It is over in Afghanistan. Tom Friedman has weighed in on the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. In today’s New York Times America’s minister without portfolio to the world declares “We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan.” Coming on top of recent comments by Senator John Kerry, Vice President Biden and others, Friedman’s comments are the clearest signal yet that our government’s infatuation with counterinsurgency, stability and nation-building is over. Somebody needs to tell the president.
This leaves the Department of Defense (DoD) with a small problem. For the past two years the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has remorselessly driven his department precisely in the opposite direction. Whether it is buying 15,000 MRAPs, demanding that the Air Force acquire enough unmanned vehicles to support 50 continuing orbits, increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, or canceling virtually every advanced conventional weapons program in development, Gates has been designing a military for current and future Iraqs and Afghanistans. Based on his guidance, the 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review has concluded that the military of the future must be able to conduct an Iraq-size opposed, long-term stability operation.
But Kerry, Biden and Friedman are telling DoD that they believe America has neither the will nor the means to conduct such a campaign. They have made it clear also that even if the troops and resources were available they think the chance of success in such operations would be slim, at best. The other so-called failed states that may become havens for Al-Qaeda — Somalia, Yemen or Sudan, for example — are in just as bad shape as Afghanistan. If we cannot successfully pursue counterinsurgency and stability operations in these places, what is the likelihood that this administration or any other will be willing to conduct counterinsurgency and stability operations in the case of the failure of a major state such as North Korea or Pakistan? The answer is none at all. Moreover, even if Washington gets the urge to do more of these kinds of operations in the future, what credibility will we have with allies or those we are trying to support having declared Afghanistan a lost cause?
In other words, the military has been working to design a force for a mission which the political leadership is signaling they will never again assign. Of all the services, the Army has drunk the most “counterinsurgency kool aid.” Its draft Capstone Concept envisions so-called irregular warfare as the central challenge of the future. Think of Iraq and Afghanistan only worse. This is simply wrong. The Army, in particular, needs to devise an alternative concept of operations that can wipe out terrorist cells, defeat conventional opponents employing “hybrid warfare” techniques and deter rising powers such as China all without the requirement to engage in protracted counterinsurgency and stability operations. The Army needs to heed Friedman’s message to them. “The U.S. military has given its assessment. It said that stabilizing Afghanistan and removing it as a threat requires rebuilding that whole country. Unfortunately, that is a 20-year project at best, and we can’t afford it.”
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