Summary: As we look back over 2018, Martin van Creveld reviews the sad history of our mad wars since 9/11. With his insights we can do better in 2019, if we try.
By Martin van Creveld. From his website, 27 December 2018.
Posted with his generous permission.
When 9/11 shook the world seventeen years ago the U.S was quick to respond. And the response, whatever else, was bound to be spectacular so as to make both friends and opponents see the hole through which the fish pisses, to use a colorful Israeli expression. A superpower – at the time, remember, there was only one – simply cannot afford to be treated the way Bin Laden and Co. treated the U.S. Such is the way of the world; had President Bush not done what the vast majority both in Congress and in the nation believed was both justified and necessary, surely a way would have been found either to coerce him or to sweep him away.
That said, right from the beginning militarily the prospects were dubious. Not because the target of America’s rage was far away, land-bound, and hard to access – those were problems that could be and were overcome, albeit at vast expense. And not because it was in any sense powerful – quite the reverse. Never exactly united, left in ruins following eight years of Soviet occupation and civil war, Afghanistan was not a country in any conventional sense. It had no government, only a decentralized, constantly quarrelling, assembly of different religious groups and ethnic tribes. It had no military – basically all they had was light arms, reinforced by a few outdated Soviet tanks they had captured. And scarcely what the citizens of modern state would recognize as an economy. Except for that based on opium, of course.
All this explains why, once the political and logistic pieces had been put in place, the operation went without a hitch, lasted but a few weeks, and ended in what, at the time, seemed to be complete victory. Some readers may even remember Sec/Def Donald Rumsfeld boasting about it at Fort Bragg. However, the resulting euphoria did not last long. Within a matter of months it turned out that, whatever the weaknesses of Afghanistan as a country and of the Taliban as a government, there was one thing they did have. Namely, a practically unlimited supply of men (here and there, a few women too) prepared to put their lives at risk in fighting the Big Bad Wolf; the one which, the way they saw it, had invaded their country in order to destroy their faith and their way of life.
By the mid-2002, at the latest, it was clear that the war could not be won and was, in fact, well on the way to being lost just as Vietnam and Somalia had previously been. Beset by hubris, however, those in and around the White House were reluctant to draw that conclusion. Eyes they had, but they did not see. Ears they had, but they did not listen. Instead they talked and talked. And what did they talk about? Well, about how they had made their country the most powerful in history and how this unprecedented power would enable them to repeat their “victory” in Iraq, of course.
At this point I have a confession to make. Almost from the beginning, I was convinced that the American campaign in Afghanistan, necessary though it might be, would probably fail. On that I turned out to be right. Where I turned out to be wrong was my belief that the people in Washington would learn from this counterinsurgency campaign as well as practically all others from 1945 on. Even as preparations for the war in Iraq, went on, I refused to believe they were meant in earnest; no one, I thought, could be that stupid.
To be sure, Saddam Hussein is long gone. However, from 1991 on he had never poised any real danger to anyone. Instead it was the U.S which, using the need to secure “Iraqi Freedom” as its excuse, became entangled in a war. Once it had been launched, it lasted fourteen years and cost the lives of thousands of troops as well as uncounted trillions of dollars. All to no profit that anyone can see. And all to achieve nothing better than turning the country into a vassal of America’s adversary Iran.
Next came the American decision to intervene in Syria. Here I must hand it to Barack Obama: Having inherited not one but two foolish wars from his predecessor, he was wary of launching a third. Originally the effort had little to do with ISIS at all. Instead it was intended to assist Syria’s “moderate” and “democratic” forces in their effort to overthrow their country’s President Bashir Assad who in turn was supported by Moscow. Only later, after it had become clear that those forces amounted to little if anything, did ISIS become the principal target. And even then the American force, originally limited to fewer than 200 troops, never counted more than 2,000 at any one time.
True, the Americans brought with them some unique capabilities, especially in the fields of logistics – when it comes to logistics, no one can beat the Americans – reconnaissance, communications, and electronic warfare. In the end, though, it was not they but the Iraqi Army, the Kurds and Assad’s forces who did the fighting and suffered practically all the casualties. Yet the principal reason why ISIS was defeated was because, violating classic guerrilla doctrine, it tried to occupy territory and switch to conventional warfare at too early a stage. In any case the victory is not complete. Even as I was writing this piece, I came across a piece (Washington Post) that said its leaders had smuggled huge amounts of cash and gold out of Iraq and were ready to use it to finance terrorism around the world. As to the original objective, i.e. getting rid of Assad, forget about it.
In brief, a campaign that was started against one adversary failed. Having been redirected against another, it only achieved very partial success. On the way it got involved with so many friends and enemies as to make it dubious whether anyone could still make any sense of it at all. Least of all, the Neo Cons who are always eager to hurl their country into new and usually senseless adventures. And least of all, apparently, President Trump. Was the objective to smash ISIS? Was it to save the Kurds from their Turkish and Syrian enemies? Was it to prevent the Russians from becoming firmly established in Syria? Or to help Israel confront Iran? Or?
If I were an American I would thank God President Obama had the good sense to keep it small and not expand it the way similar campaigns did in the past. And high time, I’d say, to cut one’s losses; even if doing so requires that a false claim of victory be made.
About the Author
Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.
The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has written 24 books about almost every significant aspect of war. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.
OF more general interest are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.
To better understand our future, see his magnum opus – the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – describes the political order unfolding before our eyes.
His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir “by” one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.
For More Information
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- Our generals reveal why we lost in Afghanistan, and will continue to lose.
- Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
- Why the US military keeps losing wars.
- Why America Loses Every War It Starts.
- William Lind: why America’s foreign policy fails so often.
- William Lind explains our mad wars – and how we can win.
- Washington spews lies at us about Syria while madness reigns.
Books to help us better understand our mad wars
Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts by Harlan Ullman.
The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan by Jack Fairweather.