Warning, Strategic Surprise, and Iran

After having been forecast for nearly four years, observers are again arguing that an Israeli or American strike on Iran may occur. The logical question many have regarding this possibility is how such a strike could occur given that the punch has been telegraphed for so long. Isn’t three years enough warning to make an attack operationally impossible? History suggests that an attack would still be possible to mount with the element of surprise.

Frist, it is worth going over the literature on surprise in war. Most are familiar with Cynthia Grabo, Efraim Karsh, and Richard Betts’ texts. But perhaps the most cogent comment comes from Robert Leonhard, normally a theorist on operational warfare. Surprise, Leonhard argued, is merely the delayed recognition of attack. The aim of surprise is simply to slow down a reaction to an attack as much as possible. Leonhard and William McRaven both observe that it is simply impossible for defenses to stay on full alert all the time, with no weaknesses in any sector of the defense. The aim of early warning systems and intelligence is to give sufficient warning of a strike to blunt the attack’s impact at the point of the spear.

In 1941’s Pearl Harbor attack and 1944’s Normandy landing, the defenders both had an idea that either an attack was inevitable or at least highly likely. It is difficult to conceal large-scale mobilization or preparation for a strike, especially in an atmosphere of diplomatic tension. But sorting through the “noise” of rumor, misdirection, and deception is equally difficult, especially when defending hinges on learning the time, place, and method of attack. McRaven also notes that special operations attacks have succeeded even when the attacker understands the place and method of attack (and even a rough estimate of the time), due to the problem of maintaining constant readiness.

The 1973 Yom Kippur attack is probably the most relevant case study. The Israelis had endured years of low-level warfare with Egypt and Syria since 1967 and witnessed constant Egyptian saber-rattling and mobilization. Although the causes of the intelligence failure are complex, one major contributing factor was the fact that the Israelis had been dulled into complacency by the false alarms. They also mirror-imaged the Egyptians, thinking that the Egyptians would wait until they had developed the ability to contest Israeli airspace to launch an attack.

A prospective Iranian decisionmaker examining the constant false alarms, the relative strategic and cost and benefit of a strike, and adversary domestic politics could thus make an “israeli” mistake. Such an error, in turn, would enable a strike to occur with the element of surprise. How that surprise is employed, and whether or not the attack would be successful in accomplishing strategic aims is another matter entirely. But surprise is possible.

On Mexico and Colombia

Today’s NYT has an op-ed by Gustavo A. Flores-Macias in which he talks about how Mexico might begin to stop the criminal insurgency. There is much good in this, and some bad.

First, there’s a good recognition that Mexico’s task really is the use of armed force for internal state-building. The cartels are posing a threat to public order and the government’s authority that is approaching Colombia-like levels. The answer is to clamp down and to do so Mexico needs to reform its civilian and military command structures and extract the tax revenue it needs to properly finance its war. This is basic stuff that a certain 17th century French statesman understood when he was crushing his rivals and unifying France.

The bad? The op-ed overlooks one of the dirty secrets of Colombia’s success: network-targeting. Colombia eventually aggressively targeted the cartel leaders with both legal and extralegal actions designed to shatter and break them. The book Killing Pablo recounts how state-backed vigilante militias completely destroyed Pablo Escobar’s organization through raw violence. If one is writing an op-ed about the “success” of Colombia, leaving this out is a rather (excuse the pun) criminal omission.

Additionally, the op-ed’s title is problematic because it contains the phrase “Win Mexico’s Drug War.” It is possible to win a war against order to the state by crushing cartels and making them tame enough not to threaten the state. But if Mexico’s objective is defined as “winning” a war against drugs, that is a deeper and more troubling problem. There is no way to win a war against drugs because “drugs,” like terrorism, are tools rather than human opponents. Wars are fought against other human beings, and are won when those human beings either die or give up fighting.

Drugs are relevant to the Mexican strategic scenario only as tools of the conflict. If the objective is defined as the suppression of drugs thereof instead of the restoration of a reasonable level of public order, than strategic myopia will result.

Cumulative Effect: The Key for Super-Empowered Individuals?

During the mid-00s, a lot of bloggers (including myself) wrote about “super-empowered individuals,” aka people who had been empowered by technology and globalization to have a vastly disproportionate long-term effect on national or global systems. The term, actually, was ironically coined by Thomas Friedman–a figure who many international relations and national security bloggers (including myself) sometimes mock. The September 11 attacks are seen as the keystone superempowered individual event, because they radically shifted the course of American foreign policy and defense for a decade. To get a feel for how radically things were changed, one need only look at the events of 2001 that preceded it, most notably a Cold War-style scrapup with China over a downed surveillance plane.

The more I’ve thought about it, though, it seems more accurate that absent the rare 9/11-style event, the only way for super-empowered individuals to really have a strategic as opposed to momentary tactical or operational effect, is to create a cumulative effect on top of a series of existing conditions. One of the biggest myths is that the Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” and that stems largely from the Soviet experience in the 1980s. But a bunch of insurgents with small arms and Stingers didn’t topple Ivan.

The conditions for the fall of Moscow were present for a very long time. Fabius Maximus once noted that Robert Heinlein had visited mid-century Soviet Russia and saw long-term weakness. If the Afghan War had an effect, it was most certainly cumulative in that it helped aggravate an existing dysfunctional system.

The problem with this is is that determining the “point of inflection” is tremendously difficult. Revolutionaries of various stripes have tried to determine this since the mid-1800s, with varying pseudoscientific methodologies. Few of them predicted that it would be backward, agrarian Russia, not the industrialized West, that would be the first nation to fall to Communism.

And it is likely that any super-empowered individual’s cumulative effect on events today will be visible only in extreme hindsight.

Star Wars and Defense Blogging

Wings over Iraq delves into the world of “#wookieleaks.” Unfortunately, it’s now a booming thread and I haven’t contributed anything to it. For those who aren’t in the know, “wookieleaks” is a Star Wars-themed parody of WikiLeaks.

My favorite “#wookieleaks” tweet? “Despite billions invested on construction of an untested defense system, the new Death Star may not yet be fully operational.”

Mouse-Click Insurgency

At this point, it seems apparent that WikiLeaks is waging an information war against the US national security establishment. As Selil pointed out on Twitter, the US is overrepresented in WikiLeaks’ more high-profile targets. The US has been repeatedly hit, with the title and packaging of the “Collateral Murder” video being a prominent example of WikiLeaks’ desire to throw a wrench in the political-military machinery behind the Iraq and Afghan wars. Julian Assange’s public statements also support this, most prominently being a recent interview in which he argued that “[t]he most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war….And they need to be stopped.” WikiLeaks is no longer about an abstract desire for transparency–it is about advancing its founder’s specific–if somewhat incoherent–policy agenda.

For all of the volumes of writing since 9/11 about public diplomacy, information operations, and such this is a bona fide adversary information operation and a very successful one on the tactical level. Of course, it seems doubtful that WikiLeaks is going to actually change the course of policy–as I mentioned in my Huffington Post blog the leaks have so far had at most an ephemeral political effect. The larger question is whether or not it will have a cumulative effect when piled on top of other factors.