Can We Win The War?
The recent announcement by Afghan President Karzai that he wouldn’t allow the NATO offensive in the Kandahar region to commence without the support of the local population got me thinking about the War On Terror, and whether or not we’re winning. The answer to this question requires us to look at history and the development of American morality with respect to other nations and cultures.
The U.S. has fought two enemies within the last 70 years that are similar to the radical Muslims with whom we’re at war today. In WWII, the United States fought a Japanese Empire whose fighters were also inspired by a religion that, like the more radical strains of Islam, encouraged self-sacrifice of its adherents and saw non-believers as people upon whom any brutality could be inflicted. We were able to defeat this threat by waging total war against Japan; stories from the island battles in the Pacific indicated that American troops could be just as intense as the Japanese during fighting (with the exception of launching militarily ineffective banzai charges), and the air war against the home islands showed we had few restraints in attacking the civilian infrastructure. Nevertheless, our treatment of Japanese prisoners never fell to the level that we had shown even towards fellow Americans during the Civil War 80 years earlier. Twenty years later, when confronted with another determined enemy in the Viet Cong, we were unable to defeat them because the American population – and leadership -- could not countenance the waging of total war against this foe. This, I submit, is due as much to the basic American ideal of Fair Play as it was the changing American morality towards other cultures; the obvious disparity in the conventional capabilities of the opposing forces (one that didn’t exist during WWII) caused Americans to shy away from the thought of pursuing an all-out war against the pajama-clad terrorists of the communist insurgency. Additionally, there was no real threat to the American homeland from this enemy -- Domino Theory notwithstanding.
Our current enemy combines the religious fanaticism of the Imperial Japanese with the seemingly hopeless technological inferiority and willingness to hide amongst the civilian population of the Viet Cong. Like the conflict with Japan, this war “started” (or, more accurately, was brought to the forefront of public debate) by a horrific sneak attack; in this case, 9/11. Here, the enemy used the kamikaze tactics of the Japanese in a way that even the most ardent practitioner of Bushido would never have contemplated – against mostly civilian targets while hiding behind kidnapped victims. The American public reacted with righteous anger mixed with coldly-directed resolve, supporting by vast majorities the bringing of the war to the terrorist base. I submit that the ease of the initial victory in Afghanistan, coupled with the mismanaged invasion of Iraq, caused American fury to wither away more quickly that would have been the case had the enemy been more capable in the post-9/11 battles. This was seen in the reaction to the initial revelations of the prisoner abuse taking place at Abu Grahib.
One of the main complaints about American treatment of prisoners during this war is that we practice “extraordinary rendition” wherein we send the prisoners to places where they might be mistreated. Lost in the complaints about this practice is the fact that these countries are most often the home country of the accused. Why is it that these Arab governments can still exist, with the seeming support of their populations, when they routinely mistreat their own citizens? To understand this, we must understand the Arab mindset. It’s often pointed out that the Arab world has no real democracies (and were actual voting allowed, most Arab populations would most likely elect even more dictatorial governments than they already have). This is because, I submit, the cultural mindset that developed over the years of Ottoman lordship over the Arab peoples, combined with the Islamic belief that all actions are directed by Allah, results in people believing that they have no real means of improving their lot by their actions – it’s all Allah’s will. Therefore, they are willing to docilely accept the cruelty of their own leaders because they believe it’s divinely ordained. Arab leaders, on the other hand, cynically recognize that they can cling to power only by brutally repressing any expressions of revolt or opposition; they therefore torture their opponents as a means of breaking the will of their populace, who in turn comes to recognize brutality as the hallmark of an effective leader – one who is worthy of respect.
This is an example of the disconnect between those who know what’s going on in the world from those who only know what they read in the papers. When the revelations came out about the distasteful mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, our enemies saw our national revulsion – basically no one said that such conduct by American servicepeople was acceptable, and the main debate between the two main factions of American politics was over whether the National Command Authority knew about this conduct. This made our enemies, and those who support them, realize that we didn’t really have the stomach to dominate an Arab society at the level that was needed to win respect, and gave them hope that they could rely on the long-suffering acceptance of death and hardship by the Arab masses to eventually wear down and force out the Americans. While we surprised them by getting back some of our resolve in agreeing to and carrying out the “surge” in Iraq that led to an acceptable exit state, they adapted by realizing they could just bide their time until we leave. As Colin Powell once pointed out, it’s not as if there are a bunch of Jeffersonian Democrats who will come forth to lead an Arab country, so the jihadis think they are likely to get what they want – control of at least part of Iraq – after we leave. They do seem to do better than us at taking the long view.
(Another example of the disconnect between those who understand the world versus those who see it through rose-tinted glasses concerns the varying reactions to the leaked video of the Apache gunsight camera view of an incident in Baghdad in 2007. Those who are willing to believe that the American military is made up of cold-blooded killers wail, “How could Americans be so heartless as to chain-gun these poor innocent civilians”? Those who know better realize that it’s highly unlikely that a group of young Iraqi men would hang around on the street corner waiting for a patrol to come by while showing no concern for the U.S. helicopter hovering behind them unless they had been trained to do that. The fact that the Reuters journalists were with them only proves that they were insurgents up to no good – do you really expect war correspondents would embed themselves with bored teenagers? When all is said and done, tactics like those shown in the video are needed if we hope to win. People will volunteer to be an insurgent if they think they have a chance to kill Americans; if they know they'll be mowed down from the air before they get within a half mile of an American military vehicle, I think we'd see Al Qaeda recruiting numbers plummet.)
The main front of the war has now moved back to Afghanistan, and with the overly restrictive ROE in place along with lots of hand-wringing about civilian casualties, it looks like we’re once more headed down the path of getting the country just stable enough to declare victory and come home. To be honest, that might be the right thing to do. As the shock of 9/11 has worn off, it’s clear that the citizenry and current leadership of our country really doesn’t have the stomach to prosecute the war in the manner needed to eventually win. We can announce that we’ve won the War On Terror and concentrate on domestic concerns – like in the '90s, after we won the Cold War. However, a war is really not over as long as one side still has the will and desire to fight, which I submit our enemies do. At some point, they’ll become emboldened and hit us again. While one might think that this cycle could repeat itself ad nauseum, I submit that current trends contain the seeds of an eventual American victory. (“Victory” in this case is defined as an association with the Arab people similar to the mutually-beneficial relationship we have with post-war Japan.)
Right now, our political leadership is made up of people who really don’t understand our enemy – it’s been such since Colin Powell resigned as Secretary of State. The American populace generally believes that we shouldn’t change our values in order to prosecute the war more robustly, and that if we do so then the terrorists have won. That’s a completely valid point, one to which I believe well-meaning people can sincerely subscribe. It may even be right. However, I believe that the enemy will continue to attack us even if (and especially if) we start being “nice” to them, and quit interfering with their culture – they believe hard, and honestly think that they can spread Islam throughout the world by the point of the sword. They’ll see any appeasement on our part as a sign of weakness. It’s the next generation of America’s political elite that will lead us to victory in this war. I believe (based on no real data other than my own analysis of American history and political trends) that within the next 20 years, a critical mass of the new breed of civic leaders will be veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ll be people who understand the enemy from the lessons learned in the world’s most effective classroom – the battlefield. Starting with the election of H. R. McMaster sometime in the 2020s, I think most American Presidents for the next couple of decades after that will be combat veterans. They will be the ones who will convince the American people that this war is important, and teach us what we need to do to win. Most importantly, they’ll convince our enemies and their potential supporters that we do have the sustained will to continue the fight, and strip from them the recruiting base they need. We’ll have to be more vicious than we’re used to, but, like in 1945, the eventual outcome will be better for all involved.
Or maybe not. In the meantime, is the war still worth fighting in the here and now if we accept the premise that we can’t win for at least a few decades? I think it is – we’re killing some people who need to be killed, and exposing the core of tomorrow’s political and military leadership to the practices of the enemy. While the tide of battle will ebb and flow, I’m convinced of an eventual American victory in the long term – and maybe after that, the cycle of history may finally come to an end. (Or maybe we’ll start all over with dealing with a resurgent China.) Only time will tell.
So what do we do about President Karzai's ultimatum? In a perfect world, the American Ambassador pays him a call and says, "I'm sorry, but we can't operate under these restrictions. We'll be pulling out in six months. Good luck surviving, but please pass on to your successor that if they ever give sanctuary to any other group that ever attacks us again, we're going to kill everyone involved. From the air. Collateral damage be damned." But I know that won't happen.
(Note: Throughout this essay, I’ve focused on the American aspects of the war. While we’re clearly fighting for Western, vice just American, civilization, our European allies have the luxury of pompously tut-tutting American tactics while hiding under the benevolent umbrella of a hemispheric Pax Americana. I really don’t see much hope for the continental Western Europeans coming to their senses in the next few decades; for allies, we’ll have to count on those old standbys, the Brits and the Poles.)