Doctrine, not Technology

by Joshua Foust on 10/31/2008 · 2 comments

Will Saletan has a novel theory:

Here’s a quick sketch of where the fight stands. In attacks that escalated from the 1970s through Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists exploited and demonstrated a huge advantage over life-valuing societies: They’re willing to target our civilians and use their own civilians as suicidal mass killers. We’re unwilling to reciprocate. In broader terms, they’re more willing to kill and die than we are.

In the last few years, however, we’ve developed a countermeasure: drones. By sending mechanical proxies to do our spying and killing, we avoid risking our lives. Recently, Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan have gone into Afghanistan and killed our troops. Instead of sending our troops into Pakistan, we’ve sent drones. Since August, the drones have fired at least 19 missiles at targets in Pakistan. Since the drones fly overhead and aren’t human, we can send them many miles into Pakistan and get them out without fear. Unlike ground troops, they can take their time identifying targets, thereby minimizing civilian casualties…

The terrorists can’t kill the pilots who operate the drones from the United States. But the terrorists can kill local civilians, thereby generating political pressure on the local government to pressure the United States to call off the drones. And because the drones are operated by humans who answer to other humans who are susceptible to pressure over the loss of life, the terrorists win. The drone controllers are more sensitive to death than the terrorists are.

This is another one of those times where the author just misses the point. In fact, Saletan is sort of onto something while still somehow managing to get it mostly wrong. The U.S. doesn’t use drones to minimize civilian casualties—if it cared that much about civilians, then there would be demonstrable evidence somewhere outside of the FATA. There isn’t. Rather, the use of drones is born of that political double game Saletan rightly notes the Pakistani government employs: it allows us to go after terrorists, and we put comparatively little at risk.

The trouble is, as Saletan notes, the terrorists will win that game. Because terrorists always win arms races. It was true of IEDs: we spent billions of dollars throwing MRAPs into Afghanistan, only to find them too big, too top heavy, and still susceptible to EFPs. The Taliban in comparison spent a pittance to neutralize an enormous investment. Because they’re smaller, more agile, and less institutionalized, insurgents will be able to end-run most technological innovations we can throw onto the battlefield.

This is because the insurgency in Afghanistan is not technological—it is doctrinal. Technology will not solve an ideology. This post on Free Range International ably explains why:

The elders said Governor Sherazai promised them jobs and irrigation projects if they stopped growing the poppy and so they did but have received nothing. They say that the governor is getting richer by growing the poppy on his lands in Khandahar while their children go without food or proper clothing. They also said (quite firmly) that if they get enough rain this winter they are going to start growing the poppy again because they feel tricked out of their share of the booming drug economy profits. Once they start growing the poppy they will not allow any foreigners or government people into the district to destroy the crop.

This is part of a much larger argument, which should be read in its entirety. But the gist of it is: our doctrine is what is killing us, not our (or their) tech. No amount of up-armoring, JLTVs, MRAPs, or whatever, will solve this fundamental problem. Until we modify our methods, TTPs, strategy, and intent… Afghanistan will continue to crumble.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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daskro October 31, 2008 at 11:22 pm

I often read that the issue of strategy, tactics, intent & ideas should be advocated over technology, especially from the Boydians out there, but how transparent is the military with these kind of principles? I think it’s all too easy to look at the DOD budget and point out where the procurement dollars are going to fund another large project for a variety of justifications, but in the realm of public release, what source documents would we use to indicate such training, methods, strategy, etc are being implemented other than hearing from its successes in the conflict zone after the fact?

Joshua Simeon Narins November 1, 2008 at 8:06 pm

I wouldn’t say it was our doctrine, strategy, tactics or anything but our goals which are killing us.

Hey, let’s create a state in Afghanistan and train Afghans to fight and die to defend the Durand Line? Territorial Integrity is nice for Europe and the New World and the stable areas, but it is just dumb to think that amounts to a strategy the rest of the time (except Kosovo, when it is convenient for us.)

Oh, and the hypocrisy is killing us, too.

As for our “Video Game” Fighting forces, I was totally disgusted when, back in aught-3 or aught-4 I heard Rumsfeld say we wanted to recruit more people, and we could do that by making sure they wouldn’t have to take any risks.

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