The United States has focused so closely on conventional warfare in all its forms–land, sea, and air–that it has trouble when forms of warfare that are resolutely unconventional crop up. American weapons, doctrine, and training are unprepared to react quickly to situations that do not fit into the preconceived mindset. Even worse, the American government as whole often uses the military in areas for which it is not prepared and in ways that would be better served by non-military solutions.
This past month has seen two particular examples of this. First, groups of pirates sailing in small craft from the Somali coastline have begun hijacking ships from the busy sea lane that runs along the Indian Ocean side of the African continent. Armed with little more than assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the pirates have proven successful at taking enormously large ships like oil tankers hostage and extracting millions of dollars of ransom from the companies that own them or their cargos. This is insurgent war at sea, aimed not at other warships but at more vulnerable civilian vessels. The pirates’ craft are stealthy by virtue of their smallness, they can dash out from the coastline quickly, and can out run and outmaneuver the civilian ships they are chasing.
The required naval response is–as it always has with pirates–to patrol the sea lanes in which the pirates operate and escort the intended targets through the danger area. But this requires the kind of forces that the United States Navy has avoided building over the last two decades: a plentiful number of small craft armed with the most basic of weaponry. The AEGIS air defense weapon system of the billion dollar Arleigh Burke destroyer class is less effective against a speedboat loaded with pirates than a .50 caliber machine gun on a tiny patrol boat. But, while the Navy has a large number of the former, it has few of the latter. The result has been a largely ineffective response off Somalia.
The second form of warfare is even more unconventional and perhaps should not be considered as warfare at all, but somewhere across the divide into politics on the Clausewitzian-scale that puts war and politics at opposite ends of the same scale. In this case, the US was surprised to hear that the government of Kyrgyzstan was planning on ejecting American forces from their use of the air base at Manas. Manas is the critical link in the American supply line to its forces in Afghanistan. Through here are carried enormous amounts of food, ammunition, and the other logistical requirements that keep the effort in Afghanistan going. There is another supply-line, but it goes through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass and has proven vulnerable to Taliban attacks in recent months. Manas is thus doubly critical.
What was behind the sudden action? Fingers are being pointed at the Russians, who have recently made large loans to Kyrgyzstan. The quid pro quo seems to have been eviction of the Americans. Why would the Russians want to force the Americans out? The answer has less to do with the recent state of relations between the two countries, which has been reasonably good, than it has to do with the continuing effort by the Russians to reestablish themselves as the preeminent power in the countries on their border. The Georgian War was one such effort and it effectively showed not only the Georgians but the Ukrainians and others that the west could not protect those countries if the Russians decided to invade. Evicting the Americans from Manas would start the same process in Central Asia. Even if the Americans manage to hold onto the base by paying the Kyrgyzstanis off, the Russians have made an unmistakeable point about who carries weight in that area of the world.
This is not simply a problem of the military. The neglect of anything other than military (and conventional military at that) solutions to problems is a long-standing problem for the United States. Alternative methods–law enforcement, diplomacy, or aid–have for the most part been mocked and underfunded. The result is often that the only available option is the hammer of the military, and so every problem becomes a nail. This process only accelerated during the Bush Administration, when the marginalization of the State Department under Colin Powell and the increased militarization of law enforcement pushed even more responsibilities onto the back of the Pentagon, some of which it has been capable of dealing with, and some not. One of the most important responsibilities of the Obama administration will be to revitalize American ability to respond across the spectrum of problems, from smallest to largest, from diplomatic to military, from economic to social. If the U.S. uses its military power to the exclusion of all else, it virtually guarantees a continuing imperial overstretch and a strong tendency by the world to respond in the same way.