America’s war in Afghanistan, the longest in the Republic’s history, has just officially ended in what even charitable analysts would term something less than success, and the less optimistic would see as rumblings before strategic defeat. American troops will remain in Afghanistan, as trainers and support cadres for the modestly competent Afghan security forces, not as combat troops, though one has to wonder if our snake-eaters and bayonet-carriers will be needed again someday, just as in Iraq now, where more than three years after America’s official withdrawal from that civil war, our troops are back and in harm’s way, trying to stem the tide of the fanatical Islamic State. Thousands of young lives ended, tens of thousands more lives ruined — and I’m only talking about Americans — to say nothing of the trillions of dollars spent since late 2001 in U.S. efforts to transform key parts of the Greater Middle East. For what, exactly?
Along comes Daniel Bolger, a recently retired army three-star general, with a fine reputation as a bona fide scholar-warrior with command tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to explain in detail that, when it comes to strategy, the U.S. Army can’t find its ass with both hands, as an old soldier of my long acquaintance likes to put it. The title of Bolger’s new book, Why We Lost, tells the reader where it’s going, and while I don’t agree with all the author’s arguments or conclusions, this is a work that all Americans who care about our national security should crack open and ponder.
The essence of Bolger’s argument is that the U.S. military, our Army especially, is tactically brilliant, without peer in a stand-up fight, due to superb tactics, technology, and know-how, but remains strategically blind to many realities. This is perhaps not surprising, given the institutional blinders our military wears, as I’ve recently explained. As he states concisely:
The war required a way to use a tactically superb force to contain and attrit terrorist adversaries. In this, America’s generals failed. We found ourselves impaled and bogged down in not one, but two Middle Eastern countries, and this on the best advice of educated, experienced senior military men and women who had all studied Vietnam in their service schools. Over time, piece by piece, the generals recommended slogging onward … Absent a realistic campaign concept in both countries, wars of attrition developed. Some saw it as a failure of imagination.
It’s difficult for any fair-minded analyst to say that Bolger is broadly wrong about any of this. Anyone familiar with recent history will find more than a faint whiff of Vietnam War dysfunction in this story, while those with deeper memory will be surprised how the U.S. Army has reversed its reputation in World War II, when it was tactically second-rate compared to the Wehrmacht, despite what Americans movies tell you, but was strategically excellent, especially compared to the ideology-addicted fanatics managing Germany’s doomed late-war efforts.
No matter what, after Iraq and Afghanistan, taxpayers are right to ask why the military is spending vast sums of their money on Professional Military Education, particularly at War Colleges whose entire mission is teaching future generals about strategy, when it seems nobody can play this game. The verdict is now in and it’s not pretty. A decade ago, an esteemed professorial graybeard at the Naval War College, where I used to teach, explained that we would know we — meaning the faculty — weren’t doing our jobs when America started losing wars. Here we are.
Bolger’s book has met with all the expected criticisms from all the expected quarters, particularly from those who invested themselves heavily in the counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign — meaning the media campaign, which was more important than anything they did on the battlefield — of the late Bush administration. Those who made careers on COIN in the late aughts have denounced Bolger’s take; the polite ones have embraced a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger approach.
This lobby, COINdinistas to their detractors, managed to combine glib intellectual arrogance (“COIN is the graduate level of war”) with impressive salesmanship. Remarkably, COIN experts, many self-styled and some of the instant variety, managed to get large sums of money from the Pentagon to provide whatever expertise they possessed as the Defense Department flailed around, not sure what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. One wonders what future historians will make of the deployment of platoons of anthropologists and sociologists to help the U.S. Army in the Middle East to do … something.
COINdinistas were always about op-eds and smart-sounding arguments, often buttressed by impressive PowerPoint presentations, more than actual on-the-ground results, which is what soldiers generally care about. Hence, there has been a robust counter-narrative to the COIN lobby from the outset, and LTG (ret) Bolger should be seen in that tradition. COL (ret) Gian Gentile, an impressive soldier-scholar in his own right, has been a vehement learned critic of the “pure hokum” of the COINdinistas, while the gold standard of intellectual trashing of the COIN lobby comes from Douglas Porch, a distinguished military historian, whose take-downs of faux-academic poseurs have been both learned and scathing.
Professor Porch has provided a book-length explanation of his view, which can be summarized as: COIN is a myth cooked up by late-colonial soldiers, most of whom failed at suppressing rebellions. But image weighed more than substance, helped along by marketable agitprop whenever a Western country does something stupid like invade and occupy a country in the Middle East, so the COINdinistas are ever with us, in one form or another. They hibernate for years, even decades, but they never go away.
This is not to say that rebellions cannot be suppressed — military history is replete with lessons on how to do that — rather that this cannot be done by the humane, faculty-friendly means like “winning hearts and minds” that the COINdinistas claim. Their preferred “population-centric” methods almost never work, in reality. As I’ve explained, the last time that a Western country actually suppressed a major rebellion in a Middle Eastern country was Fascist Italy in the early 1930’s, which crushed an Islamically-inspired Libyan revolt with tanks, artillery, even poison gas, against civilians. In other words, it was a huge war crime. We’re not doing that in 2015, no matter how nicely anybody asks.
And even brute force does not always work when the politics are incoherent. During World War II, the Germans wound up occupying Yugoslavia and overseeing a genocidal all-against-all civil war along religious and ethnic lines; there were many similarities between Germany’s failed war in Yugoslavia and America’s recent failed war in Iraq, not least that in both cases the occupiers were mostly bystanders to a nasty internecine conflict that they barely understood. Germany applied vicious force, even against civilians, to compensate for their inadequate troop numbers, and they never had trouble pushing rebels out of areas. They never had enough troops to hold much terrain after pacifying it, however, so this shortfall, when combined with the lamentable state of Germany’s allies and proxies in Yugoslavia, spelled defeat.
What, then, is to be done? In reality, America may need to depose rogue regimes and invade countries, even Middle Eastern ones, again someday, but the expensive debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan — whose cost in lives and treasure can be counted, while their enormous cost to America’s power and prestige are only beginning to be grasped — must not be repeated.
Instead, Dan Bolger advocates “short, decisive conventional wars for limited ends,” which means that the Army will march in if needed — and only really if needed — to overthrow whatever tinpot regime needs overthrowing on grounds of terrorism, trying to get nuclear weapons, et al. In this concept, the Pentagon would still have kicked the Taliban out of Afghanistan in late 2001, and Saddam out of Baghdad in spring 2003, but there would be no “Phase IV,” hence no need for counterinsurgency.
This strategy plays to the obvious strengths of the 21st century U.S. military, which excels at tactically decisive operations, particularly the targeting of leaders and terrorists with real-time intelligence and crack special operations forces (SOF), while omitting the pacification and “nation-building” fantasies that the Pentagon does not handle well (to be fair, nobody else these days does either: see Israel and the Palestinians). The Afghan invasion of late 2001 was handled by SOF with intelligence support and local proxies against a fourth-rate opponent, while the subsequent toppling of Saddam’s ramshackle regime, which had never recovered in military terms from the thrashing it took at the hands of the U.S. military in early 1991, was almost a walkover. These were low-hanging fruit for the Pentagon.
I’m sympathetic to the “short, decisive” approach because I’ve advocated it for years, since 2005 actually. I’ve long called it the Drive-By Strategy and it’s much like what LTG (ret) Bolger now advocates. The Pentagon will invade countries as a last resort, once all diplomatic and Special War options have been exhausted, but we will not stay for long. Happily, the rather precise way the Pentagon wages war these days means that damage to civilian infrastructure will be manageable. In the event of the next Operation [Insert Name of Country] FREEDOM, recovery and reconciliation will be the job of locals, with assistance from international aid organizations, whose access to the country the Pentagon will facilitate. If the locals decide to attack aid workers and thereby render their country inaccessible to needed help, that is their choice. The era of Americans trying to build Western-style political and military institutions in the Middle East, at the barrel of a gun with bags of uncounted cash, has failed and is over, whether we realize it or not.
Military audiences like this approach, as well they should, since it’s based on what they do well, while omitting what they hate doing and do badly. Armed social work is not a proper job of the U.S. military unless the threat represented to our national security is existential (e.g. in Mexico). Yet the reality is that America is not yet ready to withdraw from the world. Going back to pre-World War I isolationism, however appealing that may be, is simply not a realistic option in 2015. The Pentagon must retain the capability to project decisive power against our enemies — in practical terms this means the U.S. Army needs a ready-to-go heavy corps to kick in any door that needs kicking — but it must be done wisely with an appreciation of the limits as well as the power of the American military.
The objections to the Drive-By Strategy are moral, not practical, in tone. As a seasoned reviewer, a man of extensive SOF experience, observes of Bolger’s retroactively desired approach in Iraq and Afghanistan:
In my view, if the United States had left quickly in these two cases, disaster would have followed. If we left Baghdad in the summer or 2003, we would have left behind chaos in the form of an emerging insurgency. In Kabul, it would have been worse: the Taliban and al Qaeda would have moved back into the vacuum, with their leadership laughing at how the United States had once again kicked the furniture and then went home. These campaigns have been long hard slogs, but the notion that we could have succeeded by just departing after the conventional fight is wishful, to say the least.
This frankly smacks of the worst sort of false morality. Modifying the infamous Pottery Barn rule, America did not incur a moral obligation to repair Afghanistan or Iraq when we invaded them — both those countries came pre-wrecked thanks to odious and brutal rulers like the Taliban and the Ba’th — rather when we stated that we would make them better than they were before, in magic Hollywood fashion. Moreover, it is impossible to see how either of those benighted countries would have been worse off had America quickly left them after deposing wicked regimes, rather than after a decade and more of U.S.-led and financed war in Iraq and Afghanistan, brutal conflicts that have killed at least hundreds of thousands of civilians while overseeing the complete unraveling of their economic and political fabric. It is impossible for America to escape some moral liability there, since our policies, above all the abysmally failed attempts to make Iraq and Afghanistan no longer themselves, are the root cause of so much of the problem today.
To sum up, in the decade ahead, as its global power position gradually wanes from hegemony to first-among-many, America has difficult choices to make about what sort of military it wants and how it wants to use it. Many of these hard calls appear budgetary but are really strategic — and therefore political — in nature. On one side there are neoconservatives who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from the Bush years, and still pine for invading countries almost at whim; that these couch-warriors never are in danger themselves, and are often COINdinistas too, should be noted. The Republican presidential field for 2016 has several plausible candidates who embrace a worrying degree of this sort of thinking: they need to be asked hard questions about all this.
The other side is almost equally devoid of reality-based thinking, however, in their advocacy of a retreat from America’s global policing mission. Please note: this is a policing task, not a mission civilatrice. The reality is that the U.S. Navy remains the guardian of the world’s oceans and worldwide commerce, while the rest of our armed forces uphold that order, which has prevailed since 1945 against myriad threats. A few decades out, this state may no longer exist — it’s difficult to see how our Navy can effectively maintain its global presence mission in, say, 2030, based on current shipbuilding plans — but I would suggest that those who would prefer a different custodian of the global order, China being the only plausible alternative at the moment, are admonished to recall the old wag about being careful what you wish for, since you might get it.
America will remain the custodian of the global order against threats both symmetric and asymmetric for a few years, and probably decades yet. To achieve that in the most peaceful way possible, it is good to plan realistically for wars: that, after all, is what the Pentagon does. To maintain peace, the U.S. military must maintain the capability to invade countries and depose dictators who threaten world peace and order. That must be a last resort, yet a resort it must be. We must never repeat the gross strategic errors of Iraq and Afghanistan, which were nearly entirely self-inflicted thanks to institutionalized escapism and magical thinking by high-ranking people, civilian and military, who should have known better.
This is where a coherent Drive-By Strategy is required, one that will harness the amazing capabilities of the 21st century U.S. military while avoiding its inherent, perhaps congenital pitfalls. This is an imperfect approach, but less negative than the alternatives. The U.S. military may need to do a “drive-by” on a country more than once, but that approach would still be cheaper in lives and treasure than extended occupations of countries where we are hated. It’s easy for non-Iraqis to forget that America has been at war with or in Iraq, in one fashion or another, virtually nonstop since 1990. This unprecedented debacle, endless, indecisive, and costly, is precisely what must not be repeated.
The United Kingdom partially recovered from the disaster of the Boer War of 1899-1902, a self-inflicted colonial debacle that humiliated the mighty British Empire while painting it as immoral and wicked to much of the world, thanks to the sufferings of civilians. Yet that empire, though humbled, survived for decades more, through two world wars, thanks to course corrections applied in London about how to deal with their global policing mission henceforth. Additionally, the tactical lessons learned for the British military in the Boer War, which came at steep cost, proved helpful when they had to confront a peer competitor on land and at sea in 1914.
Will the United States derive similarly useful lessons from its Middle Eastern defeats since 2001, thereby maintaining our declining strategic position in a world of rising rivals and threats? That is the task before the Pentagon now, but also before our political class, who have to make the big decisions about what sort of military America gets and how it will be used. By 2025, at the latest, the outcome will be clear. The time to decide is now.