30 June 2007

Global dominance and military strategy

Dear readers,

I was struck today by a report on CNN about the current situation of military operations in Afghanistan. Amongst news of massive killings of civilians, due to indiscriminate air strikes in the Helmand province, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, warned the NATO forces that it was reaching an intolerable level. The analyst interviewed in this context explained that NATO commanders in Afghanistan have admitted that they have not enough troops on the ground to do the job. They have to call air strikes even when they suspect civilian death are likely to occur. They simply can't send soldiers to assault the place themselves.

On top of the humanitarian aspect, this calls a serious strategy issue. In the traditional American (and NATO) strategic thinking, global military dominance can only be reached if the USA are able to fight two medium intensity conflicts at the same time and still keep enough reserves to hold the national "sanctuary". Afghanistan and the Iraqi wars are medium intensity conflict, meaning that NATO or US forces there are fighting a guerrilla rather than classic forces. And despite this, it is pretty obvious for observers that NATO and US forces are unable to end these conflicts in a satisfactory manner. I am not even speaking about winning, as this word has little significance in guerrilla warfare. It seems that the USA especially (but most NATO countries have a similar or even worse problem) simply don't have enough men anymore to win two wars simultaneously. Or even to win only one of them.

This is not just a question of numbers, I believe, but also of the type of equipment used as well as the tactics on the ground. It is very difficult, if not simply impossible to win a guerrilla war without actually occupying the ground with infantry. The problem is of course also geographic. Sustaining important forces in countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq is a logistics nightmare. Afghanistan especially has extremely high mountains and an unforgiving climate. Both countries have large desert areas as well as relatively densely populated cities. The latter are also battlefields which actually demand very high concentration of infantry forces. All in all, it seems that if the Afghanistan conflict could probably have been dealt with alone by NATO, the insistence of the USA and UK to also attack Iraq have proved disastrous for both operations. Even a conflict were it would have been relatively easy to win hearts and minds such as Afghanistan (where NATO forces enjoyed a relatively high level of popular support) is now more and more difficult to win.

There might be a point in a not so far future where NATO and the USA will have to evacuate both places. It would have been the demonstration of the French proverb: "qui court après deux lièvres n'en attrape aucun". Or in English: "who hunts two hares catches none".

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