Today’s Wall Street Journal carries the story that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates may be losing his affinity for counterinsurgency, the dominant theme of the national defense strategy and the in-process Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The newspaper reports a senior defense official as saying that Gates now worries counterinsurgency might no longer be a viable approach for countering the Taliban violence roiling once-stable parts of north and west Afghanistan. A strategy of counterinsurgency is based on the premise that it is necessary to separate the population from the insurgents, something that requires lots of forces. In addition, to really wean the people away from the bad guys you have to stabilize the country, create viable domestic institutions and a functioning economy. Apparently, the Secretary is coming to the realization that the United States lacks the resources and the will for the protracted struggle such a strategy requires.
A counterterrorism strategy would just focus on the really bad guys, largely Al Qaeda. It would simply seek to put continuing pressure on them, deny them respite and safe havens and kill as many of the senior and mid-level operatives as possible. This is the strategy that Israel has pursued against the PLO and Hamas for decades. The problem with a counterterrorism strategy is that it is never-ending. Like a chronic disease, terrorism can be treated but not cured. There would also inevitably be civilian casualties because the terrorists seek to operate in the midst of civilian populations. Of course, our concern for collateral damage would be lessened if we were not trying to win hearts and minds – that is part of a counterinsurgency strategy.
What does Secretary Gates’ epiphany mean for U.S. defense programs? The Secretary has demanded major changes in force structure and acquisition programs based on the belief that the United States would be engaged in worldwide counterinsurgency. The current QDR even has as a force-sizing criterion the requirement for U.S. forces to undertake an opposed stability operation on the same scale as Operation Iraqi Freedom. If we are not going to do counterinsurgency but counterterrorism, of what value is such a force-sizing metric? Why have 50 Predator orbits, 5,000 M-ATVs or increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 if we are not going to do counterinsurgency in the future?
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