War and peace, the Army way

Another 100 years of U.S. troops in Iraq?

“Fine with me,” GOP presidential contender John McCain said in January. McCain, who’s famously irascible, was presumably exaggerating. His point, he clarified, wasn’t that he actually foresaw another 100 years of war, but that U.S. troops may retain an important role in Iraq that goes on for many years after direct combat operations end.

Don’t like that idea? Get used to it. Because in many ways, McCain’s comments are squarely in line with the latest Army doctrine.

This week, the Army released a new version of FM 3-0, the Army Field Manual on Operations. The first revision since 9/11, it offers what the Army -- which is not an institution prone to exaggeration -- calls “a revolutionary departure from past doctrine.” For more than 200 years, the Army has had two “core missions": offense and defense. FM 3-0 adds a third: “stability operations,” better (if more controversially) known to the public as nation building.


Remember the 1990s, when disgruntled Army officers waged a muttering campaign against the Clinton administration’s decision to send them to Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, on the grounds that real soldiers ought to spend their time fighting, not acting as peacekeepers/cops/prison guards/civil administrators? Things are different now.

The 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan and Iraq changed a lot of minds about the value of what the military once marginalized as “OOTW” -- “Operations Other Than War.” The rise of Al Qaeda helped demonstrate that the many varieties of human misery -- poverty, chaos, repression, civil conflict -- also happen to be perfect breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism. And our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq made it painfully clear that winning the peace matters as much as winning the war.

The U.S. military has always been exceptionally good at war fighting. In Iraq, for instance, defeating the military forces of Saddam Hussein took less than a month. But we all know what happened after that.

By adding stability operations as a new core mission, the revised Army Field Manual tries to ensure that the failures of Iraq will never be repeated. FM 3-0 foresees future Army forces fighting when fighting is called for -- but troops also will work as needed to ensure civilian security and provide “emergency infrastructure reconstruction, humanitarian relief [and] political, legal, social and economic institutions that support the transition to legitimate local governance.”


Stability operations will be integrated into Army planning and training at every level and will take place across the “full spectrum of conflict": that is, such activities may be preventive (intended to keep an unstable society from collapsing), or coexist with traditional war fighting, or occur in the aftermath of a conflict.

Imagine! If the White House and the Defense Department had seen Iraq in those terms from the beginning and committed resources accordingly, thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilian lives might have been saved, the insurgency might never have gotten off the ground, Al Qaeda in Iraq might never have gained a footing and the U.S. might have a lot more friends in the world today.

So FM 3-0 is welcome, and overdue.

But here’s the rub. Successful stability operations take a lot of time.

Maybe not McCain’s 100 years, but if the U.S. is serious about seeing stability operations as part of the Army’s core mission, we’ll need a larger Army, and we’ll be looking at extended deployments in trouble spots around the globe. You can defeat an enemy army in a month, but truly “stabilizing” a society is something that will happen -- if it happens -- over 10 or 20 years, not 10 or 20 weeks.

FM 3-0 also raises as many new questions as it answers.

The Army can’t possibly “stabilize” every troubled society, so how will the U.S. select priorities? Will military involvement in traditionally humanitarian activities create new dangers for private relief and humanitarian organizations? Will others around the world see U.S. stability operations as just a new form of imperialism?

And: Should FM 3-0 be seen as a continuation of a disturbing post-9/11 trend toward the militarization of U.S. foreign policy? Or should it be seen as a sort of “civilianization” of the military, insofar as it acknowledges that real security for the United States can’t be achieved through force alone?


And: What role will civilians play? The State Department supposedly “coordinates” U.S. stability operations, including those undertaken by the military -- but that’s like saying a mouse will coordinate a pack of 800-pound gorillas. Will Congress commit the funds to build up civilian capacity to match our undoubted military capacity?

In the end, of course, the Army can’t answer these questions. Congress and the next president need to. And let’s hope they take the task seriously, because 100 years without answers would be an awfully long time.