Need to fight a war? Recruit a civilian, not a soldier
Last week, the Washington Post's David Ignatius discussed how the line between the Central Intelligence Agency's covert intelligence activities and the Pentagon's military operations began blurring as George W. Bush's administration ramped up its war on terrorism. In his column, Ignatius took some swipes at former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for exceeding his authority by encroaching on turf legally reserved to the CIA. The Defense Department also was criticized for taking on too many diplomatic and foreign aid responsibilities as well. Ignatius expressed concern that without clearer boundaries separating covert intelligence-gathering from military operations, "people at home and abroad may worry about a possible 'militarization' of U.S. intelligence."
Ignatius missed the larger and far more significant change that continues to this day. In order to survive and compete against the military power enjoyed by national armies, modern irregular adversaries -- such as the Viet Cong, Iraq's insurgents, the Taliban, and virtually all other modern revolutionaries -- "civilianized" their military operations. Rumsfeld's intrusions onto CIA and State Department turf were initial attempts at civilianizing U.S. military operations. Whether it realizes it or not, the U.S. government continues to civilianize its own military operations in an attempt to keep pace with the tactics employed by the irregular adversaries it is struggling to suppress. This trend has continued after Rumsfeld's departure from government and has significant implications for how the United States will fight irregular adversaries in the future.
In modern irregular warfare, the most difficult problem is identifying and finding the enemy. Insurgents benefit from the "home-field advantage" and their ability to blend in with the civilian population. It is natural that when U.S. military forces are tasked with rooting out insurgent cells in such situations, they seek to infiltrate the same civilian population to gain target intelligence. It should, therefore, be no surprise to find the U.S. military's special operations units behaving more like the CIA's operatives and agents, whose civilian status is a better match to the mission.
The CIA has used its authorities and relative flexibility to assemble a blend of covert civilian and paramilitary capabilities, a blend much more suited for modern irregular warfare. As a civilian intelligence agency, the CIA has the authority and resources to establish relationships with a variety of indigenous partners, some official and some not. According to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, the CIA has recruited a large Afghan paramilitary force, a combined covert intelligence and military force that can engage in a wider range of activities than a standard Afghan army unit. The CIA has poached many former special operations soldiers into its own paramilitary ranks. These paramilitary operatives have the authority to do everything they used to do while they were in the military -- such as organizing direct action raids -- while also performing operations limited to the CIA, such as covert missions inside countries not at war with the United States.
Meanwhile, the utility of conventional ground forces continues to diminish. After the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, a political backlash against overt military interventions is already evident. This week the House of Representatives rebuked the Obama administration over the intervention in Libya and narrowly avoided voting in favor of immediate withdrawal. The House also narrowly defeated a measure that would have required a faster exit from Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that a future defense secretary advocating another large intervention in Asia or Africa "should have his head examined." The continued presence of U.S. conventional ground troops in Iraq is so politically toxic to both Iraqi and U.S. policymakers that the State Department is planning to recruit a small army of 5,100 civilian security personnel to protect its facilities and diplomats next year.
The common thread in all these developments is that conventional military operations, especially sustained ground operations, attract too much attention and are too politically fraught to be useful against irregular adversaries. These adversaries adopted a civilian guise in order to evade Western firepower. Western governments in turn are civilianizing their military operations in order to evade the attention that comes with overt deployments and to achieve the operational flexibility required to succeed on the terrain where irregular adversaries operate. This will mean the increased use of covert intelligence operations, official and indigenous paramilitary groups, the recruitment of local militias, and civilian security contractors. With this civilianization of military operations, regular soldiers will be left wondering why they weren't invited to the next war.