I argue that the war endures, in large part, because national security policy makers, military operators, and think tank scholars have embraced several false assumptions.
The threat exists and continues to operate. But more importantly we must understand that it is waging unconventional warfare and only using terrorism as one of the means of its strategy.
About the Author(s)
A look at the war and how the administrations have prosecuted it.
About the Author(s)
On 15 June, the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis division of the Joint Staff J-7 published a report titled, "A Decade at War." This report came in response to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Dempsey's guidance that we should make sure we "actually learn the lessons from the last decade at war." The report can be downloaded in PDF format here. An excerpt follows:
In the decade following 9/11, it became evident that the Cold War model that had guided foreign policy for the previous 50 years no longer fit the emerging global environment. Key changes included:
- A shift from US hegemony toward national pluralism
- The erosion of sovereignty and the impact of weak states
- The empowerment of small groups or individuals
- An increasing need to fight and win in the information domain
In the midst of these changes, the US employed its military in a wide range of operations to address perceived threats from both nation-state and terrorist groups; to strengthen partner nation militaries; to conduct humanitarian assistance operations; and to provide defense support of civil authorities in catastrophic incidents such as Hurricane Katrina. This wide range of operations aimed to promote and protect national interests in the changing global environment.
In general, operations during the first half of the decade were often marked by numerous missteps and challenges as the US government and military applied a strategy and force suited for a different threat and environment. Operations in the second half of the decade often featured successful adaptation to overcome these challenges. From its study of these operations, JCOA identified overarching, enduring lessons for the joint force that present opportunities for the US to learn and improve, best practices that the US can sustain, and emerging risk factors that the US should address.
The report broke down lessons into eleven strategic themes, analyzing each one in brief and providing a way ahead on each. These were:
- Understanding the Environment: A failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals.
- Conventional Warfare Paradigm: Conventional warfare approaches often were ineffective when applied to operations other than major combat, forcing leaders to realign the ways and means of achieving effects.
- Battle for the Narrative: The US was slow to recognize the importance of information and the battle for the narrative in achieving objectives at all levels; it was often ineffective in applying and aligning the narrative to goals and desired end states.
- Transitions: Failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions endangered accomplishment of the overall mission.
- Adaptation: Department of Defense (DOD) policies, doctrine, training and equipment were often poorly suited to operations other than major combat, forcing widespread and costly adaptation.
- Special Operations Forces (SOF) – General Purpose Forces (GPF) Integration: Multiple, simultaneous, large-scale operations executed in dynamic environments required the integration of general purpose and special operations forces, creating a force-multiplying effect for both.
- Interagency Coordination: Interagency coordination was uneven due to inconsistent participation in planning, training, and operations; policy gaps; resources; and differences in organizational culture.
- Coalition Operations: Establishing and sustaining coalition unity of effort was a challenge due to competing national interests, cultures, resources, and policies.
- Host-Nation Partnering: Partnering was a key enabler and force multiplier, and aided in host-nation capacity building. However, it was not always approached effectively nor adequately prioritized and resourced.
- State Use of Surrogates and Proxies: States sponsored and exploited surrogates and proxies to generate asymmetric challenges.
- Super-Empowered Threats: Individuals and small groups exploited globalized technology and information to expand influence and approach state-like disruptive capacity.
Editor's Note: While soldiers sometimes believe that military programs and military operations should be held in some rarefied atmosphere protected from domestic politics, there is no such world. Hard choices always have to be made and it is worth considering how different people view these choices.
As the United States prepares to wind down operations in Afghanistan, the last high profile conflict in the War on Terrorism, and seeks a so-called strategic pivot towards Asia, it is important to assess the impacts of the war at home and the prospects for engaging future national security issues. While the War on Terrorism (hereafter referred to as GWoT) did not produce the 2008 recession in the United States, it greatly exasperated the severe economic crisis already faced by the American middle class that has been brewing since the middle of the 20th century. This has led to the current financial emergency in government where radicalized ideologies harden political positions and make progress difficult on economic and national security reform.
Estimates vary about the financial costs of the War on Terrorism. One assessment suggests approximately three trillion dollars. However, if one includes the annual defense budgets, homeland security expenditures since 2001, veteran programs, and the interest on the principal borrowed for military spending, the cost balloons to an astronomical eight trillion dollars. Using 2010 census figures about the number of households in the United States, this equates to about $70,000 owed by every American family. This is nearly double the size of the national average income. Combined with the stagnation of middle class incomes, the inflation of health, education, food, and fuel prices, and record low tax revenue from upper income families and corporations, the middle class now bears the heaviest burden of financing the war and its consequences. It is no wonder that American families are buried in debt.
Compounding the problem is the increasingly expensive and incapable military establishment. As the defense budget continues to grow, the military is less able to deliver desirable political outcomes in America’s conflicts. The high spending of the GWoT did not produce a correlating increase in American security; instead, it hastened the coming crisis facing the military. Increasingly expensive and complex weapon systems reduce the availability of military forces, and restrict their flexibility by requiring them to operate equipment and execute doctrines ill-suited for the demands of war. Last year, the Department of Defense announced that the Army alone will lose 50,000 personnel in an effort to reduce costs. Predictably, just last week, it was announced that the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will increase by 20 billion dollars and that it’s lifetime cost is expected to be at least 1.45 trillion dollars. As the military continues to break its own suicide records and maintain higher-than-average domestic violence, divorce, and sexual assault rates, it decides to decrease the number of personnel available for worldwide military operations in favor of over-priced military platforms incapable of performing basic military tasks like surviving contact with the enemy.
But this problem is disingenuously framed as class warfare and therefore receives little attention. Instead, the political leadership focuses on diminishing, eliminating, or privatizing key middle class programs in order to preserve the regressive tax code and the inefficient defense budget. The high costs of the GWoT are to be paid by sacrificing middle class benefits instead of balancing the obligations of all American taxpayers. Just last week, the Republican-controlled House passed in a partisan vote Paul Ryan’s budget that effectively privatizes Medicaid, and reduces federal retirement programs, food stamps, and college tuition aid, among other programs, while increasing defense spending and expanding tax cuts for upper income-earners. At the same time, the House also rejected a two-year Senate proposal to fund transportation spending, and instead passed, in another partisan vote, a 90-day extension of current spending. This was done despite America’s failing infrastructure, which has had notable failures in New Orleans and Minnesota. The classic debate about guns vs. butter rages on, and currently the guns are winning at the expense of the American Dream.
The cost of the War on Terrorism, or even the annual defense budget, could provide all of the funding necessary for repairing America’s infrastructure, reforming its failing education system, or even providing health-care to every American citizen. Instead, the costs of the war has forced America into political deadlock, where popular and essential public programs alike are being discarded in favor of retaining decaying institutions. Now, Americans are being asked once again to pay up for expensive military programs in pursuit of confrontational policies in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. We have already toppled the regime in Libya, Syria and Iran may be next, and we are posturing for a future conflict with China. The American public should be informed by its experiences in the GWoT. War is expensive, and it has long-term consequences beyond its immediate outcomes. One of those consequences should be the realization that nation-building at home must precede nation-building or -destroying abroad.
Caleb S. Cage takes on the memoirs of the four most powerful officials of the Bush Administration.