Earlier reductions hurt rebuilding efforts in Iraq

March 31, 2014 

David L. Patton of Lexington is a retired Army colonel.

  • At issue: March 2 Washington Post column by Andrew J. Bacevich, "Smaller Army fits 21st century threats; invasions, occupations don't work"

Andrew Bacevich is a distinguished soldier-scholar who has written extensively about our military's role in geo-political policy-making. His columns are generally well thought out and cogent.

So it was rather astonishing to see his endorsement of the Obama administration's plan to drastically shrink our Army, just a few pages from articles describing Russian tanks overrunning a peaceful Crimea.

It was also disturbing to see a serious student of international relations articulate a position that has been discredited throughout our history. The biggest "peace dividend" to be derived from the end of any period of conflict seems to be to gut the Army.

It happened after WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Gulf War. In each case, the nation paid the price, and soldiers needlessly lost their lives, when the gutted Army was ill-equipped and untrained to take on new adversaries.

By basically writing off the Army as an anachronism in the 21st century, Bacevich has apparently completely bought into the dicta of the so-called futurists who claim that sophisticated air and naval systems have rendered ground forces obsolete.

Tell that to the Ukrainians who watched the Russian Army violate their borders. Bacevich was an armor officer during the Gulf War and I'm sure he heard the same daily briefings that I did about how effectively the Air Force was "attriting" the Iraqi army before we invaded on the ground.

Maybe he was less surprised than the rest of us to find that most of those claims were overstated and that there were still a lot of Iraqi tanks left to impede our liberation of Kuwait.

His analysis of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts is also off the mark. He lays the blame for these conflicts turning into "protracted and inconclusive wars" on the Army. While there is plenty of blame to go around, as I recall, it was the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who wanted a "small footprint" in Afghanistan. So it became a unique operation using CIA and special operations forces with Afghan tribal militias to root out the Taliban and al-Qaida.

It was extremely successful until you needed a sizable blocking force to seal the mountain pass escape routes leading into Pakistan. Osama bin Laden and his entourage escaped and the Taliban regrouped across the border to continue the fight to this day.

Rumsfeld was also very vocal about reducing the troop level requested by General Tommy Franks to conduct the invasion of Iraq. In spite of these troop reductions, the soldiers and Marines who conducted the operation succeeded at every level — tactical, operational and strategic. However, the leaner force proved to be insufficient to conduct post-conflict stability operations — cleaning up remaining resistance, providing a secure environment for the Iraqi population to resume normal life and assisting in the transformation of the Iraqi military into a modern force answerable to civilian leadership.

And as icing on the cake, instead of helping the State Department (then run by a distinguished general named Powell) in what should have been its role of rebuilding Iraq's civilian institutions, Rumsfeld decided that Defense could do that, too. He put together an inept team that basically squandered everything gained when the troops liberated Iraq.

Bacevich gets widely published by trashing his Army in this column. A more balanced approach might have been to answer one question he asks: "What should the nation expect of its armed forces?"

From the outside, the budget battles that go on in the Pentagon appear to selfishly pit the services against each other for scarce resources. That generally happens when the Washington budgeteers fund the Defense Department based on some arcane economic formula.

Ideally and rationally, the National Command Authority, the mostly civilian leaders of the military, should articulate a strategic direction about our strategic interests and how the military needs to be organized and equipped to support these interests. Budgetary numbers are then applied against these requirements, not some arbitrary ceiling.

Using this approach, the proper argument is not for just a smaller Army, but for an Army sized to perform the missions it is given in support of our national interests.

David L. Patton of Lexington is a retired Army colonel

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