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Gates on Low-Intensity Warfare

As the Iraq War has gone on and on, serious doubts have been raised within the military about whether we are becoming overly focused on low-intensity warfare. Many officers fret that skills at conventional warfighting are deteriorating, and this is cited by some as cause to pull more forces out of Iraq faster. Defense Secretary Bob Gates offered a trenchant rebuttal to those critics in a speech today at a Heritage Foundation event in Colorado.

He rightly warned against “a tendency towards what might be called “Next-War-itis–the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.” While the military has to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios, he noted that “it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms–ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank–for some time to come.”

On the other hand, the threat from unconventional forces of the kind we’re facing in Afghanistan and Iraq is real, and it’s not going away. “The implication, particularly for America’s ground forces,” he continued, “means we must institutionalize the lessons learned and capabilities honed from the ongoing conflicts….What we must guard against is the kind of backsliding that has occurred in the past, where if nature takes it course, these kinds of capabilities –that is counter-insurgency–tend to wither on the vine.”

He closed with a powerful point that military critics of the war effort need to come to terms with: “The risk of overextending the Army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater–to that institution, as well as to our country–if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win.”

One might think that what the defense secretary is saying is simply common sense–except that it runs counter to the view of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who was very much in thrall to “Next War-itis.” On this matter, as on so many others, Gates has been a welcome and refreshing change.