US on an Afghan road to nowhere
By Andrew J Bacevich
In January 1863, United States president Abraham Lincoln's charge to a
newly-appointed commanding general was simplicity itself: "Give us victories."
President Barack Obama's tacit charge to his generals amounts to this: give us
conditions permitting a dignified withdrawal. A pithy quote in Bob Woodward's
new book Obama's Wars captures the essence of an emerging Obama
Doctrine: "Hand it off and get out."
Getting into a war is generally a piece of cake. Getting out tends to be
another matter altogether - especially when the commander-in-chief and his
commanders in the field disagree on the advisability of doing so.
Happy Anniversary, America. Nine years ago - on October 7, 2001 - a series of
US air strikes against targets across Afghanistan launched the opening campaign
of what has since
become the nation's longest war. Three thousand two hundred and eighty five
days later the fight to determine Afghanistan's future continues. At least in
part, "Operation Enduring Freedom" has lived up to its name: it has certainly
proven to be enduring.
As the conflict formerly known as the global "war on terror" enters its tenth
year, Americans are entitled to pose this question: When, where, and how will
the war end? Bluntly, are we almost there yet?
With the passage of time, where "there" is has become increasingly difficult to
discern. Baghdad turned out not to be Berlin and Kandahar is surely not Tokyo.
Don't look for CNN to be televising a surrender ceremony anytime soon.
This much we know: an enterprise that began in Afghanistan but soon after
focused on Iraq has now shifted back - again - to Afghanistan. Whether the
swings of this pendulum signify progress toward some final objective is
To measure progress during wartime, Americans once employed pins and maps.
Plotting the conflict triggered by 9/11 will no doubt improve your knowledge of
world geography, but it won't tell you anything about where this war is headed.
Where, then, have nine years of fighting left us? Chastened, but not
Just over a decade ago, the now-forgotten Kosovo campaign seemingly offered a
template for a new American way of war. It was a decision gained without
suffering a single American fatality. Kosovo turned out, however, to be a
one-off event. No doubt the United States military was then (and remains today)
unbeatable in traditional terms. Yet, after 9/11, Washington committed that
military to an endeavor that it manifestly cannot win.
Rather than probing the implications of this fact - relying on the force of
arms to eliminate terrorism is a fool's errand - two administrations have
doggedly prolonged the war even as they quietly ratcheted down expectations of
what it might accomplish.
In officially ending the US combat role in Iraq earlier this year – a happy day
if there ever was one - Obama refrained from proclaiming "mission
accomplished." As well he might: as US troops depart Iraq, insurgents remain
active and in the field. Instead of declaring victory, the president simply
urged Americans to turn the page. With remarkable alacrity, most of us seem to
Perhaps more surprisingly, today's military leaders have themselves abandoned
the notion that winning battles wins wars, once the very foundation of their
profession. Warriors of an earlier day insisted: "There is no substitute for
victory." Warriors in the "Age of David Petraeus", the top US commander in
Afghanistan, embrace an altogether different motto: "There is no military
Here is Brigadier General H R McMaster, one of the army's rising stars,
summarizing the latest in advanced military thinking: "Simply fighting and
winning a series of interconnected battles in a well developed campaign does
not automatically deliver the achievement of war aims." Winning as such is out.
Persevering is in.
So an officer corps once intent above all on avoiding protracted wars now
specializes in quagmires. Campaigns don't really end. At best, they peter out.
Formerly trained to kill people and break things, American soldiers now attend
to winning hearts and minds, while moonlighting in assassination. The
politically correct term for this is "counter-insurgency".
Now, assigning combat soldiers the task of nation-building in, say, Mesopotamia
is akin to hiring a crew of lumberjacks to build a house in suburbia. What
astonishes is not that the result falls short of perfection, but that any part
of the job gets done at all.
Yet by simultaneously adopting the practice of "targeted killing," the home
builders do double-duty as home wreckers. For American assassins, the weapon of
choice is not the sniper rifle or the shiv, but missile-carrying pilotless
aircraft controlled from bases in Nevada and elsewhere thousands of miles from
the battlefield - the ultimate expression of an American desire to wage war
without getting our hands dirty.
In practice, however, killing the guilty from afar not infrequently entails
killing innocents as well. So actions undertaken to deplete the ranks of
jihadists as far afield as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia unwittingly ensure the
recruitment of replacements, guaranteeing a never-ending supply of hardened
hearts to soften.
No wonder the campaigns launched since 9/11 drag on and on. Petraeus himself
has spelled out the implications: "This is the kind of fight we're in for the
rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives." Obama may want to "get out."
His generals are inclined to stay the course.
Taking longer to achieve less than we initially intended is also costing far
more than anyone ever imagined. In 2003, White House economic adviser Lawrence
Lindsey suggested that invading Iraq might run up a tab of as much as US$200
billion - a seemingly astronomical sum. Although Lindsey soon found himself out
of a job as a result, he turned out to be a piker. The bill for our post-9/11
wars already exceeds a trillion dollars, all of it piled atop our mushrooming
national debt. Helped in no small measure by Obama's war policies, the meter is
So are we almost there yet? Not even. The truth is we're lost in the desert,
careening down an unmarked road, odometer busted, GPS on the fritz, and fuel
gauge hovering just above E. Washington can only hope that the American people,
napping in the backseat, won't notice.
Andrew J Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at
Boston University. His bestselling new book is
Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. To catch Bacevich
discussing how the US military became specialists in quagmires in a Timothy
MacBain TomCast audio interview click
here or, to download it to your iPod,