The U.S. Defense Department has taken several steps in recent weeks to ensure that hard won lessons in counterinsurgency are not lost when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over. The military has been ordered to establish organizations to preserve counterinsurgency capabilities, the Army has published a new training manual focusing on such skills and one military command has published a report indicating that the United States is most likely to face insurgencies and other small scale threats during the next 25 years.
For years, a debate has been raging along the many kilometers of hallways in the Pentagon - should the U.S. military focus on fighting insurgencies or should it return to its traditional strength in conventional, large-scale warfare.
In May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates weighed in.
"I've noticed too much of a tendency toward what might be called 'next-war-itis,' the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict," he said.
By labeling those who favor a focus on large-scale warfare as having 'next-war-itis' Secretary Gates came down firmly on the side of those advocating a deeper commitment to counterinsurgency. Indeed, the secretary asked rhetorically who the United States might reasonably expect to fight in a major traditional war, indicating he sees no such adversary on the horizon.
A new report by U.S. Joint Forces Command appears to back up the secretary's view. Rear Admiral John Richardson says the report that attempts to project global threats over the next 25 years points mainly in one direction.
"We see that the future will contain irregular types of threats," he said. "And we need to be able to respond to those threats and be as superior in the irregular warfare area as we are in the conventional warfare area."
What the Pentagon calls "irregular warfare" covers everything from limited conventional war, with tanks and artillery, to urban warfare fighting insurgents, and it includes the need to help foreign governments with everything from army and police training to building electrical grids, water systems and effective bureaucracies.
The result of the secretary's view and supporting research has been a series of policy changes, including a directive issued December 1 ordering the military services and combat commands to build long-term capabilities to conduct irregular warfare.
"I think he's made it clear that we want to maximize the gains and the lessons we've learned, and put into place a process through which we will sustain that for as long as it needs to be sustained, and avoid the mistakes of our past," said Garry Reid, the Pentagon's Principal Director for Special Operations Capabilities.
Reid says those mistakes include learning how to fight insurgencies in Vietnam and other places, and then allowing that capability to disappear by the time it was needed again.
"This is Christmas for me," said John Nagl, a recently retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who fought in Iraq early in the war and wrote a book about having to learn counterinsurgency from scratch.
"We are going to build what we need to win the wars we're currently fighting, and we're going to keep it," he said. "And we're never again going to be in the position we were in 2003 when we didn't have what we needed."
Nagl calls the new directive the beginning of huge changes in the structure, organization and culture of the U.S. military. He says it will force the military services to begin to build the kind of capabilities he says troops need in the field today, and will need for the foreseeable future.
"What's missing are the mentors, the coaches, the teachers, to help them through that process because in some cases, here in Afghanistan particularly, they've not necessarily had much of a history in centralized government," said Major General Michael Tucker, chief of operations for NATO forces in Afghanistan. "So that's some of the skill sets that we need in our arsenal, so to speak."
In addition, the NATO command in Afghanistan has been urgently asking for several thousand more trainers for the Afghan army and police for more than a year.
John Nagl, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, notes that the shortage makes the fight more difficult to win, and delays the date when foreign forces can withdraw.
"We are resourcing our exit strategy at 50 percent of what we acknowledge is the requirement," he said.
The December directive on irregular warfare is an effort to address that. And in a new training manual, published in late December, the U.S. Army is focusing on building a force to implement the directive.
"You know, the days are over when we say, 'We only do this. We're only specialized to do this.' Those are over. If you've got an army and the nation needs it to do certain things, we've got to be prepared to do that," said Army Deputy Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General James Thurman, the former U.S. commander in Baghdad.
General Thurman says the army can build those capabilities without losing its global superiority in traditional warfare.
Still, military and civilian leaders alike say the military cannot defeat insurgencies on its own. While senior officers acknowledge they may have to provide help to local civilian authorities early in a conflict, they want a stronger U.S. government civilian capability to move in and take over those roles.
"What we should be asking is where's the State Department's version, where's the NSC's, telling the rest of the inter-agency 'here's the capabilities you need to develop.' We can't win these wars without a bigger State Department, a bigger U.S. Agency for International Development, a civilian counterinsurgency academy here in the United States, and the list goes on," said retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl.
John Nagl and other experts are pleased with what the Pentagon has done so far, but he says his real hope is that the Obama administration will expand the effort - providing funds, personnel and training for a broader U.S. government response to the expected "irregular" threats of the 21st century. Secretary Gates, who will stay on in the new administration, has called for the same thing.