By Jon Powers

Jon Powers is the Veterans Program Director for The Eleison Group, LLC, where he is working on developing the outreach efforts of the progressive community to veterans and military families. He is an Iraq War veteran, a former congressional candidate in New York’s 26th district, and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.


When President Obama announced his decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he did so with an interesting caveat. He explicitly stated that we cannot solve the problems of Afghanistan by military means alone. He’s right, and he deserves credit for saying so. However, it is crucial that we apply that lesson not only to a single issue, but to a broader national security strategy. We live in a world where security has come to mean more than soldiers and submarines, but also development and diplomacy, as well as hearts and minds. Our broader security strategy needs to take that into account.

A recent story from Afghanistan drives home this point with great clarity. A few months ago, several young Afghan girls were attacked with acid by extremists for the “crime” of attending school. One of those girls, Shamsia, will remain physically scarred and partially blind for the rest of her life. Yet these girls made a heroic return to school in January, showing true bravery and rebuffing the extremists’ tactics of fear. It is this courage and the courage of millions of other every day citizens around the globe that we must tap to battle extremists. If we are to live in a safer world, we must develop a national security strategy that aims to mobilize men and women in all nations to embrace Shamsia’s example.

No one understands this better than Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, he outlines the need for “reprogramming the Pentagon for a new age” and creating a new and balanced strategy because “the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory.” He fully understands that the military must develop more than conventional firepower to win this long war. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I believe Secretary Gates is definitely on the right track.

I saw first hand how the military became overextended in Iraq. My soldiers and I worked regularly with Iraqis to help them improve their economy and refurbish their schools. But as rewarding as that work was, it was not what we were trained to do. We were trained to fire artillery rounds and conduct checkpoint operations, not to design development projects. These are missions traditionally done by the State Department, but the Bush Administration failed to strike the right balance between the job of a soldier and the job of a civilian.

Fortunately, many military leaders realize that a fully funded State Department can help lay the foundation for real national security. General David Petreaus recently claimed that our objectives in Afghanistan are “not just the desire to help the Afghans establish security and preclude establishment of extremist safe havens, but also to support economic development, democratic institutions, the rule of law, infrastructure, and education.” These are the efforts that will deny extremist groups the kinds of desperate populations that are ripe for extortion.

The economic crisis that we face today provides us an opportunity to prioritize this needed change by ensuring that we have a strategic balance in our spending. A prime example of unbalance spending is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. At a price tag of $242 billion, it is the most expensive aircraft program in the history of the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are dying due to a lack of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs). Similarly, a dearth of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) makes it more difficult to scour the mountains of Afghanistan looking for Osama Bin Laden or Taliban fighters.

Scrapping the F-35 altogether may not be the solution, but cutting expensive programs that are geared for tomorrow’s conflicts will be necessary if we are to afford the military and diplomatic tools we need to win today’s wars.

President Obama and his national security team face incredible challenges. They also have a unique opportunity to drive the real change our national security strategy needs. Rebalancing our approach and taking cues from great leaders like Secretary Gates and General Petraeus will allow us to create an environment for true security. Only then can we tap into the courage of people like Shamsia and her friends who dream of a future of education and opportunity, not fear and terrorism.

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