Rightsizing U.S. Ground Forces

  • Christopher Preble
November 1, 2010

Policy experts are in the midst of a discussion on how to reorient the U.S. military to fight the most likely wars of the future. The debate centers around the role of the ground forces—the Army and Marine Corps. Unfortunately, much of the discussion is driven by a misreading of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. Numerous analysts argue that the troubles with our occupations of those nations have not been our goals but our method of achieving them. They cling to the belief that those wars are not examples of what not to do, but how not to do it.1

By contrast, a majority of Americans think that the war in Iraq has not been worthwhile, and a growing number of people worry that the costs of trying to stabilize Afghanistan will not be outweighed by the benefits. However, many foreign policy analysts see it differently. They say that combating the scourge of terrorism requires the United States to repair failed governments abroad because terrorists thrive in areas where governments are weak. Convinced that they have discovered the key to success in the "surge" of additional U.S. ground forces in Iraq, they are testing their theories on the unfinished war in Afghanistan. These analysts prescribe more cooperation among U.S. government agencies and better counterinsurgency doctrine. Above all, they stress the need for more troops.

On the assumption that high troop levels are essential to success in counterinsurgency and related stability operations, federal policymakers have pushed through significant increases in the size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps in recent years. The active duty force is up nearly 15 percent since 2001, and the defenders of foreign intervention are poised to fend off any cuts when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are eventually brought to a close.2

The political establishment view wrong and dangerous. What the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate is a need for a new national security strategy, not better tactics and tools to serve the current one. Not all state-building missions pose the particular challenges those two countries have done, but all such missions are extremely costly, and most of them fail. When people insist that we can remake foreign countries, they ignore the limits on our power that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan expose and, in the process, risk repeating our mistakes.

The reason that Americans will not master counterinsurgency and state-building is that it is not necessary for fighting terrorism. Terrorists are mostly hidden and lightly armed. The difficulty is finding them, not killing or capturing them once they are found, and a large ground presence is ill-suited to that task. In fact, our attempts to establish control over hostile societies is a source of our insecurity. Because there are few good reasons to take on missions meant to resuscitate failed governments, the most important lesson from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be a deep skepticism of these types of missions. Incorporating that lesson into our force planning will allow us to preserve our security with a smaller Army and Marine Corps.

Myths of the Iraq Surge

The case for expanding U.S. ground forces after the invasion of Iraq, and for maintaining them at the current high levels, builds on a largely faulty interpretation of events in Iraq. In addition, the myths of the Iraq "surge" have been applied to the ongoing nation-building mission in Afghanistan, even though the two countries bear few similarities. Even if the conventional explanation for the decline in violence in Iraq in the summer of 2007 were correct, replicating those conditions in Afghanistan would not necessarily translate into a similar outcome there.

Let's look at the initial plans for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. A common complaint is that the American occupation of Iraq was undermanned. Many analysts say that the United States should have sent a far larger occupation force than the 150,000 it had in Iraq when Baghdad fell. A better plan would have been two or three times that number, at a ratio of 20 security personnel per 1,000 of the population. Those figures come from a series of studies published by the RAND Corporation, which arrived at a rule-of-thumb for force ratios needed to maintain order based on a survey of past occupation efforts.3 For many analysts, the correlation between increased numbers of U.S. "boots on the ground" in Iraq—they grew from 131,500 in January 2007, when President Bush announced the troop increase, to the wartime peak of 170,300 in November 2007—and the reduction in violence reinforces those lessons.4

The apparent correlation of higher troop numbers and lower levels of violence contributed to subsequent calls for a dramatic increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan. The total number of military personnel on the ground averaged less than 25,000 in 2007, but troop levels began to climb in early 2008. By the end of President Bush's second term, more than 32,000 U.S. troops were serving in Afghanistan, and the outgoing president approved a plan to add another brigade to the fight. President Obama essentially accepted those earlier increases, and then called for dispatching another 21,000 troops in March 2009. Dissatisfied with the progress in the country, and under pressure from senior military leaders to again expand the troop presence, Obama announced in December 2009 another troop increase that would bring the total to more than 100,000 by mid-2010. The number of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan has more than tripled during the first two years of the Obama presidency.

Subsequent studies of what transpired in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 refute the notion that the additional U.S. troops were instrumental to the decline in violence there, and call into question the value of a similar increase in Afghanistan. In a study of the "surge" and Iraqi security, MIT's Jon R. Lindsay notes that the decision by tribal leaders in Anbar province to turn against al Qaeda predated the introduction of additional U.S. troops.5 In this respect, the local population's willingness to cooperate with U.S. forces enabled the troops to operate there with relative impunity, not the other way around. Leaders in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar were also worried about reprisals from the Shiite dominated government in Baghdad, and U.S. troops temporarily served as a buffer to tamp down sectarian tensions that were responsible for some of the worst violence throughout Iraq in 2006 and 2007. But the presence of U.S. troops in Anbar was intended to be a temporary measure, and was expected to pave the way for a durable political compromise. By many accounts, that compromise has collapsed; Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's regime had signaled a willingness to incorporate the nearly 100,000 Anbar Awakening and Sons of Iraq militias into Iraq's security forces, but he has since reneged on that deal.6

Another factor that was instrumental to the decline in violence in Iraq, but that has little connection to the numbers of U.S. troops, was the effective completion of a brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign that turned previously multiethnic neighborhoods into nearly homogenous Sunni or Shia enclaves. The process was particularly pronounced in Baghdad. Writes Lindsay, "It is possible that the sectarian clashes died down in 2007 precisely because they had been so violent and so effective in destroying mixed neighborhoods in 2006."7 The actual pattern of violence as correlated to U.S. troop levels appears to confirm this conclusion, as estimates of civilian casualties peaked in October 2006, three months before President Bush's announcement of the surge, and well before the additional troops actually began appearing in Iraq.8

Power versus Politics

Our experience in Iraq confirms most of what we had previously known about nation-building operations: troop levels are important, but hardly the most important factor to success or failure. The essential element is political, namely the presence of a credible local partner capable of rallying popular support, and likely to retain that support following the departure of foreign troops. Equally important is the need for a durable political compromise that convinces previously warring parties to lay down their arms and support the indigenous government. In practice, this combination of factors has proved extremely elusive.

Another problem with applying lessons from Iraq to Afghanistan—or to any other weak or failing state, for that matter—is that each case is unique. The specific combination of factors that contributed to a decline in violence in Iraq are unlikely to be easily replicated, even if the United States or other foreign powers were able to establish a comparable concentration of security personnel relative to the size of the civilian population.

That is not to argue that the post-invasion civil strife in Iraq, or the deepening quagmire in Afghanistan, is inevitable or to claim that things could not have gone better. But even the wisest American leader, armed with the best plans, would have struggled to implant a liberal political order in either of those places. There was not then and is not now a plan sufficient to solve a fundamental problem—the lack of popular support for an equitable division of power. 

In short, the experts who say that the addition of nearly 40,000 more ground troops in Baghdad saved Iraq, or who claim that a similar "surge" can turn things around in Afghanistan, confuse the power to conquer foreign countries with the power to create stable political societies. The military gives us the former power, but the latter is elusive. Even suppressing political violence is far easier, and requires far less control, than convincing people to form a government and obey its laws. In attempting to build foreign nations, the United States is unable to impose a national governing idea on them, and our liberalism, thankfully, limits our willingness to run foreign states through sheer terror. If the United States occupies a country where the national identity is intact and simply assists in security and the management of existing institutions, state-building may succeed. But success requires the cooperation of the subject population or a goodly portion of it.

The Pentagon has dedicated considerable time and effort, including new manuals and doctrines, to improve the U.S. military's counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities. These changes will probably improve U.S. performance in COIN. If the military focuses on population protection, it will be less likely to use the excessive force that causes collateral damage, which alienates people and empowers insurgencies. The Army and Marine Corps' joint COIN doctrine also pays particular attention to political institutions and political reconciliation as the key measure of success.9 But the doctrine's recognition of this problem merely points to the limits of COIN. Outside authorities often lack the power to solve the political problems that cause insurgencies, whatever their strategy.

A response to this difficulty is to flood the country with troops, protect citizens, win their allegiance, and crush the insurgency with the intelligence that is provided. A less manpower-intensive solution is to form alliances with, or aid, local strongmen who might otherwise be insurgents. We saw this approach in Iraq's Anbar province, where U.S. forces allied with Sunni tribesmen against al Qaeda-oriented militias, and we see it in Afghanistan, where Americans are trying to split tribal leaders and warlords off from the Taliban. This approach depends on having a common interest with some powerful local actors, which may not always exist or may be too shallow to last.

This is not to say that U.S. troops cannot acquire useful intelligence from foreign populations—we gather plenty every day—or that Americans can never suppress a foreign insurgency. Nor is it true that American military occupations will never be worthwhile.

If you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence, if you integrate civilians and make reconstruction operations a reward for cooperation, if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more, you might succeed. But even avoiding a few of these ifs is too much competence to expect of our political and military leaders in foreign occupations. That is why insurgencies in the last century generally lasted for decades and why the track record of democratic powers pacifying uprisings in foreign lands is abysmal.10

Americans Are Unsuited to Nation Building

Undaunted by the failures of nation building in the past, Washington today is engaged in a wholesale effort to improve on its poor nation-building track record. The changes in our national security strategy in this direction extend well beyond a substantial increase in military spending, especially that caused by the increases in the size of our ground forces. A new state-building office in the State Department has been busy drawing up plans for bringing order to various failed or unruly states.11 An array of defense experts are offering advice on counterinsurgency doctrine and insisting that the military services embrace it.12 The services say that they already have done so. The next time we intervene in a foreign nation, American leaders are saying, we will have a national security bureaucracy capable of implementing our nation-building policies; next time, in other words, we will get it right.

Notwithstanding this "whole of government" approach, however, the bulk of the work in nation building falls to the military, especially the ground forces. The character of civilian agencies, and the rules governing the deployment of civilian personnel abroad, is not conducive to long-term nation-building missions. Western civil services are not comprised of a separate class of citizens who live their lives in far-flung locales, away from family and country, indefinitely. 

Another reason Americans will struggle with nation building, even if we were to maintain our ground forces at their current levels, is that such missions require a foreign policy at odds with our national character. Whatever else changed after September 11, Americans remain ill-suited for stabilizing disorderly foreign states and achieving success in protracted foreign wars.

High incomes and a relative dearth of labor created an American military that has traditionally sought to replace labor with capital, and to avoid casualties through firepower and stand-off weapons. Our relatively isolated geography left Americans with a poor understanding of other nations. We also dislike mixing politics and war, which creates a tendency to view war as apolitical and its makers as immaculate technicians, unsullied by the politics they serve. Americans tend to see war as a substitute for diplomacy, not its occasional agent.13 We want our wars to be conclusive, the ends clear, the cause righteous, and the force decisive.

These features of the American approach to war militate against success in counterinsurgency and state-building.14 Our parochialism leaves us ignorant of the languages and cultures of populations that counterinsurgency campaigns force us to woo. Technology and firepower have little utility in such operations, which are manpower-intensive. The insistence on a rigid dichotomy between politics and war and an aversion to the limited use of force are destructive to these especially political campaigns, where force should be tightly controlled by civilians. The protracted, defensive nature of these wars muddies the public's sense of purpose.15 The pressure to use harsh tactics to obtain timely intelligence offends our moral sense.

Whatever direction it receives from current appointees, our military—with its rotation schedules, discomfort with subordination to diplomats and preference for firepower and high-technology weapons—will struggle to overcome difficulties with stability operations. Neither the State Department nor the U.S. Agency for International Development is built for nation-building success. The U.S. government's aim is to relate to foreign nations, not to run them.

This impulse reflects more lasting national interests, namely a disinclination to tell foreign peoples how to behave. That disinclination is not simply accidental but rather derives from the lessons of history that Americans have institutionalized. Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation-building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense.

Debunking the Failed-State Myth

Many leaders in Washington are aware of our cultural disinclinations to nation building, but a fear of terrorism generated renewed interest in the subject after 9/11.16 A decade later, there is bipartisan agreement that terrorists organize and train in places where government authority is limited, such as the Taliban's Afghanistan. To prevent this outcome, the conventional wisdom says that the United States needs the ability to prop up authority abroad or to resurrect it from chaos. That requires a large conventional presence (i.e., boots on the ground).

A related idea says that finding terrorists requires intelligence, which in turn requires winning hearts and minds, and therefore the United States has to find a way to win the entire Muslim world's allegiance to defeat terrorism. We must wage, in effect, a "global counterinsurgency."17 This claim does not bear scrutiny. Few failed states have provided havens for anti-American terrorists, and a number of healthy states have done so. It is not state failure, per se, that threatens.18 Even in Afghanistan during the 1990s, the supposed leading example of this phenomenon, the trouble was that the government allied with al Qaeda, not that there was no government. Counterterrorism is best accomplished by police, intelligence operatives, and special operations forces. We can hunt and capture or kill the small number of violent extremists who seek to attack Americans, but we need not establish control over foreign states in order to do so.

Some forms of conventional military power might be needed in rare cases, such as rooting out terrorist sanctuaries, which are places where leaders recruit, organize, and train terrorists. But several scholars note that physical "safe havens" are less significant than once thought, and are easily disrupted without a large ground presence.19

At the same time, large-scale foreign military operations that aim to create a functioning nation-state can undermine our counterterrorism efforts. The presence of large numbers of U.S. troops can produce resentment and resistance to our efforts, which in turn can create enemies by validating the jihadist propaganda that America is at war with Islam.20 Occupations convert local extremists—who might otherwise concern themselves with resisting their own governments—into international terrorists interested in killing Americans.

History is awash in failed states, but only a handful of states have posed a serious problem for American security.21 A few civil wars have given impetus to violent extremism, but it does not follow that the United States should join these conflicts, even in the Middle East. The principal interest the United States has in lawless states is to prevent a government from taking power that will give refuge to terrorists aiming to attack our country. The states where such concerns are valid are few. Targeted operations that have located terrorist leaders and disrupted their ability to carry out future attacks should deter governments who might be tempted to make common cause with anti-American terrorists.


Maintaining our ground forces at their current high levels—even if combined with a substantial boost in the total number of civilians that can be mobilized on short notice to weak or failing states—will not substantially improve our ability to rebuild foreign countries. Happily, U.S. national security does not hinge on our ability to do so.

It is true that our conventional military dominance has encouraged potential adversaries to fight us in unconventional ways. To the extent that our core national security interests require us to confront such foes, we should retain the ability to do so, but we should do so at a time and place of our choosing, not theirs. As a strong and wealthy country, we have the luxury of being able to fight to our strengths, leveraging our vast network of technical means and other intelligence assets to locate our enemies, and relying on precision guided munitions and, where appropriate, special operations forces, to eliminate threats long before they are able to cause serious harm to Americans.

Successful counterterrorism does not require large numbers of troops on the ground. The size and cost of American ground forces have increased substantially since 2001, but 9/11 was a wake up call that our capabilities were ill-suited to fighting terrorism, not a reason to break the bank and essentially rebuild a vast army to refight the Cold War. A related essay discusses a plan to reduce the cost of the U.S. military based on this reality.

Budgetary pressures bolster the case for reducing the size of the Army and Marine Corps. Personnel expenses are the fastest growing portion of the Pentagon's budget, rising by more than 50 percent in real terms over the past decade. Military health care costs have risen twice as fast and are, in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's words, "eating the Defense Department alive."22

Gates has expressed his frustration that Congress has stymied his department's modest efforts to bring rising personnel costs under control. But it is hardly surprising that members of Congress are unwilling to cut benefits at a time when our troops are struggling with extended and repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a recent report noted:

If the rise in personnel costs has been extraordinary, so have been the demands placed on our military personnel. It is not simply war that bears down on them, but also the way we have conducted it. Some force utilization policies have been unwise and some personnel policies have been both unwise and unfair.

If cost growth in this area is to be addressed, it must be addressed as part of a compact that relieves our military personnel of the undue burdens of routine "stop loss" orders and long, repeated war rotations.23

Policymakers should address this problem by reducing the military's missions, not increasing the number of troops to accommodate them. As Gates explained in an essay in Foreign Affairs, "the United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan or Iraq anytime soon—that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire."24 Curiously, the force structure that Gates has championed does not reflect this important insight.

For the past 15 years, we have asked much of our armed forces, especially our soldiers and Marines. They have responded impressively and honorably. But maintaining the ground forces at their current levels, on the assumption that Iraq and Afghanistan were merely the precursor to a host of similar missions, requiring tens of thousands of troops to remain in foreign countries for a decade or more, gets it backward: we need to ask less of our men and women in uniform, not commit them to dubious missions requiring many more of them than we have.

The near-term solution to our personnel problems is to bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The long-term solution is a reappraisal of our strategy for fighting terrorism and a reconsideration of the tools we use to implement it.

1 See Kenneth M. Pollack, "The Seven Deadly Sins of Failure in Iraq: A Retrospective Analysis of the Reconstruction," Middle East Review of International Affairs 10, no. 4 (December 2006). See also Nora Bensahel, "Mission Not Accomplished: What Went Wrong in Iraqi Reconstruction," Journal of Strategic Studies 29, no. 3 (June 2006): 453–73; and Andrew Rathmell, "Planning Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Iraq: What Can We Learn?" International Affairs 81, no. 5 (October 2005): 1013–38.

2 See, for example, "The QDR in Perspective: Meeting America's National Security Needs In the 21st Century," Final Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, U.S. Institute of Peace, 2010.

3 James Quinlivan, "Force Requirements in Stability Operations," Parameters (Winter 1995): 59­–69. See also James Dobbins, "Who Lost Iraq?" Foreign Affairs 86, no. 5 (September-October 2007): 31–74.

4 Troop statistics from Joint Staff, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Summary Table, "Boots on the Ground," September 2001-November 2008. Iraqi civilian casualty figures showed a steep decline from 3,500 in January 2007 to 600 in January 2008. See Michael O'Hanlon and Jason H. Campbell, "Iraq Index," Brookings Institution, www.brookings.edu/saban/iraq-index.aspx.

5 Jon R. Lindsay, "Does the 'Surge' Explain Iraq's Improved Security?" MIT Audit of Conventional Wisdom, 08-13, September 2008, http://mit.edu/CIS/pdf/Audit_09_08_lindsay.pdf. Austin Long notes that the U.S. military's reliance on the existing tribal structure in Anbar cut against the stated U.S. goal of building a modern, central state in Iraq. See "The Anbar Awakening," Survival 50, no. 2 (April-May 2008): 67-94.

6 Adam Silverman, "Iraq: We Went Wrong after the Surge When We Let Maliki Stonewall Us," ForeignPolicy.com, October 21, 2010.

7 Jon R. Lindsay, "Does the 'Surge' Explain Iraq's Improved Security," MIT Audit of Conventional Wisdom, 08-13, September 2008, http://mit.edu/CIS/pdf/Audit_09_08_lindsay.pdf.

8 Michael O'Hanlon and Jason H. Campbell, "Iraq Index," Brookings Institution, www.brookings.edu/saban/iraq-index.aspx.

9 U.S. Army and Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007).

10 Gil Merom, How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). See also Jeffrey Record, Beating Goliath: Why Insurgencies Win (Washington: Potomac Books, 2007).

11 Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stability, Department of State, www.state.gov/s/crs. See also Stephen D. Krasner and Carlos Pascual, "Addressing State Failure," Foreign Affairs 84, no. 4 (July-August 2005): 153–55.

12 For a review of this literature, see Colin H. Kahl, "COIN of the Realm," Foreign Affairs (November-December 2007): 169–76.

13 A similar argument is made in Jeffrey Record, "The American Way of War: Cultural Barriers to Successful Counter-Insurgency," Cato Policy Analysis no. 577, September 1, 2006.

14  Jeffrey Record, "The American Way of War: Cultural Barriers to Successful Counter-Insurgency," Cato Policy Analysis no. 577, September 1, 2006.

15 As the Army–Marine Corps COIN field manual notes, waging effective counterinsurgency requires a long-term commitment: "Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources." See Department of the Army, "Counterinsurgents Should Prepare for a Long-Term Commitment, 1-134," in Counterinsurgency FM 3-24 (December 2006).

16 See Gary T. Dempsey, "Old Folly in a New Disguise: Nation-Building to Combat Terrorism," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 429, March 21, 2002.

17 See David J. Kilcullen, "New Paradigms for 21st-Century Conflict," eJournal USA 12, no. 5 (May 2007): 39–45.

18 Justin Logan and Christopher Preble, "Failed States and Flawed Logic: The Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 560, January 11, 2006.

19 See, for example, Paul R. Pillar, "Who's Afraid of a Terrorist Haven?" Washington Post, September 16, 2009; and John Mueller, "The 'Safe Haven' Myth," The Nation, November 9, 2009.

20 The best source is Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2006).

21  Justin Logan and Christopher Preble, "Failed States and Flawed Logic: The Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 560, January 11, 2006.

22 Robert M. Gates, remarks delivered at the Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas, May 8, 2010.

23 Debts, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward, Report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, June 1, 2010, p. ix.

24 Robert M. Gates, "Helping Others Defend Themselves," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010.


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