Thursday, October 11, 2007

General Purpose Troops

The debate over needing specially trained troops separate from the main military to fight insurgents has been made obsolete by the creation of an entire army whose troops match what COIN advocates once wanted for a select subset of the army. Developing the leaders and maintaining the doctrine to lead these troops should be the goal.

Some think we need to remake the Army for the counterinsurgency mission:

Absorbing the lessons of a troubled war, U.S. military officials have begun an intense debate over proposals for a sweeping reorganization of the Army to address shortcomings that have plagued the force in Iraq and to abandon some war-fighting principles that have prevailed since the Cold War.

On one side of the widening debate are officers who want many Army units to become specialized, so that entire units or even divisions are dedicated to training foreign militaries. On the other are those who believe that military units must remain generalists, able to do a wide range of skills well.

Thank goodness, this doesn't go as far as some strategists who have argued that we need troops specifically trained to wage counter-insurgency separate from our conventional military (sometimes called a constabulary corps, for example, which I think is a farcical concept in its extreme variety), I've always disagreed. Any well trained soldier can fight insurgents, I hold. While some training for the special skills are necessary for making a soldier (or Marine) a COIN troop rather than a conventional fighter, the differences are not so great that we need separate combat forces for each mission.

The Brookings Institution bolsters my belief:

In contrast to many critics who believed that the U.S. military (and particularly the Army) would take years to adapt proper counterinsurgency (COIN) and stabilization techniques, American forces appear to have embraced them in just a matter of months. Every division, brigade and battalion staff we met with, as well as soldiers and Marine in the field, had internalized the principles of COIN operations. More impressive still, they had also grasped one of the most important and most difficult of those, which is the need to adapt all of the other principles to specific circumstances in each locality. We found that U.S. soldiers and Marines were applying the principles of successful COIN and stability operations to the conditions of very different provinces, cities, towns and neighborhoods with great sophistication and ingenuity.

I admit that conscript armies are more difficult to focus on COIN, so the observation that you need troops specially focused on COIN is only obsolete in regard to the United States rather than generally wrong. We have volunteers of high quality who receive excellent training.

If directed by officers who understand counter-insurgency, supported by special forces, and bolstered by some specially trained troops to train indigenous forces, any well trained troop will do well for the bulk COIN work of patrols, hunting insurgents, and interacting with the people.

And if done right, we will have trained allies to fight instead of having to use our forces. At worst, if we must fight a counterinsurgency, we'd retain institutional knowledge of fighting insurgencies that will outlast this generation of officers and senior NCOs.

So instead of thinking we need troops specially trained for COIN, we should really look to making counter-insurgency a separate career path in the officer corps like armor, infantry, and artillery (among many others) are now. If those who lead regular troops (and who require far more time to train) are ready from day one of a war, we can adapt our campaigns quickly.

Well trained troops can fight any enemy they face, if well led. Our modern ground forces are in general of the quality that in the past distinguished good COIN fighters from average rabble infantry that did more harm than good "interacting" with the population.

Lead our troops well and they will fight well. No matter where we send them and regardless of the mission.

I'm hoping Secretary Gates supports this type of adaptation to our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than assuming that we won't need to master conventional warfare in the near future.