As the United States disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan and enters a period of declining defense spending, the argument that technology is rendering land power obsolete has been resurrected. The appeal of substituting standoff military methods — such as air- and sea-based missiles and unmanned drones — for a balanced capability is clear: Everyone favors minimizing U.S. casualties. Recent advances in technology have only strengthened this temptation. This means that as the U.S. military downsizes in coming years, land power may take a disproportionate cut. But before committing to such an approach, Americans must think carefully about its implications. In […]

Who shall we bomb next? Pundits and commentators have begun to fall over themselves declaring the necessity of launching military campaigns against Syria and Iran — the former to prevent a humanitarian disaster and the latter to forestall the development of a nuclear weapon. The catalyst for this enthusiasm is the success of NATO’s aerial campaign in Libya, a war that apparently vindicated the long-standing promise of advanced, precision-guided airpower to cheaply and easily solve inconvenient political problems. Unfortunately, the rediscovered enthusiasm for intervention demonstrates only that the foreign policy punditocracy is committed to serially mislearning the lessons of airpower […]

Global Insider: West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative

Law enforcement officials from seven West African countries met in Sierra Leone last month to discuss increasing anti-corruption efforts at a conference organized by the U.S. State Department and U.S. Justice Department under the auspices of the West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative (WACSI). In an email interview, Boubacar N’Diaye, an associate professor of black studies and political science at the College of Wooster, discussed the WASCI. WPR: What is driving the West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative, and which U.S. government agencies are involved? Boubacar N’Diaye: The driving force behind the WACSI is the United States’ desire to curtail drug trafficking […]

Photo: U.S. Army soldiers rest during a mission in the Hindu Kush mountain range in the Parwan province of Afghanistan, January 2009 (U.S. Army photo by Scott Davis).

Is counterinsurgency dead, as some observers claim? Is it alive and well, as others have argued? Or is it, as still others maintain, merely evolving? One thing is certain. Once fashionable within the Washington beltway, counterinsurgency — or COIN, as it’s known — has come under withering criticism, as violence in Afghanistan escalates and the Pentagon tightens its belt. Many of counterinsurgency’s critics are convinced that the U.S. would do well to avoid such campaigns in the future. Who can blame them? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have extracted an ever-mounting toll in time, blood and treasure from a […]

Americans often assume that insurgency is a modern phenomenon, invented by Mao Zedong and refined by his emulators. The notion permeates official thinking, including Department of Defense definitions and doctrines. In reality, insurgency has existed ever since states and empires began attempting to impose their will on people too weak to resist with conventional military means. Indeed, counterinsurgency is a common function for most states and an inevitable one for empires. That said, the strategic significance of insurgency has ebbed and flowed over time. When the chance of direct conflict between great powers was high, insurgency became background noise in […]

The first page of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ Field Manual 3-24 (.pdf), entitled “Counterinsurgency,” states, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.” Authored in 2006 by Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the director of the CIA, and Lt. Gen. James F. Amos, currently the commandant of the Marine Corps, the manual essentially enshrined counterinsurgency as nation-building in U.S. military doctrine. This required U.S. soldiers and marines to undertake, in roughly proportionate measure, five tasks: safeguard the indigenous population, improve democratic governance, combat corruption, deliver economic projects and institute the rule of law […]

For the past several years, the widely accepted view among defense analysts had been that counterinsurgency, or COIN, represented the future of U.S. defense planning and operations. This consensus was initially driven by the belief that “effective COIN” had “won” the Iraq War, and later by the need, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, to fight “the wars we’re in.” Now things have become far less clear. Awareness has set in that the effects of the 2007-2008 “surge” in Iraq were only partial and, even at the time, only partly achieved by the shift toward conducting what we […]

Defense policy analysts and pundits are wasting ink arguing back and forth about whether or not counterinsurgency is dead or alive. The real debate — the one that risks getting lost in the noise about counterinsurgency’s vital signs — concerns the future of the U.S. Army. As the U.S. military ends its role in Iraq and winds down in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army, alone among the armed services, has no compelling narrative for how it fits into the nation’s defense. The questions today surrounding the future of counterinsurgency are no less intense than the debates over whether or not counterinsurgency […]

With the possibility of a clash between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program looming on the horizon, one cannot help but wonder: Is it worth it for Iran, now grappling with increasingly onerous sanctions, to continue its pursuit of a nuclear capacity, albeit an ambiguous one? By all indications, Iran’s leaders believe so, based on their read of recent history. Since the end of the Cold War, according to this narrative, regimes that the U.S. dislikes for their internal behavior or external activity — and Iran certainly qualifies on both scores — run the risk of being […]

MONROVIA, Liberia — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to West Africa this week looking to highlight the Obama administration’s efforts to promote democratic institutions and credible elections. But in Liberia, a staunch ally that receives more than $200 million annually in American foreign assistance, the conversation in the run-up to the visit concerned a different policy: the first government-wide effort by the U.S. to combat the criminalization of homosexuality overseas. President Barack Obama signed a memorandum outlining the policy on Dec. 6. In a speech that day at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton proclaimed that […]

Conventional wisdom holds that it is in Iran’s near-term interest to calm tensions with the West, particularly the United States. But with those tensions now rising, it’s worth considering the dynamics at work in Tehran’s relationship with the rest of the world. In fact, the Iranian leadership’s incentives may run counter to our expectations, making a continuation or escalation of tensions more, not less, likely. Iran’s long-term national interest is best served by developing nuclear weapons, which would fundamentally alter the strategic balance in the Middle East. A nuclear capability would allow Tehran to bully its neighbors and pursue its […]

Over the Horizon: The Defense Budget Revolution Won’t Be Televised

Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama released a new strategic document intended to provide guidance for cuts in the growth rate of the defense budget (.pdf). Though the planned leveling off of the defense budget had already been announced in principle, the strategic priorities laid out in the document make it official: There’s going to be a knife fight at the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the American public won’t be watching. As I’ve argued before in this space, the process of cutting the defense budget is inherently messy. Defense policy is best understood as the outcome of a massive scrum between different […]

Continued U.S. Engagement, Pressure the Keys to Further Progress in Myanmar

Since taking office in March 2011, Myanmarese President U Thein Sein has taken steps to move the country away from the political repression and human rights abuses that have left it internationally isolated over the past five decades. His initial efforts led to a process of engagement with the U.S. that culminated in U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit late last year, the first by a U.S. secretary of state to the country in half a century. At the time, Clinton held out the hope of further engagement in exchange for continued progress on a variety of human rights […]

The release of President Barack Obama’s strategic guidance to the Department of Defense on Jan. 5 has already unleashed a storm of commentary. The final document, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” was prepared after months of consultations with the national security team and senior military leaders, and is a first attempt to begin prioritizing both defense missions as well as geographic regions that are most vital to U.S. interests. The guidance puts a premium on what might be termed “expeditionary firepower” — naval and air assets capable of projecting power over a wide area — and […]

CAIRO — Increased hostility from Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) over the past few months has led the United States to begin preparing for a future without the Egyptian military. On Dec. 29, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of three U.S.-affiliated NGOs, in addition to 14 others, in what was widely seen as a politically motivated crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights organizations. “Actions like these are another reason why my Appropriations subcommittee refused to give a blank check of foreign aid to the Egyptian military,” U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy said […]

Last week, in the Gulf of Oman, the Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer USS Kidd seized an Iranian fishing dhow that had been hijacked and used as a mother ship by Somali pirates. In the course of the seizure, 13 Iranian hostages were freed, and 15 Somali pirates were taken into U.S. custody. The Iranian crew has now returned home after more than a month in captivity. In and of itself, the rescue was not extraordinary. Other vessels participating in the U.S.-led multilateral naval task force fighting Somalian piracy in the region — known as CTF-151 — carry out such rescues […]

Power-Grab by Hungary’s Orban Requires Careful EU, U.S. Response

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has asserted his power over the past 18 months by reducing the influence of independent institutions and increasing that of his ruling Fidesz party. In addition to passing a new constitution, which went into effect on Jan. 1, the government pushed through laws consolidating power over the judiciary and the central bank, while also restricting freedom of religion and freedom of the press. “Orban is trying to cement the place of the Fidesz party in the government,” said Balázs Jarábik, an associate fellow at FRIDE, a European think tank based in Madrid. “This democracy deficit […]

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