The War on Terror Turns 20 next year; far outliving many of its casualties. Will it ever end? Can it?
The Global War on Terror, now approaching it’s twentieth year, has become the longest and, arguably, most fruitless military endeavor in modern American history. What began as a righteous crusade to bring rogue non-state actors to heel, has now become an enfeebled campaign spanning the entire globe and struggling to end with dignity.
The unpleasant truth we, as a nation, have to face is that what we’re doing in the GWOT no longer makes much sense. The presence we have outside of the continental United States is disproportionate to the threat we are facing. What’s more likely? Another 9/11 style attack, or someone radicalized within our own borders? Recent events would indicate that the greatest security threat to the average citizen comes from an active shooter with no ties to any foreign terror organizations. Put another way- we are expending far too much time and resources on threats that may not warrant them.
Proportionality is a concept that’s ingrained in military leaders at the very beginning of their careers. When planning an engagement, it’s crucial to use the right tools for the right job. Why use a sledgehammer when a scalpel will suffice? Even when the problem set is more complex. Say, for example, securing a culturally fractured populace from an asymmetric threat. The framework still applies. Flooding the globe with our legions, against any and all perceived threats, is target overkill in its purest form.
Is America any safer for having corps stationed abroad on a near permanent basis? Some would surely argue with a resounding yes. And indeed, there are some tangential benefits to our aggressive force posture globally. Spheres of influence are far easier to maintain when your armies are poised at the edges of said spheres. But again one has to ask- has twenty years of fighting markedly improved the safety of our citizenry in the republic? At what point do we acknowledge the diminishing returns of our current strategic model? How much safer will we all feel in another ten or even twenty years? I suspect the answer is not much more than we do today.
And it’s not jut our strategic goals that have exceeded their compass during these past two decades of fighting. The same can be said of our operational and tactical methodology. Counter-Insurgency (shortened to ‘COIN’) was touted as the graduate-level of warfare. The famed British Officer T.E. Lawrence once said on the subject, “irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge”. To that end, its acolytes proselytized COIN’s virtues as the silver bullet to our challenges. It is the cornerstone of our approach to regime change and democratization. Through brute intellect and the laser-like application of resources, America would terraform havens of tyranny into bastions of representative democracy. Our enemies would stand no chance; given enough time.
Using the previous analogy- if COIN was the grad school version of armed conflict; then insurgency is, and always has been, the high school dropout version. A match made in heaven. Or as Mark Twain put it once- never argue with a fool, he will drag you down to his level and beat you with his experience. We were applying ivy league stratagems to alleyway knife fights. The results were predictable. America and her allies spent trillions developing cutting edge tools and equipment which have been defeated by thousands of dollars worth of weaponized fertilizer and scrap metal. How could we have possibly expected this to end any differently? The resulting loss of life (almost 6,000 KIA across all contingency operations as of this writing), was a slow moving tragedy that could have been avoided years ago. This is to say nothing of the repeated diplomatic failures which have resulted in the deaths of untold thousands of Aghans and Iraqis.
“Irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.”
— T.E. Lawrence
Even within the relatively small community who actually fights these wars, the mood is different. You hear it in how service members and veterans talk about these follies abroad. They just seem exhausted. Even the staunchest advocates for regime change and the spread of American values have tempered their tone over the years. When asked, they now mumble some platitudes about stability of the region or furthering American interests. Like the public they serve, their hearts just aren’t in it anymore. And because of the unprecedented age of the conflict- older warriors are now handing the baton to their children. Generations of families will now be defined by the sacrifices they make to the republic. So few will make it their way of life to give up so much. And they are getting stretched thinner and thinner with each passing year. How exactly do we further the national interest by hollowing out one of the greatest standing armies ever created? Are we safer as a result?
Financially, the cost of these conflicts has been staggering. The Cost of War Project has put that figure at $6.4 trillion to date. The sheer size of this expenditure has spawned a whole slew of commentary on what could have been resourced in lieu of these military campaigns. How many schools went unfunded? Critical infrastructure projects delayed? Research grants postponed? Using a very simple conversion; $1 Trillion could finance the salaries of all elementary school teachers in America for the next 9 years. Forgetting fraud, waste, and abuse (which is conservatively in the dozens of billions), the legitimate spending to finance two decades of expeditionary military deployments boggles the mind. It’s not the amounts themselves that are disconcerting, these are historic undertakings after all- moving literal armies across the globe, but what we could’ve spent that money on instead. And that opportunity cost is the true national tragedy.
The saber rattlers and chicken hawks will say that, “we’re turning the corner” and that quitting now would be tantamount to stopping short of the finish line. We’ve prematurely announced victory, or peace, half a dozen times over the last twenty years. With each subsequent pronouncement being the proverbial corner that was turned on the road to the democratization of Iraq or Afghanistan. A corner on bringing peace and stability to the region. A corner closer to bringing our forces home. That’s the thing about a death spiral; every move feels like a turned corner until it’s too late.
At this point, one might question what has actually been accomplished in our years long struggle against terrorism. What did we accomplish? Have we made the world safer? Have we made America safer? Have we made the costs worth it?
Well, in this author’s opinion, we did the saddest thing of all. Sadder than all the blood spilled, treasure wasted, and opportunity squandered. We’ve created the perfect war. The great revolution in military affairs of our generation was the creation of a war that can never end, an enemy that can never die, and a peace that’s always just out of reach. The Eternal War. Bellum Aeternum.