Pentagon rethinking value of major counterinsurgencies

Pentagon planners are rethinking the war in Afghanistan
Pentagon planners are rethinking the war in Afghanistan Tom Pennington / Fort Worth Star-Telegram / MCT

WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade after the United States began to focus its military training and equipment purchases almost exclusively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military strategists are quietly shifting gears, saying that large-scale counterinsurgency efforts cost too much and last too long.

The domestic economic crisis and the Obama administration's commitment to withdraw from Iraq and begin drawing down in Afghanistan next year are factors in the change. The biggest spur, however, is a growing recognition that large-scale counterinsurgency battles have high casualty rates for troops and civilians, eat up equipment that must be replaced and rarely end in clear victory or defeat.

In addition, military thinkers say such wars have put the U.S.'s technologically advanced ground forces on the defensive while less sophisticated insurgent forces are able to remain on the offensive.

Counterinsurgency "is a good way to get out of a situation gone bad," but it's not the best way to use combat forces, said Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "I think everyone realizes counterinsurgency is a losing proposition for U.S. combat troops. I can't imagine anyone would opt for this option."

Many Pentagon strategists think that future counterinsurgencies should involve fewer American ground troops and more military trainers, special forces and airstrikes. Instead of "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," as former President George W. Bush once defined the Afghan and Iraq wars, the Pentagon thinks it must train local populations to fight local insurgents.

The military calls it "foreign internal defense," although some have a pithier name: counterinsurgency light.

The new kind of counterinsurgency is "for the indigenous people and a handful of Americans," said Joseph Collins, a professor at the National Defense University, a Pentagon-funded institution that trains officers and civilians.

The newer approach is on display in Yemen and Pakistan, countries in which the U.S. faces entrenched extremist organizations with ties to al Qaida.

In Yemen, where leaders have distanced themselves publicly from the United States, the U.S. has quietly dispatched military trainers to work with Yemeni government forces and has provided air support, largely for observation. In addition, the U.S. sent Yemen $70 million in military aid.

In Pakistan, the Obama administration has authorized a record number of unmanned airstrikes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and promised $7.5 billion in aid over five years. In addition, defense officials said roughly 100 special forces trainers were working with the Pakistani military.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized the changed thinking in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

"The United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan and Iraq anytime soon — that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire," he wrote. More likely, he said, are "scenarios requiring a familiar tool kit of capabilities, albeit on a smaller scale."

Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently ordered a review of how the military should train and equipment itself in the future, acknowledging that it's shifting course.

"The chairman wants to look at the capability and size of the military" after Iraq and Afghanistan, spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said. "No one has codified the requirements."

The economic downturn is driving much of the change within the Pentagon. Military spending has risen steadily since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

When former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon in 2001, the Defense Department budget was $291.1 billion, or $357.72 billion in today's dollars. The current budget is $708 billion for defense costs and funding the wars.

Pentagon planners say budget cuts are inevitable, and that the change in strategy will help make them.

"We now have to figure out what works. We used to have a practically unlimited budget. Not anymore," said a senior military officer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly. "There is no more room to experiment."

After most major conflicts in U.S. history, defense spending has dropped to prewar levels within two years, accounting for inflation, said James Quinlivan, a military analyst at the RAND Corp. The ends of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't likely to make spending drop that quickly, Quinlivan said.

With no clear defeat of groups such as al Qaida, defense spending is likely to remain higher than it was before 9/11, he said.

Moreover, because of Afghanistan's rugged terrain, it will cost the U.S. more to send troops there, and to get them out, than it did in Iraq, he said.

The wars now account for $159 billion of the Defense Department's budget. There are 96,000 troops in Iraq and 87,000 in Afghanistan.

The shift to a lighter form of counterinsurgency also incorporates the Obama administration's national security view, which calls for getting troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. forces are set to begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is to be complete by the end of that year.

It also, military strategists said, allows the United States to prepare better for a future war that would be fought against another country, not against relatively amorphous terrorist groups.

U.S. officials acknowledge that since 9/11 there's been little training for the kind of coordinated land, sea and air battles that have characterized most of the United States' previous conflicts. While no one wants to predict where such a war might be fought, military strategists say that U.S. troops could be involved in battles between India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, and China and Taiwan.

The last time the military discussed a major strategy shift was during the first months of Rumsfeld's tenure, when he proposed streamlining the military to use less manpower and more technology. That discussion of shrinking the military ended in the months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that technology alone couldn't defeat the burgeoning insurgency there. The order by Bush to increase the number of troops in Iraq, the so-called surge, ended that approach.

Revamping the military itself won't come cheaply. Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, told Congress earlier this month that he thinks it will cost the Army as much as $36 billion to reset itself to be fully prepared for other kinds of warfare. He estimated the job wouldn't be done until 2013.

Still, there are doubts that a change in strategy will defeat armed groups that threaten to take over "failed states" such as Somalia and Yemen. Using trainers and airstrikes requires a strong local government that can lead such trained forces, said Collins, the NDU professor. That's hard to find in the countries that are most susceptible to groups such as al Qaida.

The Pentagon's new strategy also could founder if there were another major attack on the United States.

Still, officials point out that the attempted Christmas Day attack, allegedly by a Nigerian man, on a flight bound for Detroit pointed up how limited U.S. options are to respond to a terrorist action.

"Could we have attacked his little Nigerian village or the town in Yemen where he was training?" said one senior Pentagon official, who spoke only anonymously because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters. "That would not have done anything. We have to be smarter. There are more cases like this than Iraq and Afghanistan."

A huge military response may not have any better results than a smaller undertaking would. Nearly nine years after the U.S. invested thousands of troops and billions of dollars in counterinsurgency, Osama bin Laden remains at large.


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