Shadow Government

Does the Egyptian military's move qualify as a coup?

If recent reports are accurate, the Egyptian military has decided to tilt more decisively against Mubarak. Up until now, it has sought to play the regime's "good cop" to the "bad cop" of the Interior Ministry's police and other security forces -- resisting the calls of the protestors to force Mubarak to step down, but doing so in a way that preserved the military's generally positive standing with the protestors.

This latest move -- meeting without Mubarak and issuing a statement telling the protestors "All your demands will be met today" -- appears to be what is known in the civil-military relations business as a coup. The precise power arrangements of the coup are unknown at this time, perhaps even to the coup leaders. It is certainly possible that Vice President and Intelligence Chief Suleiman will remain as the titular head of the regime. Indeed, he may even be the coup leader himself.

And, of course, the reports themselves could be inaccurate and this could be an elaborate Mubarak-led feint designed to wrong-foot the protestors and perhaps even expose and compromise his detractors within his own ranks.

But if the reports are accurate, it appears to be a coup, or at least the start of one. It could fail in any number of ways. Mubarak could launch a counter-coup, but only if the security forces split and a significant number -- especially the crucial ground forces needed to maintain control of the streets -- stayed loyal to him. It is unlikely that the uniformed military would split; presumably the coup leaders have done their own nose count and have addressed this concern. Fighting between pro-Mubarak security forces and anti-Mubarak military forces is a bit more plausible, but on the whole this doesn't seem the most likely way it would fail. 

None of these seem very likely at present. The most likely scenario is that this is the way the regime has chosen to orchestrate a "transition," one where the current ruling elites remain the same but President Mubarak departs, thus satisfying the most visible -- and also the easiest-to-satisfy -- demand of the protestors, but leaving in tact the underlying political order that gave rise to the protests in the first place.

If I am right, then the most likely failure mode is that the coup leaders miscalculate and in seeking to preserve "order," they so further inflames the protest movement that the military's own standing in the country is compromised and its relations with the military's chief funder, the United States, is irreparably broken.  

It could also succeed, where success is defined as the military paves the way for a genuine democratic transition. That is not unprecedented in history (cf. Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere), but it is a painful path usually dotted with many setbacks and usually takes much longer than one would like. Egypt's own history does not give much optimism for the rosy scenario; the people of Cairo are still waiting for the democratic transition to come from the 1952 coup.

Shadow Government

The many woes awaiting the Army's next chief of staff

Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that Gen. Martin E. Dempsey was his choice to be nominated as the next Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA). Widely respected and liked (not least for his sonorous singing voice), General Dempsey would bring a substantial store of goodwill and political capital to the job. He is going to need it. If confirmed, General Dempsey will confront a dizzying array of challenges in an Army run ragged. 

The multiple, extended deployments and operational tempo of current conflicts are unprecedented for the all-volunteer Force; nearly a decade of continuous war for the bulk of the Army's active component as well as the Reserve and National Guard have simply worn out personnel and equipment. According to a recent RAND study, active duty soldiers have deployed, on average, every other year since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Though growth in the size of the force has ameliorated the problem, even the Secretary of the Army described soldiers and their families last year as "clearly, clearly fatigued."

The effect of America's recent wars on soldiers and families is manifest not only in the dead and wounded, but the hundreds of thousands suffering from post-traumatic stress, a spate of suicides, and growing pathologies like alcohol and drug abuse, marital strife, and mental health difficulties in spouses and children. The hangover from these conflicts will last for a generation.

The deployment tempo, along with the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has also made it difficult to maintain all of the Army's skill sets. This includes not just armor and field artillery, but even skills needed to manage soldiers and business in garrison. According to a recent Army report, "time and unit resources are now focused on reset, readiness cycles, and pre-deployment preparation. These activities have tipped the balance from institutional readiness, measured by Soldier/Family wellbeing and unit good order and discipline in garrison, to combat readiness..."

In other words, units and soldiers are too busy recovering from one deployment and preparing for the next one to conduct many functions necessary to maintain the institution and take care of its people. In a memo last year, General Dempsey himself, as commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine command, noted that the demands on the force are eroding the Army's ability to train its soldiers.

The primary fixes to these problems are either to increase the number of soldiers or reduce the frequency of deployments; too few people have been bearing the burden for too long.  If Iraq wraps up as planned at the end of December 2011, it will free up about 50,000 soldiers currently deployed there.  But there is no obvious end in sight in Afghanistan, and the secretary of defense has already pledged to reduce the size of the Army by 27,000 (though not until 2015, when Afghanistan is presumed to be drawing down) to respond to a shrinking budget. Meanwhile, the repair, reset, and recapitalization of worn out Army equipment is projected to cost in the tens of billions.

More fundamentally, the new CSA must help determine what kind of Army America needs, now and in future.  Should the Army continue to be America's "nation-building" organ of choice, which it has undeniably become in the last decade? Can the Army excel at such tasks, deploy at the current rate, and also be capable of competently fighting the nation's wars if and when called upon to do so? It is reasonable to wonder whether, at some point, something has to give (if it hasn't already).

"Armies break anecdotally before they break statistically," retired General Robert Scales told a reporter recently. There are more than enough anecdotes to suggest that the U.S. Army has its share of troubles. If confirmed, General Dempsey must not only continue to resource at least one war, address the manifold challenges among soldiers and their families for years to come, and fix broken and worn equipment, all with dwindling resources. He must also ensure that the Army remains prepared for the conflicts of tomorrow. Whatever they may be, it is a pretty good bet they will not be the ones we expect.