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Posted on Oct 3, 2008 in War College

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ Speech, September 29, 2008

By Armchair General

What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, world-wide irregular campaign – a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and moderation. In the long-term effort against terrorist networks and other extremists, we know that direct military force will continue to have a role. But we also understand that over the long term, we cannot kill or capture our way to victory. Where possible, kinetic operations should be subordinate to measures to promote better governance, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit. It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideology. As the National Defense Strategy puts it, success will require us to “tap the full strength of America and its people” – civilian and military, public sector and private.

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We are unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon – that is, forced regime change followed by nation-building under fire. But that doesn’t mean we may not face similar challenges in a variety of locales. Where possible, our strategy is to employ indirect approaches – primarily through building the capacity of partner governments and their security forces – to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial American military intervention. In this kind of effort, the capabilities of our allies and partners may be as important as our own, and building their capacity, is arguably as important, if not more so than the fighting we do ourselves.

That these kinds of missions are more frequent does not necessarily mean, for risk assessment purposes, that they automatically should have a higher priority for the purposes of military readiness. And, it is true that many past interventions have had significant humanitarian considerations. However, the recent past vividly demonstrated the consequences of failing adequately to address the dangers posed by insurgencies and failing states. Terrorist networks can find a sanctuary within the borders of a weak nation and strength within the chaos of social breakdown. A nuclear-armed state could collapse into chaos, and criminality. Let’s be honest with ourselves. The most likely catastrophic threats to our homeland – for example, an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack – are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states.

The kind of capabilities needed to deal with these scenarios cannot be considered exotic distractions or temporary diversions. We do not have the luxury of opting out because they do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war.

Furthermore, even the biggest of wars will require so-called “small wars” capabilities. Ever since General Winfield Scott led his army into Mexico in the 1840s, nearly every major deployment of American forces has led to subsequently longer military presence to maintain stability. General Eisenhower, when tasked with administering North Africa in 1942, wrote, “The sooner I can get rid of these questions that are outside the military in scope, the happier I will be! Sometimes, I think I live 10 years each week, of which at least nine are absorbed in political and economic matters.” And yet, in Eisenhower, General George Marshall knew he had the “almost perfect model of a modern commander: part soldier, part diplomat, part administrator.” This model is as important and real today as it was 70 years ago.

Whether in the midst of or in the aftermath of any major conflict, the requirement for the U.S. military to maintain security, provide aid and comfort, begin reconstruction, and stand up local government and public services will not go away. Even with a better-funded State Department and U.S.A.I.D., future military commanders will no more be able to rid themselves of these tasks than Eisenhower was. To paraphrase what a former U.N. Secretary General said about peacekeeping, it is not a soldier’s job but sometimes only a soldier can do it. To truly achieve victory as Clauswitz defined it – to attain a political objective – the U.S. military’s ability to kick down the door must be matched by our ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.

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4 Comments

  1. Spot on speech and would have greater impact if Gates would be around much longer than January. Very possible that by November he will know that he will be replaced. The tasks and challenges he has outlined may be just as formidible as those faced by General Abrams in Vietnam and there is no guarentee that he will succeed in changing those institutionalized systems. His comments on insurgency echo those found in the new book “Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare”. Good luck to him.

  2. Armchair General staff cannot respond here. Please read
    disclaimer just above this text box before posting.

    Secretary Gates’ speech is the best articulation of the necessary
    changes that must be made within the military to meet current
    and future challenges. It squares with my own reading and the
    stories told by my son when he returned from Afghanistan.

    I am not optimistic that whomever wins the next election will
    find a new Secretary of Defense with a similar vision.

  3. Excellent comments by Mr. Gates and I hope the next
    Adminstration and Congress take it’s message to heart. Playing
    political football with defense procurement is one of the ills of the
    system that Secretary Gates cannot easily comment on but I can
    and I urge ACG readers to help make sure that their legislators in
    the next Congress get and understand Gates message.

  4. Has Obama approach any nominees for Secretary of defense? I’m
    Doing this a project for my english class. Thanks

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