News / Middle East

US Becoming More Leery of Long Wars

US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates walks with a group of service members at Forward Operating Base Waltman, Kandahar, Afghanistan, June 5, 2011
US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates walks with a group of service members at Forward Operating Base Waltman, Kandahar, Afghanistan, June 5, 2011
Al Pessin

The counterinsurgency approach the United States and its allies have used to fight their enemies and help build democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be fading in its popularity.  Some U.S. officials and many members of Congress and the public have grown weary of that type of long-term and costly campaign.  Our correspondent reports on what could be a significant change in the way the United States uses its power to pursue its interests.

When the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began in 2001 and 2003, U.S. officials hoped to remove the countries’ rulers, install representative governments, make the countries inhospitable to terrorist groups and get out quickly.  It did not work out that way.

Instead, U.S. troops and diplomats became embroiled in long, bloody conflicts, struggling to help develop credible new leadership and capable security forces.  The Afghan war is approaching its 10th anniversary, with at least three more years of allied involvement planned.  The U.S. military presence in Iraq is scheduled to end in December, after more than eight years, but the conflict smolders on.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed the growing concerns of many during a speech in February to future Army officers at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

“[I]n my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined," said Gates.

Secretary Gates’ remarks reflected the pain of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even if, in the end, some of the strategic goals are achieved.

In those wars, the United States and its allies ran into what for some experts is a familiar problem - the difficulty of fighting insurgents who have popular support based on ideology and long-festering grievances, with the ability to hide among the people, refill their ranks and, in the case of Afghanistan, receive a measure of safe haven in a neighboring country.

After several years of struggling to relearn forgotten lessons from Vietnam and other past conflicts, the U.S. military wrote a new counterinsurgency doctrine in 2006.  It is designed to provide a “How To” guide for troops in the field, who had to earn the support of the local people, develop local leaders and train security forces while fighting the insurgents at the same time.  Military historian and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Conrad Crane was brought in to lead the effort.

“If the political decision makers decide we need to conduct a counterinsurgency to achieve national objectives, then the doctrine is designed to show how we do it," said Crane.

The concepts of counterinsurgency and the doctrine Crane helped write became a sort of mantra for many members of the military and outside experts, and they say the improved approach led to more successes.  But it did not result in a quick end to the conflicts.  Now, particularly after the death of Osama bin Laden, more and more members of Congress, Obama administration officials and others are being more open with their concerns about the high cost - in lives and money - of the NATO plan to continue significant military involvement in Afghanistan for several more years.  Crane finds some irony in that.

“We warned when we wrote the doctrine that counterinsurgency is always long and expensive and bloody," he said. "And now people are complaining because they are finding that counterinsurgency takes a long time and it is expensive and bloody.”

Another retired Army officer welcomes the decline in the popularity of counterinsurgency.

“If the counterinsurgency fad has run its course, then that is a good thing for our country," said Andrew Bacevich.

Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University is a retired colonel who has written several books and many articles criticizing what he sees as the excessive willingness of American leaders to commit troops, prestige and economic capacity to lengthy conflicts.

“The whole notion that war is the only response to violent anti-Western Jihadism is preposterous, and backs us into a corner where all choices are bad choices," he said. "I think the United States needs to be more selective in its willingness to use power.  Being more selective would very much serve our interests.”

Bacevich says terrorists should be treated like criminals, not military opponents.  And while he acknowledges that U.S. adversaries have a role in determining when the United States goes to war, he says U.S. officials need to consider a broader range of options than invasions and counterinsurgency campaigns.

In a speech on the future of warfare Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn indicated that the department is moving to do that - to balance how much it invests in counterinsurgency versus more traditional military capabilities.

"I think you can decide which of those two you want to emphasize," said William Lynn. "I don't think you can eliminate either. I don't think that's possible."

Lynn says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more difficult than had been expected, but the U.S. military must have enough troops and the right kind of training, equipment and family support for future long conflicts, which he said are still "plausible."

The counterinsurgency doctrine author, Conrad Crane, says the 240-page document is a good guide if political leaders decide such an effort is necessary in the future.  But he also acknowledges there are other types of military campaign, like the air and naval effort in Libya today, that the United States and its allies can use in many situations, as well as economic sanctions, diplomatic efforts and other means.  And he agrees with Secretary Gates, saying that no American leader is going to be eager to commit the country to a long, expensive, bloody counterinsurgency campaign for some time to come.

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