the strategic process.

That implies a critical point: as a bridge, Strategy has to reconcile ends, ways and means. Normatively, a real strategy will have to be defined starting from above (the definition of ends). Those ends being the product of a political choice (resulting from a complex political process involving many actors), it’s not sure that they will match interests. More important, once decided, those ends will not be discussed nor criticized. Hence, a tendency to discuss means and ways rather than ends. In addition, in the case of  « limited wars » (that is, with little interests at stake, even if issues have been raised high by the political leader), there would be a tendency to define strategy starting from the context, and then the tactics and procedures available.

Sandhurst et Newport

Deux liens vers des présentations effectuées par votre serviteur au profit de nos alliés anglo-saxons

-une vidéo du panel auquel j’ai participé à Newport en Septembre

-la version papier et Powerpoint de ma présentation à Sandhurst ce jour.

Enjoy… feel free to comment.

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