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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Pentagon adapts to a post-9/11 world

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In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001 file photo, a military helicopter ascends after dropping off personnel at the Pentagon a day after a hijacked airliner crashed into the Department of Defense building in Washington. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

The Sept. 11 attacks transformed the Pentagon, ravaging the iconic building itself and setting the stage for two long and costly wars that reordered the way the American military fights.

Compared with a decade ago, the military is bigger, more closely connected to the CIA, more practiced at taking on terrorists and more respected by the American public. But its members also are growing weary from war, committing suicide at an alarming rate and training less for conventional warfare.

The partly gutted Pentagon was restored with remarkable speed after the hijacked American Airlines Boeing 757 slammed through its west side, setting the building ablaze and killing 184 people. But recovering from the strain of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will take far longer — possibly decades.

The Pentagon’s leaders will have to adjust to a new era of austerity after a decade in which the defense budget doubled, to nearly $700 billion this year.

The Army and Marine Corps in particular — both still heavily engaged in Afghanistan — will struggle to retrain, rearm and reinvigorate their badly stretched forces even as budgets begin to shrink. And the troops themselves face an uncertain future; many are scarred by the mental strains of battle, and some face transition to civilian life at a time of economic turmoil and high unemployment. The cost of veterans’ care will march higher.

As Robert Gates put it shortly before he stepped down as defense secretary this summer, peace will bring its own problems.

The problem was not peace on 9/11. At the time, the military was focused almost entirely on external threats. Air defenses kept watch for planes and missiles that might strike from afar; there was little attention to the possibility that terrorists might hijack domestic airliners and use them as missiles.

That changed with the creation of U.S. Northern Command in 2002, which now shares responsibility for defending U.S. territory with the Homeland Security Department.

Terrorism was not a new challenge in 2001, but the scale of the 9/11 attacks prompted a shift in the U.S. mindset from defense to offense.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7 in an unconventional military campaign that was coordinated with the CIA. That heralded one of the most profound effects of 9/11: a shift in the military’s emphasis from fighting conventional army-on-army battles to executing more secretive, intelligence-driven hunts for shadowy terrorists. That shift was important, but it came gradually as the military services clung to their Cold War ways.

Still in debate is how the Taliban, which had shielded Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures prior to the U.S. invasion and was driven from Kabul within weeks, managed to make a comeback in the years after the U.S. shifted its main focus to Iraq in 2003. That setback in Afghanistan, coupled with the longer-than-expected fight in Iraq, showed the limits of post-9/11 U.S. military power.

It also pointed up one of the other key lessons of the past decade of war: It takes more than military muscle to win the peace. It takes the State Department, with its small army of diplomats and development specialists, and other government agencies working in partnership with the Pentagon.

The military grew larger over the past decade, but the growth was uneven. The Army expanded from about 480,000 in 2001 to 572,000 this year, and the Marine Corps grew from 172,000 to 200,000, although both are to begin scaling back shortly. The Air Force and Navy, by contrast, got smaller. The Air Force lost about 20,000 slots since 2001 and the Navy lost about 50,000.

In percentage terms, the biggest growth in the military has been in the secretive, elite units known as special operations forces. They surged to the forefront of the U.S. military’s counter-terror campaign almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, helping rout the Taliban in late 2001 and culminating in May 2011 with the Navy SEAL team’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. And even though al-Qaida’s global reach has been diminished, the increased role of special operations forces is likely to continue.

“It’s the most interesting and important change that’s likely to endure,” Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “I haven’t heard too many people suggest that we can scale back to where we used to be.”

The Marines, who had never before fielded forces of this kind, now have 2,600 under U.S. Special Operations Command. The others include the SEALs, the Army Green Berets and Rangers and the Air Force special operators.

In all, those special operations forces grew from 45,600 in 2001 to 61,000 today, according to Special Operations Command.

A decade of war also has produced its military stars. Army Gen. David Petraeus served in command three times in Iraq and once in Afghanistan before accepting President Barack Obama’s offer to succeed Leon Panetta as the next CIA director.

Former Iraq commander Army Gen. Raymond Odierno is about to become the Army’s top general, and the current Army chief, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who served twice in command in Iraq, is due to replace Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The military as a whole is viewed more favorably by the American public. A Gallup poll in June found that the military is the most respected national institution, with 78 percent expressing great confidence in it. That is 11 points higher than its historical Gallup average dating to the early 1970s.

The new technological star is the drone aircraft, like the Predators that surveil the battlefield and fire missiles at discrete targets. Their popularity has spawned an effort to field unmanned aircraft to perform other missions, such as a long-range bomber and even heavy-lift helicopters.


Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at

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10 thoughts on “Pentagon adapts to a post-9/11 world”

  1. I remember the years following WW2 when Americans believed that their elected officials were all heroes. Wars make heroes out of those who do not wear the uniforms. 911 made Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld into enormous heroes and the media played it up and the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld gang explained that they were simply listening to God. How many more years do we have to take this crap from those phonies?

    Every move America makes annoys the hell out of Islam. Read some of the crap coming out of the Conservatives and you can see why Islam hates our guts. It has always been a religious war and it always will be until we get God out of the government.

    Every religion that is not under Jesus Christ is automatically the enemy of America. This will keep us all in an continuing state of war until we change our ways. Many of Rush’s followers believe that all African Americans are a potential enemy of Americans. It’s that damn Tea Party that stirs up this racist crap. It is why they despise President Obama.

    • Just wait until next week. Junior got his own interview show on 9/11 the National Geographic Channel, “George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview.” My first impression is softball irrelevant human interest questioning draped in revisionist propaganda propped up by iconic imagery.

  2. $2.4 trillion to catch some 2,000 estimated al-Qaida fighters. That would be $1.2 billion spent on each terrorist, had they caught them all, which they have not. Talk about one huge waste of treasure. They basically played right into the hands of the terrorists, wasting our money and taking away our freedoms. Bin Laden is laughing at us from hell.

    While we respect the military, we do not respect or support these ludicrous unending wars half the world away.

    • “Bin Laden is laughing at us from hell.” …extract from post

      Wrong Woody. He’s laughing at us from his Islamic ‘heaven’, not a Christian ‘hell’. He died in the name of ‘Holy Jihad’ ergo he’s getting an Islamist’s imagined ‘heavenly’ reward in the afterlife. / : |

      It’s all bullsh*t for the consumption of weak minds, regardless of their religious bent.

      Carl Nemo **==

  3. This entire article is nothing but boohoo propaganda for the MIC and it’s criminally disposed Congressional facilitators.

    Both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters are referred to as us fighting two wars. The destruction of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was an act of terrorism on the part international criminals, plain and simple. We were not attacked by another sovereign nation so the marshalling of our nation’s entire military for ten years and basically wasting trillions of dollars to get OBL and a handful of his cohorts only benefitted corrupt contractors and Congressmen that got mileage out of selling “fear” to the unwashed masses during the past ten years.

    Instead, “We the People” have had our nation turned into an emergent garrison state via a seemingly out of control Homeland Security Dept. along with their sub-agencies like the TSA. America has been divided into ten military regions under the “Northern Command” with the intention of slapping our people in irons when the time comes to do so as a function of failed policies; the end result of frittering our national financial resources away during th past ten years chasing a relatively small contingent of international criminals.

    Saddam Hussein did not engineer the attack on America. In fact eighteen of the highjackers were Saudi nationals. Remember the Saudi’s are like ‘family’ to the Bushistas. / : | The entire WMD cannard was an engineered plot on the part of the Wolfowitz~Feith~Cheney ‘intel’ pipeline. Seemingly only a few people in this nation either know so or remember that we’ve been conned by criminals in high office for at least the past 20 years with both parties linked to this ongoing corruption.

    In addition to the thousands casualties on the part of our military; hundreds of thousands of both Iraqi and Afghani citizens have been murdered or displaced as a function of this engineered MIC monstrosity.

    Ike warned us, no one listened…! : |

    Carl Nemo **==

  4. If one takes a close look at the time table starting with the plane crashing into the first tower one cannot understand what the hell happened to our defense mechanism. Our jet fighters were sent over the Atlantic Ocean leaving D.C. vulnerable. There was some talk about a test being made and therefore no response was seen. I will not bring up more of this conspiracy stuff because it has been downgraded as foolish. It does not add up.

    The facts show that President Bush knew about the first plane into the tower before he sat down in that classroom and even when the second tower was hit he sat and stared into some hidden place in his brain. Where was the adrenaline jump that would have been there had he not predicted the action?

    I won’t live long enough to learn the truth of 911 but many here will. It will be to make Bush look bad, but it should make all of us aware of a weakness that drives millions of Americans. Prayers did not stop the other two planes but a strong and active defense action could have stopped whatever it was that hit the Pentagon.

    We still look at Bush as if he had little to do with our defense. We still supported his reelection and had been able to run again, he would have been carried back into the White House.

    In my mind, Bush’s reelection was the first step in America’s death parade. Now we get a chance at a new Bush in the White House. The Evangelical choice for America will be a script for a movie and a change in the Bill of Rights.

    There are very few places on this planet where freedoms are respected. The experiment that was tried in 1776 has failed. We fought a huge war against England for these freedoms and another huge war against owning people from Africa. Even now, we may have to fight again for the rights of women and homosexuals.

    Equality is just a word that too many Americans cannot define. It has been responsible for our problems in America and it will destroy our nation from within.

    The Pentagon is a building where too many corrupt federal employees were the target of the Taliban. The problem was a lazy flaky defense protection system failed and now it will be the center of many specials sponsored by those huge corporations who made millions of dollars on the strike. Get out the popcorn and cold beer!

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