Five ways 9/11 has transformed the US military

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, fundamentally transformed the way the United States military wages war. With the invasion of Afghanistan and, months later, Iraq on the heels of 9/11, the wars have caused the Pentagon to rethink the way it fights, how it spends money in times of crisis, and what it values in both its highest and lowest-ranking commanders. The Monitor asked experts to weigh in on the Top 5 ways in which 9/11 has changed the US military.

1. How the US military fights on the ground

Erik de Castro/REUTERS
A girl stands next to a US soldier from Task Force Bronco, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry on a patrol in Rodat district in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Sept. 5.

Early in the Iraq war, there was resistance to the idea that US forces in Baghdad were fighting a fierce and robust insurgency.

“I can remember the national intelligence officer for military affairs saying, ‘The boss isn’t going to like to hear this,’ ” says Wayne White, former deputy director of the US State Department’s Middle East Intelligence Office, recalling an early meeting with US military and foreign-affairs officials.

The assumption up until that point, he adds, was that the military was simply fighting the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, “Baathist dead-enders.”

Since then, however, the Pentagon has had to embrace counterinsurgency warfare: the idea that, in order to win any war, US forces cannot simply kill their way to victory – they must rather win hearts and minds of the local population.

There are two considerable minuses in this approach to war, however. It is expensive, and these sorts of wars tend to last a long time, experts point out. There are also opportunity costs, notes Mr. White, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute.

“The more you grind away at, say, a war in Afghanistan with a huge portion of your conventional forces, the less those units are capable of fighting, say, a major conventional war in the Korean peninsula.”

One of the largest questions facing the Pentagon and America’s political leaders is the extent to which the US will be willing to wage counterinsurgency warfare in the future. The battle in Libya seems to offer a new model for the Pentagon, given the current political climate. It portends a lower level of US involvement, with America letting its allies lead the operation, while it contributes the sort of special technology – think radar-jamming aircraft – that other forces don’t have.

“Despite the cry over the US involvement in Libya, it was an incredibly cheap deal,” White says, with no casualties and “zero strain on our medical system.”

Along these lines, the Pentagon will begin preparing for “much more than peacekeeping, but significantly less than nation-building” in the future, predicts Nate Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“This will involve conflict where [US troops] are fighting to reestablish order in a state that’s important to the US but for some reason has come undone,” he says, adding that in such cases US forces will likely be asked “to pursue much more circumspect objectives with much more limited outcomes.”

Indeed, the most crucial shift in the way the US will conduct wars in the future involves the hubris of leaders who send US soldiers into harm’s way, White says.

“When you really come down to it, this is a political matter. It’s the idea that we’re not going to go into a country and fix it. We’re going to be much more level-headed in assessing threats in the future,” he adds. “The idea that we can remake countries – that kind of political hubris has considerably diminished because of the stinging price we’ve paid.”

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