Gates Strategy Stresses Unconventional Warfare

US defense strategy should be focused primarily in the short to medium term on unconventional threats, particularly “violent extremist movements such as al Qaeda and its associates,” while it “hedge(s)” against the growing military power of “rogue states such as Iran and North Korea” and potential rivals, notably China and Russia, according to major policy guidance released here Thursday by Pentagon chief Robert Gates.

In his first “National Defense Strategy,” Gates also called repeatedly for maintaining close cooperation with allies, both new and old, a contrast to the much more unilateralist orientation of previous Pentagon papers produced under his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, especially during the first term of President George W. Bush (01-2005).

“The United States…must strengthen and expand alliances and partnerships,” he wrote. “The US alliance system has been a cornerstone of peace and security for more than a generation and remains the key to our success.”

“We cannot prevail if we act alone,” Gates wrote in the introduction to the 23-page statement, which also, however, stressed that the US must retain to the greatest extent possible its “freedom of action in the global commons and strategic access to important regions of the world to meet our national security needs.”

“The well-being of the global economy is contingent on ready access to energy resources,” according to the document. “Notwithstanding national efforts to reduce dependence on oil, current trends indicate an increasing reliance on petroleum products from areas of instability in the coming years, not reduced reliance.”

Throughout the document, Gates also repeatedly stressed the importance of “soft power” – as opposed to military strength alone – in US defense strategy, particularly with respect to what has been called “nation-building” and public diplomacy.

“We as a nation must strengthen not only our military capabilities, but also reinvigorate other important elements of national power and develop the capability to integrate, tailor and apply these tools as needed,” according to the report.

“The Department of Defense has taken on many of these burdens… (and) will need to institutionalize and retain these capabilities, but this is no replacement for civilian involvement and expertise,” he wrote, echoing appeals for Congress to beef up the State Department and its sub-agencies in charge of development and public diplomacy that he has made on numerous occasions over the past nine months.

The publication of the new strategy caps a lengthy process of internal debate since Gates took over from Rumsfeld in late 2006 on what should be the major priorities of a Defense Department that is spending more than 600 billion dollars a year, that is caught up in costly counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan for which it is was initially poorly prepared, and that has historically favored high-tech, big-ticket conventional-weapons systems that have fattened the balance sheets of its major private contractors.

Gates has argued both inside the Pentagon and in public for giving a much higher priority to so-called “small wars,” that is fighting terrorist movements, such as al Qaeda, and insurgencies, such as Afghanistan’s Taliban and various factions within Iraq. He has insisted that, given Washington’s present overwhelming military superiority over any potential rival, such conflicts pose the most likely threats to US interests and international stability over at least the next decade or two.

“Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today,” he warned in a speech two months ago. “What we must guard against is the kind of backsliding that has occurred in the past, where if nature takes it course, these kinds of capabilities – that is, counterinsurgency – tend to wither on the vine.”

“US predominance in traditional warfare is not unchallenged, but is sustainable for the medium term given current trends,” he noted.

That argument has been contested by a number of senior officers – quietly backed by major defense contractors whose financial contributions to political campaigns and widespread geographical distribution guarantee them entree into Congressional offices on Capitol Hill – who have warned that too great a swing of the pendulum toward what, after all, is a distinctly low-tech form of warfare could result in serious vulnerabilities on the conventional front.

As a result, the new document seeks to achieve a balance between the two sides. Indeed, in releasing the new strategy Thursday, Gates noted “the reality… that conventional and strategic force modernization programs are strongly supported in the services and in the Congress.”

Still, the strategy strongly affirms Gates’ emphasis on the importance of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism”For the foreseeable future (the strategic) environment will be defined by a global struggle against a violent extremist ideology that seeks to overturn the international state system,” he wrote, referring to al Qaeda and its associates. He referred to that struggle, as had Rumsfeld as “the Long War.”

Comparing that ideology to communism and fascism, he stressed that while “Iraq and Afghanistan remain the central fronts in the struggle,” military success in both countries by itself “will not bring victory.”

“The use of force plays a role, yet military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies,” the document went on.

“For these reasons, arguably the most important component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves.”

On other possible threats, the paper singles out China and Russia, as well as the surviving members of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” – Iran and North Korea – for special mention.

“China is one ascendant state with the potential for competing with the United States,” according to the document. “For the foreseeable future, we will need to hedge against China’s growing military modernization and the impact of its strategic choices upon international security.” At the same time, he called for enhanced “engagement” between the two countries’ militaries.

And, while Washington shares interests with Russia and “can collaborate with it in a variety of ways,” Moscow’s “retreat from democracy and its increasing economic and political intimidation of its neighbors give cause for concern.”

Nonetheless, “we shall seek to anchor China and Russia as stakeholders in the (international) system,” it went on. “Similarly, we look to India to assume greater responsibility as a stakeholder…commensurate with its growing economic, military, and soft power.”

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.