Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about since I came back from the COIN Leaders’ Conference last week. This post is going to get defense-wonky really fast, so here’s your fair warning.
Earlier this year, the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, began to speak of an "era of persistent conflict" as the paramount strategic fact of America’s current geopolitical. And the more I think about it, the less I find the concept to be useful. On the surface, you think you know what it signifies: lots of wars that implicate U.S. interests occurring for the forseeable future. But this obscures more than it reveals.
Most importantly: what kinds of wars characterize an era of persistent conflict? This isn’t just a semantic question. It’s a question with doctrinal implications for warfighting, since you have to prepare your military for the sorts of wars you envision as characterizing the current strategic picture. Are we talking about more Iraqs and Afghanistans? Well, evidently not, since the new Army field manual on stability operations explicitly discounts that prospect. But if not, then are we talking about Philippine/Malaysia/Indonesia-style interventions, where we send training and advisory forces to far-flung areas for the purposes of helping allies defeat internal rebellions? If so, three propositions arise: first, we really should create an advisory corps within the Army, as John Nagl wants; second, that goes a long way toward saying that the traditional purposes of the Army, offensive and defensive operation, aren’t primary anymore; and third (to shift emphasis to the strategic), what national interests are truly at stake if we’re talking about these being our primary areas of conflict? Intervention in the Philippine counterinsurgency is purely elective — we could pull up stakes tomorrow and witness no significant impact upon U.S. national security. Through that prism, one man’s Era Of Persistent Conflict is another man’s Era Of Persistent Peace.
Perhaps we’re talking about an era of pick-and-mix conflict, like at a movie theater candy counter. Everything from great-power war to elective support to counterinsurgency is on the table. If so, then we’re talking in abstract terms about a bevy of hypotheticals that always exist. On that definition we can hardly say we’re in a new "Era." From a doctrinal perspective, I can see the wisdom in preparing for all contingencies, but that’s about the most virtue I can locate within the concept.
The question then becomes whether there’s actual harm done by it. And there I’m not honestly sure. Lots of slippery concepts exist; we’re not materially harmed by most of them. I can think of one circumstance in which harm is done: we view the world as particularly or newly dangerous for the forseeable future for reasons we’re unable to articulate, thereby skewing national priorities and leading to an astrategic focus to national security that hastens the decline of American power that the concept seeks to prevent. But that doesn’t lead inexorably from a concept of an era of persistent conflict. It’s possible that the second definition prevails, and our Army becomes more like, say, Australia’s — primarily used for assistance in a regional conflict, rarely for centrality in major war-fighting. (Apologies to the Aussies if I’ve misunderstood your national posture, but this is how it appears from Washington D.C.) That, I suppose, wouldn’t be terrible, provided it wouldn’t invite attack from a superior adversary.