The abrupt change of command at the Pentagon, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resigning under pressure Monday, is more than a change of faces. It marks the final disillusionment with the two war-fighting strategies the United States has relied on for 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan: the "hearts and minds" counterinsurgency formerly defined and pursued by Gen. David Petraeus, and the costly "train and equip" effort to build self-sustaining security forces in both countries.
What might a new strategy look like?
One approach that did seem to work, at least where it was most forcefully applied, was the counter-terrorism campaign in Iraq led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal between 2003 and 2008. Combining fresh and detailed intelligence with lightning-quick raids by Special Forces commandos, McChrystal's team systematically killed or captured middle- and high-ranking insurgent leaders, causing their organization to stumble and disintegrate.
Meanwhile, the Army is developing a new battle doctrine, revised just last month. Not surprisingly, it calls for powerful ground forces to strike fast and hard across a variety of threats. The Islamic State militias, it says, "demonstrate the need for land forces to defeat determined enemies that operate among and control civilian populations."
Responding by retaliation, the document says in what seems a veiled critique of the Obama administration's response to ISIS, "often proves insufficient because determined adversaries attempt to achieve objectives rapidly at low cost prior to a U.S. or allied response." The Army is already practicing this kind of approach in its training.
In this top-level Army document, there is tellingly no mention of either counterinsurgency or "train and equip."
At any rate, after the sacrifices of more than 5,300 American battle dead and 52,000 wounded, it has become clear that something more -- and different -- is needed, not least a new, strategy-savvy defense secretary who will articulate a coherent new approach, sell it to the White House, Congress and the uniformed brass across the river at the Pentagon, and oversee its implementation.
Hagel, named to lead the Pentagon less than two years ago, was not that person. His strength stemmed from his unquestioned battle valor as an enlisted grunt in Vietnam, experience which gave him critical insights into the way policy affected the "blue-collar" workers of the military: the trigger pullers, wrench turners, truck drivers, ammo loaders -- and their families. "He brought a soldier's heart to work every day," Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in a statement Monday.
Given the pressing need to find a winning formula for Iraq and Afghanistan, speculation about a replacement for Hagel has centered on Michele Flournoy, a Pentagon strategist during the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s who rose to become its top strategist during Obama's first term. Popular both at the Obama White House and among top military officers, she has consistently called for the United States to be "vigorously engaged" against the "forces of chaos" and supported higher defense spending.
The first hints of today's news and a new, more hard-edged strategy began to emerge over the weekend, with administration officials confirming that U.S. troops in Afghanistan, now numbering just under 10,000, will in fact be allowed to engage in combat operations through next year, a sharp change in policy. The administration also negotiated an agreement with new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to lift restrictions on night raids and air strikes. Previously, the White House had ruled out any direct combat role for U.S. troops.
Two events in particular underscored the rising sense of concern that the Afghan security forces recruited, trained and equipped by the United States have not been as effective as the U.S. had hoped. On Sunday, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 people at a soccer game in the eastern province of Paktika. And two coalition soldiers were killed Monday in a bomb blast in Kabul, in the latest of a series of insurgent attacks that have targeted foreign troops and senior Afghan leaders.
Yet to be determined is whether President Obama will stick to his announced timetable of gradually drawing down the American military contingent and bringing them all home by 2016.
In Iraq, the U.S.-built Iraqi army has crumbled in its sporadic confrontations with Islamic State militants and the White House earlier this month authorized more than doubling the number of "non-combat" adviser and trainers in Iraq, from 1,400 to 3,100. In addition, new doubts have emerged that Sunni tribes can be enlisted in the fight against Islamic State extremists, much as they were against al Qaeda fighters seven years ago.