ARLINGTON: “We have, in my view, exquisite capabilities to kill people,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland. “We need exquisite capabilities to manipulate them.”
Psychological subtlety and the US military don’t always go hand-in-hand. Worldwide, we’ve become better known for drone strikes and Special Operations raids to kill High Value Targets. But that wasn’t enough for the last 13 years of war, according to a RAND study led by well-known special warfare expert Linda Robinson and sponsored by US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), which Gen. Cleveland heads. In the future, just being great at killing will be even more inadequate against the Islamic State or Putin’s Russia, Cleveland warned. When it comes to the subtler arts of war — from advisor work to propaganda — we’ve tied our hands with our own bureaucracy, processes, and laws.
“We’ve built a great apparatus for terrorism and to some degree we’ve got to be careful that doesn’t create blind spots,” Cleveland said Friday morning during a panel discussion at RAND. “There’s a cottage industry that’s built up around it [counter-terrorism]. You run the risk of basically taking on an entrenched infrastructure” whenever you try to broaden the focus killing and capturing the bad guys, he said, but we have to try.
“I don’t think we understand completely the fight we’re in,” Cleveland said. “This is unlike anything that we’ve confronted in our past.”
Russia, once best known for its lumbering Red Army, has moved down the spectrum of conflict to conduct operations using separatist proxies and deniable “Little Green Men.” Islamic extremists, once best known for suicide bombs, have moved up the conflict spectrum to create a quasi-country, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, that not only governs territory but also boasts forces capable of conducting major military operations to grab more. (Such combinations of conventional and guerrilla tactics are often called “hybrid warfare“). Both the Kremlin and the jihadis have become remarkably savvy with social media and online means of propaganda — waging what the military calls “information war.”
In the US, though, “we’re horrible at ‘influence operations,'” said Cleveland. The US approach is “fractured” among multiple specialties and organizations, he said. Some key elements are in Cleveland’s USASOC — civil affairs, for example, and Military Information Support Operations (MISO), formerly known as psychological operations — while others lie entirely outside — such as cyber and electronic warfare.
To the extent US forces address psychology, propaganda, and politics at all, we tend to do it as an afterthought. “We routinely write a plan for kinetic action, and buried in there is the information operations annex,” said William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism. “Many times, it should be the opposite…. When you’re dealing with these types of adversaries [e.g. ISIL], that is often the decisive line of operations.”
That’s just one example of how the US ties its own hands with organizations, processes, even laws — indeed, an entire national security culture — designed for a very different kind of warfare. All warfare is a clash of wills, Clausewitz famously said, but Americans tend to fixate on technology and targets, not winning — or intimidating — hearts and minds.
“We cannot confuse physical success — units defeated, objectives taken, targets destroyed — with winning,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Hix of the Army’s Training And Doctrine Command (TRADOC). We often overlook “the political nature of war,” he said. “No physical action should be pursued if it is not tied to a human objective, an outcome where people make a decision.” Even when unconditional surrender is the goal, victory always means convincing the enemy to stop fighting.
The US gained a painful new appreciation of these factors in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both, we had the dominant military role, and in Iraq, we had the legal rights of an occupying power. Today, “the problem is where the military instrument is having to be used in places where we know we’re not going to invade,” such as Yemen, Cleveland said. “That environment that is not war and it is certainly not peace.”
Likewise, local partners are rarely reliable allies, but they aren’t the enemy either. Commanders need to understand the good, bad, and ugly of partners who may be corrupt, inept, or grinding their own political axes on the heads of rival ethnic groups. US intelligence, however, is still geared to figuring out “the enemy,” defined as a clear-cut foe. “We’re trying to get out of this,” said Cleveland, to where “you’re not spying on partners but you’ve got to know what’s going on.”
Finally, in places like Yemen, the US military has to deal with not being in charge — something at odds with its take-charge culture. “We’re riding in the cab, we’re not driving the cab. We’re hoping he takes the route we want,” said Cleveland. “We’re certainly paying the fare.”
But how we pay the fare, to whom, and for what part of the journey is subject to complex legal, policy, and bureaucratic restrictions. Some funding authorities pay for training foreign forces but not, say, building them the rifle range they need to train on. Others pay for training US special operators alongside foreign partners, but only as long as the Americans get at least 51 percent of the benefit. Training authorities generally don’t allow US troops to help the locals plan for real-world missions, let alone go out on them. Where combat advisors are allowed, their roles must be negotiated between the host government and the US country by country, case by case, and there are usually strict restrictions — often imposed by American political leaders fearful of putting US troops in harm’s way.
“Putting people on the ground to do this kind of work is inherently more risky than flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and dropping a Hellfire, but we have to learn how to accept that risk, because this at the end of the day is much more often the decisive line of operation,” said Wechsler.
“Authorities… are really the key,” said Wechsler, both those set in statute by Congress and those specified by Pentagon policy. The US government handles operations inside a declared war zone (e.g. Iraq) very differently from those outside of one (e.g. Yemen) — even though adversaries like the Islamic State and Russia deliberately blur the traditional lines between peace and war.
“We are shooting behind the target in almost every case,” said Hix, because we have to grind through our methodical, outdated planning process while adversaries innovate. A new Joint Concept does away with the traditional “Phase 0” through “Phase 5” system, which conceives the world in terms of before, during, and after major conflicts, Hix told me after the panel. In the new world disorder, “we need those resources and authorities in what we consider to be ‘peace,”” he said. If you don’t have them, he warned, “your enemy’s playing chess while you’re playing checkers.”