Here is my latest column in the North County Times. 2014 is just around the corner, and that year will mark the end of our commitment to the war in Afghanistan. Coupled with the end of the war in Iraq, 2014 will see the first time since the dawn of the 21st Century that we have been a nation at peace.
Whether we stay at peace or not, the end of combat operations overseas precipitates the reduction of military forces. That is the subject of the following column:
All wars come to an end, and our current foray into Afghanistan is no different. Last year saw the departure of American forces from Iraq, and 2014 is the year when combat operations are to be handed over to the Afghan National Army.
This places the military and government in the ironic situation —- with the successful completion of the conflicts overseas, the very people who made it happen find themselves beneath the budgetman’s axe. Is that fair?
Historically, the size of the military has always shrunk after a war ends; indeed, it is perfectly normal. Our professional military system requires that the active and reserve components be ready to fight and defend the nation at the drop of a hat. The size of the military was more than adequate for Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s and the initial operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Counterinsurgency, however, changed the game. Desert Storm and the early campaigns in the war on terror were based on destroying a cohesive, centralized and organized enemy. The doctrine of the U.S. armed forces is to overwhelm the foe with an onslaught of combat power that they cannot react to to counter the assault; it took only days to liberate Kuwait and a matter of weeks for the high-tempo combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to shatter Saddam’s forces and the organized Taliban.
What followed, though, was a path to a Vietnamesque guerrilla war. Instead of being able to employ the technical and tactical advantages that are the hallmark of American “shock and awe,” we faced an enemy who changed his tactics to those of the insurgent. Instead of slugging it out toe to toe, they embraced the booby-traps of the Vietnam War and created the improvised explosive devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Counterinsurgency is a manpower-intensive way of war that has not fundamentally changed since Hannibal crossed the Alps over 2,000 ago —- you need lots of boots on the ground with the dedication and grit to fight the enemy on his own terms, and as a result the Army and Marine Corps grew in size.
With the war’s end and the current financial crisis it is necessary to look critically at the military establishment and prepare it for the challenges ahead. The president has begun the process by focusing on the Pacific Rim as that part of the world becomes more and more strategically significant. What tools are needed there? What skills must our military employ? How can the nation best employ its military resources?
Those are the questions that face the Pentagon as it looks into the future. The military is often accused of being prepared the fight the last war —- and to ensure that it is ready for the next one, a significant change in momentum is necessary. It is time to get the military back into being the world’s premier agile fighting force that is prepared to fight across the spectrum of conflict; we should remember the lessons learned fighting against insurgents, but not be hampered by devoting resources to capabilities in that area that are no longer needed —- including the number of people in uniform.
It is a harsh reality to face, but it is not unprecedented. Our best hope for a strong America is having a military that is prepared to meet any challenge, and in order to do so we need to refocus and rebalance our military. A significant part of that rebalancing is a thoughtful reduction in troops. It is fair to expect that the military will shrink after a decade of war, but that reduction must be made with studious attention and not made haphazardly.
It’s not personal. It’s just business, but a business that the Pentagon simply must get right. We will always be thankful for the sacrifice of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it is time to prepare for the future and ensure that the American military, although a bit smaller in size, remains second to none.