Today, I saw another article on why America is losing its wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The gist of this and similar articles is that America’s wars are winnable. That is, if we bomb more, or send more troops, or change our strategy, or alter our ROE (rules of engagement), or give more latitude to the generals, or use all the weapons at our disposal (to include nukes?), and so on, these wars will prove tractable and even winnable. This jibes with President Trump’s promises about America winning again, everywhere, especially in wars.
Nonsense. The U.S. military hasn’t won these wars since the wars themselves are unwinnable by U.S. military action. Indeed, U.S. military action only makes them worse.
Consider Iraq. Our invasion in 2003 and our toppling of Saddam kicked off a regional, religious, ethnic, and otherwise complicated civil war that is simply unwinnable by American troops. Indeed, the presence of (and blunders made by) American troops in Iraq helped to produce ISIS, much-hyped as the current bane of American existence.
Consider Afghanistan. Our invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, at least for a moment, but did not produce peace as various Afghan factions and tribes jostled for power. Over time, the U.S. and NATO presence in the country produced instability rather than stability even as the Taliban proved both resilient and resurgent. U.S. and NATO forces have simply become yet another faction in the Afghan power game, but unless we want to stay there permanently, we are not going to “win” by any reasonable definition of that word.
You could say the same of the U.S. military’s involvement in similar conflicts like Yemen or Syria (look at the mess we made of Libya). We can kill a lot of “terrorists” and drop a lot of bombs, spreading our share of chaos, but we aren’t going to win, not in the sense of these wars ending on terms that enhance U.S. national security.
This hard reality is one that the U.S. military explains away by using jargon. Military men talk of generational wars, of long wars, of fourth generation warfare, of gray zones, of military operations other than war (which has its own acronym, MOOTW), and so on. A friend of mine, an Air Force captain, once quipped: “You study long, you study wrong.” You can say something similar of war: “You wage war for long, you wage it wrong.” This is especially true for a democracy.
America’s wars today are unwinnable. They are unwinnable not only because they are not ours to win: they aren’t even ours. We refuse to take ownership of them. At the most fundamental level, we recognize they are not vital to us, since we don’t bother to unify as a country to declare war and to wage it. Most Americans ignore them because we can ignore them. The Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, and so on don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.
Trump, with all his talk of winning, isn’t going to change this. The more he expands the U.S. military, the more he leans on “his” generals for advice, the more he’s going to fail.
Our new commander-in-chief needs to learn one lesson: The only way to win America’s wars is to end them.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, blogs at Bracing Views.