It's raining in the Kuwaiti desert.
It's not supposed to rain here, and the downpour is snarling traffic, flooding barracks, and leaving military vehicles sodden and afloat at Camp Arifjan, the largest U.S. military base in Kuwait. Smaller than New Jersey, the country is home to more than 8,000 American soldiers -- the largest concentration of deployed Army personnel outside Afghanistan, Germany, and South Korea.
"So what are you guys doing here?" I ask the young private next to me in line at the camp's spacious Starbucks. "I mean, in Kuwait. What's your mission here?"
He offers a sheepish shrug. "Got me, ma'am. That's above my pay grade. I'm just trying to stay dry."
"Ours not to wonder why, ours but to try and stay dry," quips the lieutenant standing nearby, carefully maneuvering a lid onto his overflowing caramel latte.
In the age of the strategic corporal, "Got me!" is of course the wrong answer to journalistic queries. It has the distinct virtue of honesty, however. With the Iraq war over, the war in Afghanistan winding down, and Washington desperate to cut costs, the U.S. Army as a whole is struggling to define -- and defend -- its role and mission.
Why does the United States have over 8,000 soldiers stationed in peacetime Kuwait? More broadly, why does a country so seemingly determined to avoid another land war need a large standing army, with troops all over the globe? Won't the Navy and the Air Force, with their high-tech toys, be better suited to the conflicts of the future than the Army's half a million grunts, with their rucksacks and muddy boots?
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, thinks he can answer those questions, and whether they know it or not, the soldiers stationed in Kuwait are part of his ambitious effort to reimagine the service.
To Odierno, the Army's future lies in "regionally aligned forces": Army units that will have long-term relationships with particular combatant commands. These regionally aligned forces -- or RAF, since the Army instinctively acronymizes everything -- will receive substantial region-specific linguistic and cultural training, making them more effective across what the military calls the "spectrum of conflict."
The idea underlying RAF (pronounced "raff") is that more culturally attuned soldiers will be better equipped to identify brewing conflicts before they get out of hand, enabling more timely and effective "shaping" -- that is, activities to make conditions favorable for U.S. military success. Such efforts can include influencing local populations, establishing friendly relations with local leaders, strengthening military-to-military cooperation, and the like. If conflict does break out, more culturally sophisticated soldiers will better understand the enemy and work more effectively with the host population.
"Before the most recent set of conflicts," Odierno wrote in March 2012, "it was generally believed that cultural awareness was only required in select Army units, such as Special Forces." In the general-purpose force, most units were deployed without regard to building up regional expertise. Thus, a brigade could find itself in South Korea one year, Iraq two years after that, Germany a few years later, and then in Afghanistan. Implicit in this force management system was the assumption that military skills exist largely in a realm outside culture -- that local populations are mostly just background noise.
Like others in his generation of officers, Odierno -- who spent several years commanding U.S. troops in Iraq -- learned the hard way that military skills don't exist in a cultural vacuum. "We went in there with a complete misunderstanding, regionally and inside Iraq, of what was going on," he told me in a recent interview. "I don't ever want that to happen again." The U.S.-led military coalition easily defeated Iraq's conventional forces, but lack of cultural, linguistic, and political understanding consistently hampered U.S. efforts to comprehend the insurgency. Meanwhile, many U.S. successes in Iraq hinged on painstaking efforts to acquire local knowledge. Mapping clan and family relationships turned out to be key to identifying Saddam Hussein's hiding place, for instance.
The regionally aligned forces concept represents Odierno's effort to lock in the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan on a global scale. The United States doesn't know which threats will prove most serious in the future or which parts of the world they will come from. So to Odierno, the best way to hedge against risk is for the Army to align forces to every geographical region.
It's a potentially transformative attempt to rethink the Army's role in the uncertain post-post-9/11 world -- to turn a clumsy, industrial behemoth into an agile, regionally engaged, globally responsive, and culturally savvy force, one that's more Mao than Bismarck and more T.E. Lawrence than Patton.
For the Army, it's also smart marketing at a moment when budget-cutters in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill are sharpening their knives. "There are many people that believe that through technology advancement, we can solve all of the issues of warfare," Odierno said at the 2013 annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army. "I absolutely reject that concept.… Human interaction in a complex environment is key to our success in the future."
There's a not-so-subtle subtext to his words: The Navy and the Air Force can brag all they want about their technologically sophisticated systems, but you can't build human relationships from the deck of an aircraft carrier or the simulated cockpit of a Predator drone. Building relationships requires putting human beings on the ground in regions all over the world -- something only the Army has the manpower to do.
Nevertheless, Odierno faces formidable obstacles. Some are external: It's far from certain that the other military services, the State Department, the White House, and Congress will buy into his vision. But many obstacles are internal. In any large bureaucracy, efforts to change long-standing practices can generate anxiety, confusion, and foot-dragging -- and the Army is nothing if not a bureaucracy.
It's like the old joke:
How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.
Odierno knows that if the Army is to remain relevant and useful, it needs to change.
But does it want to?
When he commanded the military's now-defunct Joint Forces Command from 2010 to 2011, Odierno recalls, the military's geographic combatant commanders complained that they never knew precisely which Army forces would be made available to them and that they couldn't count on being able to access the precise mix of capabilities they needed.
With the advent of regionally aligned forces, declared the Army Times in June 2013, "Everything you know about deployments is about to change." For commanders, RAF would create a reliable source of Army troops that they could draw upon at will. For individual soldiers, "[T]he immersion in language, regional expertise and culture training will be the big difference."
The Army's efforts to operationalize the RAF concept started small, and in the middle of Kansas. At Fort Riley in 2012, the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team -- "Dagger Brigade" -- was designated the Army's first regionally aligned brigade. The brigade and its several thousand soldiers "aligned" with U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the youngest and smallest of the military's six geographic combatant commands. (The other five are European, Northern, Southern, Pacific, and Central commands. Each coordinates activities in its region for all the military services; thus, Central Command controls all U.S. missions in Afghanistan, regardless of whether Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marine forces are involved.)
Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, is the brains behind the concept of regionally aligned forces, or RAF.
In Kansas, Dagger Brigade struggled to figure out what it meant to be "regionally aligned" with AFRICOM. With no template for how to increase their sociocultural knowledge, brigade leaders got creative: They scrounged up African students and Africa experts at nearby Kansas State University and enlisted their help in designing a training course for troops preparing to deploy.
The training course was short -- roughly a week long -- but so were the brigade's regional deployments, which began in the spring of 2013. The brigade as a whole remained in Kansas, sending small units off for a few weeks at a time to work with African partner forces. Two dozen soldiers from Fort Riley helped train Mali-bound U.N. peacekeeping troops in Niger; several hundred Dagger Brigade soldiers conducted exercises in South Africa; two Fort Riley snipers conducted a short-term mission in Burundi; and so on.
It was hardly an "immersion" in local cultures, but within the Army, senior officials deemed Dagger Brigade's initial experiment a roaring success, and they accelerated the alignment of other Army units with the other geographic combatant commands.
In late 2013, senior Army officials also launched a full-court press to publicize the regionally aligned forces concept. The October meeting of the Association of the United States Army, the highest-profile gathering of service personnel each year, featured multiple presentations and discussions on RAF. Regionally aligned forces will ensure that the Army's "'Prevent -- Shape -- Win' Strategy is operationalized in the human domain," proclaimed a handout distributed by the service's manpower command. "People-to-people relationships matter!"
A RAF manifesto of sorts also appeared in the autumn 2013 issue of Parameters, a quarterly journal published by the Army War College. Written by three officers in the Army's strategy division, the article acknowledged that "few understand the basic elements of the concept, or the goals the Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA), General Raymond T. Odierno, wants to achieve with it." But the authors argued that regionally aligned forces are essential "in a changing strategic environment characterized by combinations of nontraditional and traditional threats." Successfully carrying out regional missions, they wrote, "requires an understanding of the cultures, geography, languages, and militaries of the countries where RAF are most likely to be employed."
Outside Army circles, RAF generated little interest beyond a few media mentions. Most were respectful, if slightly bemused. ("U.S. Army Hones Antiterror Strategy for Africa, in Kansas," the New York Times reported.) On the left, however, RAF has been viewed as further evidence of the United States' sinister, hegemonic ambitions.
A recent article by Nick Turse in the Nation charged that "AFRICOM releases information about only a fraction of its activities … preferring to keep most information about what it's doing -- and when and where -- secret." But, he continued, "[p]reviously undisclosed US Army Africa records reveal" that, in 2013, Fort Riley's Dagger Brigade took part in "128 separate 'activities' in twenty-eight African countries" as part of the Army's regionally aligned forces effort. "So much else … remains in the shadows," Turse wrote, including, he suggests, U.S. training of coup plotters and war criminals. "It remains to be seen just what else we don't know about US Africa Command's exponentially expanding operations."
On Antiwar.com, news editor Jason Ditz warned that "Gen. Raymond Odierno's 'Regionally Aligned Forces' plan [gives] the US the ability to quickly deploy troops anywhere on the planet.… [W]ith enough troops and enough countries involved, the question of what wars and where can be worked out at their leisure."
Army leaders dismiss the notion that RAF is a sign of growing interventionist bellicosity. "After 12 years of war," Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of U.S. Army Central (ARCENT), tells me, "I don't wish another protracted conflict on my grandkids. If we get regionally aligned forces right, if we get the shaping right, we can hopefully help prevent another conflict."
Most Americans think of peace as a time in which the military is more or less irrelevant. But to the military, it is merely "phase zero," the first phase on the six-phase "spectrum of conflict."
Odierno agrees. RAF, he says, is premised on the "need to prevent conflicts." And he has better reason than most to understand that war isn't an impersonal game of chess: Among the tens of thousands of soldiers killed or grievously injured during the Iraq war was his son Tony, who lost his left arm in 2004 when his vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Still, it's not hard to understand why some might feel a flicker of unease when contemplating the Army's plans for regionally aligned forces. Even if it doesn't reflect hegemonic U.S. ambitions, the RAF concept, taken to its logical extreme, does suggest that senior Army officials view the entire globe as a potential battlefield.
Most Americans think of peace as a time in which the military is more or less irrelevant. But to the military, it is merely "Phase Zero," the first phase on the six-phase "spectrum of conflict."
In Phase Zero, a period without active conflict, the military's role is understood as shaping the character of possible future operations by building relationships, collecting information, and influencing local actors. If conflict looms, the military enters Phase 1, deterrence, which is characterized "by preparatory actions that indicate the intent to execute subsequent phases of the operation." If deterrence fails, Phase 2, "seizing the initiative," begins, leading -- it is hoped -- to Phase 3, "dominance" or "sustained combat operations." If successful, this is followed by Phase 4, "stabilization," in which military forces restore basic security and services. In Phase 5, the military works to restore civil authority. These tasks completed, we once again circle back to Phase Zero.
"It's always 5 o'clock somewhere," says the dedicated drinker. The RAF concept suggests that to Odierno and other senior Army leaders, it's always Phase Zero somewhere. In fact, at any given time, it's Phase Zero almost everywhere -- so why not have regionally aligned Army forces everywhere?
At Kuwait's Camp Arifjan -- the forward headquarters for ARCENT, which is the Army component supporting U.S. Central Command -- the persistent rain seems to carry with it a general sense of malaise and confusion. People slog grimly through the mud, heads down.
The Kuwaiti desert is bleak to begin with, and the scenery isn't improved by the drab architecture of military barracks and office buildings. Soldiers stationed in Kuwait still get combat pay (though this is scheduled to end in June), and Arifjan looks like a base in a combat zone, surrounded by multiple layers of barbed wire, concrete barriers, and entry points operated by heavily armed guards. Kuwaiti officials rarely visit Camp Arifjan, I'm told -- there isn't much worth seeing. And in any case, the elaborate security measures don't create a welcoming atmosphere for host country partners, who refer to Arifjan and the other local base, Camp Buehring, as "the American prisons."
Perhaps because he's only visiting, Col. Tom Weikert is a pleasant exception to Arifjan's gloom. Weikert is based out of Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where he works in operations for ARCENT. He's also cheerleader in chief for ARCENT's efforts to implement the regionally aligned forces concept.
Weikert greets me with an enthusiastic handshake. "A lot of folks are wondering if this RAF stuff is just a new hood ornament," he tells me confidingly as we sit down with his team at Arifjan. "But the answer is, it's not! It's real.… I like to say, 'We were doing RAF before it was cool.' But we're going to be doing even more, and we're going to be doing it better."
RAF's goal, says Weikert, is "building partner capacity." That's Pentagon-speak for giving friendly militaries the ability to fight effectively alongside U.S. forces -- or, better still, the ability to fight the fights that America would prefer to avoid. The more the United States can strengthen the militaries of its allies and partners, the more it can step back, letting its partners manage their own regional security.
Weikert is not alone in assuming that this is RAF's primary purpose. A February 2014 article produced by AFRICOM's public affairs office quotes an Army major on the virtues of the concept: "By helping Africans help themselves, it means that we don't have to get involved ourselves."
This version of RAF is rather different from the left's conspiracy-theory vision of unbridled imperialist aggression. Far from suggesting a United States determined to become ever more interventionist in an ever-expanding list of countries, it suggests, on the contrary, an exhausted empire struggling to hand over its global-cop responsibilities to others, as rapidly as possible. But it also bears little resemblance to the version of RAF that seems to lie at the heart of Odierno's ambitious initial vision.
Weikert explains that in Central Command's area of operations, which encompasses the Middle East and Central Asia (including Iraq and Afghanistan), RAF will have to be "large scale and industrial strength." Still, he assures me, culture and language training will enable ARCENT forces to step up their efforts to "build trust-based relationships," which will, in turn, "improve interoperability, reduce unpredictability," and give "U.S. senior leaders a better understanding of the region than they would otherwise have."
Pressed on what the improved ARCENT cultural training will entail, Weikert looks a little uneasy: "Well … we don't do the training here. We're asking [Army Forces Command] to set that up. But," he adds, brightening, "we'll have an ARCENT Internet portal, which will offer video training.… Everyone is going to have a computer avatar, and the avatar will take each soldier immersively through the culture. That training will be required for all soldiers."
Can I look at a sample training module, I ask? Unfortunately, no, says Weikert: "The modules have not been developed yet."
At a Kuwait City restaurant, I run into a local businessman who asks what I'm doing in the country. Oversimplifying, I explain that I'm researching an article on U.S. Army efforts to develop deeper relationships with Kuwaitis. He's intrigued. "Excellent!" he says. "I did not know that there were still many thousands of American soldiers in Kuwait!"
RAF or no RAF, most of the American soldiers I met seemed equally unaware that there are still many thousands of Kuwaitis in Kuwait. If entering Camp Arifjan is a formidable endeavor, exiting Arifjan is harder still: Soldiers can't just decide on a whim to wander around Kuwait City. On several occasions, I wasn't sure I'd be allowed to leave myself. Explaining that I was a visiting journalist rather than a member of the military cut no ice with Arifjan's gate guards, who only agreed to let me out when my public affairs escort produced signed memos authorizing me to move around freely.
"We try very hard to encourage people to get to know Kuwait," Col. Christopher Eubank, commander of Arifjan's area support group, tells me. "We offer an hourlong cultural briefing every Friday. It's mandatory for anyone leaving the base." So, unfortunately, is an "O6 Departure Approval Memo": Everyone below the rank of colonel needs signed authorization -- from a colonel -- to leave the base.
Even the officer who runs Arifjan's public affairs office seems surprised, and more than a little disconcerted, when I insist that, yes, I really do want to leave Arifjan and interview some Kuwaitis.
"In your own work, do you partner with the Kuwaitis?" I ask.
She frowns. "I tried to partner with the Kuwaitis for the first time just this week, but they haven't gotten back to me."
Perhaps it's just as well. The next evening, we attend a banquet hosted by Kuwait's former deputy prime minister, Sheikh Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, a member of the ruling family who has also served as ambassador to the United States. There's an elaborate buffet with dozens of traditional Kuwaiti dishes. My escort pokes suspiciously at some shrimp.
"We should have stopped at McDonald's," she mutters. "I don't like cultural food."
Overhearing this, Sheikh Mohammad's son, Sabah Mohammad Al-Sabah -- who, in 2007, became the first Kuwaiti to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and who now serves as a Kuwaiti Army intelligence officer -- comes up to us. "Do you get off the base much?" he inquires.
"Not much," she admits.
"Ah," says Sabah. "I can tell."
My public affairs escort was hardly unique. Except at the senior-most level, few of the Army personnel I met seemed to have much direct contact with either the Kuwaiti people or their Kuwaiti military counterparts. As one senior U.S. Embassy official tactfully put it: "U.S. troops keep a very low profile here, which is very wise. Across the political spectrum in Kuwait, there's agreement that a U.S. military presence is desirable and good. This may partly be because the U.S. military is virtually invisible."
Wise or not, it seems a far cry from Odierno's original vision of an Army committed to "human interaction" and "skilled in understanding … cultural and social environments." For the most part, Army officials in Kuwait seem to equate "regional alignment" with efforts to build partner capacity, provide training to host country militaries, or simply improve interoperability, rather than with enhanced cultural understanding or broader "shaping" activities.
In Kuwait, conversations about RAF are replete with both conceptual and terminological confusion. "We don't train the Kuwaitis," explains Col. Greg Gaweda, ARCENT's deputy director of strategy and effects. "Training is only done in conjunction with foreign military sales. That's separate from the partnership activities undertaken by ARCENT. Our goal is interoperability, not building a better capability for the host."
A few minutes later, Weikert informs me that Terry, ARCENT's commander, is trying to develop "measures of effectiveness" for regionally aligned forces, focusing, among other things, on "what new capabilities have we built in partner nations and what new foreign military sales have we contributed to." Then Lt. Col. Jack McKenna, who works on training and exercises for ARCENT, jumps in to explain that "partnership involves senior leader engagements," while "training is much more tactical and focused on interoperability -- that's what we're building, with these tactical training relationships here."
One senior officer rattled off a list of questions: "Will every army unit end up being regionally aligned, or only some? Is this about building partner capacity, or is this supposed to be about something deeper? If we’re going to get language and cultural training, will it be extensive or just a few hours of powerpoint slides?"
A few hours later, my public affairs escort takes me aside to issue a clarification. "Don't write that we do training for the Kuwaitis. That's not the right term. We don't do training. We don't say training. It's not training."
The semantic confusion highlights the broader confusion about the role of regionally aligned forces. One senior officer stationed in Kuwait rattled off a list of questions for me: "Will every Army unit end up being regionally aligned, or only some? Is this just about building partner capacity, or is this supposed to be about something deeper? If we're going to get language and cultural training, will it be extensive or just a few hours of PowerPoint slides? Are we trying to get to know ordinary people or just focusing on senior military leaders? Will individual soldiers be 'aligned' throughout their careers, or is it units that will be aligned, and if it's just units, does that really help build up expertise and relationships?"
As long as the RAF concept remains vague, he concluded, most Army personnel will opt to give it its lowest-common-denominator meaning: "RAF will mean 'doing some things in conjunction with host nation militaries.'"
If one of Odierno's goals is to use regional alignment to strengthen relationships with partner countries, Kuwait highlights both the value and limits of long-term engagement. The U.S.-Kuwait relationship has been close for many years, but at times its sheer length presents unique challenges.
"It's almost like a marriage that's gone on for decades," comments Lt. Col. Maurice Barnett, commander of the Army's 1-44 Air Defense Artillery Battalion. Unlike many Army personnel based in Kuwait, Barnett's soldiers have frequent contact with their Kuwaiti counterparts, including informal social contact. "It's really great for our young soldiers to be exposed to another culture," he says, "but … it becomes sort of boring and mundane for the Kuwaitis.… They don't always have a lot of motivation to come train with us."
And decades of cooperation haven't eliminated all frictions between the two countries. Recent talk in the Obama administration of a "rebalancing" toward Asia has left many in the Middle East wondering whether the United States plans to reduce its engagement in the region, a fear that hasn't been eased by Washington's uncertain response to the Arab Spring.
"The U.S. appears to be in retreat," Sheikh Mohammad laments over a glass of fresh pomegranate juice. "It's wavering and distracted. You seem to have lost interest in the Middle East." He casts a reproachful eye toward my public affairs escort, who's gazing longingly at the door. "All you want are quick fixes, like this [nuclear] deal with Iran. But do you even know what you are doing?"
Abdullah Al-Shayji, chairman of Kuwait University's political science department, is also blunt. "There's a complete lack of [U.S.] leadership," he scolds. "Look at Iraq, which is descending into chaos. Look at Egypt, where you can't even call a coup a coup. Look at Syria: How many massacres will you ignore? You're leaving Afghanistan -- what message does that send to us?"
Matthew Tueller, the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and a career diplomat, is used to such gripes. "The region is changing and no one knows what will happen, and the Kuwaitis are surrounded on three sides by aggressive, expansionist neighbors," he tells me. "They want to know that we don't just regard them as a parking lot. They want to be true partners." Fearing U.S. abandonment, the Kuwaitis have taken pains to strengthen military relationships with other powerful states, including Russia and China. This, of course, only adds to the relationship-building difficulties for the United States.
But if crotchety, jaded Kuwaitis present a challenge to Army officials anxious to deepen relationships, other challenges to Odierno's vision of regionally aligned forces come from closer to home. Asked his opinion of RAF, Tueller purses his lips: "Well. Within the United States, we have so many centers for ideas to come through.… I applaud the Army for developing this new concept. That said," he adds delicately, "the regionally aligned forces idea will, ah, bump up against other ideas coming from parts of the State Department."
In other words, the State Department may not share Odierno's enthusiasm for an Army that is "globally responsive and regionally engaged." Many diplomats think it's their job, not the Army's, to develop cultural and regional expertise and relationships.
"Their concern is always the militarization of foreign policy," admits Odierno. But, he says, he's planning more outreach to senior-level State Department officials. "What we're trying to tell them is, we are not conducting foreign policy -- we are an instrument available to you … and we can do a lot of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief. We can do medical support, engineering support that builds things. So it's not just combat capabilities; it's a broader array of things that we can bring." Odierno concludes optimistically: "I think once we lay it out for them they'll understand."
Odierno needs to bring the State Department around. With its puny budget and its 12,000 foreign service officers, Foggy Bottom can't hope to compete with the Army's nearly 1 million active-duty soldiers, reservists, and guards. But absent a presidential override, it's the State Department, through embassy personnel, that controls access to foreign countries. If the Army wants to conduct partnership activities or exercises in a particular country, it first needs a green light from the local U.S. Embassy. It also needs embassy help negotiating with host countries over visas -- and sometimes, the embassy doesn't seem to negotiate very hard. "They don't always see this as high priority as we do," laments Brig. Gen. John Roberts, ARCENT's assistant chief of staff for operations.
The regionally aligned forces concept also faces some skepticism on Capitol Hill, where legislators have grilled Odierno on RAF's costs and viability. Absent more funding, the Army is set to shrink by more than 100,000 soldiers over the next five years, leaving fewer troops available for regional missions. What's more, serious cultural, regional, and linguistic training is costly; Gen. Daniel Allyn, head of Army Forces Command, said in late 2013 that dwindling resources have already prevented most newly assigned RAF units from going through their full planned training cycle.
Oddly, the U.S. Army's day-to-day point person for developing the regionally aligned forces construct isn't a U.S. Army officer at all, but a British Army exchange officer, Col. James Learmont. Or maybe it's not so odd. Although Learmont lacks an insider's understanding of U.S. Army culture and bureaucracy, every British Army officer has a bit of T.E. Lawrence in his DNA -- and the British know a little something about both the seductions and the perils of empire.
Sitting in Learmont's windowless Pentagon office, I explain that I'm finding it remarkably difficult to penetrate the cloud of jargon and pin down what RAF really means for the Army. No one even seems able to answer the most basic questions: Which Army units are regionally aligned, which are not, and which are slated to be regionally aligned in the future?
Everyone I speak to seems to have a different understanding of what RAF is. Some see it as a long-overdue transformation of the whole army into an agile, culturally sophisticated force; other see it as a tool of imperialist intervention. Still other see it, in the words of one former pentagon official, as "another giant army nothing-burger."
Learmont -- who co-authored the Parameters article on RAF -- sighs. He obviously gets these questions a lot. "One of the biggest problems we have is the straightforward education piece," he tells me.
For one thing, he insists, RAF isn't just for combat brigades. RAF encompasses "the Army total force," including the active-duty force, the Army Reserve, and the National Guard -- and it includes specialized personnel, such as engineers and logistics experts. "Everything the Army's got is in some way regionally aligned." With its emphasis on giving the service a "better understanding" of each region, says Learmont, RAF will constitute "a fundamental shift in how the Army is doing business."
Yes, I say, but to what end? Everyone I speak to seems to have a different understanding of what RAF is -- and what it isn't. Some, I tell Learmont, see it as a long-overdue transformation of the whole Army into an agile, culturally sophisticated force; others see it as a tool of imperialist intervention, or at least imperial overreach. Still others see it, in the words of one former Pentagon official, as "another giant Army nothing-burger" -- just a slightly more efficient effort to build partner capacity, with a fancy new name.
Learmont looks unhappy. RAF, he reminds me, is still a work in progress, and it's inevitable that lots of key questions remain. How much cultural training is enough? How can specialized regional training be balanced against the need to keep the force flexible? Are brigade combat teams going to be the right place for developing cultural expertise, or should most of the cultural expertise reside in the enablers -- the civil affairs units, the intelligence units, and so on? Does the Army need to shift from thinking about "forward deployments" to "forward presence" -- shorter, smaller, cheaper missions overseas?
More than two years after Odierno unveiled the RAF concept, those are a lot of unanswered questions.
Ultimately, the future of regionally aligned forces will depend not only on the ability of Odierno and other senior Army leaders to persuade the other services, the State Department, the White House, and Congress to get on board (or at least get out of the way). It will also depend, most crucially, on their ability to explain and sell RAF within the Army itself and to develop a coherent, implementable plan for moving forward.
Doing this will require top leaders to clarify RAF's strategic underpinnings. Does the regionally aligned forces construct reflect an assumption that the whole world is a potential battlefield and a conviction that the United States should double down on its role as the world's policeman? Or is RAF a form of U.S. pullback?
A U.S. soldier and South African troops take part in a training exercise designed to enhance interoperability.
At moments, Odierno seems to lean toward the "do everything everywhere" version of RAF. On April 3, 2014, he submitted joint testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee with Secretary of the Army John McHugh. The Army, the two men asserted, offers "globally responsive, regionally engaged strategic land forces." It is "decisively expeditionary and strategically adaptive … possess[ing] a lethal combination of capability and agility that strengthens U.S. diplomacy and represents one of America's most credible deterrents against hostility." It must be "capable of appropriate and rapid response anywhere in the world and across the entire range of military operations, from stability operations to general war."
At other times, however, RAF seems to reflect the far more modest assumption that the United States needs to retrench and look inward, coupled with a conviction that for a weary, financially strapped global cop, the only viable route to retirement involves an intense but time-limited investment in building the military capacity of allies and partners. As Roberts, ARCENT's assistant chief of staff for operations, puts it, "We've learned that it's really expensive to be in Phase 3 and 4. Most Americans get that we need to invest in preventative maintenance for our equipment or in insurance on our cars and houses. So why don't we do that globally by investing in building partner nation capacity? It's the way to save on costs way down the road."
Either of these visions could be defended and implemented, but the Army needs to pick one. As Shayji, the Kuwaiti political scientist, puts it, "You can have all the regionally aligned forces you want … but none of this does any good if you have no strategy."
Or does it?
In the context of a country that itself has no coherent grand strategy, maybe it's wrongheaded to view the murkiness of the Army's regionally aligned forces construct as a problem that needs to be solved. Perhaps, in fact, RAF's very ambiguity is strategic -- not in the global sense, but in a bureaucratic sense.
Consider the Army's precarious institutional position. Budget cuts threaten the service, and rising isolationist sentiment risks marginalizing ground forces, as politicians insist that America won't be fighting any more land wars, occupying any countries, or engaging in large-scale nation-building. The Navy and the Air Force have gained temporary preeminence by offering an appealing fantasy of bloodless, high-tech conflicts fought not with mud and blood, but with computer code and unmanned drones.
But politicians and public opinion are notoriously fickle, and it's easy to imagine the pendulum eventually swinging back the other way. It's easy to imagine the Army again being subjected to a range of conflicting demands: prevent conflict; fight an enemy army; and conduct counterterrorism operations, counterinsurgency operations, stability operations, and information operations -- and do it all at once, while also winning hearts and minds, developing local economies, and providing humanitarian assistance.
Right now, the Army is being told that its services are no longer much needed, but Odierno and other senior Army leaders know that at any moment they could again be asked to accomplish half a dozen impossible things at the same time. In that context, RAF's ambiguity enables the concept to be sold in half a dozen different ways to as many different constituencies.
Midlevel Army officers threatened by the possibility of transformational change can be soothed by the lowest-common-denominator version of RAF, which requires little more from them than a slightly enhanced focus on building partner capacity. Other services can be sold the version of RAF that focuses on gaining a better understanding of regional dynamics, which will help them as well. Geographic combatant commanders are offered a more predictable source of troops and capabilities. The State Department is offered engineers, medical experts, and disaster relief tools to support U.S. diplomacy. Neo-isolationists on the Hill are offered a version of RAF that enables gradual U.S. disengagement from the role of global cop, while neoconservatives and liberal idealists are offered the promise of enhanced global engagement and influence -- all without the need for substantially higher budgets.
Meanwhile, RAF does enable some incremental shifts toward greater Army flexibility and cultural sophistication. As Learmont puts it, "We've not lost sight of the vision. We may not get there, but I'd be satisfied if we get mostly there." Or even, his body language suggests, a little bit of the way there.
Evaluated as a clear blueprint for change, the regionally aligned forces construct is rife with contradictions. But evaluated as Odierno's canny effort to protect his beloved Army from the fickle winds that blow through Washington? It's brilliant.
Rosa Brooks, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, is a law professor at Georgetown University. She served as counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011. Her husband is an officer in the U.S. Army, currently stationed at Camp Buehring in Kuwait.
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett for FP; Images: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images, Flickr/US Army Africa