How to Lose Wars and Infuriate People


Writing of his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars, the Prussian strategist, Carl von Clausewitz reminded his audiences that “warfare is an extension of politics through other means.” We, as Americans, used to fundamentally understand this concept. Yet, we Americans have done a funny thing: we’ve spent the post-Cold War era de-linking politics from the use of force abroad.

From Somalia in 1993, to the Balkans, to Afghanistan in 2001, to Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011, the United States found itself increasingly engaged in conflicts that it either had no business committing itself to in the fashion it did, or that it had no ability to end those conflicts in a meaningful way. In 2006, speaking with PBS Frontline, retired Marine Corps General Joseph P. Hoar criticized President George W. Bush’s Iraq War policy as placing American forces in a war zone and simply “having them do stuff.”

Hoar was a supporter of Senator John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004, so he is biased. However, General Hoar’s criticism of what some call “post-modern warfare” or “armed humanitarianism” is apt.

Below is a lecture at the University of San Diego (UCSD) in 2007 (I don’t agree fully with General Hoar, but my respect for him over the years–particularly regarding Iraq–has immeasurably increased):

This concept of humanitarian warfare became ingrained in the American psyche throughout the post-Cold War period. The United States would see a wrong, whether it be the genocide in Somalia or the ethno-religious bloodletting experienced in Bosnia in 1995 or Kosovo in 1999, and would deploy U.S. forces to the region. We would bomb and shoot our way into ending the bloodletting. Then, we would deploy tens of thousands of troops (in Kosovo, 13,000 U.S. troops remain to this day) and “stabilize” the situation.

Samantha Power, the journalist-turned-UN-Ambassador for the Obama Administration, wrote an entire book “A Problem From Hell” that was apparently more influential than I realized back in the day (since Power was given a very powerful position in American foreign policy during the Obama years).

In that work, Power chided the former Clinton Administration for either not intervening to prevent genocide or for intervening insufficiently. Basically, her entire outlook (shared now by most American foreign policy elites) was simply that the only time the United States should bring its force to bear is to prevent mass killings.

To an American Liberal, the U.S. military is essentially one, big, green meals-on-wheels-machine. That’s okay, because most American Conservatives–at least until the last few years–viewed the military as a big, green, international police force. So, everyone was wrong. The job of the military is–and should be–to kill people and break things…in order to achieve a political end. While fighting for an unconditional surrender is a gratifying stance (and, as in the Second World War, it is necessary), it is not always possible or desirable from an American strategic point of view.

Afghanasty: Where Extremism and Virtue-Signaling Meets Idiocy

As I wrote recently on the War in Afghanistan: the United States took a radical position on the Taliban following 9/11. While it was understandable why the George W. Bush Administration refused to make distinctions between terrorists and the states who supported them, it was also a highly toxic decision. Namely, it committed the United States to an extremely onerous task–that hardly any American would support in the long-run, by the way.

The United States, just as it would do in Iraq in 2003 and beyond, entered into Afghanistan on the pretense of a necessary counterterrorism campaign. Yet, within a year of that campaign having begun (and not having finished, by the way), the Bush Administration got bored and switched tactics: in Afghanistan, they opted to transition to a highly costly and time-consuming nation-building, counterinsurgency campaign. They did this, even as they were planning to conduct a sprint into Baghdad! Thus, the counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan–the one mission that was absolutely vital to U.S. national interests–got short-shrift in exchange for costlier and longer-term (with murkier results) counterinsurgency and nation-building missions.

Oh, yeah, and for years the terrorists and their supporters in the Taliban eluded our capture–and many continue to today. But, hey, not only were we going to end the humanitarian disaster caused by the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan (by creating a new one there), but we were also going to bomb these folks into democracy!

The George W. Bush Administration was caught with its proverbial britches down on 9/11. They were understandably upset, embarrassed, and worried about their political future from then on. Further, the American people were rightfully outraged by the violence we experienced on that terrible day. Yet, this was not an excuse to de-link the political side of warfare from the side of kinetic force.

It was also hardly an excuse to allow for substituting what would work in accomplishing our ends in Afghanistan–a flexible, but small force of American troops dedicated solely to counterterrorism–in exchange for resorting to the old way of doing business: nation-building.

Now, after 18 years of nation-building, almost a trillion dollars wasted, the United States is no better than we were in 2001. In fact, having wasted our immense political capital in Afghanistan (and having alienated much of the local population by encouraging wildly unrealistic hope for the future and then not even delivering a fraction of those hopes), the American position in Afghanistan is, in many cases, worst off today than it was in October of 2001, when the first U.S. forces entered into Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda.

Had someone been sitting at the strategy table who understood Clausewitz’s dictum well, they would have advised the Bush Administration (and, had those in the Bush cabinet been willing to listen) that the Taliban, as unpalatable as they are–and they are very gross–represents a majority of the Afghan people (the Taliban, like most Afghans are not only fiercely religious, but they are also ethnic Pashtuns). We would have worked hard to untangle the Taliban support for al Qaeda whilst continuing–and expanding–our kinetic operations against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Further, we would have understood the deep ties between the Taliban, neighboring Pakistan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For the former two, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban were a vital ally in that part of the world (and a nominal balance against their common foe of Iran).

For Iran, they needed to be on good-footing with the Taliban, because they did not want to have to worry about a threat from their northern periphery as well as their southern and eastern peripheries.

The United States necessarily came to rely on Pakistan and even Saudi Arabia for waging its Global War on Terror. Yet, we never once countenanced–or cared–about how the Taliban played into the foreign policies of those two states (namely, Pakistan). Unless we were willing (or able) to source an American force of more than 250,000 troops to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, then, we should have made peace with the Taliban, in order to get the regional powers to fully back our efforts against al Qaeda. We didn’t.

So, our regional “partners” were double-dipping: helping us when it was convenient, but always striving to protect their Taliban wards because they were strategically important to those regional powers. And, just as neither Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia are monolithic states, the Taliban was not a monolithic entity either.

In fact, many of their senior most leaders did not agree with the decision of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, to house Osama Bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. Indeed, Mullah Omar, beholden to a seventh century mentality of being a good host (and not commensurating with non-Muslims at any level), was not entirely comfortable with his decision to allow al Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan.

On at least three major occasions, both Mullah Omar and other senior Taliban leaders attempted to broker a truce with the Americans and enter into a coalition government in Kabul. In the words of one CIA official at the time, Vice-President Dick Cheney refused to embrace the CIA’s concept of “Taliban for [Hamid] Karzai.” Adding (according to journalist Steve Coll), “It’s the same crap we saw in Iraq: ‘All Baathists are bad. All Taliban are bad.'”

Once the decision was ultimately made in 2002 by the Bush Administration that, indeed, “All Taliban are bad,” the Taliban insurgency picked up in operational tempo. Apparently, the Taliban destroyed an American C-130 transport plane on the tarmac at Bagram Air Base. Three American soldiers who were onboard the plane were killed in the incident. Shockingly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had his media relations team cover that story up by claiming that the plane crashed in a training exercise.

This was the unofficial start of the full-on Taliban insurgency directed at the United States.

Whereas the Taliban were divided over their official support for al Qaeda, and many were willing to make peace with the United States and its chosen government in Kabul under Hamid Karzai’s rule, the American leadership was taking a hard-ass approach, believing that unconditional surrender was the only way to prevent Afghanistan from reverting into a haven for terrorists.

Clearly, no one knew any of Afghanistan’s long history of violence and political terror.

Iraq: An Idiot’s Delight

When 2003 rolled around, the Bush Administration got what I like to refer to as “Extreme Strategic Deficit Disorder” (E.S.D.D). It’s a lot like Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, except that it affects leaders at the national, strategic level. Essentially, the Bush Administration got bored with the War in Afghanistan because, in the immortal words of our former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “there were no more targets to bomb” in Afghanistan.

So, we went gallivanting into Baghdad under the dubious pretext that Saddam Hussein not only had an active weapons of mass destruction program, but that he also was working closely with al Qaeda. It is true that Saddam had a long history of developing illicit weapons of mass destruction. And, according to Mohammed Obeidi, a member of Saddam’s infamous “nuclear mafia” of military scientists, Saddam was creating what was known as a “surge capacity.”

In other words, Saddam was stockpiling the equipment, materiel, and know-how for a WMD program with intention of being able to surge production of a WMD arsenal once (as he presumed) the Western sanctions on his regime were lifted. This was confirmed in the Duelfer Report (and this, by the way, was the assumption of former CIA Director George Tenet who reportedly told President George W. Bush in an National Security Council meeting in 2003 that Saddam would “definitely” have WMDs by 2013).

However, having a nascent “surge” capability is not the same as having an active nuclear weapons program. Technically, Japan and Saudi Arabia have “surge” capabilities. Further, there is scant evidence linking Saddam with al Qaeda. Yes, Mussab al-Zarqawi, the once-and-future king of al Qaeda in Iraq (killed by US bombs in 2006) operated a rudimentary chemical weapons facility, Al Khurmal, in northern Iraq when he led the Ansar al-Islam terror group–which was a precursor to al Qaeda in Iraq (which, in turn, was the predecessor to ISIS).

But, after 1994, Saddam Hussein did not have active control over northern Iraq, as New York Times reporter, Peter Baker, points out in his excellent book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney In the White House. That part of Iraq had been cleaved away by American forces during the 1994 “Operation Provide Comfort”–another Clinton era “humanitarian” military intervention–which helped to create a quasi-independent Kurdish state. In the run-up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, northern Iraq was the proverbial Wild West: it was utterly uncontrollable.

To blame Saddam Hussein and his Baathists–as evil and twisted as they were–for Zarqawi’s presence in northern Iraq, and to link that with a larger effort to work alongside al Qaeda, was absurd. But, it fit the political agenda that many in the Bush Administration had for the Middle East (the so-called “Freedom Agenda”).

The Freedom Agenda was the Bush Administration’s plan for the Middle East. They believed that by knocking off Saddam Hussein’s regime–an authoritarian, though relatively secular government–they could remove a major source of resentment in the region. By removing the authoritarian, secular Baathists from power in Iraq, then the United States could get a proverbial jump on the jihadists who, many believed, were using this resentment to fuel their own rise to power.

Not only could the U.S. mollify a source of resentment for the region, but by installing a democracy in Iraq, they could also influence both Iraq and the wider region into embracing a Third Way between the Pan-Arabist autocratic politics that dominated the region and the totalitarian jihadism of radical groups, like al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Further, as a family member of mine who served in Iraq once argued, “[The United States] was getting good real estate for cheap.”

In other words, the United States was losing its geostrategic position in the region (this is backed up in George Friedman’s 2005 book, America’s Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies). Before 9/11, Saudi Arabia was looking for ways to remove the American military presence in their country that had persisted since Desert Storm in 1991. It was the source of much resentment in the region, and served as a rallying cry for jihadists everywhere.

By taking down Saddam Hussein, and placing a pro-American regime in the heart of the region, the United States was believed to be reducing pressure on the Saudis. Once Iraq was stabilized, an American presence could be maintained, and the bases in Saudi Arabia would have been of less importance, and could have been removed without damaging America’s position in the region.

All of those concerns were legitimate from a geopolitical point of view. In that way, the Iraq War was not such a bad decision. However, it was a disaster because the Bush Administration did not embrace a reasonable strategy for Iraq. Yes, it put on the greatest light show since Desert Storm by sending a force of roughly 150,000 troops up from Kuwait to march on to Baghdad in just 21 days!

Unfortunately, though, it had neither the requisite amount of force to stabilize the country in short order and, it lacked the cultural context to pacify the most intractable elements of Iraqi society quickly. To compound matters, the Bush Administration then allowed for the creation of the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority (which many American military and intelligence officers derisively referred to as “Children Pretending to be Adults”).

The CPA effectively took colonial control over Iraq and then systematically alienated all members of Iraqi society who were needed to build a stable postwar Iraq.

Former U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremmer III acted as the head of the CPA (essentially, he was a viceroy in all but name only). He issued his two famous orders on the first day of his viceroyship of Iraq. The first was to disband the remnants of the Iraqi military. The second was to disqualify any Iraqi who was a member of the Baath Party from holding any public position in the postwar political environment.

Thus, Bremmer and his CPA stooges turned what was supposed to be a “war of liberation” into a quixotic attempt to “bring justice” to those who had abused Iraq for decades–by taking sides in an ancient Sunni-Shia blood feud that effectively ripped postwar Iraq in half (exactly as Saddam Hussein had hoped would happen after his downfall).

In the weeks and months following the decision to de-Baathify the country, leaders in the George W. Bush Administration celebrated their open commitment to justice-at-all-costs. Yet, no one had the gumption to tell them that a) democracy in the Middle East will only yield to Islamic extremists taking charge (thereby spreading the cancer from the corners of Muslim society into the seats of power).

And, b) without a tight commitment to an amenable political solution, the very same nation-building that George W. Bush had campaigned against in 2000 would become the policy embraced in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as the United States was met with the reality that its naïve and intractable moralistic positions in both countries would alienate many people who would be needed to ensure the United States won the war.

Toward a Political End

In his epic work, The Utility of Force: The Art of War In the Modern World, retired British Army General Rupert Smith opens by arguing that “paradigm shift” has occurred in warfare since the advent of nuclear weapons arsenals in 1945. While he admits that his observation is not original, he rightly argues that this observation–though made by many today–is not fully understood.

Smith describes this paradigm shift as having occurred from when “armies with comparable forces [did] battle on a field to strategic confrontation between a range of combatants, not all of which are armies, and using different types of weapons, often improvised.” General Smith analyzes that the new paradigm is now about fighting “a war amongst the people.”

Smith’s arguments throughout his seminal work hit at the nub of what former the U.S. Marine Corps General Hoar meant when he criticized the Bush Administration for having American forces enter into Iraq, hang around, and “do stuff.” It exemplifies, according to Smith, the complete lack of understanding by our leaders in “deploying force and employing force.” The strategist must understand not only how to deploy force, but when. More importantly, the strategist must comprehend how to use that force and why.

In Afghanistan, the war devolved from being a righteous punitive expedition directed against al Qaeda, the true perpetrators of 9/11 to being an endless counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign that targeted the Taliban, rather than al Qaeda, as the primary enemy of American forces (which, now, today, the Taliban have probably killed more American troops than al Qaeda has).

With the Iraq War of 2003, what began as an uninformed obsession to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms to Saddam Hussein (by engaging in preventive warfare in order to remove him from power and place a friendly government in charge there) ended up exacerbating the terrorist threat to the region, and utterly destabilizing America’s geostrategic position there in the long-run.

Our problem was that we failed to understand how warfare had changed since the end of the Cold War. We compounded our difficulties by trying to make our enemies fight the kinds of wars we were conditioned to fight. In Afghanistan, we didn’t like fighting a truly stateless, international force like al Qaeda. Instead, we transmuted our desire to fight a responsible party of 9/11 into a need to attack the government of Afghanistan, simply because it was there.

By the time 2003 had rolled around, the bulk of al Qaeda had relocated to neighboring Pakistan. As Steve Coll’s recent book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, recounts, American forces in Afghanistan soon found it easier to begin targeting Taliban forces rather than al Qaeda elements because the Taliban “were there” in Afghanistan.

Our inability to tie our warmaking in places like Afghanistan to an actual political end has led to endless warfare and a further destabilization of the regions we sought to pacify. The threat of terrorism has actually proliferated–as has widespread disapproval of not only America’s ill-fated “Global War on Terror” in the region, but of the United States herself.

General Smith explains in the opening chapters of his book that:

“Nation-states, especially Western ones and Russia but others too, all send in their armies, their conventionally formulated military forces, to do battle–to have a war–in these battlefields, and they do not succeed. Indeed, throughout the past fifteen years both the Western allies and the Russians have entered into a series of military engagements that have in one way or another spectacularly failed to achieve the results intended, namely a decisive military victory which would in turn deliver a solution to the original problem, which is usually political.”

From the Balkans to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, as Smith claims, “military force may have achieved a local military success, but frequently this success failed to produce its political promise: there was no decisive victory.”

What are our political objectives in the Global War on Terror, whether it be in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere? How is it that American counterterrorism campaigns throughout the Horn of Africa and the Philippines (and most of Southeast Asia)–against jihadist networks, such as Abu Sayyaf, are not well known to the public (despite these threats being as pervasive as al Qaeda was on 9/11)?

How is it that the United States and its allies throughout Africa and Southeast Asia have been generally effective in curbing jihadism in these regions, but not so much in the “major theaters” of the War on Terror (in Afghanistan and Iraq)?

Compare that to America’s first military engagement with a jihadist-type non-state actor: the Barbary Coast Pirates. The United States waged two major conflicts against the Islamic pirates of North Africa. For years after the American Revolution, Barbary pirates took American ships and enslaved their crews. In many cases, women and children became slaves and were sold on the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire.

Everyone knew that the Barbary pirates swore fealty to the Ottoman Sultan. Yet, the Americans–first during the Jefferson Administration and then under James Madison–used force directly against the Barbary Pirates and eschewed trying to make a bigger proverbial stink against the Ottomans. Of course, this was a practical matter: the United States as a new country had a small and relatively weak military that was regionally-focused as opposed to the forces of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet, the American military had proved to be an effective military force against the British and the Barbary Coast Pirates. Still, out of larger geostrategic concerns, the American government kept the perpetrators of the piracy squarely in their crosshairs, and left their supporters to their own devices. Was it moral to do so? Likely not. Was it both practical and, ultimately, effective? Yes. The Americans got the pirates to stop targeting U.S. flagged ships in the Mediterranean and the Americans didn’t get bogged down in a civilizational struggle, such as it is today.

The utility of force is predicated on the political objectives of a given conflict. As such, when speaking about the Second World War (the conflict that most influenced the architects of the Global War on Terror), the Allies’ insistence on the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers in the Second World War was essential. It was needed to disabuse the Germans and Japanese (and, as laughable as it sounds, the Italians) of any future desire to wage another war of aggression against their neighbors. The First World War had proven that a negotiated settlement would not sway them; that they not only had the will to fight again, but the capacity.

Total war, therefore, not only broke their will but also fundamentally removed their capacity.

Today, the enemy is fundamentally different in terms of capabilities and resources. Total war is neither possible nor advised–especially when the enemy is so small and can be dealt with by an equally small, but capable force, that is tethered to a realistic political objective. Our objective should be to devastate our enemy without sucking all of the oxygen out of our society.

In Afghanistan, then, the logic should have been to deploy counterterrorism forces to decimate al Qaeda, capture or kill Bin Laden and his top aides, and to leave in place a more amenable government–and to do so in as little time as possible. This was achievable. But, the Bush Administration took every step it could to complicate matters by conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda.

In Iraq, if the goal was to prevent a WMD breakout, why didn’t the George W. Bush Administration simply seek to negotiate with Saddam over his program, and return Baghdad back to its previous role of being a strategic balancer against Iran? Failing that, why didn’t the Bush Administration understand that a short, rapid victory in Iraq with as few troops as possible was an obtainable goal–so long as they planned on reconstituting the Iraqi Army and keeping certain Baathists in positions of power?

Every American administration since George H.W. Bush has failed to comprehend that the use of force is useless if Clausewitzian strategic realities are ignored. Just deploying force into war zones to “do stuff” or, in the words of General Rupert Smith, to allow one’s force to “become a shield of one side [of a conflict] and a hostage of the other” is reckless, irresponsible, and wasteful. You might as well not even take to the battlefield at that point.

Unless American leaders begin accepting limits on what pure military force can achieve (without becoming doves), and more fundamentally, inherent limitations on their power to conduct war, then a sound strategy will never be crafted in war. Rather, we will continue to “do stuff.” Action will be conflated with accomplishment. And, threats will never be mitigated. Instead, they will simply multiply–even as we increase our expenditures and commitments to the conflict.

This is how you lose wars and infuriate people.

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