As a retired lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Army, I want to be positive. Even when I’ve identified major conceptual and practical failures in the conduct of American foreign and military policy, I’ve suggested alternatives that could improve the situation. But when looking at the state of our foreign policy in this moment, and given how entrenched the foreign-policy elite in Washington has become, a rational optimism is getting more and more difficult to find.
In practice, the current administration tries to keep a lid on problems by applying limited military power—at least regarding troop levels—over large sections of the globe. These military operations are tactical in nature, designed to achieve small-scale results, without the consideration of how or even whether they support some larger strategic objective.
The clear result from Afghanistan to Iraq, to Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and other locations in Africa, has been to inflame already burning civil and sectarian wars. The military power we have applied does not even work toward solving the conflicts in these locations.
Continuous drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen have failed to move the needle toward minimizing the violence, much less toward ending the wars. Overt and covert air and ground attacks over 15 years in Afghanistan, in which I spent two active tours, have not prevented that nation from being a hive of terrorist activity; the Afghan government is possibly the most corrupt in the world, and its military is dying in larger and unsustainable numbers.
Airstrikes in Libya and Syria have succeeded only in adding to the misery of the local populations. In Iraq there has been some tactical movement with U.S. support to the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, but that tactical advance may perversely be setting the stage for a strategic failure on the political level. Fissures are already emerging between the post-war expectations of the coalition of forces currently working together in preparing to fight the Islamic State in Mosul.
And it might be hard to believe, but things could actually get worse in 2017.
Many of the most vocal and influential voices in foreign policy, both on the Hill and in the media, have been around for decades. They are the first to advocate for the perpetuation of the status quo—or to more aggressively reinforce it—and the last to consider new measures. Foreign policy expert William Ruger aptly captured the spirit of foreign policy in Washington today when he said the only debate between leaders, or would-be leaders, is “between the 48 yard lines.” For the health of the Republic, we must expand the scope of the conversation.
Unfortunately, along with the narrow band of foreign-policy choices has come the distortion of the term “leadership.” In the lexicon of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, leadership has come to mean “applying lethal military power as a policy option of first choice to solve complicated international challenges.” John Maxwell, number one on Inc. magazine’s “Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts” list, provides a more accurate definition of leadership: “Real leadership is being the person others will gladly and confidently follow.”
The interests of the United States can best be protected and advanced when we are implementing the Maxwell definition of leadership rather than the current Washington version, which has led to strategic failures for more than two decades.
Advocates of a militant foreign policy attempt to compensate for their lack of leadership ability—or to avoid the hard work of providing world-class leadership—by resorting to coercion, oftentimes at the barrel of a gun. For the moment, let’s forget about morality and focus instead on the effectiveness of this approach.
The greatest leaders in the world have been able to entice others to follow willingly, sometimes even enthusiastically, without resorting to threats, bullying, or the actual application of force. They seek win-win solutions to problems. They recognize and accept that effective leadership sometimes means giving in to the preferences or needs of one’s partners.
The United States could be far more effective at leading the world into peace and prosperity by being far more restrained in its use of military power and more generous in dispensing the kind of leadership that people would “gladly and confidently follow.” Friends would be more aggressive in supporting policies beneficial to America if we took the time to find shared values and include them as valued partners. Some competitors would feel less threatened and would therefore be less active in working against U.S. interests.
Because strong Washington leadership includes supporting and resourcing a world-class military, enemies of America would think twice before acting against U.S. interests. They would realize that their choices mattered: if they posed no threat to our nation, we would not meddle in their internal affairs or orchestrate dangerous regime-change campaigns; but if they were to attack U.S. interests or citizens, the response would be powerful, vicious, and effective.
Being restrained and judicious in the use of military power does not show weakness, and it does not invite more aggression from would-be adversaries. It does foster more energetic support for American interests among our friends and allies. Regardless of who becomes the next commander in chief, let us hope he or she will acknowledge the superiority of this advanced way of thinking over today’s bankrupt definition of “leadership.”
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities.
One has to wonder just how much longer the American people will silently permit the categorical failure of American foreign policy, both in theory and in practice. The evidence confirming the totality of our failure is breathtaking in scope and severity. Changes are needed to preserve U.S. national security and economic prosperity.
Recent headlines have captured the character of this failure. Fifteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released findings that “corruption substantially undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from the very beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. … We conclude that failure to effectively address the problem means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted by systemic corruption and, at worst, will fail.”
Earlier this month, a British Parliament study found that the result of Western military intervention in Libya “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”
Airstrikes and drone attacks are accidentally killing thousands of civilians, aid workers, wedding parties, and now even the troops of a nation against whom we are not at war. Each of these mistakes, repeated hundreds of times over the past 15 years, creates more antagonism and hatred of the United States than any other single event. Whatever tactical benefit some of the strikes do accomplish, they are consumed in the still-worsening strategic failure the misfires cause.
Bottom line: The use of military power since 2001 has:
- Turned a previously whole and regionally impotent Iraq that balanced Iran into a factory of terrorism and a client of Tehran;
- Turned Afghanistan from a country with a two-sided civil war—contained within its own borders—into a dysfunctional state that serves as a magnet for terrorists.
- Turned a Libya that suffered internal unrest, but didn’t threaten its neighbors or harbor terrorists, into an “unmitigated failure” featuring a raging civil war, serving as an African beachhead for ISIS and a terrorist breeding ground;
- Contributed to the expansion of al-Qaeda into a “franchise” group, spawned a new strain when ISIS was born out of the vacuum created by our Iraq invasion, and seen major terrorist threats explode worldwide;
- Joined other nations in battles in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other areas within Africa whose only result has been the expansion of the threat and the deepening of the suffering of the civil populations.
These continued and deepening failures kill unknown numbers of innocent civilians each year, intensify and spread the hatred many have of America, and incrementally weaken our national security. But these military failures have another, less obvious but more troubling cost.
Perpetual fighting dissipates the fighting strength of the armed forces. The non-stop employment of the U.S. Air Force in flying sorties, bombing runs, and strategic airlift has been orders of magnitude higher than what it was in the 15 years prior to 9/11, dramatically cutting short the lifespan of each aircraft, increasing the maintenance requirements, and depleting stocks of bombs and missiles.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have put thousands of miles of grueling use on their tanks and other armored vehicles and worn out countless weapons. The refurbishing and replacement costs for these vehicles has been enormous, and—like the Air Force—the Army has severely shortened the lifespan of its armored fleet. But not only have these permanent military operations degraded the vehicles, the damage has come at the expense of conventional military training.
This might be the most alarming cost. The Army has recognized this problem and has belatedly begun to reorient some of the training time to high-end conventional battle. But it will take many years of focused training to rebuild the strength the military had prior to Desert Storm or even the opening operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Entire generations of leaders and troops at every level have grown up training almost exclusively on small-scale counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare.
As one who has fought in both high-end armored warfare and small-scale COIN, I can tell you that creating effective battle units for conventional war is far, far more difficult and time consuming.
Likewise, the Air Force has not fought against a modern adversary with fleets of effective fighter jets, bombers, and potent air-defense capabilities. Such operations are orders of magnitude more difficult than attacking insurgents on the ground who pose no threat to aircraft.
It is critical to understand that no insurgency or terror group represents an existential threat to viability of the United States. Failure in a conventional battle to a major power, however, can cripple the nation.
It is discouraging to see the administration, Congress, and the Department of Defense fully tethered to the perpetual application of military power against small-scale threats. Terrorism definitely represents a threat to U.S. interests, and we must defend against it. But the obsession with using major military assets on these relatively small-scale threats has not only failed to stem the threat, it has in part been responsible for expanding it. Meanwhile, the unhealthy focus on the small-scale has weakened—and continues to weaken—our ability to respond to the truly existential threats.
If the incoming administration does not recognize this deterioration of our military power and take steps to reverse it, our weakness may one day be exposed in the form of losing a major military engagement that we should have won easily. The stakes couldn’t be higher. A change in foreign policy is critically needed. We will either change by choice or we will change in the smoldering aftermath of catastrophic military failure. I pray it is the former.
Daniel L. Davis is a foreign-policy fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities. He retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel after 21 years of active service. He was deployed into combat zones four times in his career, beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and also to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan twice (2005, 2011).
In late October MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow asked retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl to give viewers a deeper understanding of the fight between the Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish fighters around Kobane. Widely credited with “writing the book” on successful counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, Mr. Nagl said, “we’ve got 1,500 guys on the ground, but they’re not as far forward as they need to be to make a real, immediate impact on the battlefield.” He and a number of COIN experts argue that along with 15,000 U.S. ground troops, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian rebel soldiers can defeat ISIS. Before making any decisions, American leaders should first consider this: despite what is often claimed by a host of advocates, the COIN theories upon which these recommendations are based were in fact demonstrable failures in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We must not sacrifice any more American lives and harm American interests any further by acting on theories that are likely to fail again.
It has been taken as an “obvious truth” by many Americans and major media outlets that the counterinsurgency strategy brought to Iraq by former general David Petraeus in 2007 turned a near-certain defeat into an historic victory. There were two key fundamentals from which many believe victory sprang. The first was that American troops needed to leave U.S. bases and “live in the neighborhoods” with Iraqi citizens, the second that a surge of troops would give Baghdad “breathing space” to form an inclusive government. Instead of leading to success, however, these twin pillars may have contributed to the failure.
In a study published earlier this year by the National Defense University, authors Sterling Jensen and former Iraqi general Najim al-Jabouri wrote this of the Americans’ effectiveness in Anbar province cities: “[t]he surge did not have a role in the Anbar Awakening. Surge troops that came to Anbar in 2007 were not seen as useful… In fact, U.S. troops in general were not seen as useful even before the surge…”
But the authors’ possibly most pointed finding was that the causal factor behind the eventual drop in violence had little to do with either the increase in U.S. troops or the new strategy: “If not for al Qaeda’s murder and intimidation campaign on Sunnis, and its tactic of creating a sectarian war, the Anbar Awakening—a fundamental factor in the success of the 2007 surge—most probably would not have occurred, and it would have been difficult for the United States in 2006 to convince Sunnis to partner with them in a fight against al Qaeda…”
The Sunni-initiated Anbar Awakening, followed by the Petraeus-led “Sons of Iraq” program, resulted in a dramatic drop in violence. The breathing space purchased with considerable American blood was intended to facilitate the development of Iraqi democracy. Kelley Vlahos, contributing editor for The American Conservative, recently wrote, “in hindsight, the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki” to use America to rid him of political enemies, not the least of which were many Iraqi Sunni leaders and groups.
Maliki’s oppressive rule, which alienated much of the Sunni population in the Western part of the country, was a key factor in the rise of ISIS; his penchant to dismiss Sunni officers and pack the senior ranks of the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) with inexperienced political patrons played a major role in the disintegration of the ISF when the Islamic State began its offensive.
I served in Iraq as a military trainer in 2009, and have twice deployed to Afghanistan (2005, 2010-11). Between my 2009 Iraq deployment and the last Afghanistan deployment—at the height of that surge—I traveled over 14,000 miles throughout both countries, going on mounted and dismounted patrols, with U.S., allied, Iraqi, and Afghan troops, and led a team to train an Iraqi border battalion. I can conclusively state that outside the wire, the counterinsurgency theories were an unqualified failure at the strategic level. The populations were never protected in either country. The insurgent forces were never fully defeated in either country—and are stronger now than they have been at any time since 9/11. The Afghan and Iraqi governments remain the third and seventh most corrupt governments in the world, and do not have the support of their people. The armed forces for both countries, despite the decade-long effort and tens of billions of dollars that the U.S. spent training them, are virtually incapable of conducting even basic security.
It is incomprehensible that with such an extensive, publicly available record of failure—which cost the United States $2 trillion in direct outlays, 6,842 U.S. troops killed and 52,281 wounded in action—that the designers of this failed concept are given any credibility. The conclusive evidence of the failure is on graphic display right now, in both countries: after six full years and tens of billions spent, the U.S.-trained Iraqi army melted away before a few thousand irregular fighters; after the U.S. pulled out of Helmand province in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces were incapable of preventing an immediate return of the Taliban.
As the president’s national security team continues to develop a new strategy to deal with ISIS—and now also searches for a new secretary of defense—it is more important than ever to make a no-holds-barred analysis of the past decade of combat experience before settling on a new strategy. No matter how many U.S. boots might be placed on the ground in Iraq or Syria in this current environment, they would not be able to accomplish the president’s previously stated objectives. All the additional causalities we would suffer would be in vain.
We must not send any more Americans into the morass of Iraq and Syria with as little concern as one might show shoveling coal into a furnace. They deserve better than to be asked to risk their lives to conduct a no-win tactical mission.
The opinion expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or U.S. Army.
Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm.
The United States has become addicted to the application of lethal military power. A great many in our country have become convinced that dispatching the U.S. Armed Forces—or the threat thereof—to solve almost every international problem has kept us safe over the decades, and is the only thing that will ensure our security into the future. Yet evidence is piling up that the continuous and expanding use of American killing power is having a deteriorating effect on our national security and a destabilizing effect globally. Far from making us more secure and the world safer, our perpetual use of the military frequently fosters instability. The current situation in Iraq demonstrates this dangerous proclivity.
In recent weeks the government of Iraq has been losing first battles, then entire cities to a rising militant Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many in the United States are calling on President Barack Obama to immediately order airstrikes. A certain segment of those demanding immediate action pin the blame for the deteriorating situation on the White House for withdrawing American forces from Iraq in 2011, and they want to rectify the situation by reapplying military force now. Yet there appears to be no consideration among the various advocates of lethal strikes for what comes next. The failure to examine the “what next?” question has become an increasingly common feature of U.S. strategic thought.
The George W. Bush administration was roundly criticized for invading Iraq in March 2003 without an adequate plan for managing the country after the regime fell. The Obama administration has likewise been accused by many of having no plan for what came next following the 2011 airstrikes in Libya. The current hysteria in Washington over ISIS gains seem to have ignored these acknowledged errors of the past. While there is an eagerness to once again unsheathe the American sword, there has been virtually no discussion of the tactical and strategic utility of such actions, nor consideration of the potential consequences.
For eight years, the U.S. and NATO fought an insurgent war in which almost 4,500 Americans lost their lives, and over 32,000 were wounded. Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 133,000 Iraqi citizens were killed from 2003-2011, and at least 3.5 million human beings were displaced from their homes. As unpleasant as life was for the average Iraqi citizen before our invasion, it cannot compare to the misery under which they’ve suffered since. A similar dynamic continues to play out in Afghanistan. Libya has suffered in a state of near anarchy since our 2011 air campaign. Pakistan, Yemen, and now a growing part of Africa have all seen a continual deterioration in their security corresponding to a rise in the application of U.S. military force and firepower.
Before adding yet another combat mission to the American logs in Iraq, we must ask a number of critical questions. Tactically, will airstrikes against the ISIS prove decisive militarily, or will they exacerbate the violence? Since ISIS personnel have the ability to blend in and out of the civil population, how will our jets or drones identify the “bad” civilians from the “good” civilians? Who will act as ground controllers to ensure bombers strike only valid military targets? What will be the American culpability if U.S. bombs kill civilians, or if air planners are given false intelligence that results in political opponents of the regime being killed? Will the attacks cause the population to reject the rebels—or to support them even more strongly?
Politically, will a new round of promises of political inclusion from the Iraqi Prime Minister hold if American planes and drones succeed in killing enough of his opponents? What if it is discovered that the current government of Iraq was culpable in bringing about the conditions that spawned this uprising? Might then American military power have been used, free of charge, by a corrupt government to eradicate its enemies, allowing it to continue in abusive power? These are critical questions that have to be answered before launching any military operation. Yet almost none of these questions appear to have been considered—much less answered—by those people most enthusiastically advocating strikes.
At some point we must be willing to recognize the stark truth that this excessive use of lethal military power has worsened our national security.
I am a strong advocate of having a powerful military that can crush opponents when our life, liberty, or vital interests are at risk. But we must abandon the “bomb first, think later” mindset and instead invest in solutions that seek to first understand, then address the underlying causes of violence and instability. This type of international engagement is harder and takes longer than ordering up airstrikes. Yet it offers the potential to reduce the danger to America, diminish the conditions in which rebellions and violence often breed, and help citizens of other countries achieve stability. It is in this way that our vital interests can best be safeguarded. Fail to learn these lessons, however, and our own national security will continue to deteriorate.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.
Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm.
A recent article by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations serves to illustrate how some elite thinkers in the United States have come to view the application of deadly force as a cure-all for a wide range of foreign policy challenges. In the February 10 edition of the Financial Times, he wrote that it was the U.S. failure to “arm and train the Free Syrian Army” that allowed the Syrian regime to stay in power. To counter perceived American inaction, he recommended solutions ranging from “doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.” While Mr. Boot castigates the White House for “inaction,” he does not bother to address the most critical question: what happens after these steps are taken?
For example, he argued we should train and arm “the Free Syrian Army.” Yet as has been widely reported, this so-called ‘army’ is a fractious, incongruous alignment of disparate groups, many of whose goals are antithetical to American interests and who often fight among themselves as often as against regime forces. Moreover, he does not address how these individual actions fit into a comprehensive strategy. How does he imagine the U.S. will identify al-Qaeda operatives within Syria for drone strikes? What end would these drone strikes seek to achieve? Kill “some” of the leaders? 10 percent? 50 percent? What would be the strategic utility of such a course of action? Given that nearly unfettered drone strikes have proven inconsequential in Pakistan and Yemen, how will sporadic strikes in Syria change the tactical balance?
Perhaps most importantly, advocates of military action frequently fail to consider this possibility: what sort of Syria would exist if their suggested military actions succeeded and the current Syrian regime did fall? What would be the likelihood that the grudging cooperation currently at play between radical and moderate Islamic groups on the rebel side would erupt into open warfare in the struggle for control of a post-Assad Syria? What would the United States do if an al-Qaeda affiliated coalition gained control of the Syrian state? These are hardly hypothetical possibilities.
Yet the default position by opinion leaders like Mr. Boot is to use military power first, and worry about the consequences later; the effects suffered by the men and women who live in the target country seem to get little consideration. Read More…