General John Abizaid, the former Commander of U.S. Central Command spoke at NYU’s Center for Law and Security on the primary challenges the United States Armed Forces face today and in the near term along with a host of experts on counterinsurgency (COIN), critics, and A-list journalists.
Abizaid described Islam across the spectrum of the twenty-seven nation CentCom theater as being in a “fight with itself.” The four challenges for the U.S. in the region are Sunni extremism, the rise of King Abdullah’s feared “Shia Crescent”, the ongoing Arab-Israeli war and the securing of oil and other natural resources. General Abizaid stated that the political and economic center of gravity in the world has shifted to the East and that military power would eventually follow if history can be seen as a blueprint for the future. In order to maintain order, the United States must get out of an “occupational strategy” and enter a more coordinated “cooperative strategy.” Abizaid told of his strong dislike for “political-military friction” and that in the traditions of which he aspired, commanding officers are meant to remain neutral and stay clear of Republicans and Democrats alike avoiding involvements in Beltway entanglements that can further polarize the public-military discourse.
John Nagl is a retired Lieutenant Colonel and distinguished COIN expert, President of CNAS , and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife who spoke of the massive paradigm shift that took place in calm after Desert Storm. The shift Nagl described was in the eyes of America’s enemies, allies and rivals. The warfare that would follow could be either high end (nuclear) or low end (guerrilla) with virtually no set piece battles in between. The Gulf War demonstrated that the United States could not be opposed military-to-military on the battlefield. “Tank-Tank”warfare as he put it was unlikely to occur on future battlefields (with the Russia-South Ossetia-Georgia war an exception). The military held that if “You can skin a cat, you can skin a kitten” and that fighting a small war was just a slimmed down version of fighting a large one rather than a mission that employed an entirely different skill set. Nagl told audience members that the U.S. must have a balance of preparedness through a whole spectrum of combat and risked negating itself if it swung too far in either the small or large war direction. The U.S. military was structured for offensive and defensive combat but now was operating along a crucial third tier, that of stabilizing operations. A key part of these type of operations was not Marshall Plan post-war style reconstruction but reconstruction as a core component within a theater of active combat.
Retired Lieutenant General David Barno who commanded American forces in Afghanistan from late 2003-2005, talked of the country as an “In-Conflict Reconstruction” and described his troops as doing “Armed Nation Building” (which I thought was a brilliant term) “because you get killed by doing unarmed nation building.” Barno described today’s war-fighting environment as one that no longer allowed for humanitarian space (think Sri Lanka). Lt. General Barno said this in response to a question I put to the panel about the conflation of nation-building and humanitarian work with armed state and non-state actors alike (The former being say, U.S. forces in the Balkans, an example of the latter being LeT in Azad Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake). I mentioned the sight of an American officer in post-invasion 2003 Karbala sitting behind a hospital administrator’s desk paying out freshly minted $20 bills to nurses and doctors who hadn’t been paid for months. On the surface it may have appeared to be a nice gesture by the officer in question but appeared to be a grave violation of the Geneva Convention. Suzanne Nossel of HRW said the line had been blurred between traditional civil and military lines in a conflict zone which confused the issue as soldiers, even while carrying our nation-building efforts, can still be considered legitimate targets under international humanitarian law. Although there was an emerging common ground between human rights groups and armed forces (I’m assuming she meant Western armed forces), that we as a public should remain cautious about ceding the idea of humanitarian space in war.