As I finished writing the article “In the Army Now” (for the September/October 2010 issue of American Interest), I was literally en route to a year-long assignment in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. The mission I joined was a daunting one to execute: a vigorous counterinsurgency strategy in a theater that had until then largely languished. My experience in Afghanistan reinforced for me a central observation I included in the article—that the Army had done much to adapt to the exigencies of counterinsurgency, but that the mission we faced in 2010 was more difficult than it should have been, and more difficult than nearly all of us thought.
As in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan exhibited difficulties and complexity born in part from the consequences of not following up initial battle successes with a thorough and well-resourced plan to achieve American national policy aims. The causes of these shortcomings are complex and touch on many actors across the U.S. security community, but the Army rightfully bears some of the responsibility for the errors that have been made.
As I re-read the article now, I stand by my overall assessment that the Army deserves much credit for adapting its organizational structure and its doctrine to address demonstrable shortcomings. I still hold it to be a fair critique that the Army should have been better prepared, as a matter of course, for irregular warfare—to include regularly recurring demands for effective stability operations and counterinsurgency in the service of American policy aims.
Two and a half years later, the Army maintains a commitment to sustaining the stability operations and counterinsurgency lessons learned from hard-fought experience and sacrifice since 9/11. Since 2010, there has been a shift in the Army’s doctrinal taxonomy. Full-spectrum operations now gives way to “Unified Land Operations.” Integral to unified land operations is the army’s emphasis on combined arms maneuver and wide area security—the latter of which encompasses operations among populations and the activities associated with stability operations. In short, with some change in the Army’s terminology, the inculcation of stability operations expertise remains at the core of the Army’s acknowledged professional responsibilities. This is an important corrective that supports, often explicitly, the desire to avoid the post-Vietnam pitfall of wishful disregard for admittedly painful circumstances.
Unfortunately, the desire for a simpler focus on conventional combat skills, and the resource constraints that likely will be imposed in coming years, leave the Army vulnerable to repeating the post-Vietnam War pattern of relegating stability operations and counterinsurgency warfare to the fringes of the profession. Resource competition could easily undermine efforts to maintain a balanced portfolio of capabilities. As resources dwindle, the understandable priority of major conventional capabilities may once again crowd out other priorities, including stability operations. Policy guidance from national leaders (particularly the January 2012 strategic guidance, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”) makes explicit the shift away from large-scale stability operations and counterinsurgency as a major force-sizing construct, though it does acknowledge the need to maintain such capabilities as part of the armed forces’ repertoire. The reinforcing policy narrative, with a key theme to avoid counterinsurgency missions, is likely to tip the balance of such resource competition against irregular warfare requirements. Indeed, the potentially confounding pressures that might undermine a judicious balance remain; budget stringency is more acute now than it was in 2010.
In one very important regard, however, the financial resources required to maintain a wise balance are not onerous at all. Regardless of the size of the force, leader development and professional military education remain vital mechanisms to ensure that the Army retains and strengthens its expertise to meet the range of potential national security demands. As a colleague has put it,
For any profession to remain viable it must continually do two things: revamp its expert knowledge and then develop the practice of that knowledge into a corps of leaders (officers and NCOs) at all levels who can use it when called on to do so. The Army failed both of these tests in the past build-downs. First, by letting the combat veterans ‘walk’ because of de-motivating personnel policies. Second, because strategic leaders (the stewards of long-term effectiveness) failed to see to it that the profession’s expert knowledge did not atrophy as its resources declined.
In the near term, the bench of leaders we had amid the demands of counterinsurgency and stability operations is likely to remain deep. But it remains to be seen if the Army’s professional development programs will remain committed to broad education for future challenges that extend beyond conventional battlefield success.
Additionally, when it comes to personnel policies, we must adapt effectively to the effects of the recent decision to open combat positions to women. The Army will need to make adjustments to accommodate new policy guidelines while staying true to the functional imperatives of its most daunting tasks and the necessity of a meritocratic culture. The clearly defined physical, intellectual and technical requirements that individuals must meet have proved useful as the core of a cultural ethos of effectiveness. Overall, military effectiveness should trump any other considerations in the national interest.
The Army remains the most flexible of the American armed services and, as usual, faces the broadest array of potential national security challenges. It must be reasonably prepared to address them when society beckons. The Army must continue to reconcile the dilemma between preparation for many plausible future threats and the natural desire to limit focus to a small number of priority challenges in an era of constrained resources. If the Army cannot reconcile this dilemma effectively, it permits vulnerabilities that adversaries are likely to exploit—as they did in our failed efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan after early military successes.
 My thanks to Dr. Don Snider for this important point. E-mail with author, February 2013.