15 November 2019

How 'Economy of Force' warfare works and why Trump should use it

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death this week was an ongoing argument for continuing economy of force operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and that is something that President Trump should be emphasizing rather than using the term “endless wars.” Economy of Force is a principle of war that is not well understood. It means using the least possible manpower, firepower and risk to achieve military ends. The United States has been doing that successfully in the ongoing war on ISIS for several years. Mr. Trump’s core supporters who think that this means endless wars are misinformed. When you have an enemy that can’t be destroyed by conventional means, you employ economy of force to wear him down.

The British did this successfully against Napoleon in the events leading up to the Battle of Waterloo and the French emperor’s final defeat. ISIS and al Qaeda in their worldwide campaign of terror have failed in their objectives of creating safe havens from which to launch 9/11-type attacks in the West. Similarly, the United States has used economy of force to prevent the Taliban from re-creating radical Islamist strongholds in Afghanistan where it and ISIS are being forced to wage war against each other — thus, reducing the effectiveness of both. The majority of the ground fighting has been done by allies backed up with American support. The very small numbers of American troops waging these economy of force campaigns are highly trained professionals, and this is infinitely less expensive than trying to conduct all-out war with whole armies and fleets engaged. Mr. Trump would be better served by explaining economy of force to his base in terms of money and manpower saved than to engage in ill-conceived unilateral withdrawals.

The president is right in his assessment that maintaining an American buffer between the Turks and Kurds was unsustainable in the long run, but it would have been better if he had taken diplomatic action to create a buffer through negotiations; but that’s now water under the bridge. Conversely, the continued U.S. engagement in the region allows for forward deployed presence that enables the kind of operations that killed both Osama bin Laden and al-Baghdadi and keeps terror organizations from effectively reforming.

There is real potential advantage for the Kurds in a shift in center of gravity in Syria from the Turkish border area to the oil region of Deir al Zour Province. The oil is of low quality, but it has the advantage of proximity to the battlefield. When ISIS ran the area’s oil production before the fields were seized by the Kurds, the oil was fueling virtually every combatant in Syria. Astute oil control will allow the Kurds to potentially gain diplomatic leverage that will be to their advantage in eventual negotiations regarding their role in the future of Syria.

Deir al Zour is not an easy area for American forces in which to operate. To continue to assist the Kurds in protecting the oil production facilities, U.S. forces will need to expand and improve the Rmeilan air base and further develop the road infrastructure from the sole usable crossing point from Iraq at the Syrian border. Through prudent investment, the Kurds can leverage these improvements to their economic advantage, providing jobs for Kurdish refugees displaced from the Turkish border. Aside from being good fighters, the Kurds are entrepreneurial as evidenced by their enclave in northern Iraq which is the most prosperous area of that country. The fact that the Russians and Syrians are bitterly protesting the shift in Mr. Trump’s strategy to a concentration on the oil fields means that the president has hit a nerve with them whether deliberately or not.

It would be to Mr. Trump’s advantage to emphasize the value of economy of force operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan and drop the “endless wars” rhetoric. The United States has shifted the burden of ground combat in the war on Islamic extremism to our allies with a tremendous savings in American lives and in the cost to maintain large force on the ground while the economy at home continues to prosper. Mr. Trump’s political base is largely focused on domestic economic issues. The extent that his core supporters think about foreign policy depends almost entirely on how it impacts their lives. Emphasizing foreign withdrawals has only alienated uncommitted voters and Republican foreign policy hawks that the president will need for re-election. It also detracts from the immigration and impeachment fights. Economy of Force is a winning strategy if explained properly.

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