The majority of people in the U.S. armed forces joined since 9/11, and so only have known a military operating with nearly unconstrained resources. But the decade-long tidal wave of defense spending is ending, as General Barno discusses below. That's not all bad -- in hard choices lie the beginnings of strategy.
By Lt. Gen. David Barno, U.S. Army (ret.)
Best Defense chief Army correspondent
The Nixon Center sponsored its annual National Policy Conference recently at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington. The agenda featured a star-studded cast of former senior government officials and current practitioners, and was opened by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger with a sobering message, that our purpose must be to rediscover "realism in foreign policy. ... Any nation must accept its own limitations -- the whole world is not waiting for American leadership. ... We must understand what we can do and what we cannot -- and should not -- do."
The opening panel was chaired by retired USAF General Chuck Boyd, the panel included Joe Klein of Time magazine, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, Ken Pollack of Brookings and John Nagl of CNAS. Each of these luminaries brought a very different perspective to our two ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- as well as the war "formerly known as GWOT." Nagl and Pollack amply described the current challenges and prospects of U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Joe Klein outlined the massive transformation of the U.S. military into a well-oiled counter-insurgency machine -- and noted where the machine may not be working today in parts of Afghanistan. We'll get to Pillar later.
Only in the Q and A did the 800 lb elephant lope into the room: With the U.S. facing a staggering national debt, record-setting deficits, a slow economic recovery and a future with ever-larger entitlement program costs, what can the U.S. afford to be doing in overseas military efforts? Is that picture today now different than in the past? And where does Afghanistan in particular fit into that calculus today?
While much of the discussion predictably got wrapped around the "new American way of War -- COIN," far less commentary was devoted to the strategic picture. Only Paul Pillar truly got at the larger issue of how our growing commitment in Afghanistan fits inside of a changed global strategic context for the United States.
Some of his tough questions:
- Why are we actually in Afghanistan?
- Is the availability of "sanctuary" (in a world of myriad sanctuaries) really important?
- Do the benefits of denying sanctuary in Afghanistan fit into any cost-benefit logic for the U.S.? (vs. benefits of Afghan sanctuary to the terrorists)
- Are we confusing sunk costs with future investment decisions?
- Do we truly understand that successful COIN is a means toward an end -- rather than an end in and of itself?
- And most importantly: Are our actions in Afghanistan and the region reducing the terrorist threat to the U.S.?
Pillar's views stood in stark contrast with the usual suspects of debate: civilian surge adequacy, Karzai's governing capacity, the prevalence of corruption, or the speed of Afghan security force growth. They were a timely reminder that in the all-consuming nature of war, the trees quickly grow to obscure the forest, and that it is important to remind ourselves of first principles. Pillar pulled our lens back from the riveting small picture of the day-to-day fight in Afghanistan to the fuzzier big picture - regional, global, economic as well as military. It was both discomfiting and necessary.
CNAS' Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) has just authored a hard-hitting report spotlighting the lack of political strategy in our Afghan COIN efforts -- and it's worth a close read. But beyond the political strategy of the Afghan counter-insurgency, the regional and global strategies of the U.S. as we face down what some have called a "global insurgency" deserve some close scrutiny as well.
On the 800-lb gorilla in the room: We're moving into a different world than the one of even five years ago. As one very senior former military commander noted recently: "We are no longer going to be operating from a position of strategic superiority." And as the U.S. military shifts into an era that will surely be marked by downward pressure on defense budgets, civilian and military leaders will have to make choices and set priorities. Buying everything is no longer gonna be an option.
Competing visions of future war are going to be fought out, with both winners and losers in the fight for fewer dollars. One fundamental competition that could emerge may pit people -- especially ground forces -- against technology. Costs of both are skyrocketing. This may be a false debate, but its outlines are already beginning to appear.
What kind of wars are we going to prepare to fight -- when we can't peanut better spread dollars and attention on everything? Where do we strike the balance so we simply don't get it too far wrong to adapt when the next big fight comes? These will be truly tough calls and are the essence of looking beyond the current fights to get our next global defense strategy right. And resources start shrinking, we may be in for a rough ride.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.