Light Footprint/Right Footprint in Counter-Terror Deployments

Walter Pincus’ national security column today ended on an oddly discordant note. Overall the column discussed the challenges the military will face maintaining skilled personnel in the face of likely budget cuts. This is particularly challenging because top-level NCOs and mid-level officers take a long time to train and really bring up to speed. Fifteen years (at least) go into developing a Major, even more into training a ship commander. Capable individuals who will flourish in these roles will also do well in the civilian world.

These are excellent points that should be of real concern to defense policy wonks. But then he veers off to criticize the recent deployment of 100 special forces troops to Uganda to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army. Pincus concludes:

Step back for a moment. A small group of concerned Americans teamed up with members of Congress to pass the bill that authorized the anti-LRA deployment. The Pentagon had prepared specially trained units to carry out what is now designed as a narrowly focused training mission. How many other ungoverned parts of the world exist where leaders can say their enemies represent a terrorist threat and they need U.S. military assistance?

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the 82nd Airborne into the Dominican Republic to prevent what he called a second Cuba. He told Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.) that if he hadn’t had the deployment-ready military units, he would have had to rely on diplomacy to solve the problem.

Fulbright later told me that both nations would have been better off had the 82nd Airborne not been there to make the military solution easy when diplomacy appeared more difficult. It’s a lesson remembered and reinforced by the last 10 years of warfare.

That comparison does not quite hold. The deployment of the 82nd Airborne was a large-scale use of military force, sending 100 special forces on a training mission is a much less extensive and expensive endeavor. It is true that the US military cannot make even small such small deployments to every ungoverned space on earth, but if a relatively modest commitment can help an ally (Uganda is a playing a useful role in Somalia) then it seems reasonable.

Of terrorist groups and insurgencies around the world the LRA is one of the very, very nastiest and is destabilizing a region of the world that has suffered so much in the past few decades. Quite frankly, diplomatic solutions for the LRA are probably not realistic.

It is fair to say the US diplomacy has become overly militarized in the past decade. But deploying small numbers to Special Forces trainers to strengthen local capabilities seems like exactly the strategy the United States should be pursuing (it was the US strategy in the Philippines among other places). It is repositioning the military to support diplomatic efforts – righting the past decades unbalance in State-Defense operations.

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