Michael Mullen is a busy man, defining the future of US warfare one day, addressing SEALs the next, and manipulating the minds of Americans in between. We can only hope the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs spends as much time trying to change US foreign policy as he spends on persuading us it has changed.
We wouldn’t want his own warnings to be ignored.
Speaking to an audience at Kansas State University, Mullen reveals, “I’ve come to three conclusions – three principles – about the proper use of modern military forces. The first is that military power should not – maybe cannot – be the last resort of the state.”
“Military forces are some of the most flexible and adaptable tools to policymakers,” he explains. “We can, merely by our presence, help alter certain behavior. Before a shot is even fired, we can bolster a diplomatic argument, support a friend or deter an enemy. We can assist rapidly in disaster-relief efforts, as we did in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. We can help gather intelligence, support reconnaissance and provide security.”
As such, “yes, the military may be the best and sometimes the first tool; it should never be the only tool. The tangible effects of military engagement may give policy-makers a level of comfort not necessarily or wholly justified.”
A shame that Mullen dispenses so much sound advice that, as he admits, isn’t being readily absorbed by the US government and military. But the Joint Chief of Staff’s lauded speech on “soft power” also goes soft on reality.
Two lines forming an apparent contradiction step to the forefront, the product of Mullen’s preference for ambiguity.
First he says, “military power should not be the last resort of the state.” Does he mean that, or does he really mean “should not be the first resort?” Then he says “the military may be the best and sometimes first tool; it should never be the only tool.” This seems to read “military power should be the last resort,” used only after political, diplomatic, and economic means have been exhausted.
We have no way of knowing his true message, though force as a last resort makes sense and falls in line with his overall message of demilitarizing foreign policy. But Mullen hasn’t lost any love for the military, he just prefers the invisible kind.
“I actually believe that when the story is told someday in history that the role of special forces in these wars will be told in a way where they were decisive – you were decisive – in many ways,” Mullen told a group of SEALs two days later at the Naval Air Station North Island. “That’s sometimes hard to see when we’re doing it, but I believe that.”
Only because you don’t talk about Special Forces. But anyone who’s watching can see them, they aren’t invisible in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia.
There’s no conjecturing what Mullen would say. He was asked point blank by a questioner at Manhattan, “Do you think Somalia is becoming the next Afghanistan? And do you think there is a military solution to dealing with or restoring a functioning government in Somalia? And what role can the U.S. play?”
“There’s not a military solution here,” he replied. “There most likely is a military – certainly, there’s a security aspect to this, and I don’t mean provided by the United States. But clearly that’s key, and we are – we work hard to support the government in Somalia.”
And so Mullen snaps one of his secondary principles, “military leaders at all levels much be completely frank about the limits of what military power can achieve, with what risk and in what time frame.”
Or maybe that one doesn’t apply to the American people.
The CIA is already in Somalia acting as the first military line of defense America has established in the country. Mullen himself advocates “whole-of-government” strategy that intertwines military and non-military operations. Not Defense and State working together as one, but being one. The CIA’s “independence” from the US military has become semantics, outdated thinking.
Its Special Activities Division (SAD) is a permanent military operation Somalia. And worse for Mullen, he picked a bad time to lie.
Two days after Manhattan, as he spoke to his SEALs, the New York Times reported, “The Americans have provided covert training to Somali intelligence officers, logistical support to the peacekeepers, fuel for the maneuvers, surveillance information about insurgent positions and money for bullets and guns.”
“American officials said that this was part of a continuing program to ‘build the capacity’ of the Somali military, and that there has been no increase in military aid for the coming operations,” as Mullen did.
But how can there be no military buildup when the dollars, weapons, training, and drones are American? When the CIA is embedded with Ethiopian troops, when US Naval warships are parked off the coast and now, as one US official mused, “What you’re likely to see is airstrikes and Special Ops moving in, hitting and getting out”?
Obviously President Obama and his military advisers are active in Somalia. Special Forces have already done drops. Mullen appears to have little regard for watchful Americans.
Yet we're also led to his second point. Escalating military intervention in Somalia will never sound like a good idea, so thick is the psychological barrier, but America has run out of options. What more can Obama do to prevent Mogadishu from falling to al-Shabab?
Mullen says, when America must, “Force should, to the maximum extent possible, be applied in a precise and principled way.”
But return to his first principle. Maybe Mullen is actually warning that America can’t continue fighting wars of force as a last resort. America is doing everything possible to stay out of Yemen, but all indications are that it will continue to destabilize and risk the exploitation of further US military intervention.
The same goes for Iran.
And in Somalia no political or economic solutions have worked outright. al-Shabab controls half the country and the capital, posing such a threat that America has been forced to use force at the level it now is. Isn’t this the cycle Mullen warns of burning out on?
Conversely, we too warned weeks ago that Obama would be forced deeper into Somalia in the near future. Not as a recommendation, this was the truth. Mogadishu would probably be in the hands of al-Shabab without US support to the AU and Somalia army.
So what is America planning to do with its force? Are increased Special Forces and airstrikes “precise?” Tactically yes, but strategically it doesn’t appear so. We’re watching Obama’s last attempts to stave off an al-Qaeda infection in Somalia. More force is a sign, as Mullen might admit, that all other US policy has failed.
The situation will still remain militarized, to a lesser degree of course, if Special Forces never materialize, but let’s theorize their objective for a moment.
Say they score a few critical hits on al-Qaeda and al-Shabab leadership and the AU is able to push al-Shabab out of the bulk of Mogadishu. Is their job finished? Pack bags and redeploy? That seems unlikely, meaning US forces will gradually increase their footprint on the ground from CIA to Special Ops and beyond.
“We are extraordinarily dependent on your success, believe me,” Mullen said of US Special Forces. “And I know that the leaders, from myself right through the president, understand that, and you’ve executed mission after mission successfully and we have great faith that you will continue to do that.
US Special Forces are the most, or certainly one of the few, elite troops in the world. Extremely trained, they take incredibly low casualties compared to their kill rate and regularly accomplish high risk missions. But Somalia has many examples of why Special Ops have a hard time turning the tide by themselves.
One is the famed pirate takedown, another the drone strike on al-Shabab leader Aden Hashi Farah, or the Special Ops raid on al-Qaeda’s Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. After these “successfully executed missions” pirates are still in a brawl with international ships, and al-Shabab has heated its war in Mogadishu to such a degree that the government would likely fall without international military assistance.
The threat isn’t in Mogadishu but in the vast territory under al-Shabab's control. Hunting al-Qaeda in the Somali desert, if anything, is precise force. But America cannot expect to support a major offensive across Somalia or hold territory without more US forces, special or not. Air power would also be needed.
This force starts to lose its precision, as the conflict is totally open-ended and unpredictable. Yet it is also far more logical - Somali, US, and AU troops vs. al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. Why not?
“I would argue that in the future struggles of the asymmetric counterinsurgent variety,” Mullen says, “we ought to make it a precondition of committing our troops, that we will do so only if and when the other instruments of national power are ready to engage as well.”
He has that in Somalia. US officials have been gloating of the trust in Somalia’s Transitional Federation Government.
Mullen closes, tongue in cheek, “The worst possible world I can imagine is one in which military commanders are inventing or divining their strategies, their own remedies, in the absence of clear political guidance, sometimes after an initial goal or mission has been taken over by events.”
But Obama hasn’t brought US policy in Somalia to its present state and he isn’t calling the shots on America’s last resort of force. The strings are visible behind him. As for the outcome, who knows.
We’ll have plenty of time to examine it though.