WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade after the United States began to focus its military training and equipment purchases almost exclusively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military strategists are quietly shifting gears, saying that large-scale counterinsurgency efforts cost too much and last too long.
The domestic economic crisis and the Obama administration's commitment to withdraw from Iraq and begin drawing down in Afghanistan next year are factors in the change. The biggest spur, however, is a growing recognition that large-scale counterinsurgency battles have high casualty rates for troops and civilians, eat up equipment that must be replaced and rarely end in clear victory or defeat.
In addition, military thinkers say such wars have put the United States' technologically advanced ground forces on the defensive while less sophisticated insurgent forces are able to remain on the offensive.
Counterinsurgency "is a good way to get out of a situation gone bad," but it's not the best way to use combat forces, said Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "I think everyone realizes counterinsurgency is a losing proposition for U.S. combat troops. I can't imagine anyone would opt for this option."
Many Pentagon strategists think that future counterinsurgencies should involve fewer American ground troops and more military trainers, special forces and airstrikes. Instead of "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," as former President George W. Bush once said of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the Pentagon thinks it must train local populations to fight insurgents.
The military calls it "foreign internal defense," although some have a pithier name: counterinsurgency light.
The new kind of counterinsurgency is "for the indigenous people and a handful of Americans," said Joseph Collins, a professor at the National Defense University, a Pentagon-funded institution that trains officers and civilians.
Pakistan an example
The newer approach is on display in Yemen and Pakistan, countries in which the U.S. faces entrenched extremist organizations with ties to al-Qaida.
In Yemen, where leaders have distanced themselves publicly from the United States, the U.S. has quietly dispatched military trainers to work with Yemeni government forces and has provided air support, largely for observation. In addition, the U.S. sent Yemen $70 million in military aid.
In Pakistan, the Obama administration has authorized a record number of unmanned airstrikes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and promised $7.5 billion in aid over five years. In addition, defense officials said roughly 100 special forces trainers were working with the Pakistani military.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized the changed thinking in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
"The United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan and Iraq anytime soon — that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire," he wrote. More likely, he said, are "scenarios requiring a familiar tool kit of capabilities, albeit on a smaller scale."
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently ordered a review of how the military should train and equip itself in the future, acknowledging that it's a shifting course.
"The chairman wants to look at the capability and size of the military" after Iraq and Afghanistan, spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said. "No one has codified the requirements."
The economic downturn is driving much of the change within the Pentagon. Military spending has risen steadily since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Pentagon planners say budget cuts are inevitable, and that the change in strategy will help make them.
"We now have to figure out what works. We used to have a practically unlimited budget. Not anymore," said a senior military officer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly. "There is no more room to experiment."