A COIN-Theory Test: The Quadrennial Defense Review
A smart piece in The New York Times on Sunday noted that the Pentagon is rethinking its defense posture that prepares for fighting two wars at the same time, a mainstay for the past fifteen years. This might be the first theoretical test for the counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners that have made their way into the Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ Pentagon.
So the backstory. Ever since the first Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997, the Pentagon has decreed that it has to be prepared to fight in Two Major Theaters Of War simultaneously, a doctrine known as 2MTW. Notice that we’re doing that now, and not with overwhelming success, either. One reason is because those two theaters are envisioned as conventional combat scenarios, not the “small wars” or stability operations or counterinsurgencies that we’re actually fighting, so the military trains and equips for scenarios that aren’t the ones we’re in. It’s clear this isn’t working. But what comes next?
Counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners often say that Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that stability operations are the near-term future of U.S. warfare: opposing adversaries that attack the United States asymmetrically and utilize political methods to build popular support of a given population alongside military measures.
Yet it’s not entirely clear what that means. U.S. Army doctrinal publications like the recent stability-operations field manual explicitly state that the future of stability operations won’t be like Iraq or Afghanistan, with large-scale U.S. troop presences, and instead envision U.S. military training and advisory assistance to beleaguered allies dealing with their own extremist insurrections. But is that going to be the basic presumption for the document that’s supposed to drive the U.S. defense posture? That the U.S. military is basically a giant security consultant? Remember that the QDR is supposed to drive procurement and training decisions.
Along the opposite extreme, counterinsurgency theorists often say that the military has to be prepared for “full spectrum” warfare — from counterinsurgency to major conventional combat — though that’s a kind of truism chosen so as to paper over real disputes with the armor and artillery communities in the U.S. Army who fear that counterinsurgency threatens their disciplines. That can lead to a strategic fog, in which the hard choices about what systems and weapons and warfighter-supporting platforms get papered over.
There’s an alternative to all of this worth considering, though. Perhaps the QDR doesn’t have to be considered a long-term planning document. Maybe it’ll say that the defense priorities over the next four years for defense ought to be … Iraq and Afghanistan. In four years we’ll likely be out of Iraq but almost certainly still be in Afghanistan. The 2005 QDR strangely relegated the two wars the United States was actually fighting to a sort of afterthought, thinking instead about further-over-the-horizon questions about homeland defense or hedging against rising near-peer competitor nations like China. That was, to say the least, an odd choice for a nation that was supposed to be locked in “generational” conflict with an amorphous ideological foe.
Chances are the Obama administration won’t share its predecessor’s assumptions about the Islamofascist Menace. But will it use the QDR as a platform for saying, simply, that the wars the United States is currently fighting take precedence over more theoretical challenges?