Generals Speak Out

Timothy B. Clark

Emphasizing combat instead of nation-building has some concerned.

Stewardship of the ground wars that America fights in Iraq and Afghanistan has passed to new generals in the past few months with Senate confirmation of Gen. James T. Conway as commandant of the Marine Corps, and of Gen. George W. Casey Jr. as Army chief of staff. I was privileged to interview Conway on Feb. 8, completing a series with the armed service chiefs that began last May with Chief of Naval Operations Michael G. Mullen and continued in August with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker.

Like other senior commanders, Conway is worried that the military isn't equipped to achieve the nation-building tasks needed to rebuild failed states.

He recalled that in 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, his marines were ordered to take control of the nine Iraqi provinces in the South and to link up with U.S. government personnel "who would assist us in all of the things that go [into] reconstruction of a nation." But, he said, only one or two U.S. civilian officials were there, "and so very quickly, my battalion commanders started doing those things that had to be done. They became part of the city council. They were hiring and firing mayors and police chiefs. They were the agriculture engineer for the date palm groves. They were whatever the local area needed. . . . They weren't experts and they had not been trained for it, but they did an incredible job given the circumstance."

Many military leaders say the United States cannot succeed in the region without much more work to rebuild economies and key institutions of civil society. Yet the State Department cannot require staff to deploy to dangerous places, and the other major agencies of government are even less equipped to help. Thus, Conway calls for a Goldwater-Nichols-style law that would encourage other agencies to help the military. The Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, named for Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., and Rep. William Flynt Nichols, D-Ala., reorganized the military so that the services would work together more effectively.

In planning for a new Africa Command, Conway said, "There is much less place there for military and kinetic operations than there is for humanitarian assistance, education, and bringing these countries along for a better quality of life that, in turn, will encourage them to counter extremists."

These themes are found in the reporting of Government Executive's military correspondent, Greg Grant, who joined our staff last year.

Grant spent months embedded with the military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division when it took the Baghdad airport by brute force, and again when it returned later to fight a shadowy insurgency that tanks could not mow down. He observed firsthand the problems our government has in staffing Provincial Reconstruction Teams supposed to be at the heart of nation-building, and he wrote about them in our December issue. This month, in a sober assessment of Afghanistan's prospects, he writes that the United States risks "losing the strategic battle because of its pursuit of a counterterror strategy that emphasizes killing and capturing Taliban, instead of a counterinsurgency strategy that places more emphasis on reconstruction."

Tim Signature
Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.