Pentagon Makes Nation-Building Equal to Combat

Rowan Scarborough reports that the Pentagon has acceded to reality and made nation building a priority equal to major combat operations.

Nation-Building Elevated — Pentagon raises stability missions’ importance level (Washington Times, p. 1)

The Pentagon yesterday announced a landmark change in the use of combat troops, elevating “stability missions” — commonly called nation-building — to an equal status with major combat operations. The evolution in war-planning priorities underscores how the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terror network continue to fundamentally reshape how U.S. military commanders deploy the armed forces. Not only are U.S. forces becoming more mobile to better counter Islamic terrorists, but the chain of command now will be trained in how to “build” nations by creating indigenous security forces, democratic institutions and free markets.

“I remember intense debates 10 or 15 years ago on whether military operations other than war ought to be core mission, and there was a huge divide,” said Air Force Col. J. Scott Norwood, the Pentagon’s deputy director of international negotiations and multilateral affairs. “And now there is no question it is.”

Pentagon Directive No. 3000 orders U.S. commanders around the globe to infuse postwar stability missions into every war plan. Commanders also are to start coordinating with civilians at the State Department and other agencies to create nation-building teams.

The change shows how President Bush, who campaigned in 2000 against overcommitting U.S. troops to peacekeeping, is convinced that nation-building must become a core part of the training and war doctrine of the armed forces. The new policy, signed Nov. 28 by acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, is an indirect acknowledgment that the Pentagon badly bungled the planning for Iraq after it ousted Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

While I bitterly opposed this notion throughout the 1990s, the reality is that the United States lacks a peer military competitor and likely will for decades to come. Major combat operations will doubtless continue to be necessary but, as the Iraq War demonstrated, relatively short in duration. Like it or not–and I’m still very much in the latter camp–the postwar peace and stability operation will consume the lion’s share of the operational resources and determine the ultimate success of the mission.

I continue to worry that the dichotomy between combat and nation-building is huge and requires a completely different mindset. Practically, however, only the military has the resources to handle these missions. As the operations in Somalia, Bosnia, and Iraq have demonstrated, we still need to go a long way to be as good at this phase of the war as we are in combat.

The problem, however, is that it is not simply a matter of cross-training soldiers to be good at both jobs. There continues to be a major shortfall in the number of specialists necessary for reconstruction efforts — most notably linguists, civil affairs, special forces, and military police personnel. Rumsfeld and company deserve credit for finally recognizing something that was obvious in the early 1990s and doing something about it but the movement in this area has been far, far too slow.

Update: Lawrence F. Kaplan sheds more light on the problem:

If its operations do nothing to further a strategic goal, an army can win every battle it fights and still lose the war. If there was a lesson worth learning from Vietnam, this was it. But, while Army officers yield to no one in their tactical expertise, what they don’t study much is strategy. “The military is precisely inverted from civilian life,” says Stephen Biddle, who straddles both worlds as a civilian scholar at the War College. “Strategy is the occupation of a very few in the Army.”


Bruised by charges that they hadn’t deferred to military expertise prior to the invasion of Iraq, policymakers have allowed the brass an enormous degree of latitude. The generals, however, have performed scarcely better than their civilian counterparts. The problem with the Army’s approach to Iraq hasn’t been a lack of capability, but confusion–in the highest ranks–regarding the utility of force as an instrument of counterinsurgency. Traditionally understood, the path to defeating an insurgency runs through the population, without whose support insurgents can be forced to fight in the open. Securing control of the population depends, in turn, on guaranteeing its physical security and–through social programs, civic assistance, and the like–winning its “hearts and minds” (see Caroline Elkins, “Royal Screwup”). By contrast, a strategy that simply relies on killing insurgents may never eliminate the insurgency itself, whose ranks can be filled by new recruits from a supportive population–an outcome made more, not less, likely if the government employs a heavy hand during conventional operations.

Unfortunately, conventional operations happen to be the U.S. Army’s specialty. Having been drained of blood and prestige in Southeast Asia, the Army responded by banishing “counterinsurgency” from the lexicon of U.S. military affairs. And, in Iraq, where the Army has spent nearly three years launching big-unit sweeps, relying heavily on firepower, and otherwise employing conventional tactics against an unconventional foe, it shows. In recent months, this has begun to change, as the generals respond to complaints that their tactics don’t match strategy. But it’s probably too little and too late. Too little, because, while Iraq may have come apart at the seams even with a viable counterinsurgency concept in place from the outset, the American way of war has all but guaranteed today’s chaos. Too late, because, while the Army has been chasing insurgents back and forth through the same towns, patience with the entire U.S. mission in Iraq has nearly run out on the homefront, a battlefield that matters just as much as the one in Iraq.

As I argued in my TCS piece “Counterinsurgency and the American Way of War,”

Regardless of the institutional preferences to the contrary, though, the United States military has had great success fighting small wars. The Army has a long history of doing so, from the French and Indian War to the War for Independence to the Indian Wars to the Spanish-American War to Vietnam to Afghanistan. The Marines have made it their specialty.

The problem in Iraq is that it is more than just a counterinsurgency operation. Simultaneously fighting the insurgents and foreign terrorists–two very different foes with very different objectives–while rebuilding the infrastructure, training Iraqi security forces, and crafting the institutions of democracy is an incredibly daunting task. While Iraq is likely the biggest and most complicated such task that the military will face anytime soon, balancing many of these things simultaneously will almost certainly be something the military, especially the Army, will have to get better at. The changes Scarborough outlines are a good start.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. spencer says:

    Other US government departments — State, ,aid etc., — have fewer resources to do nation building then DOD because of deliberate policy decisions. There is no inherent reason these decisions could not be reversed.

  2. James Joyner says:

    spencer: True up to a very narrow point. But State couldn’t recruit sufficient people to do the job, let alone order them to go into a war zone. Further, Defense has the luxury of being able to use the folks for double duty as warfighters, so we’d need most of the troops regardless.