Stop Calling It the “Long War”


One week after the horrific 9/11 attacks, former President George W. Bush met with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the requirements of what would become known as the Global War on Terror. Although Bush was confident during the meeting, he was also concerned. According to Douglas Waller of Time Magazine, Bush reminded his audience that, “This will be a long campaign.” In fact, according to Waller, “Bush had been worried about sustaining American resolve to fight a long war against terrorism.” So sue us: we Americans prefer short, quick, and decisive wars with minimal casualties! Clearly, our elite–who are increasingly detached from the military–could care less.

Bush’s concept of a “long war” soon became an ingrained piece of military “wisdom.” But, the military was in no condition to fight the kind of “long war” that Bush envisioned. Years before, the George H.W. Bush Administration (George W. Bush’s father and America’s forty-first president) began downsizing America’s Cold War-era military. The Cold War had just ended and Bush-41 assumed that America could afford some minor cuts to its military. When George H.W. Bush lost his reelection campaign in 1992 to the smooth-talking, upstart Democratic governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, those limited cuts to the Reagan-era military became a permanent quest to balance America’s budget on the military’s back. Thus, the Clinton era “peace dividend” was crafted as a political gimmick to cover-up for President Clinton’s wholly anti-military policies. Such draconian cuts occurred even as Clinton continued to engage in “humanitarian” wars throughout the Developing world. This had the effect of sapping the military’s strength. It limited our ability to defend ourselves from actual threats (like al Qaeda), and it ultimately set the stage for many of the force size problems we had during the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What’s more, after 9/11, the American people neither wanted to enter into eternal conflict in the Middle East against a ragtag band of jihadists, nor to engage in a regional, quixotic crusade against secular autocrats. More importantly, most Americans had no idea that the fight to exact vengeance upon al Qaeda in the foothills of Afghanistan would rapidly devolve into an endless (and hopeless) mission to socially re-engineer the Mideast into the Midwest. This was something that no one signed up for. But, the Long War, much like the Cold War (America’s previous “long war”), took on a logic of its own. Indeed, that logic seemed eerily reminiscent of the Cold War. Yet, the Global War on Terror and the Cold War had little in common. With the exception that both wars involved serious ideological confrontation, the technology and tactics (as well as the nature of the enemies) involved were worlds apart.

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Fact is, the United States was attacked on 9/11 by an evil band of jihadist terrorists who were an obscure throwback to a time long past. While they certainly had countless sympathizers throughout the region, what was needed was not yet another pointless nation-building exercise; Afghanistan did not need or want American G.I.s handing out soccer balls to local Afghans. What was needed was G.I. Joe going up into the Afghan mountains in small Special Forces and paramilitary teams, and systematically rooting out the bad guys who had holed up there. What was needed was intensive bribery to purchase, or rent, the loyalty of the local Afghans to ensure that al Qaeda did not return. While we did these things in the opening weeks of the War in Afghanistan, the Deep State bureaucracy kicked in after the fall of Kabul and the collapse of the Taliban, and altered our strategy. So, at the moment that American forces should have been packing up to return home with a massive, historical victory under their belts, the national security bureaucracy opted instead to try to turn Kabul into Paris, thereby committing America to a 17 year-long war.

Writing in his 2011 book on the Middle East, “The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Civilizations,” Lee Smith makes the argument that the tribal nature of the region means that strength–particularly military strength–is respected. Bin Laden’s movement was predicated on being but the first wave (or, the base, which is what “al Qaeda” means in Arabic) of a regional, pan-Islamic revolution. Bin Laden envisaged striking America in a fantastic fashion, as al Qaeda did on 9/11, and assumed that once the American people processed the horror of that day, they would opt to withdraw from the Mideast, and leave the region open to Bin Laden’s machinations. Essentially, Bin Laden believed that by proving to Muslims everywhere that the United States was the weaker horse in the Mideast, those more conservative Muslims (who were repressed by American-backed secular autocrats) would rise up, overthrow those dictators, and replace them with Sharia law and Islamist government.

From November 2001, when Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan, to the spring of 2002, an incredibly small American force of Special Forces operators, CIA paramilitary teams, and indigenous Afghan forces–supported by American airpower–busted al Qaeda apart, took Kabul, and toppled the ruling Taliban. That should have been the end of the tale. Such a Jacksonian-like punitive expedition would have reasserted America’s status as the stronger horse in the region. Unfortunately, however, we stayed, and kept digging deeper into a region in which a tenuous political order rested on a sword’s edge. The more we involved ourselves directly in the region, like quicksand, the more we became trapped, and were slowly suffocated.

As early as the winter of 2002, the war effort in Afghanistan had been debilitated, as our limited military resources were shifted away from that campaign, and moved into preparing for an invasion of Iraq. Although the United States managed to take Kabul, inflict serious damage on al Qaeda, and send the Taliban running across the border into Pakistan, American forces had failed to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora in December of 2001, meaning that the War on Terror would continue in perpetuity. After all, Bin Laden was responsible for the most terrible attack on American soil in history. The Bush Administration could not simply pack up in Afghanistan and go home until he was brought to justice. Plus, with both al Qaeda and the Taliban hiding out in Pakistan, the concern was that they would simply move back into Afghanistan if American forces ever left was great. Also, the “neoconservatives” of the Bush Administration intended to preempt the Islamists’ calls for overthrowing secular autocrats by removing those secular autocrats, such as Saddam Hussein, and installing pro-American democracies throughout the region. Rather than do the tough job of hunting for Bin Laden in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region; instead of using diplomacy to force Pakistan to hand over the Taliban and al Qaeda elements hiding in their country with whom we warring against, the Bush Administration chose to change the narrative and invade Iraq, based on questionable intelligence and much supposition. 

So, what should have been a punitive expedition lasting mere months in Afghanistan, with minimal military commitment, resulted in the longest war in American history, a self-inflicted defeat in Iraq, the explosion of Iranian influence in the region, the return of Russian power into the Mideast, and it set off a chain reaction of revolutionary change that actually empowered Islamism, and turned the entire region against the United States. Meanwhile, at home, under the aegis of confronting terrorism, the United States embarked upon an increasing array of egregious civil rights violations. A somewhat effective–though nonetheless troubling–program of torturing captured terrorism suspects was implemented also. Plus, the United States soon found itself conducting successful–though legally dubious–drone strikes throughout the world. Oh, yeah, and America had spent anywhere from $1.4 to $4 trillion on the Global War on Terrorism (depending on which studies you believe). That price tag is getting higher each day, by the way.

In their rush to plan for an endless “Long War,” our leaders–George W. Bush and Barack Obama–broke both the United States military and the American economy. Thus, the Long War busted apart America’s vaunted status as the world’s sole remaining Superpower. It precipitated the current “age of disruption” that we are experiencing as well. And, from the looks of it, the Long War still has much more time to run through before it ends. In fact, it’s likely safe to say that, after three administrations, there is no discernible “end” in sight.

The next time you hear a pundit or politician lecturing you that we’re engaged in a “Long War,” remind them that we didn’t have to be. Tell them that if anyone with half a mind had been involved in the early stages of the Long War, they would have told former President Bush that America doesn’t fight “long wars.” To evoke former President Obama’s favorite phrase: “that’s not who we are.” The longer a war goes on, the more it changes America–for the worst.

Keep this in mind, also, as our feckless elites in Washington, D.C. encourage us to engage in the sisyphean task of “standing up to” Russia (for purportedly wounding Hillary Clinton’s fragile honor in 2016). Our elites have nothing to lose from such rhetoric, but we have much to lose. In fact, given the number of McMansions that have popped up in the Washington, D.C.-Metro area, it’s likely that our leaders have everything to gain from agitating for more long wars.

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Can’t we all just get along?


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