The theme of the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of the semi-official periodical Foreign Affairs published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is the lessons that the United States ought to learn from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a supremely important exercise for America’s foreign policy elite. The result, unfortunately, is disappointing. In what follows, I will first describe what the five contributors argue. All of them, as well as the editors, agree that the wars have been unambiguous disasters. But none of them have tried to grapple with the bigger questions raised by this debacle. Why did the United States launch on such a misguided adventure in Iraq, a nightmare from which we are very far from waking? How did it come about that there was such widespread support—in the beltway and the foreign policy community—for such a fool’s errand? Why did the warnings of realists—not to speak of anti-war radicals—go completely unheeded in the rush to war? These fundamental questions are largely ignored in the issue.
In his essay, “More Small Wars: Counterinsurgency is here to stay,” Max Boot is still peddling his book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Boot argues that whether it likes it or not, the United States will find itself in many more small wars or pacification campaigns in the decades to come. “Since Washington doesn’t have the luxury of simply avoiding insurgencies, then, the best strategy would be to fight them better.” He proceeds to recount the lessons that emerged from his study of the hundreds of small wars carried out by Britain and the United States over two centuries. These lessons are of the management literature type: plan for the peace, revaluate strategy, train forces for counterinsurgency missions, learn the language of the occupied, send a sufficient number of troops, have patience, and so on and so forth. One thing that he failed to consider in the book and which is also conspicuously absent in his essay is precisely how the United States stands to gain by fighting small wars at all.
Richard K. Betts is the most reasonable. His first-order lessons sit well with the present author, even though he mixes tactical questions with strategic ones:
First, the United States should fight wars less frequently but more decisively, erring, when combat is necessary, on the side of committing too many forces rather than too few. Second, the country should avoid fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries, since local politicians will rarely do what Americans want when that differs from their own aims. And third, Washington should give priority to first-order challenges, focusing its military planning on fighting wars with great powers and focusing its diplomacy on preventing them.
Deterring aggression by other great powers is the biggest—if largely unacknowledged—achievement of US foreign policy since World War II. The United States prevented the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia. It made sure that Germany and Japan were defanged, and threatened nobody. As China emerges as a powerful force in Asia, American protection has reassured China’s worried neighbours. On the other hand, America’s efforts to impose itself on minor powers and small states—from Indochina to the Middle East—have largely failed. This is because American power is well-suited for deterring great power adversaries and ill-suited for pacification campaigns. When Boot says the US military should focus on training for counterinsurgency operations, he is wrong. The United States cannot sacrifice combat effectiveness and divert scare resources away from preparing to fight great power adversaries. This is simply because maintaining a favourable balance of power is the United States’ primary strategic interest. As Betts puts it, “the United States needs to temper the ambitions unleashed by its post–Cold War dominance, not only in reaction to the setbacks it has experienced in small wars but also to prepare for bigger wars for bigger stakes against bigger powers.” If swatting flies in the muck is sapping the strength of the US military, the United States should simply stop patrolling the marshes.
Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro (“Homeward Bound?”) are not drawing any lessons from the wars. I have no clue why their essay is included in this section. Their concern is to evaluate the risk of radicalized Westerners now fighting for the Islamic State returning home and unleashing terror. They argue that this is a manageable threat (since it is quite easy to flag the returning jihadists) and there need be no panic about it.
Rick Brennan (“Withdrawal Symptoms”) complains about the Obama administration’s failure to reach a status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad. He points out that the reason why the negotiations failed was because the administration insisted on legal immunity for all US forces in Iraq, something that was politically impossible for any Iraqi government to accept after the Blackwater massacre. Brennan claims that Iraq’s descent into its current nightmare was foreseen with “eerie accuracy” by the military. Specifically, a 2010 internal assessment concluded that in the event of a American pullout, “the central government in Baghdad would become ever more corrupt, sectarian, and acquiescent to Tehran, setting the stage for a revival of the Sunni insurgency, a resurgence of AQI, and the end of the relative stability that the United States had worked so hard to foster.” The same thing, Brennan claims, is happening now in Afghanistan where the Obama administration is planning to pull out all American troops by 2016.
Peter Tomsen reviews three new books on the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan. The most interesting of these is Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy, wherein she documents Pakistan’s double game of “public support and private official assurances that Pakistan is allied with the United States and NATO, but clandestine ISI support for radical Islamist terrorism.” Citing an “inside source,” Gall goes so far as to claim that not only was Pakistani intelligence aware of bin Laden’s whereabouts, the ISI “ran a special desk” to handle bin Laden. [More on it when I’m done reading the book.] Tomsen shows that Afghanistan is headed towards calamity, with possibly a full-scale return of the Taliban when the US departs. He argues that it is high-time to arm-twist Pakistan. Specifically, the US should do three things:
The United States should designate the Afghan Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization, which would result in financial sanctions against banks and other institutions in Pakistan that the group relies on for funding. Then, Washington should make clear that U.S. military aid to Pakistan will end if Islamabad does not shut down the ISI’s terrorist proxies. Finally, Washington should warn Islamabad that if Pakistan continues its support for extremists in Afghanistan, the United States might designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism—a move that would produce severe economic, political, and diplomatic consequences for Pakistan.
Brennan’s assessment, shared by Tomsen—that US forces ought to stay till the dependent state can manage its own affairs—reinforces the case against small wars. If the United States cannot leave until the nascent state can survive by itself, this significantly increases the ex ante cost of pacification campaigns. But whether or not the United States should fight small wars is not a question of costs alone. The most important question raised by these failures is nowhere to be found on the pages of Foreign Affairs. When should the United States fight small wars? This is not rocket science—the answer is straightforward. America should only fight small wars when it has a vital interest at stake that cannot be achieved by any means short of war. Small states are of little consequence to America’s standing in world affairs. As a rule, small wars invariably sap the strength of great powers instead of enhancing their power position. Given the high costs and dubious gains of small wars, the United States is best off undertaking them only in the most extreme of circumstances. For instance, the Islamic State is arguably a case that requires the deployment of US ground forces. The threat to American security is unambiguous. Airstrikes are incapable of doing the job. And regional players are either incapable or unwilling to destroy the Islamic State. Even though there is little appetite in America for a ground war, the alternative—a salafi jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East—is even less appetizing.
By spilling the blood of tens of thousands of Muslims, America’s Iraq debacle inflamed anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, thereby making it a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist radicals. Thousands of American troops have returned in coffins, and tens of thousands have been crippled. The war cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars. Yet, no vital American interest in Iraq had ever been identified. Moreover, even America’s military capability has suffered as a consequence. It is no longer in a position to fight in two regional campaigns simultaneously—the gold standard of the US military. Furthermore, American prestige has suffered a lasting damage. For instance, Iran no longer fears an American invasion aimed at regime change. Iranians know that America will not be landing a large land army in Eurasia any time soon. The threat of the use of force is considerably more useful than the use of force itself.
What this issue of Foreign Affairs shows is that the mandarins at the Council on Foreign Relations have failed to consider the most important questions raised by the decade of war. If there is any soul-searching in the foreign policy community, there is no sign of it. For the most fundamental question that arises in the aftermath of Iraq is this: How did the foreign policy community fail to see the obvious? Namely, that no conceivable US interest could be secured by removing Saddam and taking up the task of pacifying Iraq. Elsewhere, I have grappled with this question. The answer that emerges is not pretty. Basically, Saddam came to play a central role in the formulation and justification of a muscular US foreign policy—the “rogue states doctrine”—in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the twelve years between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, Saddam became a litmus test for beltway insiders and foreign policy elites to prove their cred. With the neocons firmly in the saddle, the United States launched an ill-considered policy to reconfigure the Middle East by force. When Bush went after Saddam he was following the path of least resistance in the domestic political economy of US foreign policy. The foreign policy elites offered little resistance because they had long-ago lost sight of realism.