In the months leading up to the attacks of September 11, the Department of Defense was working on a new defense strategy and associated force structure. Central to the new plan was a significant reduction in the size of the U.S. Army. The incoming Bush Administration had campaigned on a platform of reduced U.S. involvement in so-called overseas stability operations and greater reliance on air and naval power. Even as the Al Qaeda plot was progressing, the Pentagon was planning to cut two of the ten divisions in the Army’s Active Component along with a number of headquarters and support units. In response to the demands of overlapping large-scale, protracted land campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon not only cancelled the planned cuts to the Army but increased the size of U.S. land forces (the Army and Marine Corps) by 100,000.
Fast forward a decade and the Department of Defense (DoD) may be about to make the same mistake again. U.S. forces are completely out of Iraq and most Coalition troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In addition, the new U.S. defense strategy is based on three questionable assumptions. The first of these is that the global struggle against Islamic extremists has been won. The second is that the United States can readily avoid becoming involved in another “Iraq-like” conflict. The third is that the military needs to reduce its investment in ground forces and focus on enhancing its air and sea forces so as to be more relevant to security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, the current plan is not only to eliminate the 100,000 end-strength plus up but to cut back the Army and Marine Corps even more.
The first rule in military planning is that the adversaries always get a vote. As demonstrated by events in the Middle East and northern Africa, one of our adversaries, violent Islamic extremism, has already cast its vote. It has voted not just to continue the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan but to expand their violent jihad to new parts of the world. CIA reports of intercepted conversations between local Libyan fighters and higher ups in the terrorist network not only demonstrate conclusively that the Benghazi attack was a planned operation but underscore the extent to which Al Qaeda and its affiliates have established themselves in North Africa. Half of Mali is now under the effective control of local Islamic extremists who are part of a wider movement in the region called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In northern Nigeria, Boko Harim is carrying out a campaign of assassinations and bombings that has turned much of this region into a war zone. The civil war in Somalia continues with the Islamic fundamentalist group Shabaab holding sway in much of the southern part of that country. The consistent pace of drone strikes against Islamic extremists in Yemen underscore the reality that this country too has become a battleground.
In addition to the security challenge resulting from the spread of Islamist terrorism, there is also the danger posed by failing states with weapons of mass destruction. The intensifying civil war in Syria could prompt Western intervention on humanitarian grounds or to secure the regime’s large stockpiles of chemical weapons. One scenario that terrifies U.S. planners is the collapse of central authority in Pakistan which will create the imperative to gain control of that country’s nuclear arsenal.
If sanctions on Iran do not work, the world will face the prospect of having to take military action to deny that country a nuclear weapon. Winning a war with Iran probably would necessitate a major joint force campaign with significant ground elements. Even a limited conflict in the Persian Gulf will result in the need to commit additional U.S. forces to that region for a protracted period.
There is a high likelihood that in just the next few years the U.S. will find it necessary to intervene in at least one and possibly several of these countries. The warning signs are much clearer today than they were in 2001. Consequently, the plan to shrink the Army and Marine Corps makes little strategic sense.
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