An essay by Bing West
This essay addresses why America is performing poorly in 21st Century warfare. War is the act of destroying and killing until the enemy is broken morally, and no longer resists our policy objectives. But President Obama eschews the war he claims to be fighting. Our generals have imposed rules of engagement that lengthen war and increase civilian casualties. Our enemies do not fear us, and our friends do not trust us. America is fighting a war without direction or leadership.
We invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq with inchoate plans and inadequate forces to establish post-war security and governance. After winning the first battle in both countries, President George W. Bush offhandedly decided to build democratic nations, a task for which our State Department and USAID had no competence or interest. By default, the mission fell to our military, also without competence but with unflagging devotion and determination.
In both countries, our true enemies were rabid warriors determined to win or die. For us, the wars were limited —fought with few forces and many restraints. When the Islamists proved dedicated to an unlimited struggle, we reversed course and withdrew. True, President Bush did increase US forces in Iraq in 2007 and that stabilized the country. However, in 2008 he agreed with the sectarian, serpentine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to withdraw all American troops by 2011. He threw away his success.
When 2011 arrived, President Barack Obama went against the recommendations of the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Instead of politically maneuvering to keep a residual force to check al-Maliki’s dark instincts, Obama pulled out all our troops. He fulfilled Bush’s foolish promise. Al-Maliki then proceeded to oppress the Sunnis, leading to the reemergence of the extremists now called the Islamic State. Obama quit, but Bush made it easy for him to do so.
Mr. Obama claimed Afghanistan was the war that had to be won. But as in Iraq, he headed for the exit. To avoid a humiliating collapse before he departs the White House, he will keep perhaps eight thousand US troops there in 2016.
On balance, the results in Iraq or Afghanistan were not worth the costs in American casualties, money, and global influence. Several policy lessons may be drawn.
First, the Pentagon should project for the president the length of time to achieve a desired post-war end state. In Iraq and Afghanistan, that meant staying for twenty or more years. From the start, Bush failed to explain this to the public. He did not even try to set the conditions in Congress and in the press for a long-term presence, as in South Korea.
Second, if our troops are killing and dying because the indigenous troops are not capable enough to stand on their own, then our commanders have the right and the obligation to select the leaders of those local forces. American diplomats chose Karzai and Maliki behind the scenes. Both choices were disasters. Yet due to unthinking allegiance to the word “democracy,” we allowed those solecistic, incompetent “elected” leaders to promote whom they chose within the ranks of the police, military, and other government agencies. Like Great Britain before us, we were a colonial power. Unlike the Brits, we did not select the commanders of the indigenous armies we were training, equipping, and paying.
Third, we granted sanctuaries to the enemy. Our military after Vietnam had vowed never again to fight such a war. But we forgot that vow. We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy al-Qaeda. In December of 2001, the core of that organization and its top leaders were trapped in a mountainous region called Tora Bora. Rather than employ a nearby Marine brigade and special operations forces, the American commander, General Tommy Franks, relied upon Afghan warlords whose motley troops allowed the al-Qaeda force to move across the border into Pakistan. That was a grave, unforced military error. Then, in a triumph of legalism over common sense, Bush decided not to cross the border in hot pursuit to destroy the fleeing terrorists.
Afghanistan steadily deteriorated after that. Yet we persisted for fourteen years in fighting an enemy while giving him a 1,500-mile-long sanctuary. Similarly, we knew where the al-Qaeda safe houses were in Syria, just across the border from Iraq. But we didn’t bomb them. We granted our enemy sanctuary.
Fourth, in such countries we should influence the politics through covert means, just as we did in Europe after World War II and occasionally during the Cold War. This includes channeling money, communications channels, and ease of transportation. Politics determines who gets what, when, and why. We fight wars to shape political ends. Influencing indigenous politics during a war should be a goal, not an out-of-bounds marker.
Fifth, we decided not to capture our enemy. In the twentieth century, many more combatants were captured than killed. Today, we don’t capture anyone. The gross pictures from Abu Ghraib, the political storm over water-boarding and Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo and prosecute terrorists as criminals forced our military to turn over all captured enemies to corrupt Iraqi and Afghan officials. Most of those once in prison are now free, while the wars continue. Our troops call it “catch and release.” America has no comprehensible judicial system for war in the twenty-first century.
Sixth, we remain at war rhetorically, while refusing to fight with determination. How do we fight? The administration launches one or two drone strikes each month. White House spokesmen have bragged that the president routinely reviews dossiers and selects those to be killed. A commander in chief deciding upon a war fighting tactic calls into question management priorities. It also signals incapacity to think strategically, illustrating that he views war as a set of morally wrenching discrete decisions to kill about one hundred enemies each year.
Occasionally, the White House will supplement the drone strikes with a raid by our special operations forces, especially the SEALs. This garners huge favorable press, projecting an image of American superstar invulnerability. No wonder each SEAL vies to receive the most publicity. Distributing photos of the entire National Security Council mesmerized by the video of a squad raid encapsulates a strategic instinct to focus on the capillaries.
War is the act of relentlessly destroying and killing until the enemy is broken physically and morally, and no longer resists the advancement of our policy objectives. By that definition, Obama eschews war. He has declared the Islamic State will be destroyed. But his actions belie his words.
Seventh, our feckless war fighting policies over the past seven years have gravely diminished the respect of our adversaries and the trust of our friends. We refused to provide Ukraine with weapons after the Russians invaded. After declaring a “red line” if Assad used chemical weapons, Obama asked Russia to help him out. Now Russian aircraft in Syria are bombing the rebels Obama armed in the hope of overthrowing Assad. In Iraq, Iranian troops have replaced American troops. Obama’s retort is that both Iran and Russia won’t achieve anything more than he did. At the same time, Obama signed a nuclear agreement with Iran and lifted sanctions, without submitting a treaty to the Senate. In sum, Russia and Iran have undermined American credibility and military power in the Middle East, while China steals on a gigantic scale in cyberspace and exerts control over the South China Sea.
Currently, America has ceased to be the major power-player in the Middle East. Unless confronted by an absolute disaster, Obama will finish out his presidency without applying any more force than occasional bombing against the Islamic State. Russia and Iran will remain the more dominant military actors, along with the Islamic State. Under Iranian influence, Iraq will remain at war, divided between the Shiite and Sunni areas.
Fighting the War
We have done a miserable job at policy planning. But how are we doing on the battlefield? How do we fight that is really different from the twentieth century?
The most obvious difference is our overwhelming conventional superiority. That was clear when we took back Kuwait in 1991. It was reinforced in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003. The world has never seen the likes of it. Yes, Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon … there have been numerous victorious armies and conquests. But none like this, none with such global reach and so few casualties.
What happened here, and why? In the twentieth century, the major wars were fought on an industrial scale. The combatants on opposing sides possessed the same sets of conventional weapons —machine guns, artillery, tanks, ships, vehicles, and aircraft. In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, only America could quickly, and at low cost, destroy all those weapons possessed by any other country.
Why? Because for a brief period —two or three decades?— our military technology had outstripped the rest of the world. The Soviet Union had collapsed, China had not caught up, and no other hostile nation was remotely in our technological league. Most telling was our leap forward in air-to-ground surveillance, detection, and destruction. Militaries cannot move or be supplied without vehicles. Every artillery tube, every internal engine, every human face emits heat that shines like a spotlight. Use any computer or cell phone, walk outdoors, drive down a road —and someone above is watching, electronically or physically. Our air-to-ground surveillance and firepower are astonishing.
Yet we did not win the battles, much less the wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Simple: the enemy adapted. He took off his uniform and used our morality and befuddlement as jiu-jitsu to overcome our technological advantages. By hiding among the people, he was safe from our firepower. The enemy lived in the cities and villages, or hid across the border, coming together in small groups and choosing when and where to initiate contact against our patrols. The Vietnam-era tactic of fire and maneuver has gone away. Our troops wear armor and gear weighing about ninety pounds. They cannot run a hundred meters without being exhausted. So when the enemy shoots, a patrol gets down and returns a vicious volume of aimed fire. Except you rarely see a target, because the enemy isn’t stupid. He has selected a covered position before opening fire. Most firefights last less than fifteen minutes, because once a gunship or aircraft comes overhead, the enemy is doomed. So he shoots and scoots. Thus the war goes on and on, because the enemy will not commit suicide by massing or wearing uniforms.
The Islamists in Iraq and Afghanistan did not fight fiercely and stand their ground against our troops. Our training, shooting skills and firepower were overwhelming. The enemy may have been a farm boy, a terrorist from Yemen, a former Iraqi soldier, a youth from a Pakistani madras, a Taliban from Kabul —whomever. They all learned to stay about four hundred meters away from American troops, because every grunt now has a telescopic sight and most are qualified as expert riflemen.
The suicide bomber was a threat to our vehicles and fixed outposts. But it never expanded into an enormous threat. The YouTube videos posted by the Islamic State from the 2015 battles in Iraq suggest an exponential growth. From anecdotal evidence, it appears the suicidal truck bomber is as much a threat as was the kamikaze during the Okinawa campaign in 1945.
There was no solution to the improvised explosive device (IED). There were hundreds of thousands of them, because mixing fuel and fertilizer and packing them into a plastic jug is too easy ever to be stopped. IEDs have to be tolerated on a battlefield just as is a rifle. It’s a simple tool and therefore commonplace. We shouldn’t forget that in Vietnam, we lost over 10,000 killed to mines and booby traps—20 percent of all our fatalities.
What was new in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was not the profusion of the IED/land mine; instead, it was the reduction in the number of American fatalities. Much has been written about “the magic hour,” meaning: get every wounded to an aid station within sixty minutes. True, the ratio of injured to killed dropped from 4-to-1 in Vietnam to 7-to-1 in Iraq. The underlying reason was better training in life-saving drilled into every squad, along with the tourniquet. Most wounded die from exsanguination. They bleed out because the tourniquet is inadequate. Not anymore. The modern tourniquet with its twist and snap is as much a breakthrough for the grunt as was the stirrup for the horse rider.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the doctrine of counterinsurgency prevailed. Practically, this meant our troops patrolled by walking about three miles a day in heavy gear in formations of fifteen to twenty men. The idea was to clear a populated area of the enemy by walking around repeatedly. Once the enemy pulled out or was killed, the friendly platoon or company would hold that area until Iraqi or Afghan forces were capable of holding it on their own. The local forces, in conjunction with local officials, were then to use American funds to build projects in order that the people would see a material reason for supporting their government.
Militarily, the goal was to win over the people. Thus, rules of engagement were designed to place severe limits upon the use of indirect firepower (mortars, artillery, rockets, or bombs). Even one civilian casualty caused bitter complaints, although the Islamists were responsible for three out of four killed or wounded.
On our side, there was a yin and yang to a war that had no endpoint. Over the last four years in Afghanistan, it became common for a platoon commander to say, “My mission is to get every one of my men back home in one piece.” Why risk your men when no one could tell you what defined victory? Why go across a field after taking some fire to check out the compound, when you could call in indirect fire? The incentive at the patrol level was to call in indirect fire.
On the yang side, the incentive of the senior commanders was not to allow indirect fire. The longer we stayed, the more frustrated the top command became with the lack of population cooperation. Every civilian casualty translated into some official complaining. So the more rigorous became the rules, especially in Afghanistan. It finally got to the point that the word of the forward air controller (FAC) on the ground was not good enough. The pilot was required to cross-examine the FAC before executing the mission, and a lawyer and/or another pilot back in an operations center miles away also had to authorize the strike.
Today, eight out of ten US attack aircraft return from missions over Islamic State territory without striking any target. To do so, the pilot needs the permission of a senior American officer in an operations center hundreds of miles away. This enormous caution —and expense— to protect the lives of every civilian is unprecedented in history. Only the richest country in the world can do it. However, it gravely slows down the pace of a war and allows the enemy to recuperate indefinitely.
These rules of engagement cannot be sustained when we again fight an enemy who can and does kill us. So far in the twenty-first century, our helicopters and aircraft have been almost invulnerable. Our losses have been very, very small. Similarly, our forces on the ground have not been under pressure. They are not attacked by doughty infantry in full battalions like the North Vietnamese, supported by heavy artillery. When we again fight heavy, sustained battles on a large scale, some commanders claim we can change these highly restrained rules of engagement at the snap of the fingers. More likely, the rules have sapped the aggressive spirit the high command must share with the warriors on the battlefield.
Lastly and regrettably, I must mention the growing trend of victimhood. Our society does not celebrate and single out the heroes. Instead, it tries to compensate those who psychologically or physically did not return home able to fully cope. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides some level of health care for less than half of our veterans. A minority of veterans use the VA. If all who had served turned to the VA for medical assistance, the VA system would collapse.
Yet the VA is now reporting that more 40 percent of all individuals getting out of the service after four years —and the wars essentially are over— apply for compensation for mental or physical injury. During the Vietnam War, the VA had five injury categories; today, it has seventeen. The more free money is available, the more will apply for that money. What does that do to the internal morale of a service when some in every squad put in claims, and others do not?
In summary, our enemies do not fear us and our friends do not trust us. Sensible steps can turn that around, but that depends upon the next commander in chief. So far in the twenty-first century, due to our vast wealth and technologies, we have not been sorely tested. Our beloved nation does not have a martial spirit, and perhaps does not need one. It does need a military inculcated with a warrior spirit.
Our largest deficit is national will. Consider our actions over the past decade. In 2004, we destroyed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in order to root Islamist terrorists. Then in 2011, we pulled our troops out of Iraq, despite predictions that Iraq would fall apart. In 2009, we demanded Assad leave power in Syria, but did not use military force to accomplish our demand. In the resulting civil war partially caused by our blunders, Islamist terrorists seized half of Syria and Iraq.
In November of 2015, the Islamists —now called ISIS or ISIL— massacred 130 civilians in Paris. But the American political system was unable to unite behind committing forces, as we did in Fallujah a decade ago. Why? Our commander-in-chief has rejected deploying Americans in ground combat, because he believes eternal war is the nature of the Muslim Middle East. He refuses to utter the word ‘Islamist terrorist.’ So does the Democratic contender to be our next commander-in-chief. The Republican candidates are divided. Our Congress will not even debate a resolution to authorize the use of ground forces, for fear of how the vote would affect re-election.
President Bush rashly overstepped in extending war to include nation-building. President Obama ideologically retreated by imposing restraints that encouraged our enemies. Congress proved irrelevant, lacking the cohesion to play its Constitutional role in declaring for —or against— war. As 2015 ends, a leaderless America is drifting. That should scare us all.
Bing West is a former combat Marine and an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration. He has written nine books about war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.