Outgoing sergeant major of the Army calls for return to basics
KABUL, Afghanistan — As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan shrinks to some 10,000 troops after more than a decade of major counterinsurgency operations, the U.S. Army needs to get back to training for major conventional warfare, the Army’s outgoing top enlisted leader said on Tuesday.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler said the Army is in the midst of a transformation that has many soldiers asking about their future — whether they will be able to continue to serve given budget cuts and what that service will entail.
“As we started to draw down, more and more people started to worry about their ability to deploy,” Chandler said during a roundtable with reporters at the NATO coalition’s headquarters in Kabul. “Let’s face it, soldiers join the Army to be soldiers, and the ultimate test of that is to deploy into harm’s way.”
Some soldiers have expressed concerns about a lack of clear mission for a military beset by budget cuts.
“What we’ve become is an Army of preparation versus an army of execution,” he said. “We’re saying, look, we’re moving away from the [counterinsurgency] environment. As an Army, we need to reset ourselves for high-intensity conflict, decisive action operations.”
With the war in Afghanistan nowhere near finished and American troops once again involved in Iraq, some analysts have urged military leaders not to move away from training in low-intensity operations and counterinsurgency, known as COIN.
But Chandler argued that major conventional operations need to remain the baseline capability for the Army.
“We’ve got to train for the most difficult thing there is to do, which is really decisive action: major high-end conflict, tanks, Bradleys, all that stuff,” he said. “If we can do that, then anything else can be done relatively easily. We should be training for major conflict, which is the worst-case scenario. And then if we need to do something like COIN here in Afghanistan, we can do that.”
Under that strategy, every soldier will train to fight “decisive actions,” while more specialized training will be offered when soldiers deploy on humanitarian, counterinsurgency, training or other less conventional — but recently more common — missions.
That transformation is complicated by budget cuts mandated by Congress. Chandler, who retires from the Army in January, said soldiers he talked to in Afghanistan during this trip are more worried about their future in the Army than the future of operations in the country. He visited troops at major bases like Kandahar and Bagram air fields.
Some soldiers have been informed of discharges while deployed to Afghanistan, and others face that concern when they return home. Fears about the future of their careers has eclipsed many other issues now, Chandler said.
“They’ll do what we ask them to do; they have, and they’ve done it magnificently from my perspective,” he said.
“But they’re going to rotate out of Afghanistan, and they’re going to go back where they came from, and many want to continue to serve,” Chandler said. “Right now, as the Army continues to draw down, their anxiety level … continues to rise. And so those are primarily the types of questions I’m getting.”
While U.S. troops will continue to rotate in and out of Afghanistan for years, the end of major deployments in America’s longest war has prompted a re-examination of many of the military’s roles.
“We had trained for high-intensity conflict for a long time, and prior to 9/11 that’s what we were doing,” Chandler noted. “Then 9/11 came along and we had to adjust our tactics and our strategy, and we’ve done that. Now as we leave those locations where COIN had to occur, we’re going to go back and reset the baseline for the Army. I don’t think that’s new. But that may be new to people who have been in the Army during the post-9/11 period and are now going to have to transition back to something different.”