The Long War on Terror and Great Power Conflict Across Eurasia


Luke Phillips

General David Petraeus published an op-ed at the Washington Post that deserves to be reprinted at length here.

The General provides us with what the security community would call a BFO (“blinding flash of the obvious”) but what will probably come as an unfortunate shocker to most of the Washington D.C. political elite. Basically this: the War on Terror isn’t over and won’t be over for a long time, so we need to be vigilant and prepared for a long, twilight struggle. Here’s Petraeus:

First, it is increasingly apparent that ungoverned spaces in a region stretching from West Africa through the Middle East and into Central Asia will be exploited by Islamic extremists who want to establish sanctuaries in which they can enforce their extremist version of Islam and from which they can conduct terrorist attacks.

 Second, it is also apparent that the attacks and other activities of such extremists will not be confined to the areas or regions in which they are located. Rather, as in the case of Syria, the actions of the extremist groups are likely to spew instability, extremism, violence and refugees far beyond their immediate surroundings, posing increasingly difficult challenges for our partners in the region, our European allies and even our homeland.

Third, it is also increasingly clear that, in responding to these challenges, U.S. leadership is imperative. If the United States does not lead, it is unlikely that another country will. Moreover, at this point, no group of other countries can collectively approach U.S. capabilities. This does not mean that the United States needs to undertake enormous efforts to counter extremist groups in each case. To the contrary, the United States should do only what is absolutely necessary, and we should do so with as many partners as possible. Churchill was right when he observed, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” And, if one of those partners wants to walk point — such as France in Mali — we should support it, while recognizing that we still may have to contribute substantially. 

Partners from the Islamic world are of particular importance. Indeed, they have huge incentives to be involved, as the ongoing struggles are generally not clashes between civilizations. Rather, what we are seeing is more accurately a clash within a civilization, that of the Islamic world. And no leaders have more to lose should extremism gather momentum than those of predominantly Islamic states. 

Fourth, it is becoming clear that the path the United States and coalition partners pursue has to be comprehensive and not just a narrow counter-terrorism approach. It is increasingly apparent that more than precision strikes and special operations raids are needed. This does not mean that the United States has to provide the conventional ground forces, conduct the political reconciliation component or undertake the nation-building tasks necessary in such cases. In Iraq at present, for example, it is clear that the Iraqis not only should provide those components, but also that they have to do so for the results achieved — with considerable help from the U.S.-led coalition — to be sustainable.

Fifth, and finally, it is clear that the U.S.-led effort will have to be sustained for what may be extended periods of time — and that reductions in our level of effort should be guided by conditions on the ground rather than fixed timetables. While aspirational timelines for reductions in our efforts may have some merit, it is clear from our experiences under both post-9/11 administrations that premature transitions and drawdowns can result in loss of the progress for which we sacrificed greatly — and may result in having to return to a country to avoid a setback to U.S. interests.”

 In other words, 1) terror is here to stay across wide swathes of the Muslim world, 2) that terror will reach out and strike at us where it hurts, 3) America thus needs to counter the threat, 4) it has to be more than mere counterterrorism, and include stability-building operations, and 5) we’ll be at this game for a while.

General Petraeus’s tone is reminiscent of that of George Kennan in the Long Telegram so many decades ago- he counsels strategic prudence, patience, and a steeling of American nerves to defend American interests and values against the terror abroad.

As long as we’re talking about the Long War on Terror chessboard, though, let’s talk about another chessboard: the Resurgent Great Power Conflict chessboard. Five years ago, Wess Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel published a great piece at The American Interest arguing that great power conflict on the borderlands of the American trading empire would blow up into bigger showdowns if we didn’t deal with them forcefully and prudently. Five years later, they appear to have been correct. Here’s a long passage from their article, “Predators on the Frontier,” prescribing what to do about the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian “probings” along the American empire’s “frontiers”-

“The objective of U.S. grand strategy coincides with that of its frontline allies: the maintenance of the status quo. America’s geopolitical project is conservative in nature because it aims to uphold the current geopolitical order. This goal translates most immediately into holding the existing regional limes as they are, a clear benefit to our frontline allies. Additionally, relying more on these frontline allies will allow the United States to manage the security threats in multiple regions, spanning the length of the 21st century “arc of instability” from the Baltic through the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. The United States cannot thwart these challenges alone and needs to refocus its grand strategy on frontline alliances. 

The purpose of such a grand strategy is to strengthen the current posture of deterrence to prevent further probes by the revisionist powers. As these probes are slowly rewriting the rules of the regional orders and are redrawing the physical lines of influence on the maps, U.S. strategy must hinder this gradual but increasingly more assertive revisionism. The role of the most vulnerable allies is crucial in the success of this strategy. The underlying assumption is that, without the active American involvement in these regions, the allies will not resist the revisionist thrusts of Russia and China, either because they cannot do it effectively alone or because they will choose to accommodate the local rival. There is nothing automatic in the survival of the current international order and the resulting security of the United States.

A strategy centered on frontline alliances will be informed by three principles.

First, the United States should organize allies. Without America’s stabilizing political leadership and reassuring military presence, the various frontier regions—U.S. allies in the most exposed rimlands—are unlikely to be able to create new regional diplomatic arrangements that can serve as the immediate bulwarks to the revisionist powers. Current alliance structures are functioning but are not well suited to the nature of the challenge. In Europe, NATO, perhaps the most successful alliance in history, incorporates states with such a fundamentally different threat assessment that its cornerstone, Article 5, suggesting that an attack against one is an attack against all, is increasingly seen as just that—a suggestion. Under the NATO umbrella, there are incipient new formations, most notably of states around the Baltic Sea (Baltics, Poland, Norway, Sweden—the latter not a NATO member). A further sub-alliance can link the Baltic region with the Black Sea, by strengthening military cooperation between the two states most interested in defending the status quo: Poland and Romania. In Asia, the alliance structure inherited from the 20th century is very different, built along bilateral relationships between individual states and the United States. But several states located on China’s seaward projection of power—for example, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and, farther out, Australia—share parallel concerns and fears that were not present a few decades ago. This opens up the possibility of security cooperation and planning, building a new set of regional alliances. Historical grievances continue to be an obstacle but this is why U.S. leadership and presence continues to be crucial. Without it, these frontline states will maintain a posture that only timidly considers other states in their region as solid partners in the competition with China. In brief, old alliances are not to be jettisoned but should serve as foundations for new configurations that will strengthen the frontlines.

Second, the United States should arm frontline allies. Not all, but some (e.g., Poland and Japan) are openly pursuing programs of defense modernization and seeking to acquire new weapons. The United States should encourage this by speeding the process of acquiring U.S.-made platforms and by helping these countries to think through their role in the larger strategy of anti-revisionism. Frontline states should be enabled to deter their nearby revisionists, mostly by denial. Deterrence by denial involves the development of capabilities that hinder the enemy’s military advance by increasing the costs of territorial expansion and control. Relatively cheap weapons for this purpose are widely available: anti-tank missiles, precision-guided artillery, small arms, anti-air missiles. This is also politically appealing because it is clearly an effort to shore up territorial defense, creating a difficult environment for the aggressor. But there are also other capabilities that the United States should proliferate to select allies: medium to long-range missiles, drones, and, on the higher end of the spectrum, stealth planes are examples of weapons that have a longer reach and can strike within the enemy’s territory. More offensive in nature, they still serve a defensive purpose by enhancing the ability to deter by denial. The capability to strike beyond the immediate frontline inflicts costs on the aggressor and creates problems for his logistics. By targeting command and control centers and radar installations, it also can serve to blind the enemy, easing the projection of allied reinforcements toward the attacked state. U.S. frontline allies are no longer in a permissive environment in which American forces can function unopposed. These allies therefore have the greatest incentive to keep their own air, sea, and land routes open so that the United States and other states can join them in the conflict.

Well-armed allies on a frontier under assault are a strategic blessing for the United States. They can stymie the expansion of revisionist states by becoming hardened obstacles. And the current technological regime characterized by wide availability, ease of use, and relative cheapness of many lethal platforms favors such a strategy centered on arming small states. We live in the age of small states, and even non-state actors, that are capable of inflicting serious destruction and of being strategic actors on their own. Usually in U.S. policy circles the spread of lethal capabilities is seen as a source of instability, presenting a challenge to the maintenance of international order and regional security. The plethora of hostile groups and reprobate states that can destabilize their respective regions through their capacity to wield violence is undoubtedly a problem, but the trend that makes this possible has also positive connotations. U.S. small and medium-sized allies can in fact be sources of regional stability thanks to the same technological developments that are allowing challengers to be more disruptive. The United States should harness these developments to its own advantage by doing a targeted proliferation—by arming its frontline allies.

 Third, the two main revisionists, Russia and China, are nuclear powers—and the smaller third, Iran, is likely to be one in the future. Their probes are occurring therefore in the shadow of nuclear weapons. Even more disturbingly, Russia has exacerbated tensions with Europe and the United States by recurrent nuclear saber rattling in the form of provocative flights of nuclear-capable bombers, large conventional military exercises ending in a virtual nuclear attack against a NATO member, and public statements threatening nuclear use. Nuclear weapons are not decreasing in importance; on the contrary, they play a greater role now than they did fifty years ago. Any U.S. strategy dealing with its frontline allies must have a nuclear component because it needs to figure out how to deter a small conventional attack (a militarized probe) under the threat of potentially rapid nuclear escalation.

 The United States should therefore enhance its nuclear arsenal by maintaining and modernizing it. It needs to sustain a credible nuclear extended deterrent at a time when revisionist states are gradually pushing their spheres of influence and control closer to, if not against, U.S. allies. Moreover, it should use the limited tactical nuclear weapons at its disposal and seed them in a few of the most vulnerable and capable frontline states (Poland and Japan, for instance) under “nuclear sharing” agreements.

 By organizing and arming its most exposed allies, the United States can shore up the frontier of its influence and security. The stability of these regions cannot depend exclusively on the capability and credibility of the United States—that is, on America’s extended deterrent—but has to be built on the strength and resilience of the local allies. America’s frontline on Eurasia’s rimlands requires local defense: a well-armed and well-organized limes of allies. Only by building up such allies will the United States be capable of enduring the persistent challenge of multiple rivals that are eager to impose their own orders in their respective regions.”

Ultimately, what any smart policy thinker should take away is this: America can’t retrench itself. It can’t let the world burn while we hide behind our ocean walls. Our security and the maintenance of international order depends upon American leadership, and that principle cannot be forsaken.

Now, as to how to go about that leadership- that’s another story. Personally, I think Nixonian Realism is a better way than principled neoconservative democracy-hawking. Rather than reflexively opposing Russia, China, and Iran on moral grounds, we ought to show them American strength while cultivating diplomatic relations with them. Rather than embarking a quest to rebuild the crumbling Muslim world, we ought to work with local actors and help them to contain the winds of terror wherever we can, never taking up the entire burden.

American strength, and prudent power-balancing. I don’t know that any of our current crop of presidential candidates is up to that task, but I suppose we’ll soon find out.

One thing’s for sure. We’ll have to spend a lot more on defense, and use it more wisely. Balancing three major powers, beefing up our old allies, and helping to stabilize the Muslim world won’t be cheap.


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