This Decade at War

What have we learned about combat since 9/11?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After a decade of adaptation, the war against terrorists disappears into the shadows 

War is frequently a matter of experimentation and trial-and-error. The wars of the past decade have been no exception. The United States has churned through several warfighting doctrines over the past ten years as elusive adversaries and looming political and financial constraints have forced policymakers to adapt. We are currently witnessing an accelerating decline in the size of the military effort against terrorism. Increasingly, the war against terrorists is fought in the shadows, out of sight, and by civilians or a few commandos seconded to civilian commanders. The vast majority of the U.S. military will soon exit the wars that 9/11 started. And the arrival of heavy financial and political constraints will force U.S. policymakers to develop a real national security strategy for the first time since 1950s. As other security challenges rise up, the War on Terror is already becoming a backwater.

COIN is out, civilian warfighters are in

Actual combat has always ground up and thrown out warfighting doctrines and theories. There will undoubtedly be a great debate in the years ahead whether modern Western counterinsurgency (COIN) theory, with its focus on protecting and winning over the indigenous population, is a realistic approach.

Several years ago, it was accepted that the only suitable end state in Iraq and Afghanistan that would work for Western interests was one where strong and stable governments in both countries kept out terrorist sanctuaries. U.S. and other Western military forces would conduct major combat operations to clear away extremists, followed by counterinsurgency patrolling to protect the population, and training indigenous forces to take over security operations.

That model may yet succeed in Iraq and (less likely) in Afghanistan. But with political patience and money having run out, U.S. political leaders will do everything possible to avoid another COIN campaign in the future.

Instead, civilian policymakers in Washington have found much to like with the discrete (and discreet) killing done by the CIA’s drones and the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) raiders, particularly this May’s successful operation in Abottabad. By contrast, over the past several years they have questioned the benefit of COIN patrolling. The costs — in lives, money, and political support — they now know all too well. Meanwhile, nearly every day the CIA and JSOC report to the president on the terrorist operatives they have killed, at relatively low cost and with measurable benefits to security.

Budget outcomes now demonstrate the policymakers’ revealed preferences. In the past decade, Congress has rewarded the CIA’s counterterrorism staff with a nearly seven-fold expansion while JSOC has grown by 14 times. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army’s conventional ground combat forces, those needed for counterinsurgency patrolling, face a cut of at least 22 percent.

As I have discussed previously, the fight against terrorists and irregular adversaries is rapidly becoming "civilianized." For U.S. policymakers, it is more convenient and effective to fight this war in the shadows using intelligence officers, paramilitaries, local proxies, contractors, and special operations soldiers seconded to intelligence agencies (as was done in the bin Laden raid). After a decade of experience, U.S. officials have figured out that they get the best results by employing some of the same tactical advantages enjoyed by their adversaries, such as using civilian guise, establishing cellular networks, and operating in a borderless world. This style of fighting leaves out conventional military formations, whose role in War on Terror will soon wind down.

The Pottery Barn Rule is repealed

The Western intervention in Libya presents another interesting case of how the views of civilian leaders have changed over the past ten years. Although humanitarian concerns, not terrorism, sparked the intervention, Western military power was crucial in driving the Qaddafi regime from power. Now Libya faces the same "post-conflict" stabilization issues that Afghanistan and Iraq faced after Western intervention toppled regimes in those countries. But in a break from the Afghanistan and Iraq cases, the U.S. and European government have repealed former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 "Pottery Barn Rule" referring to Iraq — "you break it, you own it."

Instead, Western governments have pledged to let Libya’s rebels sort out the future, come what may. A few years ago, when political and financial capital was more plentiful, U.S. politicians felt a greater obligation to clean up after themselves. They also felt compelled to spend whatever was required to ensure that a pro-Western regime emerged. Today, they no longer have the money to worry about those concerns.

Thanks for being a hero — here is your pink slip

The past decade of combat has been a demanding teacher for junior leaders in the Army and Marine Corps. Fighting has been decentralized, requiring these organizations to delegate authority and responsibility down to small unit leaders. As a result, these leaders have now developed leadership and decision-making skills they would not have otherwise gained.

But in a cruel irony, these young sergeants and officers, the ones who were placed under the most pressure and put at the most risk, are now most likely to be laid off, as the Pentagon cuts its budget in the years ahead. With irregular warfare becoming civilianized, the role for conventional ground forces in ongoing operations will rapidly shrink. In addition, the major security challenge for the United States is now in East Asia and the southwest Pacific, a mission primarily for the Navy and Air Force.

The United States still needs substantial ground combat power, both as a hedge against a variety of contingencies and as a source for special operations soldiers and other specialists who will lead the fight against irregular adversaries. The challenge for the Pentagon will be figuring out how to retain adequate ground power at a much reduced cost. One solution might be to expand the number of military reserve units, with improved plans to quickly regenerate ground combat power during crises. If nothing else, a larger force of reservists, who are both civilians and soldiers, might improve the linkage between the civilian and military worlds, the chasm between which is likely to expand in the years ahead, as U.S. military tasks and personnel become even more specialized and technically focused.

A new golden age for grand strategists

The coming era of budget austerity and political constraints on the use of military power will bring back the importance of grand strategy to policymaking. During the period of U.S. hegemony after the Cold War, strategy and strategists were ignored. Sandy Berger, President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor from 1997 to 2001 (the recent apex of U.S. hegemony) expressed his disdain for strategic theorizing by declaring that he would instead, "worry about today today and tomorrow tomorrow." During this period, when many policymakers believed there were few external financial or political limits on their policy options, strategy appeared to have little relevance and therefore merited little attention.

Strategy is all about matching up scarce resources against a set of ranked strategic priorities and likely adversary responses. When policymakers perceived that they enjoyed nearly unlimited resources and weak adversaries, careful attention to priorities and resource decisions were thought unnecessary.

Of course, that world is now long gone for U.S. policymakers. The looming crash in the Pentagon’s budget while China’s continues to expand at a 12 percent annual rate after inflation should be enough to focus policymakers’ minds. A new golden age for long-ignored security strategists is arriving as policymakers look for advice on how to match shrinking resources against expanding challenges.

With China rising, can the Pentagon afford a War on Terror?

To realize how much has changed in the past decade, consider (hypothetically, I hope) how the United States would respond today should terrorists in some ungoverned territory achieve another 9/11-style mass casualty attack inside the United States. Clearing that territory with major combat operations, followed by stabilization, counterinsurgency, and nation-building, is not likely to be the U.S. response. Much more likely would be a punitive raid, with CIA drones and JSOC periodically following up against the survivors. 

Such an approach may not accomplish much in the long run. But it won’t risk much either, which is now a much important consideration than it seemed to be in 2001. Shoring up East Asia is now the Pentagon’s main task; fighting terrorism is a secondary concern. That’s what’s changed over the past ten years.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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