Taking Stock of the Long Wars: A Proposal

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It's been 10 years since the start of the war in Afghanistan. It's time for some reflection.

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A torn Afghanistan national flag flutters during sunset in Combat Outpost Penich near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Kunar / (Reuters /Erik de Castro)


Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan War. This occasion should prompt Americans to consider a simple question: How's it going?

"It," of course, refers to much more than Afghanistan.

After all, the campaign launched on October 7, 2001 to destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban soon metastasized. Beyond the unnecessary diversion into Iraq, the enterprise once known as the Global War on Terror now finds U. S. military and intelligence forces engaged in places as far afield as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.

Over the past decade thousands of American soldiers have been killed, and thousands grievously wounded in body and spirit. Pentagon spending has more than doubled, reaching levels not seen since World War II. Estimated costs of "the long war" now reach well into the trillions. And there is no end in sight. Senior military officers no longer bother to promise victory. Instead, in the words of General George Casey, they consign the United States to an era of "persistent conflict."

That American warriors are brave and skillful is beyond doubt. Still, as presently configured, our armed forces achieve indifferent results while costing American taxpayers exorbitant amounts.

So again: How's it going?

Neither political party has given this question the attention it deserves. Yet in a Washington that has discovered the need to restore some semblance of fiscal self-discipline, defense spending may soon be headed for the chopping block.

We agree that the current Pentagon budget is too large, and unsustainable. We also know that American defenses must remain strong. These two goals can be reconciled -- but only if the United States extracts from the military experience of the past decade insights that can provide the basis for a more effective and affordable 21st century force.

There is no reason to think that the national security apparatus will identify those insights on its own. Too much money can be as destructive as too little; big budgets can inhibit rather than encourage introspection and original thought. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has, unfortunately, already indicated that he prefers to protect existing programs rather than to entertain unorthodox ideas. Congressional leaders, regardless of party, share this disposition. Therefore, useful answers to the question "how's it going" will have to come from the outside.

Toward this end, President Obama, as commander-in-chief, should create an independent, nonpartisan investigatory commission to evaluate the military experience of the past decade -- in all its aspects. Call it the Commission to Assess the Long Wars.

We believe the president should allow such a commission wide latitude in pursuing its mandate. In our judgment, the following lines of inquiry are likely to prove fruitful:
  • The design of U.S. combat forces. Our era demands the delivery of military effects in hours or days. But existing U.S. forces, still resembling those designed for World War II, typically require weeks or months to mass for response. In our time, sheer size no longer means power. Thanks to precision weapons and networked communications, smaller combat units can do more with less, while being nimbler and less costly.

  • The U. S. global military footprint. Here too the legacy of World War II weighs heavily. In some circumstances the presence of U.S. forces in foreign countries promotes positive relationships; in others, our mere presence works against our ends. The ideal posture is one that extends our influence and defends our interests without being needlessly intrusive. Any foreign headquarters or overseas base that does not meet this standard should be consolidated, reduced, or replaced by maritime and long-range air assets.  America's empire of bases needs rethinking -- and shrinking.

  • The national security apparatus. Instead of being flexible and responsive, the existing structure is rigid and reactive. Today's high-performing public and private organizations today are designed on a horizontal rather than vertical axis. The Pentagon should take heed: Only a smaller, flatter, more networked mechanism can provide the focused, precise, and timely advice the commander-in-chief requires.

  • The civil-military gap. On the eve of his retirement, outgoing JCS chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking on behalf of those who serve, noted that his fellow Americans "don't know ... what we have been through." Americans don't know because today's military exists in splendid isolation from the rest of society -- an unintended consequence of abandoning the citizen-soldier tradition four decades ago. The question deserves to be asked and studied: Does the existing All-Volunteer Force serve the nation's best interests?

  • Filling top jobs. Over the past decade, the performance of three-star and four-star leaders has been decidedly mixed. Notwithstanding the star-power and performance of David Petraeus, too many of his peers have come up short. The troops deserve better. The existing approach to identifying, educating, and choosing officers for top-tier positions needs fixing.
The president has a lot on his plate. But our great chief executives -- notably Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt -- have also been first-rate strategists and reformers. Barack Obama's chance to join them is here. This is something that needs doing, now.
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Presented by

John Arquilla , Andrew Bacevich, James Fallows, & Gary Hart

John Arquilla is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School; Andrew Bacevich teaches at Boston University; James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic; Gary Hart is a former United States Senator.

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