With little fanfare during the past few weeks, the Pentagon has rolled out one of the most significant changes to military doctrine since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The policy directive recently signed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declares that the job of planning and training to win the peace after a war is now virtually as important to the military as the conflict itself.
The document marks a sea change from the ideals of the past, when the military was loath to take on any responsibility beyond waging and winning wars. Indeed, it suggests that the Pentagon increasingly sees Iraq and Afghanistan as templates for wars of the future, with success hinging not only on military superiority, but also on the ability to reconstruct failed states.
In some respects, it is the closest that military leaders have come to acknowledging that such comprehensive planning was absent from the Iraq enterprise. Yet experts warn that the solution is profound - and problematic - in its implications. By essentially asking the Army in particular to temper its deeply ingrained warrior ethos with a new and more nuanced set of responsibilities, it places yet more expectations on a service already stretched thin and perhaps not designed for the task.
"War is not just about major combat anymore, it's about stability," says Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. "The challenge will be taking a conventional Army that has so far not shown itself capable of doing these sorts of stability operations and retraining them."
Both inside and outside the Pentagon, there is a mounting sense that this must be done - and on many levels. In fact, the Pentagon's directive is just one part of the administration's emerging strategy for dealing with what happens after the military phase of a war is won. On a parallel path, President Bush announced a separate plan Wednesday to put Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in charge of an effort to identify corrupt states and coordinate future postwar stability operations with the Pentagon.
"The [Pentagon] directive will help ensure that the Department of Defense develops the capabilities required to meet future stability operations challenges as part of an integrated US government effort," says Jeffrey Nadaner, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for stability operations, by e-mail.
In the constellation of threats against the United States, many potential flash points involve either countries that could crumble during a conflict - such as North Korea - or others that could have to be dismembered to ensure a friendlier regime - such as Syria or Iran.
In any of these cases, the military operations would be perhaps the more straightforward aspect of a war. As in Iraq, the greatest work could come in building a government from scratch, ensuring civilians' access to water and power, stamping out insurgents, and so on. It is this new reality that the Pentagon is facing in its directive.
"Many stability operations tasks are best performed by indigenous, foreign, or US civilian professionals," the document states. "Nonetheless, U.S. military forces shall be prepared to perform all tasks necessary to establish or maintain order when civilians cannot do so."
Such thinking is a direct consequence of the Iraq experience. The scale of the task in Iraq suggests that the new directive particularly affects the Army, which is the service left to do the occupying.
Clearly, the Army is already making use of one of Iraq's primary lessons. "It has to do with being able to provide immediate help to the people after the engagement is over," said Gen. William "Scott" Wallace, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, in a briefing this week. "It's the nonlethal aspects of our business that I think we're gaining a much greater and deeper appreciation for."
The Pentagon has so far rejected the idea of special stability-operation units in favor of plans for a more general indoctrination of all troops. And that should not interfere with the military's dominance on the battlefield, writes Mr. Nadaner: "The effort to improve the balance between stability and combat operations should not undermine the warrior ethos, which is the foundation of armed forces."
But especially at a time when the Army is accepting more recruits who make substandard scores on aptitude tests, some analysts wonder whether the new approach asks too much. "There is a point beyond which it isn't practical to expect so many different things from the same group of people," says Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute in Arlington.
Already, the Army has been asked to become more flexible, more agile, and more intelligent to make up for the decreased size of the force since the end of the cold war. The new directive could call on it to fundamentally change its culture and training: Each new hour of stability-operations training could mean an hour of combat training lost. No longer are they simply machines of war, grinding toward some military objective. Now, they are to be intermittent instruments of peace, as well.
The problem, suggests Dr. Thompson, is that "people who are good killers tend not to be good mediators."
To his mind, the directive is an unlikely cause, more show than substance. The lesson of Iraq, he says, is to avoid wars like Iraq. Yet as US foreign policy focuses more intently on regions of the world fretted by autocratic regimes and lawlessness, there is a sense among many military officials that some sort of stabilization force is necessary. The test of their resolve will come as the Pentagon attempts to overcome institutional inertia and move its ideas into the realm of on-the-ground reality.
"The easier part was rewriting the doctrine," says Dr. Jones. "The difficult part of this will be actually doing it."