By Max Boot
Best Defense guest columnist
In my new book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of
Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,
I argue that low-intensity warfare always has been and always will be the
dominant form of combat. Assuming my analysis is correct -- and I believe it is
confirmed by thousands of years of experience -- what does this mean for the
future of the U.S. armed forces? What kind of military do we need to fight
terrorists and guerrillas?
It is hard to top the description offered by
Colonel Pierre-Noel Raspèguy,
one of the central characters in Jean Larteguy's classic novel The Centurions (1962) about the French
paratroopers who fought in Indochina and Algeria. Raspèguy, modeled on the
real-life legend Marcel "Bruno" Bigeard, says:
France to have two armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little
soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear
little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general's
bowel movements for their colonel's piles: an army that would be shown for a
modest fee on every fairground in the country.
The other would be the real one, composed
entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put
on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts
of tricks would be taught. That's the army in which I would like to fight.
As it happens, the United States today already
has the second kind of army -- and a Marine Corps too: Both have been shaped by
a decade of war into counterinsurgency (COIN) forces with few peers in history.
They may not look good on parade, and they may not be as proficient at fighting
with tanks and artillery as the peacetime forces of prior decades, but at the
messy, trying business of fighting terrorists and guerrillas they have few if
Achieving this level of proficiency has not
been easy. It has required overcoming the built-in bias in favor of
conventional conflict among all conventional military forces. Indeed the COIN
revolution in the U.S. military would never have come about were it not for the
fact that the more conventional method of fighting nearly led the United States
to disaster in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. The danger now is that the armed
forces will revert to their default setting -- preparing to fight some version
of the (nonexistent) Red Army -- and turn their back on the hard-won lessons of
the past decade.
The danger is especially great because the
heavy deployment tempo of the last decade is winding down and both the Army and
Marine Corps are downsizing -- the former is set to lose at least 80,000
troops, the latter at least 20,000. Actually, the personnel cuts may be even
deeper if $500 billion in sequestration cuts are implemented or if they are
turned off by a budget deal that inflicts smaller but still substantial
cutbacks on the armed forces. A smaller force that will experience less combat
may see the exit of some of its most experienced COIN veterans -- the hardcore
warriors who have no desire to serve in a spit-and-polish parade-ground army.
A smaller force will also be less capable of
COIN operations in the future because such campaigns are manpower intensive.
The Iraq War showed that, while you don't need that many troops anymore to take
down a conventional force like Saddam Hussein's army, you need a lot more
personnel to pacify a country of 25 million people. We did not have enough
troops, in no small part because of the "peace dividend" cuts of the 1990s
which eliminated one-third of the Army's active-duty ranks. There was a modest
plus-up in active-duty strength over the past decade, but if the Army and
Marine Corps are now cut again they will lack the riflemen they need to conduct
COIN operations in the future.
Of course COIN requires not only large numbers
of general-purpose troops but also as many as possible who know the culture and
language of the land where they are deployed. This has long been a weakness of
the U.S. military, which has never stressed foreign-language training or
foreign-area knowledge save for a handful of foreign affairs officers who are
typically consigned to career purgatory. This is supposed to be a specialty of
the Army Special Forces, but over the past decade their A-teams from all over
the world have been sucked into Iraq and Afghanistan and focused on
direct-action missions, sacrificing whatever local language proficiency they
might have previously cultivated.
It will be hard to enhance the foreign-area
expertise of the armed forces without taking some steps that are anathema to
the bureaucracy. Some ideas:
Recruiting more non-citizens into the
armed forces -- the premise of a small program, Military
Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), which
was wildly successful when implemented in 2009 (one of its recruits, a Nepalese
immigrant, was named the Army's Soldier of the Year) but that was suspended in
2010 after the shooting by Major Nidal Malik Hassan, an native-born citizen, at
Fort Hood. The program has now been relaunched but it remains to be seen how
many slots it will have and how long it will last.
Creating an entire advisory organization
within the Army focused on security assistance -- an idea first suggested by
COIN expert John Nagl that has never come close to being implemented. Instead
advisors are currently taken out of conventional Brigade Combat Teams, which
means that top performers are seldom selected for this assignment.
Dedicating officers to spent years
focused on one region, whether they are down-range or at home station. This was
the premise of the AfPak Hands Program, an initiative launched in 2009 by Gen.
Stanley McChrystal and Adm. Mike Mullen, designed to dedicate a group of
officers to years of focus on Afghanistan-Pakistan. But the individual services
refused to support it by assigning top-performing officers and it has not lived
up to its promise. The program should not only be revived but expanded to other
parts of the world -- and it should be attractive enough to recruit
Making a year of study abroad mandatory
for students in the military academies, command and staff colleges, and war
Whenever such proposals are put forward, the
bureaucracy raises myriad reasons why they are supposedly impractical. What's
really impractical, however, is forcing the armed forces to fight on human
terrain they don't understand.
None of these is meant to suggest that we
should get rid of all heavy conventional forces. The Army and Marine Corps
should keep their tanks, albeit in smaller numbers than today -- not because
there is great likelihood that anyone will once again fight an armored war
against us, as Saddam Hussein tried to do twice, but because tanks can come in
handy in COIN. (See the two battles for Fallujah or the Israeli Operation
Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada.) The Air Force and Navy shouldn't
focus much on COIN at all -- they need more ships and aircraft to counter the
rise of China and deal with other conventional threats. But low-intensity
conflict will remain the most common form of warfare in the future, and the Army
and Marine Corps will need to dedicate the bulk of their resources to preparing
for this kind of war in the future.
And that will require not only identifying and
shooting insurgents but also dispelling the conditions that give rise to
insurgency. Perhaps the most important step we can take to increase our COIN
capacity in the future would be to create a civil-military nation-building
office, possibly by transforming USAID into an agency focused not on promoting
"development" for its own sake but on building up state structures in strategically
important countries that are endangered by actual or potential insurgencies. In
other words, places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, and post-Assad Syria.
I know that "nation-building" is anathema to political
expediency in Washington. But there is really no other choice. If we can't do a
better job of assisting other countries to govern themselves, especially in the
arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, we will find
our military forces sucked into more difficult and costly conflicts in the future.
Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at
the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible
Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Liveright).