It’s Really a Case of Strategic Overreach
The sun is setting on the era of the Global War on Terror. The messy end of the Afghanistan War has come and gone, and President Biden said he’s going to withdraw US forces from Iraq soon. It’s a bit hard to believe America’s time of perpetual war is winding down. While it’s not over yet, enough time has gone by to start asking why we’ve been at war for so long and whether we achieved what we sought by going to war. At least in my mind, the immediate family of thought is that the United States lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the images from the exit from Afghanistan amplified this sense of loss. More thoughtful consideration presents a more mixed outcome, and those outcomes are inextricably bound. The attacks of 9/11 created the political space to invade Iraq, and the decision to do so severely affected the conduct and outcome of the war in Afghanistan. While we failed to achieve our objectives in Iraq, the United States did what it set out to do in Afghanistan before overreaching and losing its way.
A Victory, If Not a Decisive One
Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States originated in the mountains of Afghanistan. The US decision to invade that country to eliminate its terror threat was as rational and sound as any reaction to an attack leading to war; few faulted the United States for that decision. However, a critical operational decision had strategic consequences. The decision to limit the number of US forces on the ground in Afghanistan allowed Osama bin Laden and a significant portion of al-Qaeda to escape to Pakistan where they received support from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). US forces and their coalition partners defeated, but did not destroy, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This tactical misstep set conditions for the ISI to harbor and support the Taliban as the United States strategically overreached and decided to expand its mission to nation-building. It’s necessary to consider the strategic situation in mid-2002.
By that time, the United States, its allies, and partners had diminished al-Qaeda’s terrorist threat, toppled the regime that had supported the group, and established a new regime nominally friendly to the West. The gravest security threat to the United States was gone in an impressive display of the American ability to project and employ military force in concert with its NATO and Anzac allies and its Northern Alliance partners. This apogee was the moment of victory in the Afghanistan War. In hindsight, any operations in Afghanistan were beyond the point of diminishing returns. Unfortunately, a generation of employing unipolar power led the United States to stay at the table instead of collecting its winnings.
Rolling the Iron Dice
“If the iron dice must roll, May God help us.” — German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg
Rolling the iron dice once in Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Instead of declaring victory in the country, shifting to counterterrorism to continue the hunt for Osama bin Laden who escaped to Pakistan, and supporting the nascent Afghan government, the United States chose to roll the dice in Iraq. However, to do so required a shift in resource and focus that neglected Afghanistan and permanently blunted any momentum the United States had in the country. As an economy effort, operations in Afghanistan suffered as the United States could not adequately sustain two theaters of war simultaneously. By the time the United States chose to refocus on Afghanistan in 2009, it was too late. As the principal American effort, the Iraq War drained the energy of the US victory in Afghanistan, strained relations between the United States and its allies; and it accelerated the end of the ‘Unipolar Moment.’
The war in Iraq was fatal to the US ability to consolidate its gains in Afghanistan. Fielding over 100,000 US troops and supporting resources in the Middle East for the invasion of Iraq robbed the effort to capitalize on the operational successes early in the Afghanistan War. Years as an economy of force resulted in a sclerotic military effort during the height of the Iraq War. By the time Barak Obama entered the White House in 2009, the war in Iraq still had over 160,000 US troops in the country compared to only 38,000 in Afghanistan. The lack of resources for the war in Afghanistan limited the military’s ability to maintain pressure on the Taliban and associated insurgent groups. By the time President Obama announced the troop surge to Afghanistan in December 2009, the Iraq War had drawn energy from Afghanistan for over six years — critical lost time. The expansion of the Global War on Terror into Iraq and into nation-building in Afghanistan created a generational war the United States is only now departing.
So how should we look at the closing of the Global War on Terror era? Like other open-ended wars on nouns (terrorism, drugs, poverty), victory was likely debatable and incremental at best; eradicating terrorism was infeasible. Bounding the scope and scale for the use of military force is a critical necessity before employing that force. Policymakers have a solemn responsibility to ask difficult questions and look at those answers with skepticism. The Global War on Terror would have been a much shorter period had the United States recognized victory when it first had it and stayed focused on making that success more lasting.