Opinion: What Were The Problematic Assumptions Underlying The Obama Administration's Asia-Pacific Strategy?
This question originally appeared on Quora.
The strategic shift announced earlier this month by the Obama administration rests upon four, problematic assumptions. Unless these assumptions are challenged and military force planning is based on reality, the next budget submission will contain a U.S. military ill prepared to secure U.S. interests.
Assumption 1: The decade of war is behind us.
The U.S. has withdrawn militarily from Iraq, but the war is not over and the job is not done. The U.S. left because we could not negotiate staying with the Iraqis. Both nations understood that it was in each’s best interest to have a residual U.S. military capability, but for domestic political reasons, neither nation could do what they knew they should. Iraq’s problems are theirs to solve but, the presence of U.S. forces would have been helpful moving them forward toward solutions. An Iraq that returns to sectarian violence is not in the region’s or the U.S.’s best interest.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. announced its plan to withdraw and is executing that plan regardless of actual facts on the ground. Even as the U.S. withdraws combat forces, it is sending over large numbers of leaders to assist the Afghan security forces. The Afghan National Security Forces are taking more of a lead, and they will assume even more responsibility in the coming months. All this is as it should be, but the counteroffensive that was successful in Kandahar and Helmond provinces must now, with equal force, shift to the east. Our withdrawal plans puts this shift at risk. Leaving too early will drag out an already too dragged out war. How the war ends matters to the region and to U.S. security.
Last, our global fight against Al Qaeda has resulted in some success. Our drones and raids have killed Al Qaeda leaders and operatives, but the ideology still inspires and America is still at risk. The stated U.S. strategic objectives of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda is far from accomplished.
As much as all Americans would want the decade of war to be over, it is not. Withdrawing from theaters of war and war being over are two distinct issues. Whether the decade ahead is more peaceful than violent is very much related to how the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against Al Qaeda really end.
Assumption 2: American ground forces can be reduced in size.
The past ten years of war did not see the U.S. grow its ground forces large enough to fight three simultaneous wars. Initially, the thought was that each war would be short, so there was no need to grow the ground forces. When reality proved this approach wrong, the U.S. increased the size of the ground forces by a few tens of thousands and introduced unit rotations in both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as in the global fight against Al Qaeda.
Ten years of rotating too few ground and special operations forces has produced cracks in these forces that are negatively impacting not just inside the military but also in our communities. Increased numbers of suicides, domestic abuses, criminal activity, medical disorders, divorces, and discipline actions, are all indicators that too much has been asked of too few for too long.
Strategic decisions must be made based upon the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. In the 1990s, the U.S. reduced the size of its ground forces even as it increased the use of those forces in the un-forecasted operations of Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kososvo. America’s ground forces were already too small at the time of 9/11.
Assumption 3: Advanced technology can offset smaller ground forces.Equipping U.S. forces with the most advanced technology affordable is exactly the right thing to do. In conventional combat, a smaller, well trained and led, and well equipped force can often defeat larger, less well-led, less well-trained, and less well-equipped enemy.
The first Gulf War, the U.S. campaign to oust the Taliban in 2001, and the drive to Baghdad in 2003 are perfect examples. Where it makes sense America should account for technological advantage and make reasonable adjustments in the size of military forces.
The stability and counterinsurgency operations that followed regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, proved to be something quite different—as do any number of potential partner capacity building missions or irregular/asymmetrical warfare operations. The “technology offset principle” has limits to its applicability.
Some of those limits result from the type war one fights, the geographic and climatic conditions, and the political conditions (fighting alone or with allies, for example). Other limits are set by the number of national security interests and objectives. Still other limits follow from the type of threats to America’s interests. In 2000, the Bush administration said “never again” to large, ground interventions or “nation building” operations. Their plan to transform the U.S. military included reducing ground forces and increasing more technologically advanced air, sea, intelligence, and missile defense forces. Reality intervened.
Assumption 4: America’s interests are best served by focusing on the Asia-Pacific.
The Asia-Pacific is an important region. China’s rise and influence must be kept within normal state-to-state competition, but China is not a monolithic threat to U.S. interests. And we shouldn’t make it one in our minds. China has as many internal fault lines that act as limits to its expansion. America’s “China-strategy” is primarily one of diplomacy and economic policies.
The military component to this strategy includes reengaging important allies in the region, helping to improve or develop their capacities, and participating in regional exercises to reestablish force interoperability and the military-to-military relationships that have eroded in the past decade. These military efforts are secondary to and supporting of diplomatic and economic action.
The fact is that U.S. interests are global, not regional. Further, the current and future strategic environment is uncertain. Iran’s threat to close the Straits of Hormuz; the ambiguity of North Korea; the instability and uncertainty of the greater Middle East; China’s rise; on-going cyber operations; continuing attempts by Al Qaeda, their affiliates, and individual disciples to attack the U.S. and our citizens; “threats” not yet identified; and the incapacities of traditional U.S. military allies, all argue for a sufficiently large, balanced, globally-focused U.S. military force—not one optimized toward the Asia-Pacific.
As the administration has said, America’s economic strength is the foundation of U.S. national security. The size and composition of the U.S. military must be understood against this background. Clarity as to what is affordable is important, but clarity as to the assumptions that underlie any strategy decision is equally important. Right now, the administration’s strategy is resting upon some very problematic assumptions.
This question originally appeared on Quora.