New Year’s Resolution: End America’s Quagmire Wars

b-52
B-52s against drug labs.  Really?

W.J. Astore

Here’s a New Year’s resolution: How about ending America’s quagmire wars?

There are many reasons why Afghanistan, Iraq, and similar countries will always be quagmires for the U.S. military.  U.S. troops have difficulty identifying friend from foe, and indeed “friendly” troops and police sometimes turn on their U.S. counterparts.  U.S. troops will always be a foreign presence, heavily armed and invasive, often (mis)guided by incomplete or misleading intelligence.  Almost inevitably, they are seen as backing corrupt and kleptocratic governments, whether in Kabul or Baghdad.  At the same time, U.S. bombing and search and destroy missions kill innocents even as they generate refugees—and new enemies.  Under such violent and tumultuous conditions, you can forget about winning hearts and minds or creating lasting political stability.

Facing this no-win scenario, savvy U.S. leaders would pull troops out immediately, but of course pulling out is never an option.  Whether it’s Bush or Obama or Trump, the preferred “solution” to unwinnable quagmires is to “surge” (more troops, more airpower, more “advisers,” more weaponry) or to dither with tactics.  Old theories are trotted out, such as pacification and counterinsurgency and nation-building, dressed up with new terms and acronyms such as asymmetrical warfare, the gray zone, MOOTW (military operations other than war), and VEOs, or violent extremist organizations, known to most people as terrorists.

The mentality among America’s generals is that the war must go on.  There must be a can-do way to defeat VEOs in the grey zone using asymmetrical warfare while engaged in MOOTW.  Thus B-52s, those venerable strategic bombers from the early Cold War era, are now being used in Afghanistan to “asymmetrically” destroy drug laboratories associated with Taliban funding, yet another instance of the U.S. military swinging a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.

After 16 years, if you’re calling in B-52s to flatten small drug labs, this is not a sign of impending victory.  It’s a sign of desperation — a sign of a totally bankrupt strategy.

The same is true of the use of MOAB in 2017.  It’s not a sign of strength to use such blockbuster bombs on an undeveloped country like Afghanistan.  It’s a sign of desperation.  Of having no coherent strategy.  Of throwing munitions at the wall and seeing which one makes the biggest boom.

Of course, a key aspect of this is domestic politics.  The target of B-52s and MOABs isn’t always the Taliban and similar VEOs.  It’s American public opinion.  For Trump, it’s like, “See?  We used MOAB.  We’re using B-52s.  Obama didn’t do this.  We’re tougher–better–stronger.  We’re taking the gloves off.”

When America’s military is not taking metaphorical gloves off, it’s learning to eat soup with a knife.  That’s the title of Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s book on counterinsurgency, abbreviated as COIN in military circles.  A decade ago, Nagl worked with General David Petraeus to rewrite the book on COIN, which enjoyed a brief renaissance during the Iraq and Afghan surges.  But COIN methods (the idea of killing or otherwise neutralizing guerrillas/terrorists/VEOs while winning the hearts and minds of the people) haven’t worked to clean up American-made messes in those countries, a result contained within the metaphor.  For if you really want to eat soup, best to put away military knives, pick up the soup bowl, and slurp away.

But America’s warfighters, with their affinity for knives, persist in efforts to develop new and “better” ones (spoons are for wimps!) as they flail away in various soup bowls (or, if you prefer, Petri dishes, which was General John Nicholson’s, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, “bowl” of choice to describe the Af-Pak region in his testimony to Congress in 2017).

To use a different soup metaphor, too many cooks spoil the broth.  The U.S. military’s interventions—its various and varying recipes for success, the ingredients of which are almost exclusively violent—never add up to a palatable product.

William S. Smith put it well in a recent article for The American Conservative.  American military interventions, Smith notes, driven in large part by COIN theory, mostly ignore local history, religion, and culture.  The resulting quagmire, according to Smith, is predictable:

The fact is that all political order at all times and everywhere emerges from an extremely complex set of unique symbols, practices, and beliefs that are rooted in history, culture, and religion. Political order does not merely flow from safety and the protection of property but out of a cultural inheritance that provides citizens with a sense that their society embodies something larger than themselves. To them, the symbols and traditions of their society reflect a certain divine order. An invading army from a foreign civilization will always be seen as a threat to that order whether citizens embrace violence or not. Without a major revolution in culture an occupying army will be in no position to generate more than a skin-deep and transitory political reconciliation. (Emphasis added)

Call it COINfusion followed by defeat.  The U.S. military tried the “occupying army” part of this with its various surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political results were as Smith says: skin-deep and transitory.  The “new” American approach seems to be a variation of Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization policy of turning the fight over to the “indigenous” peoples, whether Afghans, Iraqis, etc. while continuing to bomb, to supply weaponry, and to provide training and “advice” with U.S. boots on the ground.  Such an approach is sold to the American people as staying the course to victory, with the exact terms of “victory” left undefined.

But what price “victory”, even an illusory one?  A staggering one.  By the end of fiscal year 2018, America’s post-9/11 wars will have cost the taxpayers nearly $5.6 trillion, notes the “Cost of Wars” project at Brown University.  With U.S. generals speaking of “generational” wars, this enormous burden will only continue to grow in the future—unless we wise up.

So my New Year’s resolution for 2018 is simple.  End quagmire wars.  Bring the troops home.  After all, what’s wrong with saving blood and treasure?

Spin It to Win It: The High Cost of Trump’s Military “Strategy”

W.J. Astore

As the end of Trump’s first 100 days in office approaches, we can already see the novice commander-in-chief’s approach to military action.  The approach is to empower “his” generals.  And the results?  A triumph of image over substance.  “Spin it to win it” is the byword for Trump’s military “strategy.”

A few examples:

  1. The disastrous raid on Yemen that led to the death of a Navy SEAL as well as many civilians, including children, was spun by the Trump administration as a great success. At the same time, Trump pinned the death of the SEAL on his generals, saying “they” lost him.
  2. The launch of 59 expensive cruise missiles against a Syrian airfield did little to change the actions of the Assad government. Nor did it knockout the airfield.  Yet it was spun by Trump as a remarkable victory.  In his words, “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.  It’s so incredible.  It’s brilliant.  It’s genius.  Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five.  I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.”
  3. The use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan was seized upon by Trump as an example of his toughness and decisiveness vis-à-vis the Obama administration’s use of force. Yet Trump didn’t even know about the bomb until after it was used.  Nevertheless, he boasted “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks [of my administration] and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference.” Dropping MOAB, Trump claimed on scant evidence, “was another very, very successful mission.”
  4. The Trump administration lost track of an aircraft carrier battle group, saying it was on its way as a show of force against North Korea even as it was headed in the opposite direction. This blunder was chalked up to a miscommunication between the White House and Pentagon, even as allies such as South Korea and Japan expressed concern about the credibility of U.S. support at a time of rising tensions.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read piece at TomDispatch.com:

President Trump did one thing decisively.  He empowered a set of generals or retired generals — James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security — men already deeply implicated in America’s failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he’s then left them to do their damnedest. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters recently. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”

Have the generals really been “so successful lately,” President Trump?  The facts suggest otherwise.  Meanwhile, Trump has not yet learned that generals always want more – they believe they can win if they just get more troops, more money, more weaponry.  They’ll support Trump as long as he keeps funneling more of everything their way – and as long as he keeps spinning their blunders and missteps as victories.

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Is this the face of “success” in Yemen?  A little girl dead?

For the moment, Trump’s generals may love him for his “spin it to win it” boosterism and his blank checks of support.  But beware, men wearing stars.  Trump has already shown he prefers to delegate responsibility as well as authority when things go bad (recall the failed raid on Yemen and the dead SEAL).

Trump may not be a micro-manager, but that’s because he doesn’t know anything.  He just wants to spin military action as a win – for Trump.  If the generals keep losing, Trump will turn on them.  The question is, will they turn on him?

More disturbing still: When failed military actions are spun as alt-fact “victories,” the violence isn’t done simply to facts: it’s done to innocent people around the world.  It’s no game when innocent children die in the false name of “winning.”

America’s Military Strategy? Persistent Overreach

A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

W.J. Astore

Reports that President Obama is considering even more troops and bases to fight ISIS in Iraq put me to mind of Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus.  Two millennia ago, Varus committed three Roman legions to the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in terrain that neutralized Roman advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Ambushed and caught in a vise, his legions were destroyed in detail as Varus took his own life.  To Rome the shock and disgrace of defeat were so great that Emperor Augustus cried, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”

Ever since 9/11, American presidents and their military advisors have repeatedly committed U.S. troops and prestige to inhospitable regions in terrain that largely neutralizes U.S. advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Whether it’s the urban jungles of Baghdad or Fallujah or Mosul or the harshly primitive and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, American troops have been committed to campaigns that they can’t win (in any enduring sense), under conditions that facilitate ambushes by an elusive enemy with superior knowledge of the local terrain.  The number of U.S. soldiers killed or seriously wounded in these campaigns is roughly equivalent to those lost by Varus, though unlike Varus no U.S. general has yet to fall on his sword.

Unlike Rome, which did learn from Varus’s catastrophe the perils of imperial overreach, the U.S. persists in learning nothing.  Perhaps that’s because America’s defeat is collective and gradual, rather than singular and quick.  America may lack a Varus or a calamity like Teutoburg Forest, yet the overall result since 9/11 has been no less debilitating to American foreign policy.

Despite setback after setback, American presidents and generals persist in trying to control hostile territory at the end of insecure logistical lines while mounting punitive raids designed to deny Al Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban “safe havens.”  We should have learned the impossibility of doing this from Vietnam, but it seems America’s presidents and generals keep trying to get Vietnam right, even if they have to move the fight to the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.

Yet seeking to control territory in inhospitable regions like the Middle East or Afghanistan, whether you use American troops or proxy armies, is an exercise in strategic futility.   It’s also old-fashioned thinking: the idea that, to exert influence and control, you need large numbers of military boots on the ground.  But the world has already moved past such thinking into “borderless” hegemony as demonstrated by the Internet, by global business and finance, and by America’s own practice of drone strikes and cyber-war.

By repeatedly deploying American troops – whether in the tens of hundreds or tens of thousands – to so many equivalents of the Teutoburg Forest, our leaders continue a strategy of overreach that was already proven bankrupt in Vietnam.  Meanwhile, despite our own early revolutionary history, our leaders seem to have forgotten that no country likes to be occupied or interfered with by foreigners, no matter how “generous” and “benevolent” they claim to be.  Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).

America simply cannot afford more troop deployments (and commitments of prestige) that set the stage for more military disasters.  When you persist in committing your legions to torturous terrain against an enemy that is well prepared to exact a high price for your personal hubris and strategic stubbornness, you get the fate you deserve.

After Varus’s calamity, the Romans stopped campaigning east of the Rhine.  When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly?

Update (6/21/15): A friend writing from Germany reports that “new archaeological finds near the Elbe apparently show at least one major battle between Roman and Germanic forces in the second century AD. The documentary film’s claim was that the archaeological finds, combined with a few classical source references, show that the Roman armies did engage in major punitive expeditions deep into the territory across the Rhine in the time after Varus, including the one newly discovered which apparently showed a major Roman victory.”

Difficult to see.  Always in motion the future, Yoda once said.  He might have added that the past too “is always in motion.” Did a punitive raid such as this strengthen the Roman Empire or weaken it?  If the Romans won a victory, was it of the Pyrrhic variety?  Did the Romans attempt to sustain a presence across the Rhine only to abandon the attempt?  It will be interesting to see what new evidence is uncovered by archaeologists working in the area.