Semper fi

Antoine Huss, a master’s student at SAIS, offers this account of Marine Commandant General James F. Amos on “Military Positioning in a Time of Transition,” an event at Carnegie yesterday  (video above):

The Carnegie Endowment hosted General James F. Amos, 35th commandant of the US Marine Corps and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss America’s future security challenges and how the US and its military might best prioritize its missions and capacities.

Moderated by Sarah Chayes, the event focused on evolving threats in the post-2014 environment and America’s “forward presence” – notably the renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region due to its strategic and economic importance – and the abrupt transition facing the US military as counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close. General Amos also addressed a number of operational issues pertaining specifically to the Marine Corps, including its mandate to provide security reinforcement for diplomatic missions abroad, US bases in Japan, and the “reawakening” program to address recent high-profile misconduct cases that brought dishonor to the Marines.

General Amos provided a few key takeaways. Paraphrasing President Reagan in today’s context, he argued that the US is at a “strategic and flexion point,” as it concludes the longest ever war in its history and faces changing global threats, from competition for natural resources, increased prevalence of natural disasters, to social unrest, economic crises, terrorism and cybercrime. He rejected the idea of retreating to “Fortress America” and establishing a “virtual presence.”

Arguing that there will be no peace dividend from the Afghanistan conflict and that the US cannot turn its back on the world’s problems, Amos advocated a national dialogue to define the future of the military, balancing engagement globally with budget cuts and new policy preferences.  The US needs to prioritize its missions along strategic interests, “do better with less,” including strengthening strategic partnerships with allies (as with France in Mali), forging new ties in emerging regions (particularly with China on military cooperation), and engaging with governments of fragile states open to US assistance (such as South Sudan).

A question from a journalist unsuccessfully tried to delve into details of a conversation between members of the Joint Chiefs and Moises Naim, author of a recent book entitled The End of Power.  Naim draws controversial conclusions about the shifting balance of power from states to non-state actors and institutions to networks, arguing that the ability of elites to influence and shape the world has dissipated. New technologies and novel social groupings allow inventors, activists, terrorists, and other people to exercise more influence.

On Afghanistan, Amos said the US exceeded its military expectations, arguing that “conditions have been set for the greatest opportunities and for the people to succeed.” He warned against a sudden pullout, in light of the Iraq experience demonstrated and the region’s geostrategic significance. The US and NATO face critical decisions regarding their long-term presence and commitments, particularly with the signature of the Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghan governments at a standstill and upcoming elections unpredictable.

Amos discussed a few lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Despite the military’s planning and training capabilities, “things on the ground are never as easy as you’d think.”  Officers should be cautious about the tendency for excessive optimism. Afghanistan proved particularly challenging as a war “among the people” (otherwise known as population-centric counterinsurgency), a new operational environment that US forces were not fully prepared for but which Amos expects will be the main form of engagement in the future. He recognized that initial efforts were not sufficient, in terms of “boots on the ground,”equipment, and civilian programs supporting stabilization efforts, particularly rule of law and governance.  He recognized these as critical for achieving mission objectives – albeit at times impossible to implement because of non-permissive or kinetic environments.

Touching on the need for greater collaboration between military and civilian agencies, Amos did not offer convincing recommendations for future whole-of-government engagement in conflict and post-conflict operations. He did not substantially address questions about civ-mil interaction, both at tactical level and regarding high-level policy thinking involved in defining the “civilian dimension” of engagement. He briefly discussed the issue of “contractors” in theaters of operations and expressed a balanced opinion about their merits and demerits, recognizing that civilian contractors bring critical capabilities that can ease pressure for troops in certain areas (i.e. emergency relief).  But he also highlighted the importance of  issues of responsibility and the “laws of war” as it relates to security contractors.

Marine Corps Strategic Vision 2025 serves as a blueprint for the US Marines over the next decade, grounded in its legislated role as the Nation’s “force in readiness.”


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