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.
Candidate Barack Obama campaigned against the Bush strategy. And, although he has called Afghanistan “the necessary war,” both as a candidate and as commander-in-chief his goal has been to extricate the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan at the earliest possible date. Woodward’s book provides new insights into President Obama’s thinking on this. Woodward reveals the president’s political concerns about staying in Afghanistan and Obama’s belief that America could “absorb” another 9/11-type attack. In quoting Petraeus, Woodward also captures what America’s preeminent general knows better than anyone about the enemy and the war we are fighting.
All U.S. forces are scheduled to leave Iraq and begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2011 — policies seemingly at odds with General Petraeus’ statement. But Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t our only battlefields. As recent failed terrorist attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, and Islamic extremists based in the Waziristan region of Pakistan have demonstrated, the terrorist threat to the U.S. is a real and present danger on multiple fronts.
The terror war is like the drug war. Close down one terror cartel and another pops up somewhere else. And if you relieve the pressure on the old cartel, it will only reappear. We know that we won’t win the drug war simply by killing, capturing, and incarcerating drug dealers. It’s a demand-driven problem. But neither can we stop killing, capturing, or incarcerating them. You only have to look across the border into Mexico to get a glimpse of what happens when drug cartels become too powerful.
We won’t win the war on terror simply by killing, capturing, and imprisoning al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters; but neither can we afford to let up on them. If we pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan before those countries have governments that are stable enough to keep a tight lid on our enemies, we’ll soon be right back where we started. We can use missile and drone attacks and covert forces to kill our enemies in Yemen and Pakistan; but what do you think will happen when the next Umar Abdulmutallab or Faisal Shahzad succeeds in killing hundreds or thousands of Americans? Will we not again retaliate?
The negative effects of permanent war on the U.S. armed forces, on the American people, and on America’s diminishing financial resources are obvious. When compared to the effects of a chemical, biological, or nuclear terrorist weapon going off in an American city, however, those effects become secondary considerations.
No matter how much President Obama or his successor may want to end the permanent war, there is no exit strategy in a war with an enemy that relentlessly attacks the U.S. homeland. We can’t negotiate our way out, like we did in Korea; nor can we simply decide it’s costing too much in lives and treasure and walk away from it, as we did from Vietnam. This time the enemy will come after us.
Whatever your views on America’s ongoing multi-front war, it is not going to end anytime soon. We’ll be fighting this war “for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” The Pentagon, the White House, and the American people must come together on a strategy for sustaining that fight until we ultimately defeat our enemy.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.