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Make allies, help their forces grow well, then look less at the kill lists

Viewers of Thursday's confirmation hearing of U.S. defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel can be forgiven for thinking they were watching a years-old C-SPAN rerun. The importance of America's intercontinental ballistic missiles dominated initial questioning. Then the war in Iraq was debated. In the end, the issue that most concerned senators from both parties was Hagel's loyalty to Israel.

During an eight-hour hearing, the difficult decisions that the U.S. military now faces received scant attention. Vast budget cuts loom. Suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder rates are appallingly high. Diverse security threats ranging from Iran to cyber-attacks to al-Qaida in North Africa must be countered.

Overall, a more nimble, modern and smaller American military is needed, but you heard little of that in Thursday's marathon hearing.

The senators would have benefited from a conversation with a retired American Green Beret whom I interviewed earlier this week. After serving in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, he has a unique view on the strengths — and limits — of U.S. military power. His advice was simple. Long-term training of foreign military forces is more effective and less costly than deploying large numbers of American ground forces.

“It's the cheapest and the best solution in the long term,” he told me.

Failures, of course, happen. Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, points out that billions of dollars have been spent on a largely failed effort to create a professional police force in Afghanistan. Peter Singer, an expert at the Brookings Institution, correctly argues that the key issue is our relationship with foreign governments, not how much military training we provide.

“We need to move beyond the assumption,” Singer said in an email “that training someone in our system somehow creates any perfect alignment between our geostrategic interests and their local political interests. It wasn't true during the Cold War and isn't true today.”

I agree. But as Congress debates harsh Pentagon cuts, it is important to look at new forms of military power. In a December article in Foreign Affairs, journalist Linda Robinson described Washington's unprecedented reliance on Special Operations Forces.

As identifying, locating and attacking suspected terrorists and insurgents has grown, U.S. Special Operations budgets have soared from US$2.3 billion in 2001 to US$10.5 billion in 2012. The number of Special Operations Forces fielded by the U.S. is 63,000 and rising.

Robinson argues that American policymakers have become too reliant on “kill and capture” raids and drone strikes known as “direct action.” She said there is a “misperception” in Washington that pinpoint attacks “avoid prolonged, messy wars.”

“In fact, raids and drone strikes are tactics that are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs for the United States,” Robinson wrote. “special operations leaders readily admit that they should not be the central pillar of U.S. military strategy.”

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