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In recent years many have cited America’s military struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan as signs of decline. Political wrangling over the size, use, and budget of the U.S. military, withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, the fault and effects of impending sequestration, and the Arab Spring and its follow-on effects have, among other issues, put wind in the sails of this theory. Others hold using military force for ‘wars of choice’ is no longer a viable option for America. However, to think that America can’t or shouldn’t project its power globally when necessary is a mistake. America’s military struggles in the post-9/11 era have stemmed from improper application of military force. Put simply, our recent counterinsurgency efforts haven’t been using it right. When used as it should be, using military force is still an effective choice.
A soldier’s job is to fight and win in combat and to prepare to do so. Nowhere in the job description is being an international aid worker mentioned. It is a testament to the commitment and adaptability of the U.S. military that they have been as successful as they have been at it in Iraq and Afghanistan. Providing public works, policing, community political relations, and social services is something that should be done by educated and experienced professionals in that area. The U.S. military is a hammer, not a scalpel. However, our troops have been asked to fill these sensitive roles on a steep learning curve over the last decade because of our own domestic politics have required it.
Our highest elected leaders are responsible for this. Americans don’t like to spend money on ‘foreign aid.’ Politicians, especially of the conservative variety, characterize this spending as wasteful and beat the drum against it as fiscally irresponsible. Foreign development assistance actually comprises less than one percent of the federal budget, but the returns received are much more cost effective, though hard to quantify. It costs much more to send one soldier to Afghanistan for a year than it does to build a school or new market building that will stand to be used for decades in places the sorely need them.
These were the programs Gen. Petraeus, Gen. McChrystal, and other military leaders asked for to help win hearts and minds. But conservative resistance to spending on any programs considered foreign aid means the professionals at places like the U.S. State Department and USAID or even the UN and non-governmental organizations weren’t going to get the job. Our troopers had to add it to their already long to-do list. Funneling it through the military was the only way it would get done at all. That’s not doing it right.
Following NATO’s decision to severely curtail joint patrols with Afghan security forces, the wisdom and effectiveness of training and equipping indigenous forces to eventually replace U.S. troops has also been questioned. This is a tactic the U.S. has been used often in places like Korea, Vietnam, South America, and the Philippines, among others, and again in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of these efforts were moderately successful, but not successful enough that the U.S. has ever been able to fully disengage in these places. We still have troops in Korea, Vietnam was overrun, and we’re still engaged in the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. These efforts can be successful as an auxiliary to a military campaign, but not as its main effort.
Often these efforts revolve around cooperating with a marginalized minority, such as the Montagnards in Vietnam, Kurds in Iraq, and Hazara in Afghanistan. When the U.S. eventually departs, these people can become even more marginalized as a result. These forces also lack the air, logistical, financial, and political support needed to be self-sustaining afterwards and can at times feel abandoned by America when finally do leave, as with Osama bin Laden and the Mujahedeen in 1980’s Afghanistan. Building security capacity essentially from scratch after effecting a regime change, especially in states with vast cultural differences from our own, is a very tall order to fill.
However, there is benefit to the U.S. in building military-to-military relations outside of conflict. There is a great difference between a modern, professional military and a ragtag militia when they’re called to respond to internal conflicts. Despite controversy over America’s military support of Egypt during Mubarak’s rule, the Egyptian military’s show of relative restraint was not just a sign of support for the people, but of an institution that believes it has a responsibility to the nation. A less professional force may have answered the calls by some to crush demonstrations or so reacted of their own volition. The Egyptian military has had a great deal of exchange with the U.S. military and the British military before it. The role of a professional military as a neutral arbiter in national conflicts can also be seen in Turkey, Thailand, and Pakistan. However, such relationships should be built in peacetime, not after a conflict has occurred.
Another example of the misuse of American military power has come in the weak, middling size of troop numbers sent into major combat—numbers fixed by the administration. America’s elected leadership opted for smaller, faster, lighter, more-economical force packages that, while winning all the battles, have arguably not won the wars. The small number of U.S. troops on the ground and reliance on indigenous forces early on in Afghanistan allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to slip away into Pakistan, where they continue to operate today by straddling the border. The lack of sufficient troop numbers in Iraq meant America couldn’t provide adequate security when it decided to stay put and later necessitated the ‘surge’ to stave off sectarian civil war and allow the return of commerce, also emulated later in Afghanistan. Though these were certainly major troop commitments, they weren’t enough to get the job done from the outset.
The problems that insufficient troop numbers created have proven wrong those critical of the Powell Doctrine, such as Paul Wolfowitz, and vindicated its supporters, such as Gen. Eric Shinseki. It is arguable that a stronger commitment of troops from the very beginning in both Afghanistan and Iraq would have turned up better results. The mission in Afghanistan suffered in particular from the loss of attention and resources caused by the Iraq War. The administration was keen to commit to the wars, but having decided to take the course, was unwilling to commit to it as much as necessary to guarantee victory from the beginning. Bring back the Powell Doctrine.
However that does not mean that every American intervention should become D-Day. There still is scope for America to intervene militarily in world events on moral or humanitarian grounds. When or what those grounds are is another discussion. The past twenty years have shown that U.S. interventions can be successful when they have clear, concise objectives that are consistent throughout the action and on a short timeline in which to achieve them. Limiting campaigns to air strikes with intelligence, material, medical, and humanitarian support for local allies on the ground and keeping our own conventional ground troops out has been successful. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya are examples. Iraq and Afghanistan are examples where intervening has gone wrong because they did not stick to these principles. Even in small, limited interventions, the commitment of force must be sufficient to meet a clear objective from the outset. The 1992 adventure in Somalia is an example where this failed.
It can be said that when it comes to using U.S. military power, it should be an all or nothing affair. If a major commitment of ground troops is required, it should follow the Powell Doctrine. If a small-scale intervention is decided upon, it should attract as full a commitment of force and support proportionate to meet the objective without ground troops. The past decade has shown that opting for a middling, unclear, inconsistent approach does not work.
Fighting grinding counterinsurgency campaigns has apparently become acceptable to America. CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus wrote his doctoral thesis and the military manual on it. It’s the topic of thousands of professional journal articles, newspaper columns, and PowerPoint slideshows. However, we do not have to accept the idea of confronting an insurgency as an inevitability or necessity of modern warfare. In fact, America would do well to avoid having to apply COIN tactics at all by avoiding insurgencies altogether.
Insurgencies are a case of catching the tiger by his tail. Once America invades a country on the ground and decides to accept the responsibility of rebuilding it or, rather, making it into something it never was, it will meet resistance. Not only local resistance, but regional as planting our flag also becomes a beacon for like-minded opponents to come and fight us. The argument that holds we have to stay, occupy, and rebuild a nation is that if we do not, we’ll be facing the same threat again down the road, not to mention moral obligations to fix what we’ve broken.
After WWII we decided not to repeat the mistakes of the Versailles Treaty following WWI and invested in rebuilding our foes under the Marshall Plan. But Afghanistan and Iraq are not Germany and Japan. Current history shows the results of following this logic are just as unpalatable as not following it. After ten years, Afghanistan and Iraq are much the same countries for average citizens as they were when we started. Only the cast of characters at the top has changed.
We have applied a strategy that worked well fifty years ago in two industrialized nations with previously-existing strong central governments to two underdeveloped Middle Eastern states with significant cultural differences, one of which has never had a strong central government in its entire history. That was a mistake. Leaving aside discussion about justifications for either war, the fact is that the U.S. should not have stayed in Afghanistan or Iraq, let alone both simultaneously. It is an aggravating factor that we also did not plan for the immediate aftermath or a long occupation afterward, yet went ahead with them anyway.
What should we have done? Leaving aside discussion of justification for going to war, we should have set very clear, concise, and consistent objectives and, having achieved them, left. In both cases, one objective was clearly unconditional surrender. In Afghanistan, the goal should have been to capture Osama bin Laden and his identified lieutenants, along with the whole of the Taliban leadership. Iraq is a more controversial case. It is clear now that the weapons of mass destruction did not exist. Another goal there should have been to capture Saddam Hussein and his identified lieutenants.
We should have followed the Powell Doctrine. The invasion should have been preceded by a build-up of troop levels sufficient to secure the whole of the country and should have proceeded at a pace expeditiously enough to block all escape routes and eliminate all resistance on a steady march toward the center. We should have blocked the escape across the Tora Bora Mountains or, failing that, pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban into Pakistan if necessary. We should have destroyed all Baathist or Fedayeen Saddam units we encountered, rather than bypassing some of them in a race to Baghdad.
We should have seen necessarily to humanitarian needs with programs administered through the State Department, USAID, the UN, and NGOs, secured by the U.S. military. At most, we should have facilitated and secured a gathering of national leaders, but not interfered in its decisions. Our troop drawdown should have begun within six months. We should have continued to provide humanitarian aid and assistance during and after withdrawal. All assistance beyond that should only have been given upon request from the self-determined leadership of Afghanistan or Iraq.
If years later a threat to America or its allies or vital interests is presented by the same nation, then America uses military force to eliminate it once again following the same template. The best way to defeat an insurgency is not to give it time or be present for it to develop. This strategy can be repeated ad infinium. America should always expect to face an insurgency, but never accept that it must. Nowhere in the rulebook does it say the U.S. must remain in or occupy a country it has invaded. Recently, we have chosen to. Once the threat has been removed, we have accomplished the objective. Anything beyond that is territory where the wisdom of continued use of military force becomes questionable, the rules of engagement become shaky, the objectives become unclear and inconsistent, and an insurgency is likely to develop.
The campaign in Libya was a success because it had a clear, concise, and consistent goal—namely to end the rule of Muammar Qaddafi. After some initial hesitation, America decided to intervene. The successful result shows that when a correct assessment of the amount of force needed to achieve the objective is applied proportionately, we will succeed. Had we limited our involvement to non-military support, the mission likely would have failed as the resistance was defeated by Qaddafi’s superior military forces. Sending troops in was never an option. If we had sent U.S. troops into Libya, following the model of Afghanistan and Iraq, they would likely still be there and perhaps face an insurgency. Despite toppling the oppressive Qaddafi regime there, the recent anti-American violence in Benghazi shows not everyone would have accepted our presence. The program of directed airstrikes and tactical support was strong enough to tip the balance. American involvement there was over in less than ninety days and with zero U.S. casualties.
It would be a mistake to believe America’s military power is in decline. America, even with proposed cuts, still spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. No other nation can match the United States’ ability to project power anywhere in the world on just a few days or hours’ notice. Though multiple combat deployments have taken their toll, America’s military is the most experienced in the world. It has been fighting two grinding wars on multiple fronts tens of thousands of miles from home in some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable. Most of our opponents are still stuck at home, parading their troops and aging equipment down the streets of their own capitols. Despite sometimes bad policy decisions by its elected civilian leadership regarding the use of force, the United States military has risen to meet its challenges and succeeded despite them. That’s no sign of decline.