WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade after the United States began to focus its military training and equipment purchases almost exclusively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military strategists are quietly shifting gears, saying that large-scale counterinsurgency efforts cost too much and last too long.
The domestic economic crisis and the Obama administration's commitment to withdraw from Iraq and begin drawing down in Afghanistan next year are factors in the change. The biggest spur, however, is a growing recognition that large-scale counterinsurgency battles have high casualty rates for troops and civilians, eat up equipment that must be replaced and rarely end in clear victory or defeat.
In addition, military thinkers say such wars have put the United States' technologically advanced ground forces on the defensive while less sophisticated insurgent forces are able to remain on the offensive.
Counterinsurgency "is a good way to get out of a situation gone bad," but it's not the best way to use combat forces, said Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "I think everyone realizes counterinsurgency is a losing proposition for U.S. combat troops. I can't imagine anyone would opt for this option."
Many Pentagon strategists think that future counterinsurgencies should involve fewer American ground troops and more military trainers, special forces and airstrikes.
Instead of "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," as former President George W. Bush once defined the Afghan and Iraq wars, the Pentagon thinks it must train local populations to fight insurgents.
The military calls it "foreign internal defense," although some have a pithier name: counterinsurgency light.
The new kind of counterinsurgency is "for the indigenous people and a handful of Americans," said Joseph Collins, a professor at the National Defense University, a Pentagon-funded institution that trains officers and civilians.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized the changed thinking in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
"The United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan and Iraq anytime soon — that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire," he wrote. More likely, he said, are "scenarios requiring a familiar tool kit of capabilities, albeit on a smaller scale."
Economy a driving force
The economic downturn is driving much of the change within the Pentagon. Military spending has risen steadily since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Pentagon planners say budget cuts are inevitable, and that the change in strategy will help make them.
"We now have to figure out what works. We used to have a practically unlimited budget. Not anymore," said a senior military officer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "There is no more room to experiment."
After most major conflicts in U.S. history, defense spending has dropped to prewar levels within two years, accounting for inflation, said James Quinlivan, a military analyst at the Rand Corp.
The ends of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't likely to make spending drop that quickly, Quinlivan said. With no clear defeat of groups such as al-Qaida, defense spending is likely to remain higher than it was before Sept. 11, he said.
The wars account for $159 billion of the Defense Department's budget. There are 96,000 troops in Iraq and 87,000 in Afghanistan.
The shift to a lighter form of counterinsurgency incorporates the Obama administration's national security view, which calls for getting troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. forces are set to begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is to be complete by the end of that year.
It also, military strategists said, allows the United States to prepare better for a future war that would be fought against another country, not against relatively amorphous terrorist groups.
U.S. officials acknowledge that since Sept. 11 there's been little training for the kind of coordinated land, sea and air battles that have characterized most of the United States' previous conflicts.
While no one wants to predict where such a war might be fought, military strategists say that U.S. troops could be involved in battles between India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, and China and Taiwan.
Still, there are doubts that a change in strategy will defeat armed groups that threaten to take over "failed states" such as Somalia and Yemen. Using trainers and airstrikes requires a strong local government that can lead such trained forces, said Collins. That's hard to find in the countries that are most susceptible to groups such as al-Qaida.