U.S. Military Strategy Shifts Focus

New Approach Is More Sustainable than Occupations and Counterinsurgencies

Peter Juul explains how U.S. military strategy abroad shifted remarkably and perhaps enduringly in 2011.

U.S. Army soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, stage their armored vehicles at Camp Adder during final preparations for the last American convoy to leave Iraq on Saturday, December 17, 2011. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)
U.S. Army soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, stage their armored vehicles at Camp Adder during final preparations for the last American convoy to leave Iraq on Saturday, December 17, 2011. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

The final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq marks the end of a year that has seen a remarkable shift in U.S. military strategy abroad. From the war in Libya and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to the end of the war in Iraq and the beginning of a military transition in Afghanistan, the era of large-footprint counterinsurgency and nation-building operations is coming to a close. In its place, the Obama administration is instituting an approach focused on using targeted operations conducted by airpower, special operations forces, and the intelligence community, alongside cooperation with partners to achieve its objectives.

This past year marked the beginning of this alternative military and diplomatic strategy departure from the boots-on-the-ground-heavy track taken by the Bush administration in Iraq and initially by the Obama administration in Afghanistan. In retrospect, the war in Libya offered the first indication of a new approach to using American power. With its unique military capabilities, the United States played a leading role in destroying the Qaddafi regime’s air defenses. But the mission soon transferred to a NATO lead, with the United States playing a supporting role. With NATO support overhead, Libyan opposition fighters were eventually able to take down the Qaddafi regime.

The overthrow of Qaddafi only cost the United States $1.1 billion, with no American or NATO lives lost over the course of seven-and-a-half months. This compares with $1.38 trillion spent and 7,632 coalition lives lost in multiyear counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another indicator appeared in the May 1 raid to kill Osama bin Laden. Relying on painstaking intelligence work, U.S. Navy SEALs under CIA command assaulted bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and killed the Al Qaeda leader. The raid spotlighted the lethal and selective tool created by the fusion of military special operations forces and the CIA over the past decade. But it also showed how the United States can effectively target and eliminate threats without resorting to lengthy and expensive nation-building campaigns requiring large numbers of American boots on the ground.

While the bin Laden raid is the most dramatic example, the U.S. intelligence-special operations complex—including armed drones like the Predator—has been actively targeting Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-linked or affiliated movements in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen over the past few years. Though these strikes are extremely controversial, they are an effective alternative to large-scale military operations as a way of fighting terrorist groups.

Finally, the end of the war in Iraq and the transition from combat operations in Afghanistan to a military advisory role mark a shift in approach to securing U.S. interests in both countries. In Iraq the United States will not leave behind a sizable residual force to train and equip Iraqi security forces. Instead, the United States is forging a new, more normal relationship with Iraq. Its security assistance will be under State Department control, including the 250-400 military personnel in the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq. In Afghanistan the U.S. military commander is preparing a plan to transition NATO forces out of a combat role and into an advisory role as they decline in number.

Taken together, these key events illustrate a substantial shift in the way our nation is employing its power. Out are invasions and occupations by large U.S. ground forces. In are supporting partners and using unique, over-the-horizon capabilities such as airpower, drones, and special operations forces to achieve U.S. objectives. This shift in approach should prove more sustainable in terms of domestic support and spending than the multiyear, trillion-dollar counterinsurgency campaigns pursued throughout the past decade.

The implications of this approach should be felt primarily in the defense and intelligence budgets as they face tight fiscal times. Investments should flow toward capabilities such as airpower, ships, cruise missiles, drones, and special operations forces that allow the United States to conduct over-the-horizon strikes and support missions rather than large ground forces suited to fighting lengthy irregular wars. Robust ground forces will of course still be necessary to deter countries with dangerous ground forces close to key allies such as those arrayed by North Korea along the DMZ on the Korean peninsula and to advise partner militaries, but resources should be more dedicated to those areas that better facilitate the new approach.

In 2011 President Obama crafted a new doctrine for the United States’ use of force, but this doctrine is more apparent in his administration’s actions than in his speeches. The new doctrine effectively removes counterinsurgency and nation-building as the main approaches to advancing American national interests and replaces them with partnering with allies and leveraging America’s unique, over-the-horizon military capabilities. This new approach reduces the burdens on the United States in terms of high military casualties and out-of-control military spending while playing to its diplomatic and military strengths.

Regardless of the more controversial aspects of this approach such as drone strikes, President Obama has crafted a more sustainable way for the United States to use its hard power to advance its interests in the world.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst