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by Shawn Brimley, Small Wars Journal Op-Ed
The long simmering debate over American defense strategy, re-ignited by Andrew Bacevich's article in The Atlantic (and usefully stoked by Small Wars Journal), is perhaps the most important facing America's defense community. Mere weeks from the election of a new President, the debate over whether Iraq and Afghanistan are harbingers of why, where, and how America will fight its next wars helps to frame the context within which the next administration will decide how to construct a defense budget during a deepening economic downturn. The debate is real and the stakes are high.
In his article, Bacevich framed the debate as one between the crusaders, those who believe that Iraq and Afghanistan are but opening salvos in a generational long war, and those he labels the conservatives, who believe that organizing America's military to transform entire societies is a fool's errand. An oversimplified summary of each view might read as follows:
Crusaders: If 9/11 and the subsequent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that America's 21st century enemies are likely to exploit weak and failing states to export terrorism, instability, and extremism. The era of episodic or periodic conflict is over, and America's military had better get prepared for an era of persistent conflict, one in which instability anywhere can pose threats to America's interests anywhere. In the conflicts of the 21st century, the U.S. military will not be able to kill its way to victory, but must instead focus on transforming societies in order to address the grievances that manifest into powerful threats against America's interests. The types of capabilities most in demand for success in Iraq and Afghanistan -- linguists, trainers, combat advisors, civil affairs and intelligence experts -- are exactly the capabilities we will need in the future. Simply expanding so-called "white" special operations forces or marginal improvements in Army and Marine Corps capabilities will not prove sufficient. America's ground forces need to transform for a future of small wars and insurgencies, and if that means taking risk in more conventional capabilities like field artillery or armor, so be it.
Conservatives: If 9/11 and subsequent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us anything, it is that American power has limits. We cannot transform entire societies, and the notion that America needs to be persistently deployed as part of a generational long war is exactly what our enemies most desire. The most important variables in Iraq and Afghanistan are the actions of the various political actors -- we are not in control of the outcomes and never have been. Yes, weak and failing states can play host to those that may threaten us, but the answer is not to engage U.S. ground forces in a global Manichean counterinsurgency or pacification campaign in the quicksand of the Muslim world, because to do so would permanently mire America in a series of unwinnable wars. America's Army and Marine Corps as currently organized are more than sufficient to wage the counterinsurgencies we find ourselves in today, and the attempt to dramatically retool our ground forces for a never-ending long war imposes great risks to America's ability to defend against an uncertain future. With rising powers such as India, China and Russia poised to challenge American dominance, to embrace an era of persistent conflict is a recipe for a kind of permanent strategic distraction that will prove corrosive to America's power and global prestige...