As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta prepares his recommendations for Pentagon budget cuts, he is likely to reduce the military’s resources for future, large-scale counterinsurgency operations of the sort that were ballyhooed just a few years ago in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The boom in “COIN,” as these operations are known, has proved to be something of a bubble. Budget pressures have curbed the appetite for the ambitious, “protect-the-population” missions that were promoted with such enthusiasm by Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The focus increasingly is on raids by the tighter, more kinetic Special Operations Forces, which are seen as the big success story of these wars, to the extent success can be claimed.
“It’s not going to be likely that we will deploy 150,000 troops to an area the way we did in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said one top Pentagon official, explaining the rationale for Panetta’s budget review.
Panetta has been signaling for several months that the Army and Marines, which have carried the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be cut in his 2013 budget. His final recommendations won’t be finished until year-end, but the Army and the Marines are already planning force reductions, recognizing that new and prolonged, large-scale counterinsurgency missions aren’t likely anytime soon.
A second big theme of Panetta’s review is an emphasis on Asia — and on countering China’s growing military power there. President Obama announced last month that he will send 2,500 Marines to Australia to convey the message: “We are here to stay.” And he underlined, if anyone missed the point, that defense cuts “will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.”
The practical impact of this Asia tilt will be to boost relative spending for the Navy and Air Force, which are America’s traditional means of projecting military power in the Pacific. Pentagon officials caution, however, that the Centcom region — an arc of instability from Morocco to Pakistan — will also remain a top priority, and won’t be starved for resources to pay for the new emphasis on Asia. That makes me wonder: How can Panetta go “big” on Asia and the Middle East at the same time and also cut costs?
A third priority for Panetta is to maintain the U.S. technological edge. “As we get smaller, one way to compensate is better capabilities,” explains a senior military official. This will mean more spending for cyberwarfare, special forces and new measures to protect against exotic threats.
Panetta’s review has had strong backing from President Obama, who is said to have insisted that defense cuts be driven by a strategic plan, rather than by a fixed percentage reduction across the board. Obama met Thursday with Panetta and 15 top military commanders to discuss these issues.
Panetta’s budget-cutting plans fit awkwardly with the continuing, grinding war in Afghanistan. Critics might well question why, if the Pentagon knows it can’t afford big counterinsurgency campaigns in the future, it’s continuing to fight one now in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials insist that they aren’t speeding up withdrawal plans, to which a skeptic would counter: Why not?
Pentagon officials argue that, despite all the setbacks in Afghanistan, the United States is still on track to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces. When the second round of transitioning announced last week is completed, about 50 percent of the population will be in areas under Afghan control. Whether those districts can maintain stability remains to be seen. As for population-centric COIN tactics, they may have lost support among budget-cutters, but they’re still being practiced every day in Afghanistan by U.S. troops, often with good results.
As COIN has fallen out of fashion, there’s a new bubble of enthusiasm for the counterterrorism tactics used by the special forces in their “night raids” against Taliban targets. But Petraeus, the intellectual architect of modern Army doctrine, has long argued that it is a mistake to juxtapose the “population-centric” and “enemy-centric” approaches as if they were alternative strategies. Instead, according to Petraeus, they are mutually reinforcing parts of a broad counterinsurgency campaign.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Petraeus, the COINista in chief, is now at the CIA, where his focus is necessarily on the counterterrorism side of the equation.
There’s a consensus in the country that the big expeditionary ground wars of the past decade should end, and Panetta has his budget priorities right. But it would be wrong to repeat the mistake that followed the Vietnam War, when hard-learned counterinsurgency tactics were jettisoned in favor of conventional weapons for fighting quick “winnable” wars.
During the COIN years, the Army and Marines learned how to adapt and fight in the most difficult environments. What a waste if those skills, acquired at such cost, were discarded and lost.