After Afghanistan, what kind of wars does Pentagon want to fight?

As the U.S. troops left Afghanistan, and the book on America’s longest conflict closed, there is general agreement that the Pentagon won’t ask politicians to make that another time soon.

But the Pentagon’s experience on-the ground in Afghanistan will leave an imprint that will shape military doctrine and its leaders. This is despite the fact that their attention now shifts to Asia, which many view as the Department of Defense’s “great power rivalry” zone.

Why We Wrote This

Politicians may want to end intractable counterinsurgency conflicts, like they did with Vietnam. However, military leaders are aware that the United States may be forced to face another insurgency war.

A whole part of Asia’s pivot and great power rivalry – there is an element of that. But the excitement with which the current administration and previous administration have seized upon this threat is also a desire to fight those wars,” states Frederick Kagan. Kagan is the architect of U.S. troops entering Iraq, as well as senior fellow at conservative American Enterprise Institute. He says that counterinsurgency is now “completely out of fashion” in the aftermath of Vietnam and America’s regrettable exit from Afghanistan. He says, “But it is an American myth that we always get the right to choose which wars we fight .”

” The “that” could be sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, just as it was during the insurgency campaigns. For 20 years, the U.S. military was enlisted in the laudable if unrealized goal of creating a representative democracy – or at least a tolerably functioning inclusive state. The Pentagon’s experience on the ground in Afghanistan will leave an imprint that will be a permanent part of military doctrine and will shape its leaders. This is despite the fact that their attention now shifts to Asia, which many view as being the Department of Defense’s “great power rivalry” zone.

Why We Wrote This

Politicians may want to end intractable counterinsurgency conflicts, like they did with Vietnam. However, military leaders are aware that the United States may be forced to face another insurgency war.

A whole part of Asia’s pivot and great power rivalry – there’s a danger there. But the excitement with which the current administration and previous administration have seized upon that threat is also a desire to fight those wars,” states Frederick Kagan. Kagan is the architect of U.S. troops entering Iraq, as well as senior fellow at conservative American Enterprise Institute. He says that counterinsurgency is now “completely out of fashion” in the wake Vietnam and America’s regrettable exit from Afghanistan. He said, “But it is an American myth which says we always get the right to choose the wars that we fight.” The failures of Afghanistan’s government will be examined on Capitol Hill by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), who are scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services and House Armed Services on Tuesday and Wednesday. While it is obvious that nation building relies heavily on military might has failed, conventional conflicts are where U.S. power can still excel. The lessons learned from Afghanistan are also applicable to U.S. adversaries.

The wars that the Pentagon would like to wage are “always rapid, high intensity and decisive,” according to retired Lt. Col. John Nagl. He helped create the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, is now visiting professor of national safety at the U.S Army War College, Carlisle. The American military is unmatched on this front.

But, because they grew up in the wargrounds of Iraq or Afghanistan, their military leaders know that “the wars that our smart enemies choose to wage will be slow and grinding and indecisive” largely due to our military victories. “They will be much more like Vietnam and the counterinsurgency phases of Iraq and Afghanistan than World War III with China.”

Leaders would ostensibly seem ready to put the counterinsurgency field manuals on a high shelf, not to be dusted off for quite some time, as they did post-Vietnam. Dr. Nagl states that while we might not be as interested in counterinsurgency now, it doesn’t necessarily mean insurgencies have lost interest in us.

For now, though, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Future of Defense Task Force 2020 report warns that China represents “the most significant economic and national security threat to the United States over the next 20 to 30 years.” Because of its nuclear arsenal and ongoing efforts to undermine Western democratic governments, Russia “presents the most immediate threat.”

That means that defense budgets will be getting boosts in areas like long-range rockets and missile defense, as well as artificial intelligence and biotechnology. The task force reports that these “will have an enormous impact on our national security,” as the “potential of losing the race to China carries substantial economic, political and ethical risk” for America.

Despite shifting priorities, the Pentagon will still face many global threats and responsibilities. At a news conference, the secretary of state answered questions about reports on North Korea’s test of long-range missiles. He also addressed concerns regarding accountability for a strike that killed an Islamic State operative.

A missile is seen launching during a drill of the Railway Mobile Missile Regiment in North Korea, in this image supplied by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 16, 2021.

The Pentagon should have plans for threats that are both predictable and unlikely. Retired Brig. General Tom Cosentino was previously the Commandant of the National War College. When it comes to making decisions about where we put our resources, it is inevitable that, after dealing with an aggressive Chinese competitor in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be a transition into a more high-tech, high-intensity conflict-focused focus. Mr. Cosentino reminisces his experiences at mid-career military schools. “I remember very well sitting in my intel officer’s advanced course in 1990 to 1991 and talking about low-intensity conflict, and putting it in the context of Latin America, El Salvador, the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas], and so on. The doctrine never loses it. It is there. The only thing that matters is how strong you place it and how many training sessions you give it.

” If the military is asked to pay for missile defense and rockets to support an island-chain strategy to deterrence in the Pacific, that money will be used. He adds that one of the bill-payers could be that ability to counterinsurgency. “I don’t think it gets lost, but follow the money.”

That said, since 9/11 the U.S. military has developed a “pretty good ability” and knowledge within its special operations forces to pivot from counterterrorism operations to the training operations that are often at the core of hearts-and-minds campaigns, Mr. Cosentino says.

While politicians might be reluctant to tackle counterinsurgency, military leaders will likely remain aware of the critical importance of winning civilian support in “population-centric warfare”. Dr. Kagan said that this is a lesson Moscow learned as it watched U.S. attempts to conquer Afghanistan’s population.

“Fascinatingly, the guys who really got this was the Russians.” He points to hybrid warfare campaigns that include targeting the U.S. population with social media barrages in its efforts to disrupt U.S. elections. These developments lie at the core of “never agains” in Afghanistan. “We cannot repeat the post-Vietnam mistake of jettisoning everything we just learned about this conflict.” Though the number of troops with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan will inevitably wash some of the knowledge out of the ranks, “people will fight to retain it.”

In the upper echelons of military strategic thinking, many of the critical lessons of America’s post-9/11 wars are yet to be determined, but will make “perfect curriculum” for the National War College and other military institutions of higher knowledge, Mr. Cosentino says.

“We’re always trying – at least if we’re effective – to put things in an historical context, to open the aperture of our students to think more strategically about the intersection of hard and soft power, how that operates,” he adds, “and how you make the hard decisions.”

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