A New Season in Military Fashions

President Barack Obama has promised a fundamental review of American policy towards Afghanistan this December. In the meantime, his decision seems compromised by the continuing military and civilian “surge” to Afghanistan  ordered soon after Obama took office in 2008. The Pentagon is constructing bases for the new arrivals on a giant scale with all the customary civilian appurtenances of American military life – fast food franchises, bargain-price exchanges, and other amenities – as if building gated communities around the world for eventual commercialization (or unforeseen abandonment) were the business with which it is most comfortable.

This base construction would seem to suggest that, whatever the president’s views of where the United States stands with respect to Afghanistan and the Taliban in December, the American military is not planning to saddle up and go home.

This recalls how the basic decisions on fighting in Afghanistan were already taken before Obama’s inauguration. Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal, and the Pentagon planners, had the troops already in transport from Iraq to Afghanistan, and the new counterinsurgency program for Afghanistan drafted, well before the new president and his family had finished looking around the White House. “Sign here, Sir.” The Pentagon has its own vision of what lies ahead in which novice presidents are not taken too seriously. They are, after all, the professionals.

In the past, what they have achieved in exercising their professional skill has not always been a success. Vietnam and Iraq will not rank in the history books with Bull Run or Lee’s campaigns in Northern Virginia. But American military men usually concentrate on the basics, which cannot always be said of the civilian geo-politicians who purport to tell them what to do, and who sometimes put forward very wide-ranging views indeed on the interests at stake in these wars and the global perspectives upon which the U.S. should conceive its future.

A random riff through what came into my e-mail today from centers of international military reflection produced a Washington presentation by the Center for a New American Security. It promotes a new book by Robert D. Kaplan called Monsoon, which deals with the geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean states, notably China and India, in their future relations with the U.S. Kaplan’s admirers say that the Indian Ocean zone is where “the fight for democracy, energy independence, and religious freedom will be lost or won, and where American foreign policy must concentrate if the U.S. is to remain relevant in an ever changing world.”

I find this a mysterious statement. Why the Indian Ocean rather than the Pacific or Atlantic? Other than that, both China and India have coasts opening out eventually into the Indian Ocean (as well as the Pacific), and the author is greatly interested in India and China as growing strategic powers in the region, rival to the U.S. The Indian Ocean is a maritime energy transport route of interest to China (and Japan, and other East Asian powers), but where do democracy and religious freedom enter into the calculation?

I also saw (reprinted from a Paris journal) a Canadian analysis of the future role of Canada’s military forces, in what is predicted to be a future of “expeditionary counterinsurgency,” in which Canada is said now to be experienced and expert (chiefly as auxiliary to U.S. forces). I have no doubt that this is so, but I do not see why Canada, with a reputation for fielding a tough army indeed in World Wars I and II, and in Korea, wants to volunteer for a new career helping the U.S. become the global hegemon. (I crossed the Pacific on a U.S. troop ship on its way to Korea whose last passengers had been Canadian infantry – they had all but taken the ship apart to amuse themselves; the American sailors remained traumatized.)

This Canadian forecast said that “Transformation” is the new military buzzword, meaning reorienting the military institution for “the complex insurgencies” that “planners say will dominate the 21st century.” Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, was quoted as saying that Afghanistan provides the “laboratory” for this change.

NATO has a “Transformation” command function, to turn its troops to “expeditionary counterinsurgency,” and the U.S. Marine Corps general (James N. Mattis) who held that NATO command was in August made commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, which runs the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from its headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Obviously we are in a new season in military fashions. What would happen if NATO’s successful transformation into a vast counterinsurgency army (for the 21st century) were actually to be followed by a real and unfashionable war, like the one those Canadian soldiers went to Korea to fight?

(c) 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Author: William Pfaff

Visit William Pfaff's Web site.