By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says that even winning the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will not end the "Long War" against violent extremism and that the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorists should be the nation's top military priority over coming decades, according to a new National Defense Strategy he approved last month.
The strategy document, which has not been released, calls for the military to master "irregular" warfare rather than focusing on conventional conflicts against other nations, though Gates also recommends partnering with China and Russia in order to blunt their rise as potential adversaries. The strategy is a culmination of Gates's work since he took over the Pentagon in late 2006 and spells out his view that the nation must harness both military assets and "soft power" to defeat a complex, transnational foe.
"Iraq and Afghanistan remain the central fronts in the struggle, but we cannot lose sight of the implications of fighting a long-term, episodic, multi-front, and multi-dimensional conflict more complex and diverse than the Cold War confrontation with communism," according to the 23-page document, provided to The Washington Post by InsideDefense.com, a defense industry news service. "Success in Iraq and Afghanistan is crucial to winning this conflict, but it alone will not bring victory."
Gates embraces the "Long War" term that his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, invoked to equate the fight against terrorism with struggles against Soviet communism and Nazi fascism. His strategy, however, departs from Rumsfeld's focus on preemptive military action and instead encourages current and future U.S. leaders to work with other countries to eliminate the conditions that foster extremism.
"The use of force plays a role, yet military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies," the document said. "For these reasons, arguably the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves."
It is unusual for a defense secretary to offer a comprehensive military strategy so late in an administration's tenure, and in a foreword to the document Gates acknowledges that a new president will soon reassess threats and priorities. Gates wrote that he perceives this document as a "a blueprint to success" for a future administration.
Michele Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security, said she was surprised to see Gates issuing such a strategy so close to a presidential election, calling it a "strategy destined to be overtaken by events" because one of the new administration's first tasks will be to write such a defense plan. She said the document appropriately emphasizes irregular warfare -- focused on terrorists and rogue regimes bent on using insurgency or weapons of mass destruction -- but might go too far.
"I think irregular warfare is very important, particularly in contrast to preparing solely for conventional warfighting, but it shouldn't be our only focus," Flournoy said, adding that countries such as China likely are preparing for "high-end" warfare and attacks involving anti-satellite technologies and cyberspace.
The Defense Department has not officially released the National Defense Strategy -- which lays out a general plan for the Pentagon to deal with major threats and was last issued in 2005 -- but officials recently have provided copies to the House and Senate armed services committees. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the document distills what Gates has been saying in speeches over the past few months, that "we ought to be training our forces and procuring our weapons systems to reflect the reality" of likely future conflicts.
Defense sources said Gates's strategy met resistance among the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of its focus on irregular warfare. Gates met with the Joint Chiefs to present the rationale behind his strategy, and they expressed concerns over the long-term risks of shifting the focus too far from conventional threats. The service chiefs have worried publicly about shunning preparation for conventional warfare because it could give adversaries a competitive advantage in key arenas, such as in the skies or in space.
"The chiefs were provided an opportunity to review the document by the secretary," said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "They were grateful, and they did provide comment and are comfortable with the final product."
The Joint Chiefs separately prepare a biannual National Military Strategy for the armed forces, and Kirby said it is still being crafted and edited.
Gates singles out Iran and North Korea as threatening "international order" and meriting U.S. concern; his strategy also warns about potential threats from China and Russia, and he urges the United States to build "collaborative and cooperative relationships" with them while hedging against their increasing military capabilities. Gates also points to India as an ally he hopes will "assume greater responsibility as a stakeholder in the international system, commensurate with its growing economic, military, and soft power."
The strategy calls on the U.S. military to balance its risk between irregular threats and conventional warfare involving competing armies and Cold War-style standoffs. Gates says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exemplify the type of conflict the United States will face in the years ahead.
"U.S. predominance in traditional warfare is not unchallenged, but is sustainable for the medium term given current trends," the document says. "We will continue to focus our investments on building capabilities to address these other challenges, while examining areas where we can assume greater risk."
James Jay Carafano, a military expert at the Heritage Foundation, said he finds it refreshing that the Defense Department acknowledges that China and Russia are potential adversaries, but he said he believes the strategy is too heavy on battling extremism.
"It is overstating the case to say that extremist Islamic ideology is going to define the next 20 or 30 years," he said. "I think that's not helpful because you're sacrificing everything for this one fight. But it's a transition document. Either McCain or Obama could walk in the door and live with that document and do all kinds of things."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.