Getting back to the dynamics of strategy finally…
One reason why strategy is a dynamic, constantly unfolding process is that it entails a constant adjustment of measure and counter-measure between combatants. The terms of combat rarely stay the same; opponents try out innovations, and the other side does its level best to undo whatever gains these innovations bring. I normally hate words like dialectic, but for once, the word fits here. The history of a particular conflict is a jarring, messy, noisy, violent, but meaningful dialectic between combatants.
In Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Edward Luttwak uses an excellent example of the measure/counter-measure dialectic that I’ll repeat here. Before World War I, the super weapon that came to define the European balance of power, particularly between Great Britain and Germany, was the battleship. Before the “guns of August” began actually firing on land and at sea in 1914, the relative number of battleships possessed by each European power dominated diplomacy as much as the precise mobilization calculations armies used. Both land and sea warfare, prior to WWI, did in fact feel a lot like an engineering problem: this ratio of battleships kept Europe safe; this ratio was so unbalanced that it threatened the peace. As we discussed in earlier posts, strategy is not like engineering--a truth driven home to European leaders as soon as the war started.
The battleship in 1914 was already becoming a far less decisive instrument than many people recognized. Naval warfare (and later aerial combat) turns to a great extent on technical and tactical details. A technical innovation, like the torpedo, can turn a fearsome warship into a vulnerable target. To counter this threat, another technical and tactical advancement, a flotilla of smaller warships around the battleship, temporarily blunted the threat that the torpedo boat presented. The logical next step, however, was to circumvent this screen by going beneath it in a torpedo-armed submarine. In turn, naval thinkers proposed physical screens, or nets, that would trap a torpedo before it could hit its target.
Once the war started, this dialectic accelerated. The battle of Jutland and other Great War naval engagements were dramatic events, but far less decisive than the pre-war naval thinkers had believed they would be. The battleship--once the feared predator of the high seas--suddenly lost its ability to hunt freely, for fear of being crippled or sunk by smaller, cheaper weapons like torpedoes and mines. By World War II, the small, cheap aircraft really limited the effectiveness of surface warships in general, and battleships in particular. In only one year of the war in the Pacific, during the battle of the Coral Sea, naval commanders for the first time never saw the enemy fleet. Only the fighter and bomber pilots trading blows back and forth between the fleets actually spotted and attacked an enemy ship. The major use of battleships became shore bombardment, in support of forces landing in both the Pacific and European theaters.
One measure of a good player, chess aficionados will tell you, is the ability to see beyond the next move. If I do this, then I think the opponent will do that, and then I’ll be able to take this move…Military commanders equally need to anticipate what the enemy will do next, and then be ready to counter the counter-measure.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how most people would describe the US victory in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002:
- The United States and its allies used their immeasurable mobility to swiftly position the forces needed to invade Afghanistan.
- Once the shooting started, the United States, yet again, proved its dominance in the technical, tactical, and operational levels of strategy.
- To a great extent, the routing of the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters rested on US technological superiority in everything from precision-guided munitions to night vision equipment. These high-tech tools ensured that our enemies never had a chance.
- By keeping a small US and allied force in Afghanistan, equipped with these same technologically marvelous weapons, the Afghan government has gained a respite in which it can get its political and security houses in order.
As with most examples of common wisdom, this one is riddled with flaws. For now, I’ll focus on just key defect: US dominance at the technical level of strategy is not an everlasting, irreducible advantage. Our enemies can learn how to undermine our technological edge--and in Afghanistan, they started blunting the high-tech sword almost immediately.
It’s true that the Taliban and al Qaeda were largely caught in the open in the first couple of weeks of the conflict. During this phase of the war, the US and its allies made startling gains against these enemies. However, once the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders gained some breathing space, they quickly adopted some obvious countermeasures:
- Rather than leaving pick-up trucks and other equipment in the open, they covered them with tarpaulins and other forms of camouflage.
- To reduce the effectiveness of infrared-based night vision tools, fighters covered their vehicles and themselves in dirt and mud, masking their heat signature.
- The Taliban and al Qaeda became increasingly adept at night fighting.
- Additionally, they learned how to infiltrate allied positions, using gullies, boulders, and other bits of natural terrain (as well as manmade cover, like shell-holes) to disguise their movements.
- The enemy also learned US operational habits, so that they could anticipate when they would be attacked and move out of the area.
- They also sharpened their skills at attacking transport helicopters and aircraft, effectively "grounding" many US troops. Most famously, US special operations forces often found it easier and safer to travel on horseback than to shuttle by air to combat zones.
- The Taliban and al Qaeda also learned how much easier it was to attack Afghan troops, so they often avoided US positions in their own raids and offensives.
None of these countermeasures put victory in the Afghan war (which is still ongoing, so we can hardly put it in the win column just yet) out of reach. However, they do mean that we can't rely on our technoligical superiority the way we did in the first days of this years-long war. It also means that however well equipped the 11,000 US forces in Afghanistan may be, they're not capable of winning the war single-handedly. Casualties are also likely to be higher, since US, Afghan, and allied forces are fighting at closer quarters with the Taliban and al Qaeda. The war in Afghanistan, as we've seen, is far from over, and the dialectic of measure and counter-measure ensures that the rest of the struggle won't be as easy as it once was.