It’s been a tough decade for the U.S. Army. Like the rest of the nation, it was unprepared for the asymmetric attacks of Sept. 11. Special Forces teams, with CIA agents and Air Force and Navy support, quickly toppled the Taliban regime that had sheltered Osama bin Laden, chasing him across the border into Pakistan. But it was the war in Iraq that challenged America’s Army as it had not been for a generation.
After a successful invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in a matter of weeks, the taste of victory turned to sand in the mouths of soldiers who had not been tasked to plan for what came afterward. A Sunni insurgency developed into a full-scale civil war that nearly tore Iraq apart, and the Army struggled to understand a kind of war for which it had not prepared.
The war was nearly lost before the Army and its Marine Corps brethren remembered old counterinsurgency lessons that it applied in the nick of time, demonstrating, in the words of the general who led the resurgence, that “hard is not hopeless.”
Gen. David Petraeus, having turned around one war on the brink of defeat for American forces, was given the opportunity to do so again in Afghanistan in what is now America’s longest war. That conflict remains too close to call, with the decisions that will be made over the next three years in Pakistan perhaps as important as any that will be taken in Kabul or Washington, even as bitter fighting continues in the mountain valleys of the Hindu Kush.
The Army is tired, and justly proud of all that it has accomplished. It struggles with worrisome divorce and suicide rates in a volunteer force that has survived a decade of war better than the architects of the all-volunteer force could have imagined a generation ago. But now, even as the war in Afghanistan continues to inflict horrible wounds on deployed forces, the Army is planning a postwar drawdown.
There is nothing surprising about this except the timing; the Army cut its strength nearly a third in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, and there is little prospect of another major ground war on the horizon. After a decade of investment in our ground forces, America’s Air Force and Navy are undercapitalized, and a rising China threatens in the western Pacific. The nation can accept some risk in a smaller Army of perhaps 480,000, down from the currently planned end strength of 520,000.
But the Army should not simply become a smaller version of its current self. It should reform itself to preserve as many of its combat-experienced midgrade officers and sergeants as possible. Senior sergeants and midgrade officers are the skeleton of any Army; keeping this talent on board would allow the Army to expand rapidly if required to do so.
The Army should think creatively about ways to hold onto the talent it has acquired at such great cost by building dedicated force structure to advise and assist foreign armies and police forces. This mission is essential to success in modern wars, but it is not something the Army has done particularly well in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The nation has little appetite for fighting more big protracted wars, but is almost certainly going to continue helping our friends and allies around the globe confront internal and external threats; a standing adviser force would likely be the busiest part of tomorrow’s Army.
Most of all, the nation must not break faith with those who have served it so well in our hour of need. The Army should downsize on a slope of no more than 15,000 soldiers a year, and should provide improved transition services for those who leave its ranks.
American businesses would be well served to hire veterans who have displayed extraordinary leadership skills, determination and courage. And all Americans should be proud of their Army, which has demonstrated not just courage under fire, but also the ability to learn, adapt and win.
Nagl is president of the Center for a New American Security. A retired Army officer, he served in both wars in Iraq.