The Bankruptcy of Conventional Wisdom at the Pentagon

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A fair depiction of General Petraeus and the busy uniforms of America’s generals

W.J. Astore

Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017.  Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there.  Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).

Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:

We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.

That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.

But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.

These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:

  1. The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11.  Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left.  The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous.  Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
  2. “Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan.  In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
  3. “A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region.  The results?  The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished.  How is this “very useful” to the United States?
  4. A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades?  Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
  5. No “victory parade.”  At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.

It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan.  But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”

Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.

The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region.  Victory or defeat doesn’t matter.  What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment.  Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”

The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA.  We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system.  To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education.  To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.

When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.

Why the American Military Is Doomed

General Flynn (FP: Foreign Policy)
General Flynn (FP: Foreign Policy)

W.J. Astore

Is the U.S. military doomed?  I’d say yes.  But it’s not because our troops are uncommitted, our weapons are bad, and our tactics are flawed.  Rather it’s because of the conventional wisdom in Washington and the Pentagon that continues to commit our troops to unnecessary and unwinnable wars.

This conventional wisdom is perhaps best summed up in a speech by retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, the ex-chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  It’s worth reading the speech in full, not because it’s especially original or insightful, but because it’s so unreflective and representative of Washington’s collective wisdom.

Here are General Flynn’s main points as I see them:

1. The American public must be committed to an open-ended ideological war “for decades.”

2. That war is against “grotesque” Islamic extremists who “hate our ideals” and who are “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”

3. To win the war, America must be ready to use “overwhelming power” to defeat or deter the enemy, even if the U.S. must act alone.

4. Special Operations Forces (SOF) must be “well resourced” for this war, meaning they must be expanded even further and given even more money and latitude.

5.  The model for this ideological war against extremist Islam is Ronald Reagan’s war against communism.

That is General Flynn’s strategic vision.  It’s a vision widely shared within the Pentagon.  And it’s a vision that dooms America to defeat.

Why?  Mainly because radical Islam is a political/religious/social phenomenon.  It is not amenable to military solutions.  Indeed, the more America makes it into THE enemy, the more legitimacy organizations like ISIS gain within their communities and across the Muslim World.

Military force is a blunt instrument, even when it’s applied by the Special Ops community.  Expanding the American SOF presence throughout the world is a recipe for more blowback, not more victories.  Consider how well we’ve done so far in Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen.  Or for that matter Iraq.  Can anyone say that U.S. military intervention has produced stability in these countries?  Has it contributed to the defeat of radical Islam?  Indeed, in destabilizing Iraq and Libya and Yemen, has the U.S. not contributed to the spread of Islamic extremism?

Military professionals like General Flynn really know only one solution: “overwhelming power” applied “for decades.” And if you don’t accept their solution, they dismiss you as misguided (at best) or as arguing for “Retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament,” which “are historically a recipe for disaster,” according to General Flynn.

Well, I’m not aware of anyone seriously arguing for disarmament (fat chance of that happening in the USA!).  I’m not aware of anyone arguing for “retreat,” as if this was the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War.  I’m not aware of anyone seriously working toward “retrenchment”; indeed, the SOF community keeps expanding, already mounting operations in 105 countries around the world in FY2015 (i.e., since October 2014).  It’s easy to bayonet a straw man, general.

I have a few words for the general: Committing the American military to an ideological war “for decades” against radical Islam is pure folly.  Chances are you won’t hammer it into non-existence: your blows will just spread it further, while wasting the energies of America and the lives of its troops.

Stop looking to Reagan and the collapse of communism for lessons and start looking at the actual results over the last 20-30 years of American meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.  And tell me: Is this what “victory” looks like?  You want to double down on “overwhelming power” applied “for decades” as defending American “ideals” and “way of life”?

Which “ideals” are those, exactly?  A permanent state of war in which military men are deferred to as the heroes and sages of the moment?

No thanks.