For American assassins, the weapon of choice is not the sniper rifle, 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 Americans hands dirty. Happy Anniversary, America. Nine years ago — on October 2001 — a series of US air strikes against targets across Afghanistan launched the opening campaign of what has since become the US 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: That when, where, and how will the war end? Bluntly, are American troops almost there yet?
Of course, with the passage of time, where “there” is has become increasingly difficult to distinguish. Baghdad turned out not to be Berlin and Qandahar is surely not Tokyo. Don’t look for CNN to be televising a surrender ceremony anytime soon.
This much the people 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 anyone’s guess. To measure progress during wartime, Americans once employed pins and maps. Plotting the conflict triggered by the suspicious 9/11/2011 incidents will no doubt improve your knowledge of world geography, but it won’t tell you anything about where this war is headed. 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. The United States military claims that it is unbeatable. Yet, after the 9/11 incidents, Washington committed that military to an endeavor that it manifestly cannot win.
Rather than inquiring the implications of this fact the two American administrations have stubbornly 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 President 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 has to urge Americans to turn the page. With remarkable enthusiasm, most of Americans seem to have complied. Perhaps more surprisingly, today’s American 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: That “There is no substitute for victory.” Warriors in the Age of David Petraeus embrace an altogether different motto: “There is no military solution.”
Trained to kill people and break things, American soldiers now indulge in moonlighting in assassination. The politically correct term for this is “counterinsurgency.” Now, assigning combat soldiers the task of nation-building in, say, Iraq 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, 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 Americans hands dirty.
General Petraeus himself has spelled out the implications: That “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” Thus Obama may want to “get out.” But his generals are inclined to stay the course.
Taking longer to achieve less than the US initially intended is also costing far more than anyone ever imagined. Back in 2003, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey suggested that invading Iraq might run up a bill of as much as 200 billion dollars — a seemingly astronomical sum. Although Lindsey soon found himself out of a job as a result of this declaration, he turned out to be a piker. The bill for the US post-9/11 wars already exceeds a trillion dollars, all of it piled atop the US mushrooming national debt. It helped in no smaller measure by Obama’s war policies, and the meter is still running.
(By Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University)