Revolution in Military Affairs: the reason we're in Afghanistan
An intellectual’s theory of warfare means the US is using its military supremacy while it lasts to crush its enemies
With British soldiers dying almost every day in Helmand province, and military funeral corteges in rural English towns becoming a familiar sight, the mounting death toll has renewed the debate over Britain's involvement in a chaotic conflict with no clear objectives and no coherent strategy for achieving them.
While the military calls for more helicopters, and pro-war media pundits talk bullishly of staying the course regardless of whether the course leads anywhere, it is worth asking how we found ourselves in this situation.
Those looking for answers would do well to consider an 89-year-old American defence intellectual called Andrew Marshall. The director of a little-known Pentagon thinktank called the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), Marshall is one of the most influential advocates of the doctrine of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which has done so much to underpin the Anglo-American wars of recent years.
The RMA refers to a recurring historical cycle, in which certain countries or groups of countries achieve a level of military supremacy in terms of technology and organisation that makes them unbeatable - until their rivals catch up or overtake them.
The US must use this window of opportunity to eliminate its rivals
Examples of this tendency include the Greek city states, the Roman Empire, Genghis Khan and the early French armies of the Napoleonic era. In the wake of the Cold War, Marshall argued that the United States was similarly unchallengeable.
Marshall's acolytes, who included Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and the neocon militarists of the Project for the New American Century, argued that the US should use this temporary window of opportunity to eliminate or neutralise its potential rivals.
The fearsome demonstrations of firepower in the first Gulf War and Kosovo reinforced the belief that American-led wars could be won at very little cost. Unlike Vietnam, removing Iraqi troops from Kuwait cost very few coalition casualties, while the Nato bombardment of Serbia was achieved without any loss of life on its own side.
On the one hand these successes make war an increasingly attractive first instrument of foreign policy rather than a last resort. At the same time the RMA made war more palatable to the public, since the technological expertise of these wars made them relatively painless for the other side as well as ours.
Tight control over media coverage of these wars, coupled with propaganda talk of surgical strikes, smart bombs and 'humanitarian' warfare forged the illusion that war could be relatively bloodless and painless.
Last but not least, the RMA was presented as the instrument of a progressive moral agenda, in which Western armies fought not to advance strategic or economic interests, but to defend women's rights, prevent genocide, export democracy, or bring development.
Such rhetoric enabled both the US and British governments to overcome the anti-militarist sentiments of their populations, especially after the September 11 attacks. In this way the RMA became part of the 'imperial hubris' that drove the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
At first, these wars seemed to bear out the RMA thesis, as high-tech Western weaponry swatted the Taliban and crushed Saddam Hussein's broken army. But the bloody occupations that followed have unravelled this sense of omnipotence.
In Iraq, the Anglo-American invasion was brought to the brink of strategic defeat by a brutal guerrilla war that it had not anticipated. A similar process is unfolding in Afghanistan. These 'new' wars of the RMA have given way to the older doctrines of counterinsurgency, even as the body count continues to demonstrate that war is not bloodless or cost-free.
This did not matter, as long as the natives were the ones who were dying, uncounted and offstage. But now British soldiers are being killed and the public wants to know why.
They will not get straight answers from the clueless and dishonest Brown government, which insists that British troops are preventing Afghanistan from becoming a launchpad for terrorist attacks in Britain.
But the truth is we are there because we chose to hitch our fortunes to an arrogant and deluded superpower intoxicated by its unlimited military power. And with every coffin that comes home from Afghanistan, the wisdom of riding shotgun on the RMA becomes more questionable. ·
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