Small Wars Journal

The American Endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan: Euphemism for Risk Management?

Wed, 11/05/2014 - 12:03am

The American Endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan: Euphemism for Risk Management?

Ilwoo Lee

In a surprisingly candid interview, a well-respected public and now retired official, was lobbed this inquiry considering the U.S. legacies in Iraq and Afghanistan: “How is this movie going to end?” Thus did Charlie Rose neatly frame the conundrum that had plagued Robert Gates for years and which now most likely infects the entire corridors of the U.S. National Security establishment.[i] In his response, and in his usual Mid-Western manner, the former Secretary of Defense aptly concluded, “We don’t know yet.” Whether it was by true design or mere stumbling into, Bob Gates hence publicly illuminated the only sincere tone that has long been hiding in both the Bush and Obama Whitehouse.

Even if exact intentions and wishful finales may have differed between neoconservatives and their liberal interventionist siblings, the one relative’s verdict that painstakingly now holds sway regarding U.S. foreign policy appears to be that of the more realist cousin. Imagination by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz or even Tony Blair are now ostensibly overshadowed in the security arena by the likes of Chuck Hagel, Joe Biden, and to a lasting extent Bob Gates himself. Whether history will judge such rotations as short sighted or too little too late is anyone’s guess. What can be affirmed for now is that at this juncture, all Western (NATO) partakers, counting intellectuals, soldiers, political parties, and nations, have become quite frankly, weary of war.

Not Certain But Confused

Yet despite the clear exhaustion, the public message being promoted—maybe to save face—by Western governments, is on the one hand persistently hopeful yet stubbornly vague. The jargon of U.S. warfare today looks as if it were perplexed if not flat out embarrassed. Wars enacted in the name of freedom, liberty, and democratization, have transformed into crusades of counter- insurgency (COIN), counter-terrorism, and now settled for some semblance of stability enabling, whatever that might actually mean.[ii] Likewise, the constant bombardment of “the country is safer, but not yet safe” by journalists, pundits, and people of high office, only looks as if to affix the impression that Americans have yet to make it into the once and for all “secured” promise land.

Perhaps in response to such semantic confusion, the present fad for U.S. military strategy seeks to look to the Far East (Pacific Asia) as opposed to the blood-spattered Middle East. Hilary Clinton’s own declaration for a “pivot” towards Asia, illustrates the United States’ own recognition of where the next big chapters of history will be written. Still, if diplomats have detected an Eastern shift in the center of gravity, those in uniform have undoubtedly staked out their fair share as well. In the same venue where Bob Gates had been so blunt (The Charlie Rose Show) U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, officially cited the need for “light footprints” and low costs.[iii] If Clinton and her circle foresaw the necessity for deepening discourse with Asia—China in particular—Maybus and incorporated would have seen the obligation for more scrutiny. Even as overt war these days would be unthinkable with another nuclear proprietor, covert alternatives in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, cyber technology, special operations capabilities, all launched from a maritime platform, have now become the light and cost effective system for future U.S. armed engagement.

Vexingly, the uncertainty of whether the Pacific and by extension China’s rise will be serene or adverse is still an open-ended question.[iv] For the United States however, it has chosen not to take any chances. Through martial enlargements of long established security hubs—think Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands—the message to would be contenders is quite clear: it doesn’t matter if your aim is to be just regional or global in influence, Uncle Sam will always be able to reach out and touch someone.[v]

Sin City

All said of course, and with a deeper gaze, one just might even detect a more implicit rationale for the Pacific shift. Washington’s decade long experiment in trying to eradicate Islamic extremism has certainly left land wars of occupation worse for wear. Moreover, the military’s uneasy admission that terrorism is not simply derived from a specific region—say, Mesopotamia—but rather a dispersed and metastasized phenomenon, has only supplied fuel to the U.S. soldier’s already befuddled flame.[vi] When faced with enemies that have no lucid structure, no wide-open nexus, no unambiguous representation that can speak for all during negotiations, it would appear as if certain Clausewitzian paradigms to fixing such predicaments have yielded little for the U.S. and its comrades in arms. If there are indeed eventual winners and losers, beginnings and endings, decisive battles that the Prussian master stated was present in war, such truisms certainly have not transported well in today’s “low-intensity” clashes.

Sadly, pertinent questions remain and still hang about like some bad song that just won’t go away amongst the edifices surrounding the Potomac. Blasphemous curiosities of: are future security concerns really in failed as well as ungoverned spaces? If so, what exactly are the options we have to try and alleviate such concerns? Is the U.S. military, as presently constituted, the right institution to respond to such threats? How long can we remain engaged in such campaigns given the short patience of the America public? And most importantly: what’s the trade-off in terms of what we get out of our investment in relation to what we can actually afford?

More Than You Can Chew

Conversely, the opponents of the West have presently selected asymmetrical means to inflict wounds. While Western forces may have revolutionized advanced munitions, logistics, and tactics, there has been no authentic revolution to date in changing the political map against jihad. If the root of it all was to in fact “change the way they live” so as to bring about Pro-Western fermentation, then by all accounts strategic success, as Clausewitz himself would have understood it, would entail meaningful and therefore beneficial political alterations in Baghdad or Kabul.[vii]

Altering politics so as to curtail suicide bombers, IEDs, and the like, may no longer be possible in this day and age and even undesirable under the terms it has to be achieved. If pacification of radicalism involves steady casualties infused with visions—not even a guarantee—of providing clean water, functioning schools, and good governance for decades to come, such expeditions would certainly be, as they already are, deemed unsustainable.

Equally baffling, the rising interconnections of our humanity have made it possible for Newton’s third law to be given voice in much of world events: that for every action, be it environmentally, economically, or security related, there is some unforeseen reaction. In an age where ecological maladies can cross borders, where financial contagions can leapfrog across continents, and in an era where military strikes may not be finite in themselves but splintering in terms of facing new side-effects (civilian casualties and its relation to jihadist retention), the zeitgeist for U.S. military strategy—it would seem—just may correspond more with managing conflicts rather than being triumphant over them.

Be it definitely or indefinitely, as U.S. and NATO forces courageously try and salvage some appearance of an honorable exit from Afghanistan, the key to “success” may not lie in putting an end to the killing or corruption for that matter. The solution may simply be in discovering what the West can live with and possibly supervise. Trotsky himself famously once said, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” A more apt slogan for U.S. National Security today might be, “you may not be interested in what is just tolerable, but what is tolerable just maybe in your best interest.” In this century, romantic notions of clearly defined resolutions to the dilemmas that confront the U.S. may just now be beginning to expire. How the U.S. and its Western affiliates will accept and ultimately sell such less than idealistic aspirations to their citizenry remains to be seen.

End Notes

[i] For the full interview see: Charlie Rose. May 16, 2012. Accessed May 3, 2014.

[ii] See: International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan. Accessed July 5, 2014.

[iii] A more detailed explanation as to what Secretary Mabus considers the “the future of war” can be found at: Bloomberg Businessweek Videos. May 24, 2012. Accessed July 24, 2014.

[iv] For an unconventional interpretation as to whether there is even a Chinese threat, consider Stephen Harner’s piece at: Harner, Stephen. "The NYTimes' 'China Threat' Myth, The 'Pivot To Asia,' And Obama's Foreign Policy Legacy." Forbes Asia, June 22, 2014.

[v] An interesting outline depicting what factors are considered when determining training sites for U.S. Forces deployed to the Archipelago see: Final Commonwealth Of The Northern Mariana Islands Joint Military Training Requirements and Siting Study. March 1, 2013. Accessed August 22, 2014.

[vi] Apart from the Middle East, U.S. Forces now are contending with the rise of African terrorists, be it Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to Boko Haram in Nigeria. For a nice breakdown of the differing extremist elements in Africa, from assumed size to recent activities see: African Terrorist Groups. January 1, 2014. Accessed September 2, 2014.

[vii] See: "Rumsfeld on Terrorists: Drain the Swamp They Live In." U.S. Department of Defense. September 18, 2001. Accessed July 7, 2014.


About the Author(s)

Mr. Ilwoo Lee is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He is currently assigned to the Military Studies Program, tasked with the education of Military Officers of the Singapore Armed Forces. Mr Lee is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in Political Science, along with a Master's degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also a former Officer in the United States Army.