Jeff Emanuel offers some insights into President Obama's military cutbacks, announced today at a press conference. As Emanuel notes, it wasn't really a press conference, since the president ducked out after initial remarks. He writes:
There’s no question that an agile, flexible, etc. military has its benefits, particularly in an age of widely-diffused, rapidly-emerging threats; however, just how that more agile military is designed and arrived at is an important issue, particularly in light of how stretched the total force has been over the last decade. Though long-term counterinsurgency operations will likely be avoided as much as possible in the near future (particularly by the current administration), and though unmanned ISR and offensive operations are being conducted with greater and greater frequency, there is clear danger in drawing down our nation’s force too far too fast, as well as in indiscriminately slashing defense funding.
Personally, I am concerned Obama's solution in this case isn't up to the challenge. You can't rebuild a force by cutting out troops - like it or not, we're still a nation at war, and as such, a better approach would be working to give the force we need more rest and longer lull time, rather than reducing numbers and increasing the strain on those who serve.
Here's the rub: While the language of "leaner and more agile" sounds good in principle, what does it really mean? Distinguishing between cutting out fat and cutting out brigades is the important aspect of this. Obama is describing a goal, and perhaps a worthy one, but getting there is the problem. Our experience over the past decade has shown us that small and agile forces work great for the first punch, but they can't do the security or counterinsurgency operations our political leaders have demanded afterwards.
It appears that this move marks the true end of the counter-insurgency approach engineered by General Petraeus. Despite the set-backs in Afghanistan, COIN was hugely successful in Iraq, and is really only just beginning to permeate military doctrine in a meaningful way at the training level. But in this case, it is reduced to the ninth strategy point, and its relegation is obvious. From the accompanying strategy document:
In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations. U.S. forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.
To my eyes, this looks like a true abandonment of COIN as envisioned by Petraeus. As Vice Chairman Winnefeld wrote recently:
“We are not likely to have as our next fight a counterinsurgency," he said. While America has been teaching its troops Arabic and other regional languages, training them how to win friends and influence people at the village and provincial levels, "the world has changed," Winnefeld said. America's enemies and competitors are "coming up with new asymmetric advantages. They've been studying us closely...," he said. So, "we need to avoid the temptation to look in our rear view mirror.”
And this extends beyond the Army’s thresholds—hence this comment from the Marine Corps Commandant: “I’m pretty confident … that over the next 12 months that we can transition from what you would call classic counterinsurgency operations to ... training and advising.” This sentiment applies not just to the changing mission in Afghanistan, but also to the overarching purpose of the Marine Corps, which is looking to reclaim its individual mission from that of the Army or other services.
The difficulty for the Army is the lack of training capability on either of these fronts—either on the Big Army tactics pre-Petraeus (which have been largely ignored at the training level for some time now) or on the hybrid that is likely to come next. With these latest announcements, it appears likely that General Petraeus's legacy will drift away into the sands.
One last aside: In general, I favor cuts in Defense, but targeted at the tail, not the tooth. The challenge of bringing down the costs of defending the country are increasingly about the cost of post-service entitlements, one that is extremely difficult politically. There's an important distinction to be made here between general entitlements and military benefits earned through service and sacrifice. If such a differentiation can be made, it might make steps such as reform of Tricare (which retains absurdly low copays) more palatable.
Perhaps not. But even so, that's where cuts must be made, along with reassessing weapons systems and bureaucratic bloat. Our goal in funding defense needs to be simple: every dollar spent must be focused on supporting the warfighter as the first priority. How we get there will take real leadership - the hard kind, not the press conference kind.