Is America fighting a permanent war, or at least a war that will span generations? From the First Gulf War to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, to the military operations to enforce sanctions on Iraq, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all our covert military operations in response to terrorist attacks on us in between, we’ve been at war for 20 years, and there is no end in sight. Is this our new reality?
Bob Woodward, in his new book, Obama’s Wars, quotes General David Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan: “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It is a little bit like Iraq, actually . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
General Petraeus was talking principally about Afghanistan, but he also was talking about the broader war on terror, and his words should give us cause to pause and think. We’ve fought many wars since our nation’s founding. We understand war. We’ve become the world’s preeminent military power. Still, we are a peace-loving people, and we think of our wars as relatively short, distinct segments of our history. Like most nations, our war-fighting objective has always been to win quickly and decisively. In Korea and Vietnam, when we were unable to do that, we substituted an “exit strategy” for victory. One worked out; the other didn’t.
The Cold War spanned generations, but it was a war of espionage-counterespionage, a nuclear-arms race, and propaganda punctuated by hot wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Third World. With the exception of Korea and Vietnam, which together took up only a quarter of the Cold War, American warriors weren’t routinely killing our enemies on the battlefield or coming home in shiny metal coffins.
Like the Cold War, the war against terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamist-Jihadism, or whatever you want to call it, is no short-term endeavor. What makes it different is that it is predominantly a hot war with a relatively small but growing segment of the Muslim world that seeks to spill as much American blood as possible.
Since 9/11, the fundamental debate we’ve been having with ourselves is how to deal with them. President George W. Bush and his administration adopted an aggressive and “preemptive” strategy. They initiated a retaliatory war in Afghanistan against the al-Qaeda leadership that attacked us and the Taliban who enabled them. And although Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, Bush waged a war against a regime that he believed possessed weapons of mass destruction that Islamic terrorists might acquire.
Over time, both wars morphed into what they are today: wars to establish friendly, democratic governments in the heart of the Islamic world and deprive our enemies of recruits and bases from which to attack us. The war in Afghanistan is also very much about Pakistan and keeping its government and nuclear weapons out of the hands of Islamic extremists.