For Defense, Less Beef, More Chuck

Why Hagel's critics need to turn down the heat.

War is not a numbers game. Yet critics of former Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense are utterly driven by three numerically defined matters. First, Hagel's opposition to the "surge" in Iraq six years ago is seen as a tremendous liability. Conservative commentator Ross Douthat has judged Hagel "dead wrong" on this issue, given the real improvements in Iraq that followed in the wake of the surge. Next, Hagel has made supportive noises about drawing down American forces swiftly in Afghanistan -- over and against the many cautionary voices of senior military leaders. Last, he has bluntly stated that the Pentagon budget is "bloated," something that everybody knows but few will ever admit.

By the numbers, then, it appears that Hagel will be in deep trouble should Republicans choose to mount sustained opposition to his nomination -- a seeming surety. But this could be just the sort of confirmation fight that is needed to raise the level of public discourse about military and security affairs. These matters were hardly discussed, much less debated, in the nearly substance-free presidential campaign last fall. It is high time that we should shift our gaze back to the Iraq war once again, that we should parse its key lessons for Afghanistan, and that we should think very hard about whether to keep the Pentagon spending spigot wide open.

Perhaps the most important question to ask about Iraq is, "What caused the collapse of the insurgency in 2007?" Some 30,000 additional troops were indeed sent during this period, but there was also a dramatic shift in the concept of operations employed. This change took the form of building a physical network of small (i.e., platoon-sized) outposts all over Anbar province and engaging in "outreach" toward the very insurgents who were opposing coalition forces. These were the developments that energized the "awakening" in Iraq, defeated al Qaeda there, and gave hope for peace.

All thoughtful military analysts agree that something more than just numbers brought about the change in Iraq, but most believe that increased troop levels were necessary in order to pursue what I call the "outpost and outreach" strategy. The problem with making the argument that a surge in numbers was a necessary first step is that, even at its height, the campaign in 2007 saw less than 10 percent of the soldiers in-country deployed to the outposts. There were always enough troops in Iraq to sprinkle some about in outposts, but from 2003 through 2006, most operated from just a handful of massive forward operating bases (FOBs, whence the term "Fobbits" originates). The shift to a large number of small outposts could have been made earlier. And the outreach to the insurgents/terrorists themselves could have begun some years before as well. Indeed, this was a point I was pushing as far back as 2004.

If there is room for -- actually a need for -- debate about the effects of increased troop levels in the complex case of Iraq, the Afghanistan war seems to be a conflict that argues clearly against the primacy of numbers. We were at our very best toppling the Taliban and al Qaeda late in 2001, when just 11 Special Forces A-teams, fewer than 200 soldiers, were there on the ground. As our numbers grew over the years, so did our problems. And when President Barack Obama acceded to the Pentagon's request for a surge -- of about the same number of troops that had been requested in Iraq -- our casualties rose ever higher while Taliban influence around the country grew.

Why? Because the concept of operations employed had not yet shifted to outpost-and-outreach mode. But this is a change that has been getting under way in the form of "village stability operations" (VSO) in which small numbers of Americans man outposts and fight alongside friendly Afghans. Everywhere these have been established, Taliban influence has been undermined. Ironically, President Hamid Karzai made a request during his visit last week that we begin to close down our small outposts. This would be a big mistake.

Keeping small numbers of U.S. and U.S. allies' forces deployed around the country, building indigenous defense capabilities where they are most needed -- all enabled and protected by U.S. air supremacy -- is the way to defeat the Taliban even as our overall numbers of troops deployed to Afghanistan are drawn down to quite low levels. For the long term, the "zero option" being bruited about is a bad idea -- e.g., see Iraq, where we are now completely gone and al Qaeda has returned. But a "nonzero option," with somewhere around 10,000 stay-behind troops, should work just fine.

And if there is a way to salvage the endgame in Afghanistan with small numbers of soldiers employing the methods honed in Anbar province six years ago, there is a larger lesson as well: We can remain active and engaged in the world using the Obama Doctrine of economy of force, rather than the "overwhelming force" called for by the Powell Doctrine. Colin Powell's vision, honed by his experiences in Vietnam, is both too costly and, increasingly, ineffective for dealing with the insurgent networks that have bedeviled so much of the world since 9/11. It is interesting that Hagel's formative experience was in Vietnam too. But it seems he took a different lesson from that war. It was a conflict characterized by repeated "surges" that eventually brought troop levels up above 500,000 -- all to no avail, as the enemy quickly learned to slip the heavy punches thrown by the Americans in their "big-unit" war.

So, whether the issue is the surge in Iraq, the looming drawdown in Afghanistan, or the size of the defense budget, Hagel's views offer insights that all should hear -- and should spark useful, long-overdue debate about military and security affairs. His clear agreement with what I see to be an emergent Obama Doctrine makes it possible to pursue a consistent, quite innovative strategic path in this age of irregular wars.

As to those in the Senate who will point to the possibility of larger conflicts that might come, demanding ever greater defense expenditures, let me just close by reminding that history is replete with examples of small forces that regularly defeated much larger ones in major wars. From the Greeks at Salamis in 490 B.C. to the Israelis in the Six-Day War of 1967 and beyond, outnumbered forces have often prevailed. The outcomes of wars are determined far less by how much you have and far more by how you fight. It is a lesson well worth heeding in this age of perpetual conflict. A lesson that Chuck Hagel learned over 40 years ago, and which clearly still informs and guides him today.


National Security

Can There Be War Without Hate?

Surprisingly humane moments in combat -- and why they matter.

Armed conflict is unquestionably one of mankind's worst innovations; but even the most terrible wars occasionally produce moments of grace. On this night 98 years ago, for example, nearly five months into the cataclysm of World War I, many soldiers on both sides put down their weapons. They serenaded each other with carols, met in no man's land to exchange simple gifts, and then on Christmas Day played soccer together. This amity persisted over the following days and weeks, with a kind of live-and-let-live philosophy emerging from the trenches. It took quite a while for generals on both sides to tamp down such sentiments and get back to the brutal business of mounting costly, fruitless frontal assaults that massacred millions for little or no ground gained.

There were other signs of decency amid the slaughter. It was not at all uncommon for a fighter pilot to invite a vanquished foe -- who survived the crash of his biplane on the victor's side of the lines -- to join him for dinner at his aerodrome. At sea, German surface raider captains generally acted with considerable care for the crews of the vessels they took; and, the sinking of the Lusitania and other dark incidents aside, U-boat skippers often took the risk of surfacing to stop their prey and allow the merchant seamen to get into their lifeboats before sinking their vessels. The Royal Navy took advantage of this by creating "Q-ships," gunboats disguised as tramp steamers -- and lured more than a few subs to their doom.

The Great War in Africa saw some chivalry as well. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander in East Africa -- Tanzania today -- conducted a brilliant, frustrating guerrilla campaign that massive Allied forces were never able to quell. With only a few violent exceptions, both sides retained their essential humanity in this most difficult theater of war. When Lettow, in the bush and almost completely out of touch with his homeland, was promoted to general for his exploits, Allied intelligence, in the know, made a point of getting word to him. And at the end of the war, once convinced that an armistice had been reached, Lettow graciously opened his stores to the starving British soldiers who had been chasing him. But then again, he was only flush for having raided their supply depot.

None of the foregoing diminishes the horror of war; but these flashes of basic decency suggest the possibility of fighting, when one must, without hate. It was a lesson all too often forgotten during World War II -- although that terrible conflict did produce another German general, Erwin Rommel, who conducted his amazing campaigns with great care for the safety of civilians and prisoners. He also openly defied Hitler's directive to execute captured commandos and Jews. Winston Churchill even went so far as to praise him in the House of Commons: "We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general."

One doesn't hear this sort of comment today. But it is interesting to note that, over the past decade of problematic field operations, the U.S. military has performed best when it has found its inner Rommel. In Iraq some five years ago, this meant discarding "shock and awe," or a too-heavy reliance on the added numbers of the surge, in favor of more conciliatory measures. It meant reaching out to the very insurgents who were planting IEDs and sniping at our troops. To our amazement, tens of thousands of enemy fighters turned against al Qaeda in the aptly named "Awakening" movement. And an Iraq that was suffering a hundred civilian deaths a day soon saw this violence drop by 90 percent -- and stay down.

My favorite vignette from this conflict comes from a student of mine who was assigned the mission of disrupting an al Qaeda cell operating out of a small city in Anbar province. One night, "Major Todd" and his men captured a young Anbari, bringing him in just as dawn was breaking. The prisoner clearly expected to receive rough treatment. Instead, he was invited to sit down and have breakfast with Major Todd and his interpreter. Over dates and yogurt, they spoke of their common hope for a free Iraq, and that the Americans would go home one day. By the end of the meal, the prisoner had struck a deal to help identify and capture the foreign fighters in the area. As for his men, they would now fight on our side.

Sadly, the Awakening movement has been all but dismantled in the wake of our all-too-abrupt withdrawal from Iraq. And the amity that was beginning to weld the Iraqis together in a kind of shared national purpose has faded away. Substantial American forces will not be returning; so now the last, best hope for Iraq is that leaders of all ethnic groups figure out how to rekindle the spirit that can bring them together in pursuit of their common goals. Stay tuned to see whether they do.

In Afghanistan, there are also signs, on both sides, of an ability to see past hating the enemy. There have been on-and-off negotiations with the Taliban and other tribal leaders for years. American and Allied forces are increasingly operating from small outposts -- in military speak, "village stability platforms" -- rather than from just a relatively few large firebases. This shift has been strengthened by the local code of hospitality and protection, one of the tenets of pashtunwali, and there have been almost no so-called green-on-blue attacks by Afghans on Allied forces in these settings. These sneak attacks seem mostly an artifact of the larger, more anonymous settings where the masses intended to form a future Afghan National Army are being trained. In any event, there is hope to be found in the Afghan villages, and in negotiations with the Taliban. It is a hope based on each combatant's recognition of the other's essential humanity, and the willingness to talk across the firing lines that this prompts.

Senior military leaders on both sides of the Western Front a century ago were relentless in driving out feelings of compassion for "the enemy." On some level, they were probably correct in doing so back then, in that massive conventional war. But in today's smaller, more irregular conflicts, it is the very cultivation of empathy, and the actions sparked by such feeling, that may prove to be the key to future victories that all may claim.   

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