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Teaching Soldiers

It seems fairly certain that the Army will expand over the next few years. The only question is by how much. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to increase it from 510,000 soldiers to 547,000. Many of the presidential candidates, both Republican and Democratic, are calling for even bigger increases. Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute argues persuasively in the Weekly Standard that we should aim for a force of 750,000, which would represent a return to the level at the end of the cold war.

These calls for expansion are necessary. But an important secondary issue, and one not discussed publicly as much as it should be, is what to do with all these extra troops. Donnelly lays out a wide variety of missions that the U.S. armed forces need to carry out around the world. Unfortunately, as we are learning in Afghanistan and Iraq, today’s military is still not well-prepared for the challenges of a post-9/11 world. But now one of the Army’s most innovative thinkers, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, has come forward with a simple but brilliant idea for one step that his service should take to reshape itself: create a standing Advisor Corps of 20,000 soldiers for the training of foreign military services.

Nagl’s views deserve to be taken very seriously. Not only is he a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, he is a contributor to the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the author of an influential study of counterinsurgency, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Nagl also commands a battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, that trains teams to educate and advise security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though the Army has made advances in how it sets up such training teams, Nagl points out that the soldiers who “train the trainers” don’t, for the most part, have much real-world experience in training foreign militaries. Nagl’s proposed Advisor Corps is a remedy to this problem. “This corps,” he writes, “would develop doctrine and oversee the training and deployment of 750 advisory teams of 25 soldiers each.” Soldiers would rotate through assignments in this Corps just as they currently rotate through the 10th Mountain Division or the 101st Airborne Division. In an ideal world, their advisory service would count as much as service in a “line” unit when it comes to promotion.

Creating such a Corps would enable us to make the kind of long-term commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq necessary to achieve a modicum of stability and democracy. As things stand now, the Army is straining to produce a few thousand embedded advisors—far too few for the challenges ahead.

Adopting Nagl’s idea would make more sense than simply creating more infantry or armor brigades focused on “kinetic” action. We need those too, of course. But we also need different kinds of competencies within our armed forces—and the government at large—if we are to prevail in the long war we now face.


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