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The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

The Counterinsurgents’ Defense Secretary

Rather than devote heaps of money and lots of brainpower to traditional state-on-state conflicts, the Pentagon should better prepare for such asymmetrical challenges as Iraq and Afghanistan. But some critics of the reappointed Gates wonder if the U.S. should move away from expensive but technologically superior weaponry toward programs to develop the military’s counterinsurgency skills.

Elisa Mueller
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Dec 06, 2008

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (army.mil)
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (army.mil)

A just-published article in Foreign Affairs by Defense Secretary Robert Gates provides a snapshot of an emerging irregular-warfare-heavy Pentagon — and interagency process — in the Obama administration.

The article, “A Balanced Strategy,” was written before President-elect Barack Obama announced that Gates would continue at the Defense Dept. It argues for a substantial redirection of Pentagon intellectual attention and budgetary resources away from traditional state-on-state conflict and toward asymmetrical challenges to U.S. power, with a heavy emphasis on the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it condemns how “military and civilian elements of the United States’ national security apparatus have responded unevenly and have grown increasingly out of balance.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

A fundamental argument made by Gates is that military solutions in the war on terrorism — what he describes as “a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign” — are rarely sufficient. “Where possible,” he writes, “what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit.”

“As secretary of defense,” he continues, “I have repeatedly made the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations. I have done so not because I fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining the United States’ current advantage in conventional war fighting but rather because conventional and strategic force modernization programs are already strongly supported in the services, in Congress, and by the defense industry.”

Gates also blasts the Pentagon’s bizarre desire to treat the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as inconvenient distractions from a future of conventional warfare, a tendency reflected in the budgetary trick of funding the wars separately from the annual defense budget. “We must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as those the United States is in today,” Gates writes.

Rarely in U.S. history has the country’s chief defense official so forthrightly embraced counterinsurgency, a complex mix of “politico-military techniques developed to neutralize armed rebellion against constituted authority,” to use the parlance of a forthcoming government handbook. Gates praises “the Special Forces community and some dissident colonels” as being a lonely outpost within the defense community pushing for a greater embrace of counterinsurgency. Asked if the rising generation of theorists/practitioners of counterinsurgency could have a more vocal champion at the helm of the Defense Dept., Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, replied, “No, they couldn’t.”

This is not Gates’ first foray into making these arguments publicly. In late September, he gave a speech at National Defense University contending that counterinsurgency campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan “cannot be considered exotic distractions or temporary diversions” from state-on-state wars. The speech appears to have formed much of the template for the defense secretary’s Foreign Affairs piece. And an early priority of Gates’ was to support the transference of many Defense Dept. responsibilities in Iraq to the State Dept. In 2007, he testified to Congress in favor of a diplomat hiring surge.

An obvious implication of Gates’ argument that warfare is likely to have have a asymmetric future is that the Pentagon should reorient its budget away from massive weapons systems with dubious applicability in such a threat environment. While he concedes that there is a place for conventional systems, Gates laments in his article that “the base budget for fiscal year 2009, for example, contains more than $180 billion for procurement, research, and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems.”

Korb, now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, raised an eyebrow at Gates’ lament. “I agree it’s out of balance, but he sent that budget up,” Korb noted. “He’s had a couple years to make budgets, and I haven’t seen those changes in them.”

Gates has attracted recent criticism from loyalists of his counterinsurgency-shy predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, for not embracing the Rumsfeld legacy of promoting technologically intensive alternatives to ground power. In a recent essay for the conservative National Review magazine’s website, Lawrence Di Rita, a former Rumsfeld aide, said Gates’ reappointment indicated that Obama had endorsed “a status-quo element within the Pentagon that resisted the post-Cold War defense transformation that began in the late 1990s.”

Intentionally or not, Gates rejects the Rumsfeld legacy, writing, “The United States does not have the luxury of opting out [of irregular warfare] because these scenarios do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war.” He uses a Rumsfeld-era catch phrase from the Iraq war to deride the idea that “it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission.”

Not everything in Gates’ Foreign Affairs piece is likely to please Obama fans. While the secretary comes close to arguing that weapons systems designed for the Cold War are foolish purchases, he does not single out any programs for abolition — and, rather, writes about the applicability of those systems, in some cases, to asymmetric conflict. “Conventional modernization programs will continue to have, and deserve, strong institutional and congressional support,” he writes.

Nor, Korb pointed out, does Gates specifically propose “allocating a portion of [the Defense Dept.] budget” to civilian agencies.

“Are you willing to put less into defense?” Korb wondered. “Will you trade off F-22s [aircraft] or DDG-1000s [Naval destroyers] for that capacity? Money is, in fact, an object.”

Still, it’s possible that Gates will enjoy greater freedom to experiment under Obama than under President George W. Bush. Obama envisioned a national-security approach that “skillfully uses, balances and integrates all elements of American power” in the Monday announcement of his national security team.

“I’m certain the Obama administration will be much more receptive to this,” Korb said. “Hopefully [Gates] will make the changes he’s talking about.”

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.


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