Five years of war in Iraq have emphasized how US forces need to be adept at fighting so-called irregular warfare: One moment, troops are conducting full-combat operations, while the next, they're handing out candy and soccer balls.
But as the fight in Iraq – and in Afghanistan and elsewhere – drives fundamental changes to the military, it is also forcing a debate on how far those changes should go, especially as the Pentagon looks ahead to potential future conflicts.
At the center of this debate is a proposal to create a permanent force of 20,000 new "combat advisors." Such a force would position the Army to better train indigenous forces to take on counterinsurgencies for themselves. The idea behind it is that today's wars are not fought with tanks and bombers so much as with hearts and minds, and many officers believe the Army needs to train a generation of soldiers as "warrior diplomats."
In fact, the reluctance to view Iraq as an insurgency and the institutional inability, initially, to deploy forces to fight an insurgency contributed to the current situation in Iraq, many officers say.
But the question becomes: How many eggs should the military put in this counterinsurgency basket?
Officials in the Bush administration have long argued that success in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when Iraqi security forces or the Afghan national Army or police can take responsibility for their own country's security. The proposal for a permanent adviser corps comes from noted counterinsurgency experts including Lt. Col. John Nagl, who says it bolsters US efforts to train such advisers – not only for current conflicts, but for other insurgencies the United States is very likely to confront.
"The need for well-trained, professional combat advisors is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future," Colonel Nagl writes in an essay published by the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.
Yet building an adviser corps essentially thumbs its nose at the notion that the US will engage in fighting a conventional army like China's, which raises hackles across the military establishment. It also focuses on the forces of the Army and Marine Corps far more so than those of the Navy or Air Force, which some officers believe are still structured to fight more conventional threats.
However, even those who believe the US will continue to fight insurgencies take issue with establishing a permanent adviser corps. They argue that such efforts essentially prepare the military to fight the most recent war it fought.
"We are right now in danger of overlearning some of our lessons and already we're preparing to fight our last war," says Roger Carstens, who recently retired as a lieutenant colonel with a career in Army Special Forces.
Some are voicing concerns that the military should be prepared for a "full spectrum" of operations. Creating a force essentially dedicated to training foreign militaries swings the pendulum too far to one side, they say.
Instead, the focus should be on instilling multiple capabilities within the small, tactical units, say critics. They caution against dedicating a special force of soldier-advisers to a specific cause, which they say essentially creates "two armies."
"The best hedge against strategic risk is to have multidimensional, multifaceted small units and individuals," says Robert Scales Jr., a retired two-star general who at one point led the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. "Squads and platoons: That's the building block that will defeat radical Islamicists over the long term."
Senior Army officials, including Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, have not signed on to the idea of an adviser corps, opting instead to create new brigade combat teams capable of more conventional warfare. Still, they've begun making changes: The Army recently released a new field manual that puts "stability operations" on par with conventional military operations – a nod to those who believe the US will primarily be engaged in fighting insurgencies, not big land armies.
"For a lot of my career, the pattern of the enemy was quite obvious," Army Maj. Gen. David Fastabend, a chief strategist for the Army, told a group of Pentagon reporters recently. He calls the new manual "revolutionary" even if the concepts are well established. "Now in an irregular conflict, you don't have that pattern so much," he says.
The new field manual was last revamped just prior to September 2001.
But the Army is not yet ready to embrace the idea of building the 20,000-strong Army corps that officers like Nagl are advocating, General Fastabend says.
"It's still a matter of discussion," he says, noting that it is unclear how long the Army would need that kind of capability. "One of the challenges of working in irregular warfare environment is, it's not regular, and the ability to forecast is difficult."