Small Wars Journal

This Decade at War

My column at Foreign Policy discusses where the U.S. military finds itself after a decade at war. The War on Terror is quickly becoming a backwater. But a golden age for grand strategists is about to arrive.


After a decade of adaptation, the war against terrorists disappears into the shadows

War is frequently a matter of experimentation and trial-and-error. The wars of the past decade have been no exception. The United States has churned through several warfighting doctrines over the past ten years as elusive adversaries and looming political and financial constraints have forced policymakers to adapt. We are currently witnessing an accelerating decline in the size of the military effort against terrorism. Increasingly, the war against terrorists is fought in the shadows, out of sight, and by civilians or a few commandos seconded to civilian commanders. The vast majority of the U.S. military will soon exit the wars that 9/11 started. And the arrival of heavy financial and political constraints will force U.S. policymakers to develop a real national security strategy for the first time since 1950s. As other security challenges rise up, the War on Terror is already becoming a backwater.

COIN is out, civilian warfighters are in

Actual combat has always ground up and thrown out warfighting doctrines and theories. There will undoubtedly be a great debate in the years ahead whether modern Western counterinsurgency (COIN) theory, with its focus on protecting and winning over the indigenous population, is a realistic approach.

Several years ago, it was accepted that the only suitable end state in Iraq and Afghanistan that would work for Western interests was one where strong and stable governments in both countries kept out terrorist sanctuaries. U.S. and other Western military forces would conduct major combat operations to clear away extremists, followed by counterinsurgency patrolling to protect the population, and training indigenous forces to take over security operations.

That model may yet succeed in Iraq and (less likely) in Afghanistan. But with political patience and money having run out, U.S. political leaders will do everything possible to avoid another COIN campaign in the future.

Instead, civilian policymakers in Washington have found much to like with the discrete (and discreet) killing done by the CIA's drones and the Joint Special Operations Command's (JSOC) raiders, particularly this May's successful operation in Abottabad. By contrast, over the past several years they have questioned the benefit of COIN patrolling. The costs -- in lives, money, and political support -- they now know all too well. Meanwhile, nearly every day the CIA and JSOC report to the president on the terrorist operatives they have killed, at relatively low cost and with measurable benefits to security.

Budget outcomes now demonstrate the policymakers' revealed preferences. In the past decade, Congress has rewarded the CIA's counterterrorism staff with a nearly seven-fold expansion while JSOC has grown by 14 times. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's conventional ground combat forces, those needed for counterinsurgency patrolling, face a cut of at least 22 percent.

As I have discussed previously, the fight against terrorists and irregular adversaries is rapidly becoming "civilianized." For U.S. policymakers, it is more convenient and effective to fight this war in the shadows using intelligence officers, paramilitaries, local proxies, contractors, and special operations soldiers seconded to intelligence agencies (as was done in the bin Laden raid). After a decade of experience, U.S. officials have figured out that they get the best results by employing some of the same tactical advantages enjoyed by their adversaries, such as using civilian guise, establishing cellular networks, and operating in a borderless world. This style of fighting leaves out conventional military formations, whose role in War on Terror will soon wind down.

The Pottery Barn Rule is repealed

The Western intervention in Libya presents another interesting case of how the views of civilian leaders have changed over the past ten years. Although humanitarian concerns, not terrorism, sparked the intervention, Western military power was crucial in driving the Qaddafi regime from power. Now Libya faces the same "post-conflict" stabilization issues that Afghanistan and Iraq faced after Western intervention toppled regimes in those countries. But in a break from the Afghanistan and Iraq cases, the U.S. and European government have repealed former Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2003 "Pottery Barn Rule" referring to Iraq -- "you break it, you own it."

Instead, Western governments have pledged to let Libya's rebels sort out the future, come what may. A few years ago, when political and financial capital was more plentiful, U.S. politicians felt a greater obligation to clean up after themselves. They also felt compelled to spend whatever was required to ensure that a pro-Western regime emerged. Today, they no longer have the money to worry about those concerns.

Thanks for being a hero -- here is your pink slip

The past decade of combat has been a demanding teacher for junior leaders in the Army and Marine Corps. Fighting has been decentralized, requiring these organizations to delegate authority and responsibility down to small unit leaders. As a result, these leaders have now developed leadership and decision-making skills they would not have otherwise gained.

But in a cruel irony, these young sergeants and officers, the ones who were placed under the most pressure and put at the most risk, are now most likely to be laid off, as the Pentagon cuts its budget in the years ahead. With irregular warfare becoming civilianized, the role for conventional ground forces in ongoing operations will rapidly shrink. In addition, the major security challenge for the United States is now in East Asia and the southwest Pacific, a mission primarily for the Navy and Air Force.

The United States still needs substantial ground combat power, both as a hedge against a variety of contingencies and as a source for special operations soldiers and other specialists who will lead the fight against irregular adversaries. The challenge for the Pentagon will be figuring out how to retain adequate ground power at a much reduced cost. One solution might be to expand the number of military reserve units, with improved plans to quickly regenerate ground combat power during crises. If nothing else, a larger force of reservists, who are both civilians and soldiers, might improve the linkage between the civilian and military worlds, the chasm between which is likely to expand in the years ahead, as U.S. military tasks and personnel become even more specialized and technically focused.

A new golden age for grand strategists

The coming era of budget austerity and political constraints on the use of military power will bring back the importance of grand strategy to policymaking. During the period of U.S. hegemony after the Cold War, strategy and strategists were ignored. Sandy Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security advisor from 1997 to 2001 (the recent apex of U.S. hegemony) expressed his disdain for strategic theorizing by declaring that he would instead, "worry about today today and tomorrow tomorrow." During this period, when many policymakers believed there were few external financial or political limits on their policy options, strategy appeared to have little relevance and therefore merited little attention.

Strategy is all about matching up scarce resources against a set of ranked strategic priorities and likely adversary responses. When policymakers perceived that they enjoyed nearly unlimited resources and weak adversaries, careful attention to priorities and resource decisions were thought unnecessary.

Of course, that world is now long gone for U.S. policymakers. The looming crash in the Pentagon's budget while China's continues to expand at a 12 percent annual rate after inflation should be enough to focus policymakers' minds. A new golden age for long-ignored security strategists is arriving as policymakers look for advice on how to match shrinking resources against expanding challenges.

With China rising, can the Pentagon afford a War on Terror?

To realize how much has changed in the past decade, consider (hypothetically, I hope) how the United States would respond today should terrorists in some ungoverned territory achieve another 9/11-style mass casualty attack inside the United States. Clearing that territory with major combat operations, followed by stabilization, counterinsurgency, and nation-building, is not likely to be the U.S. response. Much more likely would be a punitive raid, with CIA drones and JSOC periodically following up against the survivors. 

Such an approach may not accomplish much in the long run. But it won't risk much either, which is now a much important consideration than it seemed to be in 2001. Shoring up East Asia is now the Pentagon's main task; fighting terrorism is a secondary concern. That's what's changed over the past ten years.




There is a lot to take issue with in this article in my opinion. Our war fighting doctrines don't always get thrown the window when we go into combat, but rather they evolve based on the threat, political constraints, technology and other factors. Our warfighting doctrine was largely adhered to (at the service level) during DESERT STORM and OIF I (major combat operations), and not surprisingly we well in the type of combat we were trained, equipped and organized to conduct, and also not surprisingly we struggled when the nature of the conflict became more irregular in nature. Understandably both SOF and GPF underwent a fundamental evolution to in organization and doctrine. Adaptation is always necessary in conflict, and sometimes radical adaptation is necessary. The debatable issue is whether or not we retained the right balance of forces (that are appropriately trained and equipped) to respond to other threats.
Yes, strategy is all about matching up scarce resources against a set of ranked strategic priorities, and didn’t we do exactly that when we identified AQ and its allies as our greatest threat? Didn’t we invest considerable money, manpower, and structure our various elements of national power to focus on this threat? It can be argued we made a huge strategic error invading Iraq (giving Iran even greater influence in the Middle East), but then again following the premise that WMD in a rogue actor’s hands was also a high priority threat to the U.S. then perhaps that was also appropriate with our strategy.
What is really at issue is the ways we pursued to achieve our ends. As Ken stated the war on terrorism never should have left the shadows. Not only was it ill advised to deploy large elements of conventional forces to conduct CT, which they are not suited to do, it led to amalgamating other problems such as the Taliban (now COIN) and nation building which had only ancillary relations to the organization we seeked to defeat. This resulted in making the main effort (manpower and $$$) focused on COIN, Stability Operations, and Nation building, somehow justified by a few misled think tanks as strategic defeat lines of effort against AQ. AQ was a weak adversary (still clever and deadly), but our politically driven highly visible response and occupation of Muslim nations has resulted in the ideology of AQ going viral and becoming a relatively permanent fixture/threat that will result in emerging threats for years, and they will have to pre-empted by SOF and CIA for years to come, regardless of whether or we ever stabilize Afghanistan. Senior AQ leadership have stated several times part of their strategy was to bankrupt America, and we foolishly fell into that trap with our response.
I hope our civilian policymakers in Washington like this approach, while understanding it will never end the conflict and that high risk missions will sometimes fail. Everyone gets a high when we have a huge success like killing UBL, but the helo crash demonstrates how close even this operation came to being a disaster. By all means continue to conduct high risk missions when they’re worth the risk, but don’t forget the risk is very real. As for measurable benefits, I’m not a big believer in metrics for war, and I would like to know how you see this being “measurable” progress?
Western governments have pledged to let Libya's rebels sort out the future, come what may.
Why is China the major security challenge to the U.S.? Even if China eventually became hostile to the U.S. in the future, they are far from being a peer competitor militarily, and they have several vulnerabilities that could be exploited. I would list China as a potential concern should they continue to flex their might, and of course we should strive to maintain our military supreme to all others to maintain Pax Americana, but the reality is we don’t know what the next threat to our nation will be, if it is irregular, then hopefully after 10 years of COIN and CT we’re prepared for that as long as we maintain those capabilities, if it is conventional threat, if we can defeat China in a conventional conflict then we should be adequately equipped to defeat any other nation that is hostile to the U.S. . I realize that is overly simplistic, and the real challenge will be having the right force structure to not only deal with hybrid threats, but to be postured and engaged globally sufficiently to deter/prevent such conflicts and respond effectively if we fail at that. A large reserve force does not facilitate that.
With China rising, can the Pentagon afford a War on Terror? To answer your question, yes if we narrow the war on terror to fighting terrorists and not occupying and attempting to nation build. Nations will develop in their own time, in their own way, and we should help them along with others, but not “force” them to do so. It not only doesn’t work, we can’t afford it.


Sat, 09/10/2011 - 8:36am

In reply to by Ken White

Robert, good observations, especially with regards the current effectiveness and future stomach for COIN. However, your comments concerning counter-terrorism (CT) merit further discussion.

You write CT efforts are "convenient" and "effective." Concur with the convenient part, but what constitutes effective? Do CT efforts sustainably contribute to strategic gains or a broader desired endstate? What are those metrics and how are they weighted against other measures of progress? Night raids, drone attacks routinely anger local populaces. CT operations are intended to be surgical strikes, but at some point, their proliferation may reach a tipping point that creates more terrorists that it kills.

Can a CT operations alone create a stable Afghanistan, the current strategic endstate or are you suggesting US goals for this conflict will invariably shift? And then, what? Will the strategy transform to one narrowly fixated on "spanking" active terrorist cells, not unlike smacking a poorly trained dog on nose with a newspaper after he urinates in the house (again), with about the same result?

Bin Laden raid notwithstanding, do you suggest the US will use CT as a standard response in those nations which pose a security threat, even if we are not at war with them? even without their consent? If so, how are rebels discerned from terrorists? Who makes that decision? Under this scenario, what is the role of due process? Might the US invariably find itself ensnared in criticisms and legal actions for conducting "assassinations" -- a growing charge leveled at CT efforts? Finally, how will such strikes be reconciled with the US's commitment to respect the sovereignty of nations, and the expectation that ours is respected in return?

Many special operations professionals warn against counter-terrorism efforts becoming the "flavor of the day", or a catch-all solution to today's and tomorrow's complex security environment. CT plays an important role, but it cannot be the sole source solution to our nation's security problems. LTG Boykin argued this point well last month, at….

Now, back to that point about "convenience." For now, CT is convenient but if the nation turns to rely on this strategy more and more, a new set of complexities and controversies will emerge....possibly making COIN look good in hindsight.

Ken White

Fri, 09/09/2011 - 11:13pm

Good article, Robert. Some observations.

<blockquote>"After a decade of adaptation, the war against terrorists disappears into the shadows."</blockquote> As well it should. It should never have come out of the shadows. However, I guess budgets are budgets and politics is politics...

<blockquote>"COIN is out, civilian warfighters are in."</blockquote>There should be no debate on the merits of COIN -- there are none. It was a process that worked prior to the World Wars (both) and that has rarely really worked since 1918 -- though Billions have been spent trying to make it work by many nations. It's a bankrupt theory -- in every sense of the word. The civilian warfighter thing will not work either. My sensing is that most lack the political will to fight boldly and decisively. Regrettably, for those few in the right place that do have that will, the impediments of constituencies and interest groups in opposing them for no reason other than ideology are highly likely to insure flawed operations. Our foreign policy and military efforts are driven almost solely by domestic politics; there may be a foreign catalyst but then domestic concerns rule the reaction. Barring an existential war, it'll take something unforeseen to change the system.

In any event and hopefully, everyone involved, military or civilian will be aware that all wars differ and there is NO one size fits all template. None.

A person currently in Afghanistan mentioned to me just today that the Army should learn that if consideration is being given to deploying AAFES to support the force, it's time to end that deployment, call it a day, pack up and come home. He has an excellent point. Really...

<blockquote>"The Pottery Barn Rule is repealed"</blockquote>There was never a pottery barn rule; that 'concept' was and is as flawed as the Weinberger and Powell Doctrines. We tried to implement all three (or is it all two...) simply because someone deemed important said things. Important people say dumb things about as often as the rest of us. All those ideas were effectively repealed before they were promulgated, they were all doomed to fail but we kept blindly on just as we have foolishly tried to implement COIN efforts with marginally trained troops in spite of decade of experience showing that a small footprint <i>might</i> work, a large one almost certainly will not.

What has <u>not</u> been repealed are the age old dictums that national interest should rule what you do and how you do it, that a cost / benefit ratio should be studied, that force should be applied only as a last resort and if applied, that mission requirements and tactical / technical competence (not personnel considerations...) <i>must</i> rule.

<blockquote>"Thanks for being a hero -- here is your pink slip."</blockquote> I'm terribly afraid you'll be correct. What we should do, of course is fire or retire the bottom fifty percent of every rank from SFC to CSM and from LTC through GEN as well as a minor cull of other ranks. Unlikely. Dead wood must be protected. We should also get rid of up or out. The best Marine Company Commander I had was Ken Houghton -- at the time he was commanding his third Company in combat. The best Army type was on his sixth company and the next best was on his third. The most tactically competent and best COL I worked for was on his third command at that rank, the best LTC on his second. I think there's a message in those numbers. I understand the principles of up or out and 'every officer a Generalist' as well as the moves to make the Warrant and NonCommissioned Offcer Corps also into generalists (forcing people into Recruiting and to be Drill Sergeants is particularly poor thinking -- great personnel management, poor personal employment...). I also understand and know from experience the process does not really work for Officers and predict that it will do even more harm as a process if implemented fully at lower levels. We'll probably replicate our brilliant post Viet Nam strategy -- take all the great Aviator CPTs who had been directly commissioned from Warrant ranks and give them a pink slip -- "You're one of the finest Aviators in the Army but you're out. Not go back to your Warrant rank or even your former enlisted rank -- just out!" Madness.

<blockquote>"A new golden age for grand strategists"</blockquote>Not. The US of A does not and cannot do grand strategy. The political milieu and electoral cycle will not support it. Consider the various public works programs, our various social programs that routinely are in trouble and yet putter on, the Space Program, the Postal Service -- we cannot do strategic coherence. The Cold War, often touted as an example of strategic continuity was really far from that, the directions changed almost 180° with each new Administration. The policy was fairly consistent, the strategy changed often -- as it should. Most calls for a grand strategy are really pleas for simplicity and consistency. Distressingly, people won't play fair. Never have...

Not only will the political system preclude it, out military personnel system with up or out, forced generalization and moves based on cycles easy for the Personnel people to operate but not conducive to senior persons staying in a job long enough to become truly effective due to having to make way for a possibly far less qualified person whose turn it just happens to be -- consider the relearning of the lessons of WW II in Korea, of Korea in Viet Nam, of Viet Nam today...

You can forget grand strategy. As an aside, ever notice how many 'great' strategists have absolutely no responsibility for what occurs...

<blockquote>"With China rising, can the Pentagon afford a War on Terror?"</blockquote>China is not and will not be a problem unless we make it one.

Given our track record and the aforementioned 'great' strategists... :<


Sat, 09/10/2011 - 1:00pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

It is not an issue of being dense. However, if you were not in uniform during the early to mid 1990’s, you may not recognize the nefarious activities of the “consultants or desk jockeys” mentioned. Both have been quietly waiting for our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan to become political untenable. The consultants will again press for a return to high intensity maneuver warfare in order to move the big ticket items that carry favor in congressional districts—regardless of actual future threats and required capabilities. The desk jockeys will lead the Army back to “garrison” soldiering. Looking good in a uniform and being able to sing cadence will again be prerequisites for promotion with little merit on one’s ability to operate in a volatile and uncertain environment. The young sergeants and junior officers with multiple tours are not so popular back in big Army—their tactical competence, ability to improvise, and questioning of precedent make the garrison crowd very uneasy. Take a look at who is writing doctrine and teaching at the mid and senior level colleges. With exceptions, it is basically the same cohort that was at the helm in 2001.


Fri, 09/09/2011 - 10:20pm

Possibly I am dense, but I don't see why "young sergeants and officers, the ones who were placed under the most pressure and put at the most risk, are now most likely to be laid off, as the Pentagon cuts its budget in the years ahead". Surely the tail could be trimmed enough to gain the required savings without having to file down the teeth. Are there no superfluous consultants or desk jockeys who could be dropped instead of firing young sergeants and officers with combat experience... the people we most need to retain?

Again I apologize for my density, but could someone explain the difference between "grand strategy" and "policy"? For some reason it is not as obvious to me as it seems to be to others...