To keep troops ready, spend less on COIN
By DANIEL L. DAVIS | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: February 25, 2019
I am an unapologetic advocate for a strong military; for building and maintaining an invincible national defense. Without major structural and intellectual changes, however, the armed forces’ ability to respond to a military attack from a peer or near-peer opponent, should one occur, is going to come into increasing question.
At the end of Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. armed forces were the unquestioned and unchallenged militarily power on the globe. The Soviet Union was in its final hours of life and its military was an important shell of its former self. The People’s Liberation Army of China was an archaic infantry-heavy force that would be challenged even to defend its own borders. At the end of the 20th century, America was more dominant than any nation at any point in history.
Up through the year 2000 our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were still optimized and trained to deter and, if necessary, defeat existential threats to our nation. I first enlisted in the Army in 1985, and for most of the first 15 years of my career I was assigned to combat units in Europe during the Cold War, fought Iraq in 1991 with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and served a year in South Korea, mainly as a liaison with the 2nd Republic of Korea Army. All during that time, I experienced firsthand how lethal, trained and “ready” were our armed forces.
All operations and training programs were designed to take on large, deadly and capable foes. We would sometimes spend 250 days out of a year in field training and command exercises. Throughout this time, the military was well-equipped, highly trained, and laser-focused on defeating any opponent.
But then came 9/11.
In late 2001, President George W. Bush sent Special Forces teams to Afghanistan to link up with indigenous fighters to aid in the defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida. The initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 was a conventional military operation similar to Desert Storm. Around mid-2004, however, drastic transformations to military doctrine, organization and training began to take root.
Rather than design a military prepared for high-end combat in contested battlespace, our armed forces were effectively repurposed to policing permissive environments in the Middle East. Instead of fortifying the U.S. homeland and that of our allies, our military investments were diverted to countering enemies without any real capabilities. There are no terrorist navies or air forces. one of the few land-based assaults by any group of terrorists came from Islamic State — and that was undone in just a few years with limited U.S. air power supporting local Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
By 2005, the Pentagon and Bush administration officials decided to stay in Iraq and were consumed with trying to pacify the country. What they should have done was withdraw so we could reload and rebuild our military end strength.
The most visible effect of that fateful decision was to require the Pentagon to virtually cease the tough business of preparing to fight peer and near-peer adversaries, and instead completely reorient the force to prepare for and conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.
The COIN mentality became deeply entrenched in a second generation of military and political leaders, and instead of recognizing that fighting endless insurgent wars are a losing proposition, the COIN mentality expanded. Instead of being used as a means to an end, COIN became a self-perpetuating end unto itself.
Currently, the United States is conducting lethal military operations at one level or another in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Niger and Somalia. In fact, in addition to regular combat troops, Special Forces troops are active, on any given day, in upward of 20 different countries in Africa.
“Endless wars” inflict grave harm to the military’s ability to prepare for, and if necessary defeat, potential foes in existential battles. The most troubling aspect of current operations is these missions are designed to go on forever — there is no definition of “victory.”
President Donald Trump is right that “great powers don’t fight ‘endless wars.’ ” For the security of our nation, it is imperative that we begin divesting ourselves of the many and unnecessary combat operations around the world and return to a proper focus on building a strong military capable of providing invincible national defense. Many may protest that withdrawing from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan might create “vacuums” that our adversaries will rush to fill. Much of that fear is unfounded, but it also masks two important factors.
For example, in Syria, the idea that the withdrawal of a couple thousand U.S. troops will somehow be a boon to ISIS and “give Syria away” to Russia and Iran doesn’t hold up. ISIS will still be hunted by the SDF, by Russia, Iran, Syria and other rebel groups; they do not have a free pass. Russia and Iran are decadeslong allies of Syrian leader Bashar Assad and will be there long after we leave. Our departure will cause no harm to U.S. national security.
In Afghanistan, it is possible that after our departure the situation on the ground could get more chaotic; it’s possible — though far from certain — that the Taliban could capture even more territory than they have now. It’s also possible, however, that our withdrawal could encourage government leaders in Kabul to make the concessions necessary to achieve a workable solution with the Taliban to end the war.
Yet even if the worst happened — a return to the active civil war that we interrupted in October 2001 — the U.S. would use all aspects of our national power to identify and eliminate any direct threats.
Our permanent presence for the past 18 years has proven that we cannot end the violence and war by maintenance of the status quo. Every day we continue focusing on COIN-type operations, we continue the degradation in the ability of our armed forces to defend against legitimate existential threats. It’s time to make changes.
We must, therefore, authoritatively end military engagements that drain vital resources from our country that are essential to make sure America remains a great power.
Daniel L. Davis, a Senior Fellow for the think tank Defense Priorities, retired as an Army lieutenant colonel in 2015 after 21 years of service that included four combat deployments.