Bush’s “unsustainable” war on terror

A military scholar says that conflating al-Qaida and Iraq, and setting the impossible goal of ending terrorism, "violates fundamental strategic principles" -- and could strain the U.S. military to the breaking point.


In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. government declared a global war on terrorism (GWOT). The nature and parameters of that war, however, remain frustratingly unclear. The administration has postulated a multiplicity of enemies, including rogue states; weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferators; terrorist organizations of global, regional and national scope; and terrorism itself. It also seems to have conflated them into a monolithic threat, and in so doing has subordinated strategic clarity to the moral clarity it strives for in foreign policy and may have set the United States on a course of open-ended and gratuitous conflict with states and nonstate entities that pose no serious threat to the United States.

Of particular concern has been the conflation of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a single, undifferentiated terrorist threat. This was a strategic error of the first order because it ignored critical differences between the two in character, threat level and susceptibility to U.S. deterrence and military action. The result has been an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq that has created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al-Qaida. The war against Iraq was not integral to the GWOT, but rather a detour from it.

Additionally, most of the GWOT’s declared objectives, which include the destruction of al-Qaida and other transnational terrorist organizations, the transformation of Iraq into a prosperous, stable democracy, the democratization of the rest of the autocratic Middle East, the eradication of terrorism as a means of irregular warfare, and the (forcible, if necessary) termination of WMD proliferation to real and potential enemies worldwide, are unrealistic and condemn the United States to a hopeless quest for absolute security. As such, the GWOT’s goals are also politically, fiscally and militarily unsustainable.

Accordingly, the GWOT must be recalibrated to conform to concrete U.S. security interests and the limits of American power. The specific measures required include deconflation of the threat; substitution of credible deterrence for preventive war as the primary vehicle for dealing with rogue states seeking WMD; refocus of the GWOT first and foremost on al-Qaida, its allies, and homeland security; preparation to settle in Iraq for stability over democracy (if the choice is forced upon us) and for international rather than U.S. responsibility for Iraq’s future; and finally, a reassessment of U.S. military force levels, especially ground-force levels.

The GWOT as it has so far been defined and conducted is strategically unfocused, promises much more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate scarce U.S. military and other means over too many ends. It violates the fundamental strategic principles of discrimination and concentration…

Sound strategy mandates threat discrimination and reasonable harmonization of ends and means. The GWOT falls short on both counts. Indeed, it may be misleading to cast the GWOT as a war; the military’s role in the GWOT is still a work in progress, and the military’s “comfort level “with it is any event problematic. Moreover, to the extent that the GWOT is directed at the phenomenon of terrorism, as opposed to flesh-and-blood terrorist organizations, it sets itself up for strategic failure. Terrorism is a recourse of the politically desperate and militarily helpless, and, as such, it is hardly going to disappear. The challenge of grasping the nature and parameters of the GWOT is certainly not eased by the absence of a commonly accepted definition of terrorism or by the depiction of the GWOT as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, “us ” versus “them”…

The key to [defeating al-Qaida] lies in the realms of intelligence and police work, with military forces playing an important but nonetheless supporting role. Beyond the military destruction of al-Qaida’s training and planning base in Afghanistan, good intelligence — and luck — has formed the basis of virtually every other U.S. success against al-Qaida. Intelligence-based arrests and assassinations, not divisions destroyed or ships sunk, are the cutting edge of successful counter-terrorism…

Operation Iraqi Freedom saddled the U.S. armed forces, especially the U.S. Army, with costly and open-ended imperial policing and nation-building responsibilities outside the professional military’s traditional mission portfolio. The major combat operational phase of the war against Iraq unexpectedly and seamlessly morphed into an ongoing insurgent phase for which most U.S. ground combat forces are not properly trained…

Sound strategy requires a clear definition of the enemy. The GWOT, however, is a war on something whose definition is mired in a semantic swamp. Even inside the U.S. government, different departments and agencies use different definitions reflecting different professional perspectives on the subject…

Perhaps inadvertently, the contemporary language on terrorism has become, as Conor Gearty puts it, “the rhetorical servant of the established order, whatever and however heinous its own activities are.” Because the administration has cast terrorism and terrorists as always the evilest of evils, what the terrorist does “is always wrong [and] what the counter-terrorist has to do to defeat them is therefore invariably, necessarily right. The nature of the [established] regime, the kind of action that is possible against it, the moral situation in which violence occurs — none of these complicating elements matters a jot against the contemporary power of the terrorist label”…

Stapling together rogue states and terrorist organizations with different agendas and threat levels to the United States as an undifferentiated threat obscures critical differences among rogues states, among terrorist organizations, and between rogue states and terrorist groups. One is reminded of the postulation of an international communist monolith in the 1950s, which blinded American policymakers to the influence and uniqueness of local circumstances and to key national, historical, and cultural differences and antagonisms within the “bloc.” Communism was held to be a centrally directed international conspiracy; a Communist anywhere was a Communist everywhere, and all posed an equal threat to America’s security. A result of this inability to discriminate was disastrous U.S. military intervention in Vietnam against an enemy perceived to be little more than an extension of Kremlin designs in Southeast Asia and thus by definition completely lacking an historically comprehensible political agenda of its own…

But … rogue states and terrorist organizations are fundamentally different in character and vulnerability to U.S. military power

To be sure, rogue states are inherently aggressive and threaten regional stability. Moreover, there can be no guarantee that rogue state leaders will not fall prone to recklessness, even madness, although in the case of Saddam Hussein prewar accusations of recklessness and certainly madness were considerably overstated…

In conflating Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, the administration unnecessarily expanded the GWOT by launching a preventive war against a state that was not at war with the United States and that posed no direct or imminent threat to the United States at the expense of continued attention and effort to protect the United States from a terrorist organization with which the United States was at war…

Strategically, Operation Iraqi Freedom was not part of the GWOT; rather, it was a war-of-choice distraction from the war of necessity against al-Qaida. Indeed, it will be much more than a distraction if the United States fails to establish order and competent governance in post-Saddam Iraq…

The most immediate obstacle to a successful democratic experiment in Iraq is, of course, the failure — so far — of the Coalition Provisional Authority and U.S. occupation forces to provide the necessary foundation of public security and basic services. The rapidity and scope of the postwar collapse of public order in Iraq clearly surprised the administration, whose tardy and hasty planning for postwar Iraq stood in stark contrast to its meticulous planning for the war itself…

The GWOT’s fiscal sustainability is inseparable from its military sustainability. Unanticipated U.S. ground force requirements in postwar Iraq have stressed the U.S. Army to the breaking point…

There are clearly lurking threats to its fiscal and its military sustainability, which in turn could threaten its political sustainability. The key is the future of the security situation and U.S. policy in Iraq, which the administration has made the centerpiece of the global war on terrorism. Little doubt remains about the sustainability of the relatively inexpensive war of necessity against al-Qaida. The issue is the sustainability of the war of choice against Iraq and its aftermath…

The central conclusion of this study is that the global war on terrorism as currently defined and waged is dangerously indiscriminate and ambitious, and accordingly that its parameters should be readjusted to conform to concrete U.S. security interests and the limits of American power.

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