Last week, President Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The troop surge is part of a new strategy set forth by General Stanley A. McChrystal. The strategy shifts focus from kinetic to non-kinetic operations: protecting civilians, development projects, and winnings hearts and minds. It will be central to America’s operations in Afghanistan for years to come, and even the basis for an American endgame there. Army, Marine, and Air Force roles in the McChrystal approach are clear. The former two are boots on the ground, while the latter provides logistical, intelligence, and combat support. The Navy, however, appears to have little place in this new strategy. The Navy’s primary contribution so far has been combat air support. But, airstrikes have fallen out of favor in Afghanistan as of late due to mounting civilian casualties. McChrystal’s new strategy should worry the Navy leadership, since Secretary of Defense Gates has demonstrated a strong preference for funding programs with applications in current conflicts, and a willingness to cut programs failing that criteria (and more importantly: to fight legislators’ attempts to block cuts). Does the Navy have a place in McChrystal’s war? Yes, but not without some soul-searching.
The Navy can play a significant role in McChrystal’s strategy. Every year, thousands of sailors deploy on humanitarian, development, and disaster relief operations around the world. Sailors have repaired schools in the Pacific, organized health clinics in South America, and delivered disaster aid in the Caribbean. These operations are outside traditional military education and have required developing a new set of skills, notably the ability to plan and work side by side with different services, agencies, governments, and NGO partners. The missions have given the Navy hard won experience adapting military resources to humanitarian, development, and disaster relief challenges. This is particularly true of short term, high impact programs, the type of military involvement in development envisioned by Secretary of Defense Gates. The Navy could have precisely the type of soft-power experience McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy requires.
The main obstacle to a major Navy role in Afghanistan is not material, but cultural. The Navy’s leadership is dominated by line officers. This perpetuates an institutional culture valuing warships and warplanes. However, the enemy has neither fleet or coastline. All the carrier strike groups in the world will not find victory in the mountains of Afghanistan. To win over the hearts and minds, McChrystal’s strategy requires a surge of a new sort: of nurses, doctors, dentists, engineers, and civil-affairs units, the domain of the staff corp officer. While staff corp officers have a secondary role in the Navy’s traditional warfighting focus, they have played a major part in the Navy’s humanitarian and development cruises. Staff corp officers might not be able to plan a defense of the North Atlantic, but they can run health clinics, manage construction projects, and coordinate with NGOs. They are America’s soft-power specialists. If the Navy is going to take advantage of the humanitarian and development institutional knowledge of its staff corp officers, it must overcome its cultural biases towards the interests of line officers. In the 1980s, the Soviet Army learned that Afghanistan was not the Fulda Gap. Now, the US Navy must accept it is not the Taiwan Strait either.