Project on Defense Alternatives

The Pentagon's New Budget, New Strategy,
and New War

Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #12
Carl Conetta
25 June 2002

Everything Has Changed

In the weeks following the 11 September terrorist attacks Bush administration officials frequently declared that "everything has changed" without specifying precisely how. Certainly, for modern America, the attack was singular in its audacity and magnitude. And it aroused uniquely strong and persistent support among Americans for vigorous military action abroad. But neither the terrorist threat nor the conditions that shaped it were new; 11 September had been gestating for some time. The declarations of change are best understood as the announcement of a new spirit in US security policy -- not a new world, but a new thrust in America's approach to the world. Given the strategic power and reach of the United States, this new spirit will touch all the world's shores and borders. In this sense, the statement "everything has changed" is not so much an observation as a promise.

Besides the greater prominence given to the problem of terrorism, recent changes in US security policy notably include:

  • A renewed focus on the role of states in supporting terrorism;
  • A shift in emphasis away from stability operations and toward traditional warfighting missions, and a new emphasis on "regime removal" as an antidote to "rogue" behavior;
  • A shift in geographic emphasis toward Asia generally; and, within this, a dramatic expansion of military presence and engagement in central and south Asia;
  • A reorientation of America's presence in Europe: although US forces will remain in Europe in large numbers, these will serve a mainly political function there -- substantiating US leadership of NATO -- while being made more available for actual operational use outside Europe;
  • With regard to alliance policy, an increased willingness to undertake military operations on a unilateral basis and increased reliance on short-term, ad hoc, or "tactical" coalitions and partnerships;
  • A broader and more flexible practice of military assistance to other states; and
  • A substantially increased pace of US military modernization.

In many respects the defense policy initiatives undertaken by the Bush administration in the wake of 11 September do not closely correspond to the threat. For instance, the administration has resurrected a traditional Realist paradigm despite the post-modern (non-state) character of the new terrorism. Also prominent among the administration's policy responses has been an acceleration of the anti-ballistic missile defense program, sterner rhetoric regarding Iraq and North Korea, and a military modernization program focusing largely on traditional military structures and platforms.

The Bush administration's policy initiatives can be distinguished from those of its predecessor along several axes. Notably the Bush initiatives evince a reduced emphasis on multilateralism, a reduced emphasis on arms control agreements and international legal mechanisms, and a reduced emphasis on non-traditional military missions.

There also are important elements of continuity between the Bush and Clinton approaches to security policy. Both, for instance, are premised on vigorously exercising the unique prerogatives that attend America's status as the world's sole military superpower. Both see America's unmatched capacity to act wherever it might choose worldwide as a pivotal asset in the effort to maintain US global leadership. The Clinton administration phrased this activism in terms of containing instability and expanding the democratic space in the world. George W. Bush has a more defensive approach -- but it is neither less active nor less globalist.

The "new" approach actually harkens back to ideas developed under Dick Cheney when he served as Defense Secretary in the senior Bush administration. These ideas framed US global military activism in terms of defending and extending the "strategic depth" afforded the United States as a consequence of Soviet collapse. 1 The principal modus for accomplishing this goal is not an expansion of the community of democratic nations, as the Clinton policy would have it, but an increase in the reach and effectiveness of America's deterrent and warfighting power. It is not a policy that seeks to make new friends so much as it seeks new ways to cow enemies, both old and rising. Within this, international cooperation remains important, but its military aspect has increased in importance.

The defense policies of both the Bush and Clinton administrations also show the stamp of the numerous policy research and development centers operated or sponsored by the Defense Department, which presently shape the US discourse on not only military policy but also national security policy. 2 Thus, the Bush policy shares with it predecessor central themes such as capability based planning, uncertainty, precision attack, and the revolution in military affairs.

The contradictions of post-cold war US security policy

Throughout the post-Cold War period a set of policy contradictions has bedeviled successive US administrations: The first of these involves attempting to pursue an activist global military agenda in a strategic environment where manifest military threats to US interests have declined substantially, due to the Cold War's end. Outside the context of a "life and death" superpower struggle, it proved difficult during the Clinton administration to build and maintain a strong national consensus favoring military activism abroad. Thus, Clinton's initiatives were constrained by an acute sensitivity to casualties, persistent demands for time-limits on intervention and explicit exit strategies, and growing support for "selective engagement". These concerns carried over into the first nine months of the Bush administration.

The second contradiction involves a policy-resource mismatch. With the Cold war's end, Pentagon personnel and budgets were reduced by 35 percent from the high points of the 1980s. 3 This reflected a perception of reduced military threat, increased global economic competition, and a desire to reduce government deficits. However, in the context of force and budget reductions, America's vast global military infrastructure was found to consume a greater proportion of available defense resources than ever before. In part this was the result of surrendering some economy of scale. But it also reflected the inability of the Clinton and both Bush administrations to sensibly streamline the old infrastructure. The political opposition of service and parochial domestic interests to infrastructure reform was too great. 4

The post-Cold War resource crunch was further exacerbated by America's heavy dependence on a highly-skilled professional military -- especially pilots and technicians. As private sector salaries rose sharply during the 1990s, the recruitment and retention of highly skilled personnel became an increasingly difficult and expensive proposition for the military. The net result was a chronic inability to reconcile modernization, personnel, and operations and maintenance requirements. Serious infrastructure and business reform might have resolved this contradiction, but a third problem was at work as well.

The third contradiction has pitted traditional service interests against the desire to achieve a "revolution in military affairs" or RMA. The mainstream of the armed services fully appropriated the rhetoric of RMA thinkers, but used it to promote the modernization of fairly traditional structures and platforms. This drained scarce resources away from more visionary efforts and also forestalled any new efficiencies that might have been achieved through a radical program of transformation. In a sense, the "past" hijacked the future. 5

Achieving an RMA has been complicated also by differences among RMA visionaries over the nature of the prospective military revolution. At least two major schools exist: one school extols the putative benefits of refashioning the military to exploit new information technologies; the other school emphasizes the need to transform military structures, doctrine, and training in order to meet asymmetric threats and adversaries of a "post-modern" type. The two schools are not entirely at odds in their concerns -- for instance, new technologies can be exploited to deal with asymmetric threats. In other important respects, however, the two schools are in opposition, reflecting a split between "high-tech" and "maneuver warfare" enthusiasts that goes back to the 1980s. Unfortunately, these differences have been blurred by the dominance of the service mainstream, which is eager to attach any and every new idea to pre-existing modernization programs. This mainstream eclecticism is opportunistic; in practice, it serves nothing but the past.

The events of 11 September created a basis for circumventing (but not really resolving) these three contradictions. Key to this has been a change in US public and elite opinion which now favors more vigorous military action abroad and has been willing, so far, to countenance the largest defense budget increase since the Reagan era. How long this "second honeymoon" will last is uncertain. Looking forward, the Bush administration's post-11 September initiatives may have put the United States on a road toward strategic over-extension and economic problems reminiscent of the Reagan era.

A new day, a new budget

Among the things that changed on 11 September were the Bush administration's political prospects. According to ABC News and Washington Post public opinion polls, President Bush's job approval ratings soared 30 percent within 24-hours of the attacks from a 55 percent approval rating versus 41 percent disapproval to an astounding 86 percent approval rate versus only 12 percent disapproval. These unusually high ratings degraded only slightly over the course of the subsequent four months. 6

The war also reversed the fortunes of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who prior to 11 September had been besieged on all sides by critics. 7 Like his predecessors, Rumsfeld was stymied initially by the policy contradictions outlined above. Critics on the left saw a failure to pursue defense reform vigorously and a defense budget that imperiled the economy. Critics on the right saw a budget that imperiled national security and a failure to fulfil the administration's pledge to let strategy, not budget goals, determine military plans. On both sides, critics saw a failure to substantially advance military transformation. They also derided the Rumsfeld defense review process as being aimless, unimaginative, secretive, and slow. It would have been hard to imagine before 11 September that the defense secretary would soon be a media darling, broadly credited for bold, frank, and hard-headed leadership. In this case, at least, the cliche is true: war changes everything.

Prior to 11 September it also would have been politically difficult to win broad agreement to a $50 billion hike in defense spending -- given the president's program of deep tax cuts, the weakness of the economy, and the pessimistic turn in fiscal forecasts. The projected budget surplus for the next ten years has declined 71 percent since 2001, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and budget deficits are expected for the next two years. 8

The 2003 Pentagon budget has been set at $379 billion -- a 15 percent increase over the 2002 budget. The 2002 budget was itself 8 percent higher than the 2001 budget in real terms, mostly due to increases bequeathed to President Bush by the Clinton administration. Prior to this, a significant increase had occurred in 1999 when, in response to readiness concerns, the Clinton administration added 5.6 percent (in real terms) to the budget. All told, the 2003 budget represents a 32 percent inflation-corrected increase over the budget for FY 1998, when post-Cold War spending bottomed out at 286.7 billion (2002 USD).

The 2003 Pentagon budget is 93 percent as high as the average annual expenditure during the Cold War decade of the 1980s. Further increases are planned for the future: the FY 2007 Pentagon budget is presently set to be $451 billion (future dollars) -- approximately 8 percent higher in real terms than the FY 2003 budget.

When the FY 2003 budget cycle begins in October 2002, the United States will account for approximately 42 percent of all global defense spending, up from 28 percent in 1986. However, the spending ratio between the US and other NATO countries will not show as much change. While other NATO countries in aggregate spent about 54 percent as much as the United States in 1986, they will probably spend less than 52 percent as much in 2003. The gap between US and other NATO spending had narrowed significantly during much of the 1990s; in 1998, non-US NATO spent 68 percent as much on defense as did the United States. Since then, however, other NATO countries have not attempted to match America's 32 percent real increase in defense expenditure.

Most of the change in America's global defense spending position since 1986 has been due to the decline in spending by former adversaries. Whereas adversary states spent 150 percent as much on defense as did the United States in 1986, they spent only 42 percent as much in 1998 -- a remarkable decline. However, with both China and Russia eager to renovate their armed forces, the present ratio between their spending and America's may not decline much further, despite the Bush budget increase. China and Russia together account for 80 percent of all spending by potential adversary states.

The new Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)

On 30 September 2001 the Bush administration released the congressionally-mandated 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (henceforth, ODR-01). 9 Mandated by congress, these four-year reviews are supposed to specify US military strategy and show how it relates to budgets and plans regarding force posture, modernization, readiness, personnel, and infrastructure. As noted above, the direction of Bush defense policy and budgeting had been a subject of intense debate during the months preceding release of the new QDR. But when the document finally saw light of day -- just a few weeks after the terror attacks and on the eve of war -- it gained relatively little attention. Commentators noted that the administration had deferred or avoided most of the hard choices that had animated discussion during the summer. In fact, the war had obviated these choices. But the document did signal a critical shift in US defense strategy and policy. And its implications would soon become obvious in Operation Enduring Freedom and the "war against terrorism."

The new QDR establishes four functional goals for America's armed forces (QDR-01, p. iii-iv):

  • Assuring allies and friends;
  • Dissuading future military competition;
  • Deterring threats and coercion against U.S. interests; and
  • Decisively defeating any adversary, should deterrence fail.

These imperatives fit neatly within those outlined in the previous QDR, although the language is more traditional. The 1997 QDR had set three fundamental tasks for America's military: to shape the strategic environment in ways that advanced US interests, to respond to the full spectrum of threats, and to prepare now for the dangers of tomorrow. 10 In this formulation, the "respond" imperative encompassed warfighting tasks and crisis deterrence (among other things). The "shape" imperative encompassed dissuasion, reassurance, and routine deterrence as well as a variety of peacetime engagement activities.

The new QDR also establishes what it calls "strategic tenets". These define activities that are supposed to enable the services to fulfil their strategic functions. Several of these tenets -- such as "military transformation" and "developing a broad portfolio of military capabilities" -- correspond to the 1997 QDR's injunction to "prepare now" for future threats.

One critical difference is that the new QDR puts a distinctive emphasis on warfighting and warfighting capabilities -- much as was the case during the Reagan and first Bush administration. With regard to America's wars, it goes further, bringing maximum war objectives to the fore. Beyond seeking decisive victory, it aims for the decisive defeat of adversaries. This it defines quite ambitiously in terms of "changing the regime of an adversary state" and occupying "foreign territory until U.S. strategic objectives are met." (QDR-01, p. 13.)

Also significant is what the new QDR does not say in defining the purposes of US military power. In the 1997 QDR the "respond" imperative included being able to conduct a variety of smaller-scale contingency operations and "operations other than war". Although the new QDR recognizes that America's armed forces will conduct such operations, it does not specify their nature or purpose, devoting only two paragraphs to them. (QDR-01, p. 21.) Unlike the 1997 document, QDR-01 makes no reference at all to peacekeeping, peace enforcement, the enforcement of sanctions, preventative deployments, disaster relief, or humanitarian operations.

As noted above, the 1997 QDR also highlighted a number of so-called "peacetime engagement" activities under the rubric of shaping the strategic environment. These activities included overseas presence, defense cooperation and security assistance, cooperative threat reduction, arms control support, military diplomacy, and military-to-military contacts. Many of these goals and activities earn no mention or reference in the 2001 QDR: references to peacetime engagement, conflict and threat reduction, military diplomacy, military-to-military contacts, and arms control support have been expunged. This hardly means that the armed forces will desist in all these activities and functions. But it does mean that their role in US thinking and planning has been significantly diminished.

The expanding scope of US concern and military preparedness

What in the world worries the United States? In light of 11 September this question would seem to allow a fairly precise answer. But the answer that the new QDR offers is anything but precise. Turning to the who, what, and where of US security concerns, QDR-2001 continues the process begun in the early 1990s of expanding the scope of Pentagon concerns. Driving this process is a desire to preclude the possibility that the United States might face a military contingency in which its superiority was not assured.

It has become common in the discussion of US military requirements for manifest threats, interests, and commitments to vie equally with hypothetical ones. In a sense, the past (traditional air-land foes), the present (irregular adversaries), and alternative futures (new peer opponents and RMA threats) all find representation within the process. This poses an impossible optimization problem and feeds the policy contradictions outlined earlier.

America's rather open-ended and imaginative process of defining military threats and requirements faced and failed its severest test on 11 September. The United States was utterly unprepared for the attacks despite 8 years of strategic warning and 8 months of more immediate warnings. In the months prior to the attack the United States had been preoccupied instead with discussions of catastrophic bio-terrorism, China's potential for achieving an RMA, the North Korean threat, and the fate of the vaunted two-war strategy.

In sum: US security concerns have tended to sprawl in two dimensions: first, geographically; second, functionally or across the threat spectrum. Thus, QDR 2001 posits the goal of "building a portfolio of capabilities that is robust across the spectrum of possible force requirements, both functional and geographical." (QDR-01, p. 17.)

The functional dimension concerns the types of threat that the United States might face and the capabilities it might need to defeat them. QDR-2001 contributes to sprawl across the threat spectrum by relying on what it calls a "capabilities-based approach" to planning. This contrasts with approaches that tailor armed forces to deal with a limited set of current and emerging threats and scenarios. The capabilities-based approach is supposed to "reflect the fact that the United States cannot know with confidence what nation, combination of nations, or non-state actor will pose threats" decades from now. (QDR-01, p. 13.) However, the QDR combines this laudable humility with the assertion that "it is anticipate the capabilities that an adversary might employ." Thus, its model is "one that focuses more on how an adversary might fight than who the adversary might be and where a war might occur." (QDR-01, p. 14.) Of course, detaching planning from the "who" and "where" of potential contingencies gives free reign to the imagination of planners in defining the quality, quantity, and mix of required forces.

In the geographic dimension the new QDR seeks a clean break with the cold war focus on war in Western Europe and Northeast Asia. In part this means seeking additional bases and stations beyond these areas and redistributing some assets worldwide to reflect new regional deterrence goals. But a retreat from Europe is not contemplated. US forces will remain there in numbers close to 100,000. Politically, this will serve to anchor US leadership of NATO. What will change is the operational role of America's forces in Europe: they will orient more toward contingencies outside the West. Thus, Western Europe will come to serve more than before as a forward base for US activities farther east and south -- and the United States will hope to bring some NATO partners along. Actually this process has been underway since 1990: planning for two major regional contingencies has focused for a decade on Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf -- not Western Europe -- while the United States became substantially engaged in the Balkans as well. The 1990s also saw significant US peacetime engagement in Eastern Europe and the beginnings of engagement in Central Asia.

The areas of increased future emphasis will be Central, South, and East Asia. In the latter case, China is the target of concern and preparations will likely focus on China-Taiwan conflict scenarios and South China Sea maritime competition. Functionally, there will be greater emphasis than before on counter-terrorism, missile defense, and homeland protection. But the new QDR gives no indication of a corresponding reduction in preparations for conventional warfighting scenarios -- indeed, it expands their scope. Moreover, it retains the two-war requirement, at least nominally. To manage this daunting roster of geographic and functional requirements the Bush administration proposes to combine and utilize the totality of US assets in a new way, applying what it calls a "new concept of deterrence."

A New Concept of Deterrence?

The new concept of US warfighting and deterrence emphasizes the strategic and operational effects that the United States can impose on its adversaries and prospective competitors. Practically it rests on a foundation of global and rapidly-deployable reconnaissance, attack, and defense capabilities. (QDR-01, p. 25.) On the offensive side these capabilities are geared to attack or threaten from a distance a competitor's military and other vital national assets throughout the depth of the competitor's territory. On the defensive side they aim to shield US and allied assets from all manner of attack both locally and globally.

  • Key components of the global conventional attack capability include various types of long-range precision fire platforms and munitions, strategic information attack assets, special operations forces, and rapidly-deployable deep maneuver forces.
  • Key components of the defensive suite are national and theater missile defense assets, defensive information warfare capabilities, counter-terrorism capabilities (including provisions for homeland protection), and various means of protecting deployed forces from nuclear, radiological, biological, chemical attack.
  • Both the offensive and defensive suites would draw on US global reconnaissance, command, control, and communication capabilities, which depend heavily on America's unique advantage in space-based and airborne assets.

There is evident in the US approach an evolution of the "Reconnaissance-Strike Complex" idea -- if "strike" is taken properly to include not only precision fire capabilities, but also information attack, special operations, and deep maneuver capabilities. Within this framework QDR-01 also aims to solve some persistent force allocation problems, thus making it possible for the United States to effectively cover a broader range of situations. The key move is to reduce or limit the quantity of assets associated with individual contingencies or confrontations -- especially those assets semi-permanently "in-place" -- so that more are available for flexible use. According to QDR 2001, this might be done by:

  • Increasing the organic capability of "in-place" forces and enhancing the contribution that the global reconnaissance, communication, command, and control system can make to these forces on a routine basis, and
  • Assembling several immediately-deployable packages of reconnaissance-attack-defense capabilities that can quickly multiply the power of in-place forces, as needed. These packages, which would not be especially large, might involve Standing Joint Task Forces for "unwarned, extended-range conventional attack." (QDR-01, p. 34.) Special operations forces and theater missile defense assets would also qualify as rapidly-deployable supplements.

Force development along these lines is supposed to allow forward forces to swiftly defeat a foe's military and political objectives with only modest reinforcement. This is supposed to leave free for use as a strategic reserve a greater proportion of US forces than is the case today. Essentially, these additional global reserves would be subtracted from the totals previously anchored to Europe and to key regional contingencies in Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf. (Many of these forces would remain stationed overseas, although they would be considered readily available for redeployment). The United States could dip into this reserve when taking on new, ad hoc, or temporary commitments. When such commitments occur, the newly deployed forces might also be supplemented by the deep attack "multiplier forces" as needed.

Clearly, the US capacity to do more with a force structure that is no larger than the one it possessed at the end of the 1990s depends on achieving either greater efficiency in the use of assets or a significant boost in capability per unit of structure. The new QDR also calls for greater reliance on local allies, which might relieve some US requirements. This may also reflect a belated recognition that the major regional adversaries of the 1990s, such as Iraq and North Korea, are far less capable today than in 1990. At any rate, the new RMA capabilities on which the QDR has premised its global deterrence and warfighting scheme are not yet in place.

Whither the two-war strategy?

During the 1990s the crux of the so-called "strategy-structure" mismatch was preparations to conduct overlapping offensives in two widely separated major regional conflicts. The authors of the new QDR assert that "[t]he United States is not abandoning planning for two conflicts to plan for fewer than two":

"On the contrary, DoD is changing the concept altogether by planning for victory across the spectrum of possible conflict." (QDR-01, p. 18)
This implies that the QDR retains and even surpasses key elements of the previous approach to handling multiple contingencies. But the reality is more complicated. In its two-war schema QDR-2001 sets different goals for the two theaters. (QDR-01, p. 70). In one, the aim would be to rapidly "defeat" ( in the sense of deny) the goals of an adversary. This means quickly blunting or halting an aggression. In the second theater, the aim would be more ambitious: decisive defeat of the adversary -- not just denial of the adversary's goals. Decisive defeat might go as far as "regime removal" and occupation. As the QDR puts it:
At the direction of the President, U.S. forces will be capable of decisively defeating an adversary in one of the two theaters in which U.S. forces are conducting major combat operations by imposing America's will and removing any future threat it could pose. This capability will include the ability to occupy territory or set the conditions for a regime change if so directed. (QDR-01, p. 21, emphasis mine.)

In sum, the QDR adopts a variation of the two-war posture that is quite similar in key respects to the "win-hold-win" idea ventilated in 1993 by President Clinton's first defense secretary, Les Aspin. Although roundly criticized and officially abandoned, Aspin's concept defined the actual US posture throughout the 1990s -- and it still does. The new QDR does define "decisive victory" more ambitiously than did the previous QDR, but it also notes that "decisively defeating an adversary would likely require substantial reinforcement [from outside the theater] even after transformation." (QDR-01, p. 25, emphasis mine.)

"Substantial" means much more than the addition of some outside reconnaissance, strike, and special operations assets. The source of the "substantial reinforcement" would be the strategic reserve mentioned above. The implication of this for the canonical two-war scenario of the 1990s -- war in Korea and the Persian Gulf -- is that attempting a decisive victory in either place would continue to compete seriously with US commitments outside these areas even after transformation. This tension among missions resembles the situation of the past decade. In fact, the new QDR is more pessimistic than the previous one about how much pressure can be relieved through transformation. This pessimism probably reflects the insistent demand of the services for more force structure -- transformed or not.

One way of reading the new QDR's treatment of major regional contingencies and the two-war problem is that the Bush administration has decided to spend the promised benefits of transformation in pursuit of more ambitious war objectives -- regime removal -- rather than using transformation to relieve the pressure on force structure. Another way of reading the new QDR is that it continues the tendency of past QDRs to overstate the requirements of fighting and winning major regional contingencies. Both readings are probably true.

Distortion of military requirements

The institutional dynamics of US military planning distort the Defense Department's statements of need. These reflect institutional interests and desires as much as they do empirically-grounded mission requirements. The services compete for budget share through their individual statements of requirements, which are tied to various missions and conflict scenarios. The geographic combatant commands also compete for funds and, especially, for control of forces, which they are reluctant to share globally. This competition likewise finds expression in the commands' statements of need. 11

The next step -- the definition of aggregate requirements -- is as much a process of coalition building among the service and warfighting chiefs as it is a process of force optimization. Consensus is most easily achieved by accommodating everyone's desires -- and this exerts an upward pressure on requirements. As a result, the US military is likely to have more than enough resources allocated to those mission areas and contingencies that have a strong institutional base. Unfortunately, this base tends to reflect the commitments, wars, victories, and security environment of the past. Thus, while the military power of both Korea and Iraq eroded throughout the 1990s, the putative requirements associated with defeating them grew. 12

Despite warnings of shortfalls, the canonical major regional contingencies are well covered and have been for years. And, despite complaints about the deleterious effect of peace operations, planning for the two-war (Korean peninsula and Persian Gulf) scenario throughly dominated training and procurement during the 1990s. Preparations for conventional air-land engagements still absorb at least 75 percent of the Pentagon budget. By comparison, no more than eight percent of the Pentagon budget serves counter-terrorism and homeland protection goals (apart from missile defense). This allocation of resources reflects the ongoing influence of the dominant arms: aircraft carriers, piloted fighter aircraft, and heavy mechanized ground forces.

The balance of institutional interests affects not only the allocation of resources, but also the US perception of problems and its plans for dealing with them. The United States has a uniquely militarized approach to addressing security issues and it favors fairly traditional military instruments. This is nowhere more evident than in the "war" against the new terrorism. In this case, the threat is assiduously non-traditional or "post-modern". Nonetheless, a fairly traditional military effort is at the center of the American effort to combat it.

In QDR-2001 the Bush administration succeeded in returning US military strategy to a traditional focus on warfighting and nation-state opponents. The Afghanistan war -- Operation Enduring Freedom -- provides a good case study of the type of problems likely to ensue. In Afghanistan, the United States demonstrated once again the unsurpassed capacity of its armed services to fell whatever opponent it meets in open battle. However, the strategic import of the Afghan campaign remains unsettled and unclear. Indeed, its unanticipated and inadvertent effects seem more profound than its intended ones. This is indicative of fundamental security concepts and instruments that are seriously out of alignment with the current security environment.

The limits of Enduring Freedom 13

The clearest achievement of Operation Enduring Freedom was forcing the Taliban from power. But this goal was secondary to the one of destroying the al-Qaeda network, which is down but not out. In early January 2002, the acting director of the FBI's counter-terrorism division, J.T. Caruso, estimated that as a result of the war, al-Qaeda's capacity to commit "horrific acts" had been reduced by 30 percent. 14 More might have been expected given the US expenditure of 18,000 bombs and the capture or killing of 10,000 enemy troops. But it was the Taliban that bore the brunt of US power and they had only a contingent relationship to al-Qaeda's activities outside the region. Most of the assets and troops under al-Qaeda control in Afghanistan had to do with the Afghan civil war. The network's capacity for conducting global attacks resided largely outside of Afghanistan and, thus, fell beyond the scope of the operation.

Also in doubt is the broader deterrent effect of Enduring Freedom. Some states will become more careful about consorting with or tolerating terrorist organizations. But this deterrent effect may not extend to the fragile quasi-states in whose territory organizations like al-Qaeda prefer to nest. Terrorists themselves are notoriously difficult to deter -- especially the suicidal variety; the same is true of those social movements driven by visceral hatred or apocalyptic visions. These are more likely to be inflamed than tamed by operations like Enduring Freedom. At any rate, al- Qaeda is not especially dependent on state support for its global activities. None of the terrorist capabilities demonstrated on 11 September, for instance, required a large base infrastructure. Indeed, the 11 September terrorist cells were less dependent on bases in Afghanistan than on flight schools in Florida.

Humanitarian and stability effects

A net assessment of Enduring Freedom must take into account the humanitarian costs and stability effects of the operation. The most obvious of these is the immediate civilian toll of the bombing campaign, which probably exceeds 1,000 fatalities. The war also produced 500,000 new Afghan refugees and displaced persons. This, and the war's disruption of aid programs exacerbated the country's humanitarian crisis, probably resulting in a few thousand more civilian deaths.

Despite the Taliban's demise, Afghanistan has not come to rest in a stable place. The effective power of the central government does not extend far. In the months following the Taliban's defeat, there was a revival of warlordism, banditry, and opium production. And many of the militia leaders responsible for the murderous chaos of the 1992-1996 period were able to reclaim their seats of power. Ethnic and civil conflict did not end; it only became more diffuse. And these conditions have continued to impede humanitarian relief efforts throughout the critical winter months.

At the regional level, one factor of instability -- the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus -- has been displaced by another: potential conflict among the nations neighboring Afghanistan, who began competing to affect the fluid power balance inside the country. The war also has left Pakistan and its president in a precarious position and it contributed to a grave escalation of the conflicts in the Mideast and Kashmir. During six months following 11 September the rate of conflict deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rose to more than twice that of the preceding six months. Inter- communal violence in India also surged, and India and Pakistan veered close to war (with both countries taking the opportunity to rattle their nuclear sabers).

Finally, the operation -- especially the bombing campaign -- fed anti-American sentiments throughout the Muslim world. In a February 2002 Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries, 77 percent of respondents judged US actions in Afghanistan to be unjustifiable; only nine percent expressed support. 15 Even in moderate Turkey opinion ran three-to-one against the operation. In Pakistan it ran twenty-to-one in opposition. Those who take solace in the fact that the war did not spark a general uprising on the "Arab street" have no appreciation of the long, slow burn that generates phenomena like al-Qaeda and the Iranian revolution.

Managing the whirlwind

The Bush administration has taken steps to address the unfinished business and inadvertent effects of the war through a substantial additional investment of strategic capital -- notably, an expansion of overt military presence, assistance, and activism in central and south Asia. 16 This has aroused the concern of Russia and China as well as the region's Islamicist movements. In essence, the administration repeated the pattern of long-term, high-profile US military engagement that followed the Gulf War.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has expressed a willingness to deploy to another 15 countries in pursuit of terrorists -- and, indeed, deployments to the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, and Georgia accompanied the Afghan war. But applying the method charted by Enduring Freedom will lead the United States deep into a thicket of civil, ethnic, and interstate conflicts involving much more than the issue of terrorism -- as is already the case in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Israel. In such circumstances, a single-minded emphasis on "decisive" military solutions is bound to produce chaotic results. Moreover, it will implicate the United States as a partisan in local disputes in ways not originally intended.

The United States will not likely meet a foe that it cannot beat in war for some time. But other nations may seek increasingly to balance against a more activist US military -- if for no other reason than to retain their own regional influence. In the meantime, the Enduring Freedom model may pose a problem of strategic over-extension for the United States.

The road not taken

The negative collateral effects of operation Enduring Freedom had little to do with the real requirements of taking quick action against al-Qaeda. The Afghan campaign could have been adjusted in a variety of ways to minimize undesirable outcomes:

The bombing campaign was broader than necessary. The Afghan war confirmed, once again, that air power is most effective when used in close conjunction with ground forces. In missions other than combat support, however, aerial bombardment proved much less effective relative to its humanitarian cost. Especially costly was the bombing of residential areas and efforts to destroy political and infrastructure targets. The war's human cost could have been reduced significantly by limiting air attacks to purely military sites, terrorist camps, and battlefields.

The operation relied too heavily on uncontrolled warlord militias and on untested local intelligence sources. This weakened efforts to "mop up" al-Qaeda units, involved the United States in local feuds, and implicated it in the human rights abuses committed by allied militias. Boosting the military power of disparate warlords also contributed substantially to post-war chaos.

Efforts to constitute an alternative government to the Taliban came far too late in the game. Formation of a broad-based alternative government before the onset of hostilities would have eased transition. Done properly, it could have strengthened regional cooperation, split the Taliban, and contained post-war chaos.

Peacekeepers were deployed too late and in numbers too small to shape the post-war environment. Early deployment of a large stability force could have substantially mitigated the challenges faced by the interim government, dampened the potential for internecine violence, and facilitated humanitarian relief efforts.

Efforts to maintain humanitarian assistance during the conflict were merely symbolic. And the provisions for restoring and expanding it afterward fell far short of requirements. The post-war plight of Afghan communities cut off from aid is hard to reconcile with the remarkable logistical capabilities of the US armed forces.

Some of these adjustments could have fit within the general parameters of Operation Enduring Freedom. Others imply a more fundamental departure. In bare outline, an alternative approach might have distinguished between (i) the immediate need to disrupt al-Qaeda and (ii) the need to address the broader problems of Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Although related, these two tasks could have been tackled on different time lines, thus enabling better preparation for the difficult job of stabilizing the country. In the meantime, action against al-Qaeda could have been limited to special operations and selective air strikes, as many observers had predicted would be the case prior to the war. 17

A dual-track approach might also have won more meaningful cooperation from Pakistan, which could have done much more to help corral al-Qaeda. Finally, large-scale action in Afghanistan should have been preceded by a dedicated effort to reduce tensions in both Kashmir and the Middle East. But not much could be done in the short interval between September 11 and the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom.

A failure of vision

The historiography of the war holds that the Bush administration demonstrated admirable restraint in waiting 25 days before responding militarily to the 9-11 attacks. But this is not a long time, by historical standards, to pause before undertaking war in a volatile region. Given the operation's size and ambitions, the pause did not allow enough time to prepare on the diplomatic front or to attend sufficiently to stability and humanitarian concerns.

The Bush administration's response reflected the conceptual tools that it brought to the crisis. Its policy paradigm combines a simplistic Realism and a sturdy faith in the utility of military power as a sort of universal solvent. 18 From the administration's perspective the problem of terrorism admits a fairly straight-forward solution: one simply acts as quickly and decisively as one's military power allows to remove the offending actors and those governments that consort with or tolerate them. The possible negative and inadvertent effects of large-scale military action -- collateral damage, destabilization, conflict contagion, "blowback" -- are treated as entirely tractable. This faith in force induces a type of tunnel vision. In Afghanistan, it led the United States to minimize the risks of unleashing the Northern Alliance and to depreciate the negative effects of strategic bombardment and the problem of post-war chaos.

The administration's focus on states and state actors comports well with the structure of American military power and with prevailing US concepts about its proper use. But the paradigm reduces attention to subnational and transnational dynamics, where most of the answers regarding the new terrorism reside. Effective action against terrorism depends on a unique synergy of military and non-military measures -- the latter including diplomatic, humanitarian, development, peace-building, and law-enforcement efforts. It is in the balancing of these various requirements that Operation Enduring Freedom and the new US security strategy fall short.


1 Ronald D. Asmus, The New US Strategic Debate (Santa Monica: Rand, 1994); Barton Gellman, "Keeping the U.S. First; Pentagon Would Preclude a Rival Superpower," Washington Post, 11 March 1992, p. 1; and, Andrew Goldberg, "Selective Engagement: US National Security Policy in the 1990s," Washington Quarterly (Summer 1992).

2 Among these centers are those associated with various service schools and colleges, such as the National Defense University's Institute for National Security Studies, and the DoD - sponsored Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), such as the Rand Corporation, Center for Naval Analysis, and Institute for Defense Analysis.

3 Actually, annual Defense Department spending during 1993-2000 averaged 302.5 billion in 2002 dollars -- 24 percent below the 1980s average. The average number of full-time uniformed personnel during 1993-2000 was 1.556 million -- 28 percent below the 1980s average.

4 Mortimer B. Zuckerman, "The price of power: The military should spend more on forces and less on facilities," US News and World Report, 6 September 1999; Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force: A Review and Diagnosis, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #10 (Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, April 1999), available at:; Thomas G. Mcinerney and Erik R. Pages, "Bolstering Military Strength By Downsizing the Pentagon," Issues in Science "&" Technology (Winter 1997); US Congressional Budget Office, Paying for Military Readiness and Upkeep: Trends in Operation and Maintenance Spending (Washington, DC: September 1997); and, US GAO, Operation and Maintenance Funding: Trends in Army and Air Force Use of Funds for Combat Forces and Infrastructure (Washington, DC: June 1996).

5 Thomas G. Mahnken, "Transforming the U.S. Armed Forces: Rhetoric or Reality?", Navy War College Review (Summer 2001); Franklin Spinney, What Revolution in Military Affairs?", Defense Week, 23 April 2001; Carl Conetta, Toward a Smaller, More Efficient, and More Relevant US Military, PDA Briefing Memo 17 (Cambridge USA: Commonwealth Institute, October 2000); Jeffrey Record, "Force - Protection Fetishism Sources, Consequences, and (?) Solutions," Airpower Journal (Summer 2000); Tom Donnelly, "Revolution? What Revolution?" Jane's Defence Weekly, 7 June 2000, pp. 22B7; and, Andrew Krepinevich, "Why No Transformation?", National Interest (4 February 1999).

6 Good summaries of US polling data can be found at the website:

7 "Overhaul Of Military May Pack Less Punch," Christian Science Monitor, 20 August 2001; Stan Crock, "Why The Hawks Are Carpet-Bombing Rumsfeld," Business Week, 6 August 2001; Robert Kagan and William Kristol, "No Defense," Weekly Standard, 23 July 2001; James Klurfeld, "Bush Team Is Fumbling the Ball On Critical Foreign - Policy Issues," Newsday (New York), 12 July 2001; Thomas E. Ricks, "For Rumsfeld, Many Roadblocks; Miscues -- and Resistance -- Mean Defense Review May Produce Less Than Promised," Washington Post, 7 August 2001; and, Andrea Stone, "Some Brass Critical Of Bush," USA Today, 27 July 2001.

8 Mike Allen and Amy Goldstein, "Security Funding Tops New Budget; Bush's Plan Marks Return to Deficits," Washington Post , 20 January 2002; Richard W. Stevenson and Elisabeth Bumiller, "President To Seek $48 Billion More For The Military," New York Times, 24 January 2002; and, Emily Woodward, "CBO Defense Spending Projections Likely Too Low, Says Director,", 23 January 2002.

9 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2001 (Washington DC: 30 September 2001). The QDR, other US planning and strategy documents, and analyses of these are available on the QDR Page at:

10 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review (Washington DC: May 1997). Links to the 1997 QDR can be found on the QDR Page at:

11 Carl Builder, Military Planning Today: Calculus or Charade (Santa Monica: RAND, 1993).

12 US General Accounting Office, Defense Acquisitions: Reduced Threat Not Reflected in Antiarmor Weapon Acquisitions (Washington DC: GAO, July 1999); Robert Holzer, "New Warfare Requirements May Demand Larger Fleet," Navy Times, 7 June 1999; and, US General Accounting Office, Opportunities for the Army to Reduce Risk in Executing the Military Strategy (Washington DC: GAO, March 1999).

13 The following sections summarize the findings of two longer studies: Carl Conetta, Strange Victory: A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan war, Project on Defense Alternatives Research Monograph 6 (Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 30 January 2002); and, Conetta, Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties? , Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report 11 (Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 18 January 2002). These are available on the website of the Project on Defense Alternatives at:

14 Walter Pincus, "Al Qaeda to survive bin Laden, Panel told," Washington Post, 19 December 2001.

15 The results of the Gallup USA poll are reported in some detail in Andrea Stone, "Kuwaitis share distrust toward USA, poll indicates," USA Today, 27 February 2002, p. 7; also see, Miranda Green, "Islamic world strongly opposed to US foreign policy, survey shows," Financial Times (London), 27 February 2002, p. 1. Other polls on terrorism conducted by Gallup International broadly confirm the results of the Gallup USA poll. These other polls are available at:

16 Sally Buzbee, "US Expands Military Ties, Joint Exercises Worldwide," Associated Press, 15 January 2002; and, Eric Schmitt and James Dao, "US Is Building up its Military Bases in Afghan Region," New York Times, 9 January 2002, p 1.

17 A lower-profile military operation focusing specifically on Al Qaeda is outlined in Conetta, Beyond bin Laden: The Temptations of a Wider War, PDA Briefing Memo 22 (Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 28 September 2001), available at:

18 Stan Crock, "A Tough-guy Approach to an 'Untidy World'," Business Week , 29 January 2001; and, Condoleezza Rice, "Promoting the National Interest," Foreign Affairs (January/February 2000).

Citation: Carl Conetta, The Pentagon's New Budget, New Strategy, and New War, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #12. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 25 June 2002.

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