Speech on Military Strategy
Kansas State University
March 3, 2010
Good afternoon and thank you for that mercifully brief introduction. And also, Dr. Reagan, I'd just like to add my thanks and appreciation for all you've done here for so many years to facilitate this series. I know how important it is to you and actually, I think, important to all of us. It really is a great honor for me to be here today at Kansas State, and in particular, for the Landon Lecture series. And I'd like to recognize, before I get started more in-depth, recognize those members of the ROTC unit here for their willingness to serve at this critical time in our history.
You really are the future, and I'm really humbled by what you are about to take on. There's no greater task, no more meaningful career than to lead America's sons and daughters in uniform. And I know you'll be great. So thank you. I also recognize and remain humbled by the long and prestigious list of former Landon lecturers who've preceded me, including my boss and proud Kansan, Secretary Bob Gates.
Indeed, the secretary could not have been more gracious when I told him I was coming here. He assured me that I would find you all rapt and engaging audience, eager for every scrap of wisdom I had to offer. Then again, he said, if you bore them or if you claim you know who Willie is, all bets are off. And I'd like to start our discussion by talking about the nature of war today - the essence of these conflicts we find ourselves in against ruthless and irreconcilable adversaries.
But enough about the Jayhawks. And actually, as someone who grew up in Southern California as a basketball player under the aegis of John Wooden, I have a special appreciation for the game tonight. I'm amazed you're all here, quite frankly. You know, in each era of American history, at least in terms of armed conflict, each one can be defined by an overarching strategy - a doctrine, if you will, that captures the proper use of military force suitable to the threats of the day.
During the Cold War, it was largely the strategy of containment that dominated our thinking - the notion that military force, or more importantly, the threat of military force was best applied in preventing the spread of communism through nuclear deterrence and/or conventional alliances. So came our nuclear triad, and the theory of mutually assured destruction, and the advent of NATO.
During World War II, we followed a doctrine very much akin to that used by Gen. Grant in the Civil War - attrition of the enemy force. To accomplish this, however, we needed also to attack the enemy population's will to fight. And so came the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki - on and on. Farther back in our past, we could go, from the trench warfare of World War I to the limited conventional war we fought against Spain in 1898, to the unconventional wars we fought against the Barbary Pirates in the early 1800s.
Each era has something to teach, for there is no single defining American way of war. It changes over time, and it should change over time, adapting appropriately to the most relevant threats to our national security, and the means by which that security is best preserved. As the godfather of theory himself, Carl von Clausewitz, once observed, war is but an instrument of policy, beholden to it. And because policies change, the conduct of war must also change.
We have, as a nation, been at war continuously over the last nine years. Indeed, you could argue that your military has actually been engaged in combat operations since 1990, when we fought Desert Storm and then stayed around to enforce sanctions and no-fly zones against Saddam. The enemies we faced in that time have certainly varied. We quickly deposed the Taliban from power shortly after the attacks of 9/11 and then went on to defeat the Ba'athist forces of Saddam's regime, later struggling to throw back a rampant Sunni insurgency.
Today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have generally become a fight against a syndicate of Islamic extremists led by al-Qaida and supported by a host of both state and non-state actors. The epicenter of this fight remains, in my view, the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where not only does al-Qaida's leadership plot and plan to attack America, but also where a new collection of like-minded extremist groups partner together to support them and to further destabilize the entire region.
In other words, these wars also have changed in character. I've watched and advised two administrations as they have dealt with this struggle. And I've come to three conclusions - three principles - about the proper use of modern military forces. The first is that military power should not - maybe cannot - be the last resort of the state. Military forces are some of the most flexible and adaptable tools to policymakers. We can, merely by our presence, help alter certain behavior. Before a shot is even fired, we can bolster a diplomatic argument, support a friend or deter an enemy. We can assist rapidly in disaster-relief efforts, as we did in the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake. We can help gather intelligence, support reconnaissance and provide security.
And we can do so on little or no notice. That ease of use is critical for deterrence. An expeditionary force that provides immediate, tangible effects. It is also vital when innocent lives are at risk. So yes, the military may be the best and sometimes the first tool; it should never be the only tool. The tangible effects of military engagement may give policymakers a level of comfort not necessarily or wholly justified. As we have seen, the international environment is more fluid and more complex than ever before.
Not every intended target of one's deterrent will act rationally and not every good intention will be thus received. Longer-lasting, more sustainable effects will most assuredly demand a whole-of-government, if not a whole-of-nation effort. Defense and diplomacy are simply no longer discrete choices, one to be applied when the other one fails, but must, in fact, complement one another throughout the messy process of international relations.
As President Obama noted in his West Point speech, when he announced his strategy for Afghanistan, we cannot count on military might alone. We have to invest in our homeland security; we have to improve and better coordinate our intelligence; and we will have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone.
My fear, quite frankly, is that we aren't moving fast enough in this regard. U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands. It's one thing to be able and willing to serve as emergency responders; quite another to always have to be the fire chief.
Secretaries Clinton and Gates have called for more funding and more emphasis on our soft power, and I could not agree with them more. Should we choose to exert American influence solely through our troops, we should expect to see that influence diminish in time. In fact, I would argue that in the future struggles of the asymmetric counterinsurgent variety, we ought to make it a precondition of committing our troops, that we will do so only if and when the other instruments of national power are ready to engage as well.
There's a broader issue involved here. For, in addition to bringing the full weight of the U.S. government to bear, we must also bring our allies and partners with us to the fight. Forty-two other nations fight alongside us in Afghanistan, as did so many others in Iraq. Whether by formal alliance or by informal agreement, these multinational commitments lend not only a higher sense of legitimacy to the effort, they lend to local populations certain skills and knowledge which we alone do not posses.
The Australians are experts at counterinsurgency warfare; the British have a long tradition of service in that part of the world and bring unique insights; the Germans and the French and the Italians have superb national police organizations for Afghans to emulate. In my view, whatever drawbacks of alliance management there may be, they are more than outweighed by the benefits of operations in unison.
With the U.S. providing the bulk of forces, it should come as no surprise to anyone that some may avail themselves of lesser contributions. But that doesn't detract from the very real impact many of them make. It also doesn't mean we shouldn't exhort them to do more. For our part, we have become the best counterinsurgency force in the world and we didn't do it alone. We had a lot of help.
That brings me to number two: Force should, to the maximum extent possible, be applied in a precise and principled way. War costs the societies that engage in it a great deal; lives and resources diverted from pursuits that a more peaceful time would allow. Even now, as we are poised to reach 1,000 troop deaths in Afghanistan, we're reminded of the thousands more Afghans who have been killed and the hundreds of over coalition soldiers who have likewise perished; not to mention the property and infrastructure damage that will yet take years from which to recover.
Though it can never lessen the pain of such loss, precisely applying force in a principled manner can help reduce those costs and actually improve our chances of success. Consider for a moment ongoing operations in Marja in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal chose to move into this part of Southern Afghanistan specifically because it was a hub of Taliban activity. There, they had sway over the people; there, they were able to advance their interests to other places in the country. It wasn't ground we were interested in retaking so much as enemy influence we were interested in degrading.
And so this is a much more transparent operation. We did not swoop in under the cover of darkness. We told the people of Marja and the enemy himself when we were coming and where we would be going. We did not prep the battlefield with carpet-bombing or missile strikes. We simply walked in on time.
Because frankly the battlefield isn't necessarily a field anymore. It's in the minds of the people. It's what they believe to be true that matters. And when they believe that they are safer with Afghan and coalition troops in their midst and local governance at their service, they will resist the intimidation of the Taliban and refuse to permit their land from ever again becoming a safe haven for terror.
That is why the threshold for the use of indirect fire in this operation is so high. That's why Gen. McChrystal issued more restrictive rules for night raids. And it's why he has coalition troops operating in support of Afghan soldiers and not the other way around.
In this type of war, when the objective is not the enemy's defeat but the people's success, less really is more. Each time an errant bomb or a bomb accurately aimed but against the wrong target kills or hurts civilians, we risk setting our strategy back months, if not years. Despite the fact that the Taliban kill and maim far more than we do, civilian casualty incidents such as those we've recently seen in Afghanistan will hurt us more in the long run than any tactical success we may achieve against the enemy. People expect more from us. They have every right to expect more from us.
Now, there's been much debate over how to balance traditional and irregular warfare capabilities in our military. As an underpinning, I see this principle applying to both. It chooses quality of people, training and systems over quantity of platforms. It means that we choose to go small in number before we go hollow in capability. And it favors innovation in leaders, in doctrine, in organization and in technology.
Precise and principled force applies whether we are attacking an entrenched enemy or securing the population. In either case, it protects the innocent. We protect the innocent. It's who we are. And in so doing, we better preserve both our freedom of action and our security interests.
Preserving our security interests is also better-ensured by what I consider my third and final principle. Policy and strategy should constantly struggle with one another. Some in the military no doubt would prefer political leadership that lays out a specific strategy and then gets out of the way, leaving the balance of the implementation to commanders in the field. But the experience of the last nine years tells us two things: A clear strategy for military operations is essential; and that strategy will have to change as those operations evolve.
In other words, success in these types of wars is iterative; it is not decisive. There isn't going to be a single day when we stand up and say, that's it, it's over, we've won. We will win but we will do so only over time and only after near constant reassessment and adjustment. Quite frankly, it will feel a lot less like a knock-out punch and a lot more like recovering from a long illness.
The worst possible world I can imagine is one in which military commanders are inventing or divining their strategies, their own remedies, in the absence of clear political guidance, sometimes after an initial goal or mission has been taken over by events. That's why we have and need political leadership constantly immersed in the week-to-week flow of the conflict, willing and able to adjust as necessary but always leaving military commanders enough leeway to do what is expected of them.
Policymakers, after all, have other concerns beyond those of the military that must be adequately considered when taking a nation to war, including cost, domestic support, international reaction and so forth. At the same time, military leaders at all levels much be completely frank about the limits of what military power can achieve, with what risk and in what timeframe.
We owe civilian leaders our candor in the decision-making process and our unwavering support once the decision is made. That doesn't mean every bit of military advice will be followed. We shouldn't expect so. But it does mean the military concerns will be properly considered. And we can ask for nothing more.
In this most recent Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy review, the president devoted an extraordinary amount of time to getting it right, to understanding the nature of the fight we are in and the direction in which he wanted to take it. And then he laid it out clearly, simply, for the American people. And we are executing. In December he will review where we are and how we are doing, and I think we should all be prepared to adjust if events on the ground deem it necessary.
The notion proffered by some that once set, a war policy cannot be changed, or that to do so implies some sort of weakness, strikes me not only as incompatible with our history but also as quite dangerous. Lincoln did not emancipate the slaves when Fort Sumter was fired upon. He made that policy change when he deemed it most necessary. Though he favored a Germany-first policy, FDR still struggled to properly balance the war's efforts against both Japan and Hitler's Germany. And Kennedy did not embark on the war in Vietnam with any sense that his successors would be fighting it at all, much less the way they did.
Contrary to popular imagination, war has never been a set-piece affair. The enemy adapts to your strategy and you adapt to his. And so you keep the interplay going between policy and strategy until you find the right combination at the right time. What worked well in Iraq will not necessarily work in Afghanistan. What worked well today will not necessarily work tomorrow. The day you stop adjusting is the day you lose. To quote one of war's greatest students, Winston Churchill, you can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they've tried everything else.
Trying everything else is not weakness. It means we don't give up. It means we never stop learning, and in my view if we've learned nothing else from these two wars of ours, it is that a flexible, balanced approach to using military force is best. We must not look upon the use of military forces only as a last resort, but as potentially the best, first option when combined with other instruments of national and international power.
We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner. And we must not shrink from the tug of war - no pun intended - that inevitably plays out between policymaking and strategy execution. Such interplay is healthy for the republic and essential for ultimate success. For Churchill also noted that in war, as in life, and I quote, "It is often necessary, when some cherished scheme has failed, to take up the best alternative, and if so, it is folly not to work with it with all your might."
Ladies and gentlemen, your military is working for you with all its might. And we've not forgotten who started these wars, and we will not forget those who have perished as a result. We will stay at it for as long as it takes and we will succeed for as long as you support us in the endeavor. Thank you.