With little fanfare, the Defense Department has announced a revolution in military strategy–a transformation in global outlook and combat tactics whose only true precedent is the equally momentous turnaround engineered by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the Kennedy administration. Then, as now, an incoming administration inherited a strategy heavily weighted toward high-intensity warfare among well-equipped adversaries, mostly in Europe and Asia; now, as then, the response has been to redirect the Pentagon’s attention toward low-intensity combat on the fringes of the developing world. The result back then was Vietnam; today it is Afghanistan and an unknown number of "future Afghanistans."
When Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, the Defense Department was governed by a military "posture" that emphasized nuclear war and massive tank battles on the plains of Europe. Sensing that the main theater of competition between the superpowers had shifted to proxy warfare in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Kennedy ordered McNamara to undertake a massive enhancement of US capabilities for what were then called "brush-fire wars" in the Third World. The president also authorized a vast expansion of the Special Forces–then a small and obscure Army unit intended for partisan operations behind Soviet lines in Eastern Europe–and gave them responsibility for promoting the newly fashionable concept of counterinsurgency.
"Subversive insurgency is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins–war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration instead of aggression," Kennedy said at West Point in 1962. "It requires in those situations where we must counter it…a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of training."
Kennedy’s fierce patronage of counterinsurgency doctrine led to expanded US involvement in Southeast Asia and ultimately to the unmitigated disaster of Vietnam. In the wake of the war there, the US military largely abandoned its interest in counterinsurgency, fearing the specter of Che Guevara’s 1967 call for "two, three, many Vietnams." Instead, it chose to focus on a renewed cold war in Europe and later, under the first President Bush, conventional combat against "rogue" states like Iran, Iraq and North Korea–basically recycling tactics developed for combat against Soviet forces. Although promising to modernize this posture after 9/11, the second President Bush merely grafted his "global war on terror" onto the rogue-state approach, choosing to invade Iraq rather than invent a new strategy aimed at radical Islamist insurgencies.
Now we have President Obama and his domineering Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, both of whom have criticized the Pentagon’s emphasis on conventional combat at the expense of low-intensity warfare. Iraq, Obama has said, was the "wrong" war, a distraction from the more urgent task of defeating Al Qaeda and its network of allies, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. To rectify this strategic bungling, as he sees it, Obama has been redeploying combat resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. But this is just the beginning of his grand vision: Obama seeks to fashion a new military posture that shifts the emphasis from conventional combat to brush-fire wars and counterinsurgency.
"The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan," Obama declared at West Point on December 1. "Unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the twentieth century, our effort will involve disorderly regions, failed states, diffuse enemies." To prevail in these contests, "we’ll have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where Al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold–whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere–they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships."