The Military Instrument

Owen and Bing West argue in today’s NYT that,

Part of the problem was that when the military surge was announced, it became commonplace for officials to assert that political compromise, not military force, would determine the outcome of the war. This vacuous idea would startle George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, to mention only a few unlikely bedfellows who forged success during an insurgency.

Buying time with American lives is not a military mission. No platoon commander tells his soldiers to go out and tread water so the politicians can talk. The goal of American soldiers is to identify and kill or capture the Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents.

To make that possible, they propose an elaborate biometric tracking system that strikes me as impractical, not to mention antithetical to the freedom and democracy we’re theoretically trying to export to Iraq.

More interesting to me, though, is the philosophical argument about the nature of military security and stability operations. Phil Carter, who like Owen West, is recently returned from duty in Iraq,

[The idea] that the path to victory lies through killing or capturing every insurgent. This is a very Mahanian vision for warfare, and I don’t agree with that enemy-focused paradigm. I believe that the path to success (whatever that is) lies with the Iraqi people. Through the provision of public goods (security, commerce, democracy, etc., but especially security), we convince them to align their fates with the Maliki government and the U.S.-led coalition. There are, of course, enormous problems with this strategy now, not the least of which being that the Maliki government is rotten. But even if we were to kill or capture every insurgent, I think we would still not prevail, both because success is not measured by that metric, and because the Iraqi people would regenerate the insurgency in such a case.

That’s no doubt true. But it’s unclear to me how the military, as presently constructed, can be used to achieve those goals. We’ve arguably got the ability to provide security, even in a place as large as Iraq, if we properly apply counterinsurgency doctrine. Setting up democracy, commerce, and otherwise radically overhauling the political landscape is likely beyond the scope of our ability.

As I noted recently at TNI,

We need a radical realignment of our force structure, which still far too closely resembles the one we built to fight the Soviets. We still need tanks, heavy artillery, fighter jets, and the like. But not nearly so many. We toppled Saddam’s regime with a far smaller force than was necessary a decade earlier and, as Thomas Barnett notes, “we no longer even need strategic surprise to defeat a well-armed enemy.” We can announce when we’re coming and they can’t stop us.

We should move most of our heavy forces into the reserves, keeping mostly light and medium forces on active duty. At the same time, we must dramatically increase the number of military police, civil affairs, engineer, and special operations forces. We need far more people with cultural and linguistic expertise, like Foreign Area Officers and translators.

We also need a radical transformation of our military culture, which in turn will necessitate changes in our training, education, and assignment patterns. There are few signs that any of this is underway, despite it being rather obvious for fifteen years or so that it’s needed.

Furthermore, as John Burgess and I argued in a piece for TCS Daily, an overhaul of the interagency process, including the creation of a professional cadre that is a hybrid of military and diplomat, is required. That, too, seems to be a pipe dream at the moment.

The more obvious solution, still, is to engage in fewer nation building missions. Most conservatives and libertarians argued strenuously for that during the 1990s and George W. Bush campaigned on that theme in 2000. The temptation to use the military to do things for which it is not well suited, however, seems to have a strong bipartisan lure that is much harder to resist in practice than in theory.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.