18 May 2016

Long Emphasis on Terror May Hurt U.S. in Conventional War, Army Chief Says

MAY 15, 2016

Members of Chad’s army trained with American Special Forces last year. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times 

ARUSHA, Tanzania — When Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army chief of staff, stepped off his jet into the sunshine here on Sunday, it was the first time the Obama administration had sent its top Army officer to Africa for a high-level meeting to get the continent’s fledgling militaries in shape to deal with growing terrorist threats.

As General Milley plunged into three days of talks with senior military officials from 38 African countries, the biggest question facing him was not how the United States would work with those militaries to contain the threats. Among them are four militant groups that American officials say are capable of carrying out attacks in Europe as well as across Africa: the Islamic State affiliate in Libya, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Qaeda in northwestern Africa and the Shabab in Somalia.

Instead, the question was whether the new focus on the ever-widening terrorist threat in Africa — not to mention the focus on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the continuing war in Afghanistan — is taking away from the Army’s ability to fight a land war against a more traditional military adversary.

After 15 years of conflict, the Army knows how to fight terrorist groups and how to train its partners to do so, as well. But that is both a blessing and a curse.

“Today, a major in the Army knows nothing but fighting terrorists and guerrillas, because he came into the Army after 9/11,” General Milley said in an interview during his flight to Arusha. “But as we get into the higher-end threats, our skills have atrophied over 15 years.

A result, General Milley said, has been a loss of what he calls muscle memory: how to fight a large land war, including one where an established adversary is able to bring sophisticated air defenses, tanks, infantry, naval power and even cyberweapons into battle.

With the declared end of major combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army was supposed to return to barracks after more than a decade of war, resume training, and rebuild its readiness to fight more entrenched powers like Russia, China or Iran.

At the same time, because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to be ending, the Army’s budget has shrunk as the Obama administration has sought to move away from a war footing.

The size of the active-duty Army, now 470,000 troops, is expected to drop to 450,000 next year. If automatic budget cuts are reinstated because Congress fails to reach a budget deal this year, the Army will have to cut down to 420,000.

“Is that sufficient capacity and capability to do the various national strategies?” General Milley said of current troop levels to a group of foreign policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on May 3. “We think it is. But the real hard question is what happens if one of these other contingencies were to go off that.” He was referring to potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula, or with a large power like China or Russia.

President Obama has begun to respond to the re-emergence of Russia as a strategic threat. The White House has quadrupled the budget for military spending in Europe in 2017, to $3.4 billion. As part of an effort to deter Russia, the United States will provide additional weapons and equipment to American and NATO forces in Europe, to ensure that the alliance can maintain a full armored combat brigade in the region at all times.

But other threats are not going away, forcing Army officials and Pentagon planners to figure out how to adapt America’s military strategy to the new global reality. Army officials are trying to balance the military’s responsibilities in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia while relearning how to fight higher-end, great-power conflicts, as well.

One possible solution, General Milley said, could be to increase training days for the National Guard. Its members now train 39 days a year, which allows them to be ready to deploy within four months if called up.

“I do not think we will have the luxury of four to five months lead time if a significant contingency comes up,” General Milley said.

This week, his focus is on Africa, which has increasingly become a battleground in the West’s war against militant Islam.

In Central Africa, American service members are working with militaries from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger to counter Boko Haram. American military officials say that Boko Haram has begun to collaborate with the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, and that the terrorist groups — two of the world’s most feared — could be working together to plan attacks on American allies in North and Central Africa.

Pentagon officials have presented the White House with military options, including airstrikes, against the Islamic State affiliate in Libya. At the same time, Mr. Obama and his advisers, along with allies like Britain, France and Italy, are trying to nurture a fragile political process for a new unity government there.

In West Africa, Army and Special Operations forces are working with militaries from Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and other countries to try to stem a recent wave of attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has taken to hitting hotels and other tourist sites.

And in East Africa, American military advisers and trainers are working with regional counterparts to fight the Qaeda-affiliated Shabab. The group was responsible for one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on African soil, at a popular mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013, and it is resurgent after losing much of its territory and many of its fighters in the last several years.

“With the onset of ISIL in the north, Al Shabab in the east and Boko Haram and A.Q.I.M. in the center and the west, what we’re doing in Africa is centered on trying to get to the left of that,” said Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the head of Army forces assigned to Africa Command. “We’re building these relationships so that if called in, we can respond.”

The United States is also working in Africa with former Russian satellite states like Angola; General Milley will meet one-on-one on Tuesday with his Angolan counterpart.

“This is a region of the world that is of growing importance to the Army,” said Carter F. Ham, a retired four-star Army general who was previously head of Africa Command. “A lot of good stuff is happening in Africa, but from a security standpoint, there’s also a lot of bad stuff happening as well that could undermine U.S. interests in the region.”

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