IN THE NEWS
The Roman army consisted of three types of troops: legionaries, strictly "Roman" units, the core of the legion; the auxiliaries, drawn from conquered or allied people, often performing the duties as cavalry or archers at which the Romans were less adroit; and mercenaries, occasionally hired to fill a temporary manpower shortage on campaign, or to handle a highly specialized task. This system worked very well, as centuries of Roman conquests can attest.
Why am I talking about the Roman army under the banner, "IN THE NEWS"? Because the United States now has a military that is moving toward the Roman model.
I don't think many Americans see or understand this transformation. Daily evidence—"contractors" killed in Fallujah, the use of hastily-trained Afghan troops to encircle the Tora Bora stronghold in Afghanistan—don't fit into any larger picture. Not every service is moving in this direction, but the Army certainly is. Meanwhile, the average American is convinced that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being fought by American soldiers, when in reality many traditional military functions are now in the hands of the modern equivalents of auxiliaries and mercenaries.
The Bush Administration did not start these trends. Many functions in the Pentagon had already shifted to private enterprise in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, when civilian parts of the government, such as the CIA's Directory of Operations or the State Department, have needed "security services" or just a few hired guns, they've often hired private parties for these jobs.
However, the Bush Administration has accelerated this trend, and pushed it far beyond what other Administrations might have found acceptable. Some stories are not well known. Most Americans would be surprised to hear that the people who guided remotely-piloted vehicles in Afghanistan, or who flew a helicopter that rescued American troops from a rooftop firefight in Iraq, were private contractors—in other words, mercenaries. Since this part of the Bush Administration's aggressive military transformation is new, kept quiet, and a bit hard to justify, even when direct evidence of it stares us in the face, it's often hard to bring it into focus.
But the evidence is there. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted on making both the Afghanistan and Iraq operations a laboratory for his updated version of the Roman model of warfare. Rejecting the advice of the uniformed members of the Defense Department, he insisted on a smaller force in both cases. Where the heads of the services saw a need for strategic depth and reserve forces, Rumsfeld saw bureaucratic inertia and outmoded thinking. He accused the military of being "the belt and suspenders crowd," over-preparing for every contingency. A small, mobile, technologically superior core, the modern legionaries, would form only part of the fighting force in both invasions.
Rumsfeld's minimalist approach to theater and operational strategy depended on recruiting private firms and local forces to fulfill many critical military tasks. The private industry part of the story remained largely invisible until two events hit the headlines: (1) the deaths of the "contractors" in Fallujah; and (2) the revelation that the employees of CACI and Titan were working as translators and interrogators at Abu Ghraib. Lost in the hubbub about both events was an obvious question: why are private firms patrolling Fallujah, or handling critical parts of counterterrorism? To sharpen the focus a bit, you might ask the following: If the Navy has a world-class language school in Monterey, California, to train people how to speak Arabic, Farsi, and other languages, why are we hiring private companies to handle translation duties?
Privatization is not without its benefits, since it can improve efficiency and lower costs in some areas, in some types of public organizations. However, as the Abu Ghraib scandal and the recent conviction of three American mercenaries in Afghanistan show, privatization also blurs the lines of accountability and authority. The cost savings may also be a lot less than you might expect. When the government underfunds the people who monitor private firms, or the procurement and accounting rules are poorly crafted, the taxpayer may wind up paying more for their services than government employees might have cost. The most famous example of cost inflation, of course, is the ongoing controversy about Halliburton's "cost plus" contracts in Iraq. There are other stories to be told, however, including the real costs paid for the mercenaries hired as bodyguards, quasi-police (for example, the employees of DynCorp who assisted in the raid on Ahmed Chalabi's home), and other "security service" personnel.
The pressure to privatize, of course, increases if you wage wars without having a draft. Once you've committed the Guard and the Reserves, and you still need warm bodies for some jobs, what do you do? Find someone else to do the job. In other words, the Rumsfeldian approach ensures that, if the United States is going to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal government will either (1) maintain, and perhaps expand, its dependence on mercenaries, or (2) revive the draft. Legionaries or mercenaries? The government--and by extension, the American public--has to decide.
Since the Bush Administration has failed to convince many allies to stay in Iraq, let alone expand their support, the only other source of help are the local forces whom we can help fund, equip, and train--the auxiliaries. So far, these efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have met with little success. The repeated suicide bombings of police recruits is certainly going to discourage other Iraqis from enlisting in the police and army. (Here's a question for the presidential debates: Why do these attacks keep succeeding?) The Fallujah Brigade failed to hold together. In many cases, American-trained Iraqi military units have retreated, or worse, joined the insurgents.
The worst failures, however, are the least visible ones, foremost of which is the Afghan national army—or, more to the point, the lack thereof. When the Taliban retreated, traditional Afghan warlordism swiftly filled the vacuum. President Karzai is eloquent on defeating the central problem of warlordism in Afghanistan, but so far, he has made little progress. Tragically, Warlordism is responsible for replacing the Taliban problem with new ones: skyrocketing opium production; the continued survival of the Taliban, who has been able to win the temporary tolerance or assistance of some warlord factions; the siphoning of wealth and political legitimacy away from the central government to the warlords; the re-imposition of Islamist laws and taboos in some provinces, including many restrictions on women; the continued opportunity for the pro-Taliban elements in the Pakistani Army and intelligence services to meddle in Afghanistan; the deepening sense of despair throughout country.
In the development of many societies, armies have made the nation, not the other way around. For those who serve in that army, the shared experiences, visibility into the connection between parochial and national interests, and habits of cooperation across traditional boundaries \foster a growing sense of national identity. Clearly, this process is not working in Afghanistan at all.
Looking at the Afghan local forces in the most self-serving way possible--how well do they fight alongside American troops?--the Afghan experience has been a failure so far. If you want to get angry enough to start knocking over furniture, read the section about the siege of Tora Bora in Seymour Hersh's new book. Operation ANACONDA, the encirclement of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in their mountain stronghold, had many problems. The Marines insisted on fighting with their "organic" artillery and air support, instead of relying on other American services or the Afghan troops for these jobs. (Hersh misses the important of these organic capabilities in the Marine expeditionary units: for example, when you suddenly find yourself pinned down and in need of rescue, you'd rather depend on the helicopter gunships and transports with whom you've trained than someone from another service, or even a different Marine unit, whom you've never even met.) The Marine commanders were right to insist on this point, and perhaps as a bit of a bluff, they asked General Tommy Franks to draft a memorandum of understanding (MOU) approving the Marines' position that they should either fight as they wanted, or largely sit out the battle (which they did). Surprisingly, Franks agreed. Meanwhile, The Air Force—the service responsible for replacing the Marines' air support with their own—its own complaints, primarily about being cut out of the planning for ANACONDA. Adding further to the confusion, some special operations commanders were bypassing Franks and his subordinate, General Frank Hagenbeck, to go straight to the Pentagon and the White House with their opinions on how the battle should be fought.
In other words, the legionaries themselves were unsure how to fight. In that case, even if the Afghan auxiliaries had been fully prepared to play their designated role, the overall operational strategy wasn't working. Even if the Afghan troops had been elite fighters, like the Gurkhas, at best they could only have improvised their way through their part of the battle. They were only have been one moving part in the larger military machine, and the rest of that machine wasn't working. Unfortunately, the Afghan troops were not elite—instead, they were too green for the kind of tough fighting needed to dig out the Taliban and al Qaeda from the Tora Bora caves.
The most frustrating part of the Tora Bora story, however, comes at the end. Franks and Hagenbeck, at the direction of civilians in the Pentagon, made the Afghan forces responsible for the encirclement of the mountain. American troops might assault the cave complexes, but the Afghans would keep any fleeing enemies from escaping. Given the inexperience of the Afghan troops, the shock of the first engagements (the Taliban and al Qaeda fought much harder and more effectively than expected), and the difficulties of spotting troops moving in rough terrain (and often at night), many enemy fighters escaped. Residents of local villages later reported large Taliban units moving through their towns on the way to refuges in Pakistan.
Perhaps Rumsfeld and his supporters are right: the United States has to build a "new model army" consisting of legionaries, auxiliaries, and mercenaries. (The jury is definitely still out on that question.) However, like so many other Bush Administration decisions, this grand experiment was hastily planned, with unclear objectives, then sloppily executed, with too few resources to carry out the strategy as designed, and no contingency plan if the strategy didn't work.
And, in typical Bushesque fashion, the Administration has been anything but frank about this policy. Somewhere in an alternate universe, the man in the White House is addressing the nation: "My fellow Americans, during my Administration, the United States twice committed enough of its armed forces to swiftly, bravely, and effectively overthrow a despotic regime that was our enemy. In one case, the threat had already terribly, tragically hurt us. In the other case, the danger had not yet bitten us, but the White House and Congress decided it was not wise to wait. In both cases, we did not, however, commit enough troops to win the peace. We shattered two societies, then lacked the strength to help put them back again. Here is my plan to ensure that this never happens again…"
That plan might move us further forward into the past, making another great power army on the Roman model. However, before making any decisions, Americans have to be brutally honest about the American way of war:
- We pride ourselves on having an army of citizen soldiers. If we decide to leave that vision behind, it's necessary to have a frank discussion of that question before making the decision. What we cannot afford is to toss a pretty blanket of nostalgia over an ugly reality we don't want to look at. (By the way, the otherwise unsentimental Romans pretended they were still a nation of small farmers who took up arms when needed, when long ago power shifted to the cities, and the army depended on a lot more than its citizen soldiers.)
- Part of the sentimentality we are already displaying about our armed forces focuses on the legionaries, but ignores the auxiliaries and mercenaries, some of whom are Americans, and some of whom are not. When we talk about "our" war dead, we should include the rest of the legion. Not only will be honoring people who are now being forgotten, but we will also be far more clearheaded about how we're actually fighting our wars.
- Americans fight wars well when we prepare for them, and we generally do a poor job of muddling through them. Our outstanding successes in the 20th century—D-Day and Operation DESERT STORM—were also the most carefully planned and thoroughly tested strategies we have executed. Stephen Ambrose's book on D-Day is half about the preparations before the battle, and half about the battle itself. The preparations weren't mere prologue: they were as important for cracking Fortress Europa what happened when the ramps dropped at Omaha Beach. Today, in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are muddling through too much, with too few people, too little equipment, and too little planning and debate, for this kind of experiment, with no margin for error.
Perhaps all great powers reach this point where the army needs to depend on auxiliaries sepoys, call them what you will. If so, it's time to start discussing it. If not, and we want to remain a nation of citizen soldiers, it's time to start reversing some trends.