The intent of this essay is to advance several observations about how we plan and fight wars, in order to shed light upon why we are performing so poorly. We invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq with inchoate plans and inadequate forces to establish post-war security and governance. After winning the first battle in both countries, President George W. Bush offhandedly decided to build democratic nations, a task for which our State Department and US Agency for International Development had no competence or interest. By default, the mission fell to our military, also without competence but with unflagging devotion and determination.
When 2011 arrived, President Barack Obama went against the recommendations of the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Instead of politically maneuvering to keep a residual force to check al-Maliki’s dark instincts, Obama pulled out all our troops. He fulfilled Bush’s foolish promise. Al-Maliki then proceeded to oppress the Sunnis, leading to the reemergence of the extremists now called the Islamic State. Obama quit, but Bush made it easy for him to do so.
Obama claimed Afghanistan was the war that had to be won. But as in Iraq, he headed for the exit. To avoid a humiliating collapse before he departs the White House, he will keep perhaps eight thousand US troops there in 2016.
On balance, the results in Iraq or Afghanistan were not worth the costs in American casualties, money, and global influence. Several policy lessons may be drawn.
First, the Pentagon should project for the president the length of time to achieve a desired post-war end state. In Iraq and Afghanistan, that meant staying for twenty or more years. From the start, Bush failed to explain this to the public. He did not even try to set the conditions in Congress and in the press for a long-term presence, as in South Korea.
Second, if our troops are killing and dying in both countries because the indigenous troops are not capable enough to stand on their own, then our commanders have the right and the obligation to select the leaders of those local forces. American diplomats and policymakers, by action and inaction, did select the top leaders in both countries. Hamid Karzai and Nouri al-Maliki were chosen by Americans behind the scenes. Both choices were disasters. Yet due to unthinking allegiance to the word “democracy,” we allowed these solipsistic, incompetent “elected” leaders to promote whom they chose within the ranks of the police, military, and other government agencies. Like Great Britain before us, we were a colonial power. Unlike the Brits, we did not select the commanders of the indigenous armies we were training, equipping, and paying.
Third, we granted sanctuaries to the enemy. Our military after Vietnam had vowed never again to fight such a war. But we forgot that vow. We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy al-Qaeda. In December of 2001, the core of that organization and its top leaders were trapped in a mountainous region called Tora Bora. Rather than employ a nearby Marine brigade and special operations forces, the American commander, General Tommy Franks, relied upon Afghan warlords whose motley troops allowed the al-Qaeda force to move across the border into Pakistan. That was a grave, unforced military error. Then, in a triumph of legalism over common sense, Bush decided not to cross the border in hot pursuit to destroy the fleeing terrorists.
Afghanistan steadily deteriorated after that. Yet we persisted for fourteen years in fighting an enemy while giving him a 1,500-mile-long sanctuary. Similarly, we knew where the al-Qaeda safe houses were in Syria, just across the border from Iraq. But we didn’t bomb them. We granted our enemy sanctuary.
Fifth, we decided not to capture our enemy. In the twentieth century, many more combatants were captured than killed. Today, we don’t capture anyone. The gross pictures from Abu Ghraib, the political storm over water-boarding, and Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo and prosecute terrorists as criminals forced our military to turn over all captured enemies to corrupt Iraqi and Afghan officials. Most of those once in prison are now free, while the wars continue. Our troops call it “catch and release.” America has no comprehensible judicial system for war in the twenty-first century.
Sixth, we remain at war rhetorically, while refusing to fight with determination. How do we fight? The administration launches one or two drone strikes each month. White House spokesmen have bragged that the president routinely reviews dossiers and selects those to be killed. A commander in chief deciding upon a warfighting tactic calls into question management priorities. It also signals an incapacity to think strategically, illustrating that he views war as a set of morally wrenching discrete decisions to kill about one hundred enemies each year.
Seventh, our feckless warfighting policies over the past seven years have gravely diminished the respect of our adversaries and the trust of our friends. We refused to provide Ukraine with weapons after the Russians invaded. After declaring a “red line” if Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, Obama asked Russia to help him out. Now Russian aircraft in Syria are bombing the rebels Obama armed in the hope of overthrowing Assad. In Iraq, Iranian troops have replaced American troops. Obama’s retort is that both Iran and Russia won’t achieve anything more than he did. At the same time, Obama signed a nuclear agreement with Iran and lifted sanctions, without submitting a treaty to the Senate. In sum, Russia and Iran have undermined American credibility and military power in the Middle East, while China steals on a gigantic scale in cyberspace and exerts control over the South China Sea.
Currently, America has ceased to be the major power-player in the Middle East. Unless confronted by an absolute disaster, Obama will finish out his presidency without applying any more force than occasional bombing against the Islamic State. Russia and Iran will remain the more dominant military actors, along with the Islamic State. Under Iranian influence, Iraq will remain at war, divided between the Shiite and Sunni areas.
We have done a miserable job at policy planning. But how are we doing on the battlefield? How do we fight that is really different from the twentieth century?
The most obvious difference is our overwhelming conventional superiority. That was clear when we took back Kuwait in 1991. It was reinforced in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003. The world has never seen the likes of it. Yes, Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon—there have been numerous victorious armies and conquests. But none like this, none with such global reach and so few casualties.
Yet we did not win the battles, much less the wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Simple: the enemy adapted. He took off his uniform and used our morality and befuddlement as jiujitsu to overcome our technological advantages. By hiding among the people, he was safe from our firepower. The enemy lived in the cities and villages, or hid across the border, coming together in small groups and choosing when and where to initiate contact against our patrols. The Vietnam-era tactic of fire and maneuver has gone away. Our troops wear armor and gear weighing about ninety pounds. They cannot run a hundred meters without being exhausted. So when the enemy shoots, a patrol gets down and returns a vicious volume of aimed fire. Except you rarely see a target, because the enemy isn’t stupid. He has selected a covered position before opening fire. Most firefights last less than fifteen minutes, because once a gunship or aircraft comes overhead, the enemy is doomed. So he shoots and scoots. Thus the war goes on and on, because the enemy will not commit suicide by massing or wearing uniforms.
The Islamists in Iraq and Afghanistan did not fight fiercely and stand their ground against our troops. Our training, shooting skills, and firepower were overwhelming. The enemy may have been a farm boy, a terrorist from Yemen, a former Iraqi soldier, a youth from a Pakistani madras, a Taliban from Kabul—whomever. They all learned to stay about four hundred meters away from American troops, because every grunt now has a telescopic sight and most are qualified as expert riflemen.
The suicide bomber was a threat to our vehicles and fixed outposts. But it never expanded into an enormous threat. The YouTube videos posted by the Islamic State from the 2015 battles in Iraq suggest an exponential growth. From anecdotal evidence, it appears the suicidal truck bomber is as much a threat as was the kamikaze during the Okinawa campaign in 1945.
Lastly and regrettably, I must mention the growing trend of victimhood. Our society does not celebrate and single out the heroes. Instead, it tries to compensate those who psychologically or physically did not return home able to fully cope. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides some level of health care for less than half of our veterans. A minority of veterans use the VA. If all who had served turned to the VA for medical assistance, the VA system would collapse.
Yet the VA is now reporting that more than 40 percent of all individuals getting out of the service after four years—and the wars essentially are over—apply for compensation for mental or physical injury. During the Vietnam War, the VA had five injury categories; today, it has seventeen. The more free money is available, the more will apply for that money. What does that do to the internal morale of a service when some in every squad put in claims, and others do not?
In summary, our enemies do not fear us and our friends do not trust us. Sensible steps can turn that around, but that depends upon the next commander in chief. So far in the twenty-first century, due to our vast wealth and technologies, we have not been sorely tested. Our beloved nation does not have a martial spirit, and perhaps does not need one. It does need a military inculcated with a warrior spirit.
President Bush rashly overstepped in extending war to include nation-building. President Obama ideologically retreated by imposing restraints that encouraged our enemies. Congress proved irrelevant, lacking the cohesion to play its constitutional role in declaring for—or against—war.
In summary, a leaderless America is drifting. That should scare us all.
Full article: America the Weak (Hoover Institution)