When are Two Wars Not Two Wars?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt
As we wait for the Pentagon strategy review announcement this morning, the first attempt to use it for political advantage has broken out over efforts to move officially away from the "two-war strategy" -- the idea that the US military must be prepared to fight and win two regional conflicts -- ie Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea -- at the same time.
It turns out that this is one of those bedrock doctrines that is much more bedrock for politicians than for military planners. Flag officers will quietly tell you that it hasn't been true, or truly doctrine, for a long time -- and they're out saying publicly that it clearly failed in Iraq/Afghanistan in the last decade.
What do experts say?
Winslow Wheeler, who worked 31 years on defense in the Senate, including as the first and last staffer to work simultaneously for a GOP and Democrat:
If it were a strategy, it doesn't describe any strategy or capability
we've had for decades. The construct was for two "Major Regional Conflicts"
in the 1990s. These meant conflicts like Korea and Desert Storm, which in
turn meant force deployments of half a million or so. Neither Iraq
(2003-2011) nor Afghanistan quality as "major" in that regard; both were
much smaller AND they totally crapped out our forces as regards both
manpower and equipment. In other words, we were not able to even support
two minor conflicts, let alone major ones.
We had an inadequate force for two opponents that lacked an air force, an
air defense, a navy, or any coherent ground forces. People who declare
coming off the two MRC "strategy" as unraveling our defenses (eg. Dov Zakheim) are dilettantes.
Time's Mark Thompson calls the strategy "Mythical Routine Canards" and notes:
The only problem is that the two-war construct has been shot through with enough caveats and loopholes to render it worthless. Formally doing away with it, consequently, is just as vaporous.
Going back to World War II, when the nation had 12 million in uniform, the U.S. and its allies couldn’t beat the Japanese in the Pacific until they had defeated the Germans in Europe. Flash forward 60 years: the U.S. and its allies couldn’t prevail in Afghanistan – assuming they ever will – once President George W. Bush had decided to invade Iraq. “It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in late 2007. “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” That, in a nutshell, is a definition of a nation lacking the ability to wage and win two wars at once. It not only lacked it during World War II, but it also was MIA less than five years ago.
Charles Knight of the Project on Defense Alternatives:
It is misleading to discuss the two war construct as if it were
strategic doctrine. The U.S. did not simultaneously undertake the
intense fighting phases of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Its
military problems in those conflicts are associated with subsequent
commitments to counterinsurgency and nation building. As with World
War II, the long-standing American practice is for sequential focused
action in different theaters. What has been called a strategy of
“win, hold, win” is simply being sensible and not being carried away
with a false sense of power that the U.S. can do everything,
everywhere at once.