THE LONG-AWAITED strategic review at the Pentagon, released earlier this month, was the first salvo in the deficit-reduction effort to cut defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade. The Obama administration’s proposals - slowly reducing the number of aircraft carriers, trimming excess nuclear weapons, focusing on Asia rather than Europe, and limiting ground troops in favor of technology - all move in the right direction. Hidden in the specific budget reductions, however, was a direct acknowledgment that America’s brief and unhappy foray into counterinsurgency operations has come to an end.
The strategic review flatly declares that “US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.’’ Counterinsurgency, a strategy designed and pursued by former Iraq and Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus, was about “winning the people’’ in potentially belligerent nations. It required surging numbers of troops to carry out functions better left alone or to others. Obama’s brief commitment to COIN, as it is dubbed, in Afghanistan was quickly reconsidered with the help of the much more skeptical Vice President Joe Biden. Troops will now be returning by 2014, and their goals are focused on counterterrorism more than nation-building.
At one time, Petraeus had rock-star status. But as the Iraq and Afghanistan war strategies were being reconsidered, Petraeus was given the post of CIA director. It may be that keeping Petraeus in the Obama administration while it dismantled his theories was a way to hold a potential critic close. Not much is heard from Petraeus these days.
Given the checkered history of counterinsurgency, and its cost in lives and money, its demise is hardly unwelcome. Even better to read of it in the very document that hopes to guide how the United States conducts wars the next time around.